04 June 2009

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. 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 4 Incident, was the most senseless chapter in Chinese history since the Cultural RevolutionOn June 3, 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 4, 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 4, 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 affront? In the end, the student demonstrators got a lesson no textbook could teach them. And hundreds became part of a story they would never live to tell.

Secretary Zhao Ziyang would pay a high price for speaking to the students 

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, 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 4 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. And in a country that boasts the fastest growing population of millionaires in the world, money speaks louder than ideology. Lured by the promise of a comfortable middle-class life, many opt for a foreign car and a big 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), the dorky know-nothing student president at the University of Hong Kong, outraged his colleagues at a campus forum when 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.

Just two weeks ago, 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 has 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.

All that sucking up to Beijing has gotten him nowhere

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 dear 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 the 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.

The annual 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. And 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!


If you like this article, read 36 others like it in HONG KONG State of Mind, now available at major bookstores in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.


  1. Exactly "lest we forget". The emotion and feeling of that Day is forever with me.

    For the younger generations, we will tell them the facts and truth. Hopefully they will, to the least, understand the meaning and significance of that day.

  2. even the textbooks wont tell our youths the truth of the June 4 incident. We will tell them wat we know. This is the rights we deserved!!

  3. China still has a long way to open up. It will take a long long time for them to open. The June 4th crackdown will remain in China's history. This cannot be forgotten. I hope China can release itself from his dictatorship timeline and move on. Blocking twitter.com, youtube and other website is very stupid. I hope they can soon understand and learn from their history. People will soon learn the meaning and facts about June 4th, and this history lesson will be passed from generation to generation.

  4. A very moving piece. I especially loved the line, "I want my next generation to know more about their country and its history, because how remember our past is what defines who we are and how we want to live our future." This is the heartfelt desire of every true nationalist from any country or race. As a Filipino, I may not relate to Tiananmen Square Massacre the way you do, but this line articulates very well what is in the hearts of those whose national history is also filled with the shed blood of both known and unknown heroes.

    On reading your article, the line penned by Garbriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist, came to mind: "...death comes not with the ageing process but with forgetting." The death of a collective conscience is in forgetting. So, for the sake of those coming after us, in this country or in mine, may we never forget.

  5. Phil and Cherie,

    Thank you for your comments. Growing up with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I feel incredibly responsible for making sure that our future generations know everything about it and understand what it means.


  6. Sonic,

    You are absolutely right. Blocking websites is so third world! Beijing is massively underestimating its people's intelligence. Either that or authorities really don't care about what they do to the people because no one dare speak up.


  7. Thanks, Maria, your thought was well-put. I am a big fan of Garcia Marquez myself and the quote you cited was right on point!


  8. Well written. i mean, well-typed article.


  9. 一篇文章,

    由題材選取,... Read More



    Thank you, Jason!


  10. Very well written!


  11. Thanks, Sally, for the beautifully written comment. You should try writing yourself!


  12. Thank you Jason for such a moving account of this historical tragedy!
    Can’t hold my tears and emotions reading it.

    Internet traffic has been so heavy in the last few days, so many (bar
    people in Mainland China) have been hitting the network hard trying to relive the 20-year old history, so to commemorate those nameless martyrs. Not having much luck with the Internet, we took out 2 video tapes my husband taped 20 years ago (亞視新聞), luckily they can still play!

    Seeing new generation like 陳一鍔is disheartening, it also shows how
    vulnerable and easy targets youngsters can be. We must tell our next
    generations, like the theme of the candlelight vigil ‘薪火相傳’.

    Well done!


  13. Thanks, Margaret. I am very glad my piece was able to move you. It was an emotional article for me to write as well. I teared up so many times when I recounted the events that night and I got worked up writing about Tsang and Chan.


  14. 謝謝你寫下這情理並重的文,為這頁歷史留了一筆.

  15. It is even more sad that student Chan is not alone nowadays. I heard many people older than Chan said the same thing about the incident. Were we people in Hong Kong, the ignorant and yet very enthusiastic supporters some 20 years ago fuelled and fired up this massacre by backing up the Tiananmen students with resources????

    Thanks Jason for this great article.

  16. How about adding a few more characters to your butcher story to make it a more pragmatic analysis of what happened in the past 20 years. Let's say the butcher killed not his sons, but his grandchildren on that hot summer night. The killing remained a taboo for years when the grandfather was still in control of the family. However things started to change when he got old and frail, and his son (the father of the dead children) took over. The father knows deep in his heart that it was a terrible mistake that his own father had made, but it is in the family culture that one must not challenge or criticize your parents when they are still alive. Besides, there are many siblings waiting to take over if any sign of disrespect is shown. These uncles are not nice people, and future generations will suffer if they get control of the family. So the father opts to wait it out until the death of the old butcher, and then he will evaluate the situation and only revisit the tragedy with his children when he feels it is safe to do so. Would you give him the time? Or are you going to just label him as the same ruthless person as the old butcher, and put a curse to the entire family forever?

    We should never forget what happened 20 years ago - that ensures that the Chinese leadership won't take the easy way out and just swipe everything under the carpet. However, we should also understand that there are many other factors in play, and unfortunately it often takes many years to redress a mistake in history. It is a healthy diversity to have different people focussing on different things to bring the country forward. Some prefer to serve as a mirror to reflect and remind everyone what mistakes were made in the past, so that the same mistakes will not be made again. Some prefer to focus on the positive and help advance the country in many other aspects. I don't believe the day of reckoning is that far, but I would rather let millions of people have a better life while we wait for that day, instead of standing still in mourning and do nothing. That would be the biggest curse for the Chinese people.

  17. Don't quite agree with your analogy with the additional characters. A mistake is a mistake, whether it's done by someone high up or the lowliest person. In a mature society, owning up, acknowledging one's mistake, learning from the past and moving on, is the way to go. Waiting it out will only endorse the brutal acts. Why would people think that by acknowledging mistake in the past, recognising those nameless innocent people, is in the way of prosperity? At the end of the day, is money (and so called good (material) life) most important?

  18. I think that's precisely the point. Why can't we improve economic lives and face up to past mistakes at the same time? Why does Beijing always view the two as mutually exclusive?


  19. Good read. Thanks.


  20. Thanks for your sharing.


  21. Shared it with my husband and our 2 older children. They found it a good read. My children felt it augmented what was shared with them by their teachers at school. Thanks, Jason.


  22. I'm surprised you wrote about this Jason, even tho we are in HK..no-one on the mainland talks about it! Good article :)


  23. The people in HK or overseas kept talking about it for 20 years with so-called the 'evidence of truth', but who of us has actually paid the effort in finding the real truth from a different angle than what we have been fed by the media? has anyone of you spoken to people who lived in that place at that very time? has anyone of you heard the voice of the families whose the son was killed by the rioters by being burnt in the police car when they were trying to clear the riot amicably?

    who started the event first? what's the purpose behind it all? why are the people using the word massacre to Tiananmen event when the leaders like Wang Dan himself has already said he has not seen a drop of blood at Tiananmen? why nobody ever use the same word to the 1967 riot in HK when hundreds of HK citizen were killed by British policeforce who were also trying to bring the city back in order and peace?

    be fair brothers, especially to your own people...


  24. Whilst one should certainly think deep around who started the event first, what’s the purpose etc etc, but the key point is NO ONE would deserve tanks rolling in, being slain by their own government simply because they presented some opposition voices and asking for reforms.

    Why are people still dogged by lies and fabrications by the authority that continue to exhaust all measures to suppress the truth; what about the hundreds and thousands of the so-called ‘dissidents’ overseas who witnessed the massacre, barred from seeing their family in the Mainland for good? Why are we so stubborn?

    Be fair to our people? Who is being unfair to the people who lost their lives and freedom for good?

    Stop hiding your heads in the sand!

  25. From the poster at 1:17 PM again.

    Response to poster at 2:51 PM - I don't disagree with anything you said. But you seem to ignore the facts that 1. the people who committed the crime are not the same people who are governing the country now. And 2. I don't think anyone here can honestly believe that China, under the current political system, is a "mature society". So none of your arguments really applies to this discussion.

    Also, to both you and Jason, I tried to suggest that there are pragmatic reasons to why China cannot afford any political unstability now and still expect to improve its people's lives. I'd encourage you to read my last post again before you jump to your typical academic conclusion.

    Lastly, don't ever think that people who propose to have more patience on the subject are not equally disheartened by what happened 20 years ago. I bet I have shed more tears than you over the tragedy, yet I also know that I have done more than you to help the Chinese people move forward, as we wait for the day of reckoning to arrive. And it is utterly naive to say that the improvement in China is only "material". We are talking about education, opportunities, and general livelihood of millions of people here. It is no high school debate where you can expect to win by making some grandstanding statements.

  26. Understand not all the people currently in power are those who committed the crime, certainly not talking about ‘血債血償’, but acknowledgment of the past is essential in improving the future. Glad that you at least acknowledged it being a crime.

    Whilst I wouldn’t assume who has done more to help the Chinese people to move forward, sitting on high horse criticizing others being naïve is not conducive to an objective discussion.

  27. Thanks for writing such a great piece, it was a thought-provoking read.

  28. I will share it with my two nieces who have absolute no knowledge of VIIV. Thanks for your energy and time.


  29. Was there ever a doubt that I don't see it as a crime? Again I encourage you to read my original post (June 6 1:17 PM) again to really understand where I come from.

    It is apparent that we all care about the Chinese people, by spending so much time debating the subject here. With few exceptions, we all know that the government in 1989 made a bad mistake, and owe the people an apology at the very least. But then it is frustrating to see some of the intolerance and narrow-mindedness displayed by some, on how they treat people as enemies when a more pragmatic approach to the whole matter is proposed. That's why I brought up the point of having a healthy diversity of opinions in the subject, but no one has yet acknowledged that. Instead, they choose to just focus on differences and create this great divide.

    I am all for having an objective discussion, and that's what I have been trying to do. But whenever my points get misrepresented by others, I get worked up too, just like Jason. So I apologize if I have offended anyone, but stand my ground on my view. You can point out my flaws in my analysis, but don't imply that I am cold-blooded and have chosen money over conscience.

  30. All,

    I am very happy to see a forum of sorts has started here. As I mentioned to one of my readers on Facebook earlier this weekend, June 4 is an emotional issue for a lot of people and with that we get emotional responses. We all find ourselves having to defend our own viewpoint from time to time. Whatever our position is, we should be grateful that we still live in a society where free discussions of the subject matter is permitted. So let's take advantage of this freedom (while it lasts) and continue the discussion. Disagreements are okay; silence is not.

    One more thing: I am urging my readers to leave their first name (or at least their initials) at the end of their comment. This will make it easier for other readers to make references when they respond.



  31. Hi, Jason,

    I want to share the below article in your blog. This article excerpts from the Eunice Lam's column in Hong Kong Daily News-新報. Please enjoy to read it.



  32. Dear all,

    Sorry for my typing mistake. The 3rd paragraph should be:



  33. Great article for sharing! Thank you Nicole.

  34. Hey Jason,

    Did you remove the comments before? I swear for 1 or 2 days, this article along with the comments were gone. I could not see them. Now everything pops back up.


  35. interestingly, in hong kong there are always more ppl mourning and commenting on 64 rather than 918,1213,728 or 77. some didn't even know 918...

  36. A top calibre piece on the ebbing memories of Tiananman square. I am glad to have found someone, (I know there are many more out there) to have put this slice of history in such eloquence. Kudos!!

  37. Amazing read Jason
    Very thoughtful and insightful

  38. enjoy reading the well written article, thanks for your sharing :)


  39. Jason,

    「六、四」- I can tell it's truly holding your heart a lot ! Definitely not only you, but also a lot of us does. It's terribly sad, unforgetable and unforgivable !!「毋忘六四 、永不放棄」- the slogan of this year ! What about next year ?! 「咬緊牙根、堅持到底、平反六四、誓不放棄!」希望在明天,我相信每一位中國同胞都期盼這天的來臨。

    Thanks for the reposting. This piece was very well written and thought provoking. Really hope the truth of 六、四 could pass on to our next generations - 薪火相傳,爭取平反,擁抱民主!