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The Butcher’s Atonement 屠夫的救贖

The other night my niece asked me to tell her the story of Tiananmen Square. My avuncular instincts kicked into high gear and I made up a story more suited for juvenile consumption.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, an old butcher ran a humble meat shop. One hot summer’s night, he got into a heated argument with his sons over the way he managed his struggling business. In a fit of rage, the impetuous father reached for his cleaver and went on a bloody rampage against his family. Shocked by his own monstrosity, the man frantically buried the bodies and vowed to be a better father to his remaining children. As the years passed, the butcher shop prospered and the family grew. Still, any discussion of that fateful summer’s night remained taboo. Convinced that he would never be forgiven, the old man resigned himself to waiting out the generation who witnessed his murderous acts. With each passing day, as memories thinned and denial thickened, the old butcher’s chance of atonement ebbed away like a receding tide.

The butcher butchers, and the butcher denies
*                           *                         *

The Tiananmen Square Massacre, or more delicately referred to in this part of the world as the “June 4th Incident,” was the most senseless chapter in Chinese history since the Cultural Revolution. On June 3rd, 1989, if Beijing citizens had to make a list of things they thought would never happen, their government using the bluntest arrows in their authoritarian quiver, by sending in the tanks in the dead of night and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators still asleep in their tents, would have been right at the top of their list.

The chain of events that led up to the bloody crackdown was more surreal than a Dali painting. Not two months before June 4th, exuberant students camped out in the heart of the capital city, shouting rousing slogans one moment and singing the Internationale the next. Two weeks before June 4th, student leaders wearing headbands and pajamas sat side-by-side with party chiefs in the Great Hall of the People exchanging ideas on political reform. 

Such fatal naiveté! How could anyone place even an ounce of trust in a regime utterly incapable of negotiation or compromise, or ever believe that lofty ideals would somehow move party seniors who took the slightest criticism as a personal threat? In the end, the student demonstrators got a lesson no textbook could teach them, and hundreds of them became part of a story they would never live to tell.

Twenty years later, Tiananmen Square was once again in a complete lock-down. Security had been heightened and armed police were everywhere. Determined to make the anniversary a national non-event, the authorities summarily removed dissidents from the capital city and kept the less vocal ones under temporary house arrest. Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr had been blocked for a “national Internet service maintenance day.” 

But Beijing has little to worry about. June 4th is nothing but a historical blip for most mainland Chinese. Young people born after the incident haven’t even a chance to learn or hear anything about it, at least not through public discussions or school books. In a country that boasts the world's fastest growing population of millionaires, money speaks louder than ideology. Lured by the promise of a comfortable middle-class life, many opt for a foreign car and a city apartment over political reform that may or may not benefit them within their lifetime. 

These days, university students are busy applying to graduate schools in America and interviewing with multinational companies, in what many believe to be a modern reenactment of Goethe’s tragic play Faust. From fearless idealists to unabashed pragmatists, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme in a single generation.

Sorry, the square is closed for maintenance

In Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where free discussions of the massacre are possible, a couple of interesting preludes set the stage for the 20th anniversary. In April, Ayo Chan (陳一諤), student union president at the University of Hong Kong, outraged his colleagues at a campus forum where he suggested that the entire tragedy could have been avoided if the demonstrators had not behaved irrationally and provoked the Communist Party. Thankfully, fellow students acted swiftly to impeach the loose-tongued freshman before he moved on to the subject of the Holocaust and accused the Jews of taunting the Nazis.

A few weeks later, Chief Executive Donald Tsang told legislators that whatever happened in Beijing that day “happened a long time ago” and that the incident was better forgotten given all the prosperity China had brought us. And as if things weren’t bad enough, the bow-tied bureaucrat kept on stressing that his view represented the opinion of every Hong Kong citizen. Politicians are well advised to speak cautiously, and if that’s too hard to do, speak only for themselves. From university leader to government head, those who lack the maturity or conscience to separate facts from lies in the grown-up world should join my niece in learning the story of the old butcher. Learn it and remember it.

Earlier tonight I attended the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park. With teary eyes and a heavy heart, I put on a black-and-white outfit as if I were going to a friend’s funeral. At the park, somber citizens occupied every occupiable space as far as the eye could see. To my left, a young couple held on to their infant fast asleep in the summer’s heat. To my right, a sweaty teenager led two blind men negotiating the crowds with their walking sticks. Every one of us chanted pro-democracy slogans and strained to hear impassioned speeches drowned out by a chorus of cicadas singing loudly in the trees. 

Twenty years ago, demonstrators besieged Tiananmen Square to demand the vindication of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). Twenty years later, I found myself among 150,000 sitting in a peaceful protest demanding the vindication of those very demonstrators. Despite Hong Kong’s many foibles and political anomalies, tonight our city was the collective conscience of the 1.3 billion Chinese people around the globe and a beacon of hope for a better China. I had never been more proud of being a part of this city.

Annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park

*                      *                       *

If this were a fairy tale, my niece would thank me for the lovely bed-time story and fall sound asleep under her quilt embroidered with giraffes and zebras. 

But we don’t live in a fairy tale. In reality, my nieces and nephews never asked me about Tiananmen Square and I never told them the story of the old butcher and his slaughtered children. Our next generation is either too young to be interested in politics or too busy with homework and exams. 

But how I want them to ask me what this anniversary really means! I want my next generation to know their country and its history, for how we remember our past defines who we are and how we live our future. Throughout the night, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Recessional kept playing in my head. On this 20th anniversary of one of the defining moments of my childhood, I dedicate these lines to my next generation:

The tumult and the shouting dies,
     The captains and the kings depart.
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
     An humble and a contrite heart.
     Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Lest we forget

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