Why June 4 Should Matter to TaiwanTwenty-five years of maturing as a distinct nation has made Taiwanese seemingly uninterested about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but they ignore the lessons at their own risk
Every year on June 4th, it is hard not to feel slightly disappointed by the small turnout at the commemoration events here in Taiwan for the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) brutally cracked down on students in Beijing, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands. With this year marking the quarter-century anniversary of the Massacre, and given the political awakening sparked by the Sunflower revolution, there was reason to be optimistic and to expect a better turnout — nothing like the 180,000 who participated in the vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, mind you, but better than previous years.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. At most, about a thousand people gathered at Liberty Square in Taipei to commemorate the event. This year, the theme of the ceremony was “Tank Man,” a nod to the lone hero who, shopping bags in hand, faced off against a column of Type 59 tanks on Chang’an Avenue during the massacre. As I looked around on that excruciatingly hot night, I kept wondering where the Sunflowers, Taiwan’s own little Tank Men and Women, were.
Some of them were there, to be sure. I encountered student leader Wei Yan (魏揚), who’d played a key role on that fateful night in March when thousands of protesters descended upon the Executive Yuan, which prompted an unusually muscular crackdown by the police. He was under a tent behind the scene, awkwardly bent over his portable computer typing furiously. Wang Yun-hsiang (王雲祥), who was in charge of security for the Sunflower Movement at the Legislative Yuan, was also there, only this time he was responsible for sound and stage lighting. The Black Island Youth Alliance, one of the precursors of the Sunflower Movement, had a booth, as did others.
But this was a trickle. Where were the others? If only a fraction of the 350,000 people who thronged the streets on March 30 to show their support for the Sunflower Movement had made one extra effort to show their sympathy for the victims of Tiananmen Square, the crowd would have been impressive. Did they not care?
Ironically, it was one of the student leaders at Tiananmen Square who perhaps had the best explanation for the low turnout. After briefly addressing the crowd, Wu’er Kaixi, the young man in pajamas who fled China after the crackdown and eventually ended up in Taiwan, gave an interview on the sidelines of the event. Engulfed in semi-darkness and surrounded by a small group of reporters, the Uyghur, who was never allowed back into China, said the problem isn’t that Taiwanese lack empathy for the victims of the crackdown, but rather that the incident occurred in what they consider to be a foreign country.
This would certainly explain why 25 years ago, when random victims were being felled by Chinese bullets and crushed by armored monsters, crowds of several thousands of people assembled in Taipei to support the protesters in Beijing. Back then, as Wu’er Kaixi explained, the people in Taiwan identified much more closely with — and as — Chinese, a direct legacy of decades of indoctrination and identity repression by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
A quarter of a century has elapsed since. With the end of authoritarian rule and the democratization of the country, Taiwanese identification, a blend of civic and ethnic nationalism that was cultivated under former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), has risen steadily, despite efforts by the current administration to turn back the clock. We should also note that the majority of the people who participated in the Sunflower Movement — the same people we’d expect would have turned up on June 4 — were either unborn or in diapers when the tanks rolled down the streets of Beijing. And they weren’t around when their own government was teaching them how to be good little Chinese.
So to them, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a serious historical event, but ultimately it isn’t any more relevant to them than, say, the Rwandan Genocide or, closer to home, the devastating famines in North Korea or state repression in Myanmar. If anyone needed any confirmation that Taiwan is a distinct country, this is it. Its people are not indifferent to the suffering of Chinese, only that in their minds, the atrocity occurred elsewhere, in a foreign country.
Of course for the residents of Hong Kong the massacre is much closer to home, for reasons that have to do with geographical proximity and the fact that the territory is now part of China and, to some extent, run by the same regime that crushed human limbs and continues to deny any possibility of honest discourse on the incident. It therefore isn’t surprising that every year tens, hundreds of thousands of people in the territory participate in the candle light vigil. For them, the issue of human rights in China is a much more direct and immediate problem than it is for Taiwanese.
Wu’er Kaixi had a point, and a valid one at that. I am nevertheless sure he would also agree that Taiwanese must pay more attention to human rights in China, and that they are ignoring the issue at their own risk. The people of Taiwan might be clear about their identity and can regard their country as sovereign in every sense of the word, but the people in Beijing see things differently. To them, the continued existence of Taiwan as a distinct political entity is an affront to “Han” pride, and its democratic way of life threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to govern a “Chinese society” unchallenged. It will therefore do everything it can to undermine the quality of Taiwan’s institutions, using a mix of coercive measures, financial sweeteners, backroom deals, and so on to attract and to intimidate. And of course behind all this lies the PLA, which given the order would do to the Taiwanese what it did to the Chinese 25 years ago.
It is therefore in the interest of Taiwanese that the battle for human rights continues to be waged across China, a battle that is fought in part to ensure that people have the ability to access and to understand their nation’s past. They need our support. If only for purely selfish reasons (e.g., the preservation of Taiwan’s way of life), Taiwanese should strive to better understand what is going on in China and Hong Kong and extend a hand in support to those across the Strait who want to keep the flame of freedom alive, the logic being that keeping the CCP busy at home makes it less likely that it will meddle in other people’s affairs.
The war may be occurring in a foreign country, but it’s very close to home, and it will only get closer.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.