To be absolutely honest, we don’t have a whole lot to say about June the 4th, 1989.
Nothing about the rivalries and intrigues between this bureaucrat and the other.
Nothing about the economic policies of this party boss or that party boss.
Nothing about the comparative merits of Hu Yaobang, Deng Xiaoping or Zhao Ziyang.
Nothing about the sweeping economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping instituted when his party line prevailed.
Nothing about the persisting inflation, corruption and debt imbalances that compelled workers, workers tired of being bullied by their foremen, exhausted from the endless toil and drudgery extorted from them by their managers, to take to the streets that year.
Nothing about their creativity and independence, as they set up quarters in Tiananmen Square and established the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (北京工人自治联合会), demanding the right to set up an independent organ for militant workers across China.
Nothing about the fact that they seized the right to speak for themselves, a right that had, throughout Chinese history, been the property of intellectuals and students, trained in the art of rhetoric and political demagoguery.
Nothing about their courage as they defended the same students who had excluded them from the 1989 protests, forcing them to the periphery of Tiananmen Square, which the students wanted to keep ‘pure’ from economic demands.
Nothing about the failed rapprochement between the students- whose demands for ‘democracy’ were, admittedly, abstract and vague, but, for precisely this reason, gave the Tiananmen protests a force and a power that exceeded any concrete demand- and the workers, who despite their bravery and fortitude failed to see what they had in common with their young comrades.
Nothing about all that.
Because you see, despite the fact that we are steeped up to our eyeballs in history, we don’t really want to use this space to correct the historical record of Tiananmen.
Sometimes, we can’t help but feel that all of this history, all of this retrospection, while important, blinds us from seeing what’s right in front of us. Which, in our opinion, is what we would like to call the TRUTH of Tiananmen.
Not the truth of what happened, what has been obscured and covered up by propaganda.
No, we are not interested in a truth that is factually accurate, though, as we said, this is also important.
The truth that we want to talk about is not buried in the past, awaiting those who search for it, those who want to find it at all costs.
The truth that we want to talk about does not lay beneath the layers of distortion and denial that has blocked our access to it.
The truth that we want to talk about is a truth that Tianamen revealed about our own present.
This truth is the shadow that Tiananmen has thrown upon our lives, and it is the darkness of this shadow that we fail to see in the midst of all the candlelight.
It is good that we mourn, it is good that we cry for men and women whom we shall never know, whom we shall never forget.
It is good that Tiananmen affects us like a scar that shall never heal, a trauma.
The power of the trauma lies in the fact that it can never be consigned to the past,
that it remains fully and stubbornly in the present and interrupts our ability to live in the now.
The trauma is the past insisting in and inhibiting the present.
We have to live Tiananmen in this way if we are to remember those who died,
instead of allowing death to be bought off cheaply by a Party apology.
We have to think about what the deaths in Tiananmen demand from us,
the debt they place us in,
the way we have to live and act after 1989.
Not to find a cheap cure for this trauma or to ignore it (which would make the traumatic symptoms worse),
but to live with it every moment of our lives, not simply on June 4th.
There are many of us who don’t really know what to do with China, a state that blends rapacious, cutthroat neoliberal economics with the iron fist of Stalinist authoritarianism.
Many people still believe that China, with the benefit of time, will move towards a more humanitarian, democratic culture, one governed by tolerance, human rights and the rule of law.
These people, despite having witnessed a century (the 20th) and despite living in a century (the 21st) that offers no proof whatsoever that supports it, still believe in the cult of ‘progress’.
All we want to say to these people is that if we situate China and the ‘democratic’ societies of the West on opposite extremes, characterizing one as ‘backward’ and the other as ‘progressive’, then we fail to see how they form two complementary sides of the same present, a present of barbarism.
Here lies the problem with all the historians- amateur or professional- who tell us that Tiananmen should be seen in ‘context’ and that we can’t talk about Tiananman ‘abstractly’, apart from its time and place.
For us, there is a danger in this.
The danger is that, in treating Tiananmen as an exception,
in examining the matter in isolation,
we fail to see the TRUTH that we are talking about, and this TRUTH is true for the societies that we find ourselves in today, democratic, ‘socialist’ or whatever.
If we continue to treat Tiananmen as a barbaric act committed by a ‘backwards’, Stalinist state, if we imagine that a ‘democracy’, with its checks and balances, makes Tiananmen impossible, we fail to see the barbarism of our time, we fail to see the darkness that surrounds us, that can descend upon us at any instant.
But maybe we should set things straight first, so we aren’t misunderstood.
Why don’t we want to talk about what actually happened in Tiananmen?
Because, according to most people, what actually happened was nothing significant in itself.
Certainly nothing that deserved to be crushed in such a brutal way.
These people say that the state OVERREACTED.
And, if we look at the facts, perhaps we can say that it did.
But were the ‘facts’ really what the state was concerned about?
Students with a bunch of confused demands, some of whom appointed themselves as leaders and bossed everyone around, the same way party apparatchiks boss their subordinates around.
Workers who fought with unprecedented courage and tenacity, but who really asked for nothing more than their own autonomous federation and better working conditions.
A federation that, dare we add, could very well have become another bureaucratic apparatus commanded by the ‘labor aristocracy’.
Students blocking workers from joining the spectacle in the center, from fusing the proletarian cause with the student demand for political reform.
Workers regarding the students- rightly- for their snobbery and suspicious political motives.
This cleavage between intellectual and worker is so prominent throughout Chinese history it is barely worth commenting upon. Sadly, it wasn’t really crossed in Tiananmen.
But that’s why talking about things on the level of facts is really pointless.
Because the fact of the matter is that the line COULD have been crossed, that it COULD have been erased in Tiananmen.
The same way as it was crossed by an entire generation of young workers and university students in May 1968, France, when students and workers passed in and out of occupied universities and factories, having evicted their professors, their deans, their bosses, their party and union chiefs.
The same way as it was crossed in Italy, 1977, when students and intellectuals developed a new form of revolutionary theory (‘worker’s inquiry’) and forged a new form of revolutionary action with workers, women, the unemployed.
The same way as it was crossed in the Paris Commune of 1871, when bakers, tailors, housewives, grocers, defected soldiers, bohemians and artists armed themselves to defend a Paris that they had seized from the state, and which they transformed from top to bottom in the course of three glorious months of joy and festivity.
The same as it has been crossed in Greece, in Tunisia, in Egypt.
When Marx and Engels spoke of the ‘specter of communism’, what was it that they meant, if not this POSSIBILITY, this POSSIBILITY that casts its ghostly presence upon the present, shining a different light upon what we take to be REAL and ACTUAL?
That things can be different, that we don’t have to live this way?
The specter of communism was hovering over Tiananmen in 1989.
The specter of communism hovers over every instant of our waking lives.
The specter of communism is the faint light that struggles to reach us in the darkness that we stumble through.
We realize that this is sounding very religious, but allow us to clarify ourselves.
What happened in 1989 was not a response to something that ACTUALLY happened, to thoughts that the students and workers ACTUALLY had, to views that they ACTUALLY held.
The slaughter in 1989 was the slaughter of a possibility, the possibility that students and workers could go beyond themselves and meet each other in a common space beyond both worlds, beyond both identities.
To meet in this space and to build an ‘us’ within this space is to refuse to stay in the place that power has assigned to you.
This space is not simply physical, it does not exist independently of the people who occupy it.
This space is always a political space, an experimental space, a space where desires for transformation and revolution can form, desires that the state and the market cannot satisfy.
It is this space, where people meet and open themselves up to a collective transformation, that the state must deny and destroy at all costs.
In China, a category that the Party has always applied to those that fall foul of its dictates is ‘reactionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’.
Many of us laugh at this name, saying that it’s nothing but Stalinist jargon.
But if you really think about it, the violence of naming, which always authorizes physical/state violence, is fully operative in our own society.
On June 4th of last year, some of us marched to North Point police station to demand the dropping of all legal charges that hung above our heads.
We were surrounded by the police and blocked en route to the station.
Several residents in the neighorhood that we were in (a DAB stronghold), came out of their houses and screamed at us, calling us ‘garbage youth’ and ‘scum’, imploring the police to beat us up and throw us in cells, cheering as pepper spray rained from the sky.
What do ‘garbage’ and ‘scum’ signify, if not subhumanity?
That is, rubbish should be treated like rubbish, not human beings.
The line that runs through each of us, separating ‘citizen’ and ‘terrorist’, ‘human’ and ‘subhuman’ is actually rather thin, and we never know when we have crossed it.
Today, each of us is tracked from the moment we wake to the moment we retire. Everything is traceable- phone calls, e-mails, tags on Facebook, credit cards, Octopuses. We live our entire lives beneath CCTV cameras, supposedly set up for our ‘security’.
Compounding matters is the fact that Article 23 continues to loom above our heads.
A terrorist law that will treat us all as potential terrorists, potential enemies of public order.
This, you see, is the darkness, the shadow that 1989 casts over 2012.
What the silent presence of this shadow says, if it could speak, is this- it is the state that decides when you are a citizen or a menace to society.
It is the state that decides whether you have the right to live or whether you have forfeited its protection.
Because you are monitored from day to night, you will be made to feel guilty in advance, every instant of your life.
It is your duty as a citizen to PROVE to the state that you are innocent, to be excessively obedient.
In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party drew the sword that every state keeps in its scabbard, bringing it upon the heads of its own young.
This sword hangs above each of our heads, to be used in cases of emergency.
This emergency is the specter of communism.
Or, if you don’t like the word communism (and who can blame you),
we can call it ‘the power of the united and ungovernable people’.
This power exposes the weakness of the state,
the paranoia of the state,
the hysteria of the state, which sounds the alarm and draws its knives in fear when an emergency arrives.
The depth of this darkness, which we live in as though it were our natural habitat, blinds us from a very simple fact.
The fact that the emergency is us.
It has always been us, in 1848, in 1871, in 1936, in 1956, in 1968, in 1977, in 1989, in 2012.
And this simple fact- which we find so difficult to admit to ourselves and which the state would like us to forget for good- is the truth that we would like to speak of today,
because all of those who have died because of it,
because of the state’s desperation to erase and silence it,
place an enormous responsibility on us to speak of it, on this day when so many of us fell, twenty three years ago, for living in the midst of a beautiful possibility.
So you see, when we ask the Party to reverse its judgment on 6/4,
when we ask them to repeal and overturn it,
we need to know what we’re talking about.
If THEY apologize for one Tiananmen,
this does nothing about the silent threat of another, and another.
This is not something we can ASK for.
We cannot ask the darkness to retreat, for the darkness to be anything but what it is,
we have to see it for what it is and resist it, we have to pierce through it together so that light can reach us.
What we will overturn is the deadly grip that the law has upon our lives, breaking it with the innocence of being together.
We will invent a life stronger than the death that waits for us everywhere.
Then no-one shall have died for nothing.