Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Where were YOU on June 4, 1989? (How China's Tiananmen Massacre Woke Me Up)

As many of my friends know, I have not always been an activist.

There were many years where I was too busy with the rest of my life to get involved. I was "with you in spirit" ... but I just couldn't see how to fit real activism in with the rest of my life.

There were, however, moments. Glimmerings of what the life of an activist might be like.

Protesters gathered at Tiananmen, Beijing, China -- June, 1989

One moment that I remember viscerally occurred in early June, 1989, when I was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the U.S.-China Business Council. For years I was involved in import/export with China, and I was an active participant in that group.

(The evolution of U.S.-China trade is a topic unto itself. I'll just say briefly here that I frequently think back to when I first got involved learning about China. It was the end of the Vietnam war, Mao had just died, our view of China was very much colored by Cold War and nuclear war fears, and there was a massive gulf in understanding between our cultures. A lot of mistakes have been made along the path of U.S.-China business development, but I remain convinced that a thousand times more understanding has been fostered by business people from both sides engaging with each other than could ever be developed through purely political channels.)

Everyone at that meeting in June, 1989, had been following the student movement, and on the day of the meeting the information was just filtering in about the crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4. My memory was that many people were still struggling to find out what was happening. We were all -- whether long-time students of China and Chinese language, or small businesspeople who had forged a business with China, or corporate employees on assignment to a China business division -- people who loved China and had developed important friendships there, and considered our involvement with China to be an important part of our own futures. Many of us were worrying about specific co-workers on the ground in China. Our conversation was tentative, focused on how our continued involvement might be part of a China where things were getting better. We were all struggling -- mainly in silence -- with the question of how that could happen as long as the Chinese government remained in power in its current form. There was a strong element of not wanting to contribute to any feeling of panic.

Going "too far"?
Goddess of Democracy
Tiananmen, Beijing, China -- June, 1989

During the afternoon general meeting, the pre-planned program proceeded without any meaningful acknowledgement of what had happened in the past day in Beijing. As the minutes and hours wore on, I became more and more agitated. "How can it be that no one is speaking directly to what happened?" I wondered. "Should I say something? Is it just me? Can it be possible that most people aren't like me, tremendously troubled by how we should respond to what has happened in China?" Eventually I resolved to say something.

After much hesitation, so that the meeting had very nearly come to a close, I finally ginned up the courage during the open discussion period to approach the microphone. I said something like, "It is very important that we all acknowledge and discuss what happened in China in recent days, and what our response should be. It is important to our friends in China, and it is important to us personally. It is scary to confront. But if we leave this meeting without talking about what is right here in front of us, we will regret it."

The chair of the meeting was a man who was very sure of himself, and he said, "Are you through?" and looked at me as if I had grown a second head. My comment was just about the last one offered from the floor, and the day soon came to an end.

When the meeting adjourned, I wanted to run out of the room. But I decided not to. I decided to stand at the door and look at everyone as they filed out of the hall.

And a very interesting thing happened. As people walked past me, some of them glared at me. A lot of them avoided my gaze. And a distinct minority of them looked me in the eye ... smiled at me ... said "thank you" ... and even shook my hand.

That was nearly 25 years ago. But I remember that moment as if it were happening right now.

It was probably another 20 years before I became truly active in the peace and justice movement. But everyone needs to start somewhere.

That's why June 4, for me, stands for the proposition that everyone matters -- the people who have been working for peace and justice for decades, the people who have just been doing it for a few years, or months, or days, and the people who are just now waking up to the need to do so.

What's your June 4?

"Tank Man"
Tiananmen, Beijing, China -- June, 1989

Related posts

She said, "Don't you think they went too far with the 'Democracy' statue?"

(See HK's Goddess of Democracy )

It took me a a minute to put two and two together when I saw this image.

(See Flag Symbolism in Hong Kong )

For me, the lesson of Lu Xun is that it is so easy to be dazzled by affairs of state and military technology, and fail to address the need for a spiritual awakening, and the adoption of new habits of mind. This, it seems to me, is the secret to China's ability to revolutionary change during the 20th century, and radically alter its place in the world -- a monumental accomplishment and one that is far from over.

(See Does America Need a Spiritual Awakening? )