Tiananmen Anniversary Inspires Reflection on Palestine

On the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, people around the world commemorated with vigils and recollections, while Chinese authorities massively censored references to the incident in the mainland and Hong Kong. Some have also drawn connections between the dynamics of protest and repression in Beijing in 1989 and those regarding Palestine in the present day. On June 3, Yangyang Cheng reflected at The Nation on the legacy of Tiananmen and its instrumentalization abroad in a piece hinging on the Tiananmen protest tent enshrined at New York’s June 4 Museum and the contemporary protest encampment at the city’s Columbia University:

For many Chinese people my age or younger, finding out what happened at Tiananmen marks a moment of political awakening, a painful rupture from the past one used to know. Tiananmen is no longer a place; it is an event encapsulating the best and the worst of China. It becomes an open wound. To hold this knowledge is to assume a responsibility. One feels constantly interrogated: What can you, the living, do to not betray the dead?

To simply answer “never forget” is to evade the difficult ethics of remembering. The magnitude of calamity during Tiananmen can render any sensible soul speechless. But for those of us who are spared the firsthand trauma and accorded the luxury of critical distance, bearing witness demands not melancholia but to examine how the past is curated and what purpose it serves. A memorial for Tiananmen, like the June 4 Museum, is not just about loss. In these spaces, grief is singed with rage, and each recollection is a call for political change in China.

[…] “We are not an authoritarian nation,” President Joe Biden said at a press conference in May. “But neither are we a lawless country.” The Chinese government regularly makes a cynical comparison of its political system with that in the US by pointing out injustices in the latter. That I am writing this essay here and would not be able to in my birth country refutes the false equivalency. Yet a simple binary of democracy versus authoritarianism demarcated by national borders obscures understandings of both. Freedom and oppression take various forms and manifest in degrees. Even a totalitarian regime cannot extinguish sparks of defiance, and authoritarian structures and forces, behaviors and mindsets also exist in democratic societies.

[…] Thirty-five years ago at Tiananmen Square, students recited the words of Lu Xun, whose prose has stirred the conscience of the nation since the early 20th century. Now, at encampments across the United States, Chinese students have made their presence felt. For them, systems of oppression are intertwined, and so the struggle for liberation must transcend borders. They write on signs, “From Palestine to Xinjiang.” And, like generations of Chinese protesters before them, they quote Lu Xun: “Beyond boundless lands and oceans, countless souls are all connected to me.” [Source]

A week before June 4, the Made in China Journal shared a full translation of an essay by one of the Chinese students, named Norie, who participated in the Columbia University Gaza Solidarity Encampment. (CDT shared a partial translation of the essay in our recent post titled, “At Pro-Palestine Encampments, Chinese Students Find Space for Expression and Solidarity.”) The student described how the encampment movement for Palestine has helped students forge community bonds in the face of state efforts to dehumanize and divide:

The dehumanising power of the modern carceral nation-state has unleashed itself at a global level. The same logic of modern colonialism, supported by the same technology of surveillance developed out of racial capitalism, has been squeezing humanity out of our bodies from Kashmir to Xinjiang, from Tehran to New York on our own campuses.

[…T]here are too many of us—the Black, the Brown, the trans, the queer, the disabled—who have been subjected to various forms of discrimination and violence. There are too many of us who can only rely on an F1 student visa and scholarships to stay in the United States. None of us can afford to be arrested. I am not suggesting that we do not live in a divided world or that commonality is synonymous with a homogeneous naivety. The point is, with an acknowledgement of the structural imbalance of power, we still find moments of peace and solidarity at the encampment. The experience of being together, of sharing personal stories and life rhythms, is empowering. We are making new words and placing them in the world, refusing the regime of ‘truth’ and the language of loss imposed by modern colonialism. We are learning how to be together with each other, how to treat one another as real human beings with our own struggles. [Source]

At ChinaFile at the end of April, James Millward suggested lessons from Tiananmen for American university presidents facing Palestine solidarity encampments. Calling for compromise from both sides to avoid further violence, Millward highlighted similarities between the two student movements:

Despite the evident distinctions, […] there are thought-provoking similarities between the springtime student movements of China in 1989 and those in the U.S. in 2024—in particular, in the excessive rhetoric about and reactions to both movements. In 1989 as now, the students ask for a lot, right away. To many in powerful positions, they seem impetuous, unruly, irresponsible, and unrealistic. But the issues they raise are weighty and can’t easily be denied. And the students speak with moral certainty borne of youth and the very fact that they are students: They have done everything we asked of them to gain admission to the most elite universities in the land. They have read the books we assigned them. And what they have learned leads them to conclude, with great clarity, that bad things are happening, and that these bad things must stop. But the students are persistently denied access to channels of influence; their organizations are suspended; their calls for justice are dismissed, censored, or declared impractical or illegal. So they camp out in the Square, on the Common, or in the Yard, where their voices, chants, and signs cannot be ignored.

To many, these student encampments are not just inconvenient, but amount to lèse majesté, a challenge to rightful authority. Though the students are managing their new al fresco communities pretty well, under the circumstances, many outsiders don’t see in them hope for a democratic, inclusive future, don’t see Jews and Muslims and people of all faiths praying and holding a Seder together. Rather, through narrowed eyes, such critics perceive only chaos. Efforts to discredit, intimidate, and disperse the students through the usual accusatory labeling (Black Hands! Tools of hostile foreign forces! Terrorist sympathizers! Anti-Semites!) aren’t working. Suspending or threatening to expel the students isn’t stopping them either—they aren’t the pliant, careeristic drones you thought they were, but put principle higher than pragmatism, some even above their personal safety (parents are panicking about this). Still worse, the students’ outcry is opening rifts within the power structure itself. Professors turn out in support of their students. Administrations and political parties split over how to deal with the kids, revealing deeper fissures across the system. A growing faction clamors for violence to “restore order,” using the students for their own political purposes.

It was when things had come to this point that Deng Xiaoping declared martial law and sent troops to clear Tiananmen Square with lethal force. University presidents, do not imitate Deng Xiaoping’s example! (Some in New York, Minnesota, Texas, California, and elsewhere already have, unleashing police on peaceful protesters in public spaces on the campuses they pay tuition to attend. How do those videos look to you?) [Source]

Rui Zhong, who said she was fired from her job for speaking out about Palestine, reshared an article on June 4 that she had published in Foreign Policy amid Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. four years ago. Her piece critiqued American leaders for the inconsistency between their rhetoric on Tiananmen and forceful suppression of protests at home:

It has been 31 years [since the Tiananmen Massacre]. In the United States, young protesters pour water into their eyes to clear out tear gas and tend to their wounds, inflicted by police and a military that demand acquiescence. Black Americans, restless from the unending burdens of systemic racism, demand that their lives matter. As I see Americans marching, singing, dancing, and asking the nigh impossible from their leaders, I think back to young people in a square doing the same many decades ago.

[…] Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago. It is otherized in a collection of stories of crushed overseas rebellions that can’t happen at home. It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.

[…] Uprisings are begun by ordinary people and crushed by people just as ordinary. Today of all days, it’s time to start remembering that. [Source]

On X (formerly Twitter), Teacher Li (@whyyoutouzhele) has shared videos showing pro-Palestine gatherings inside China. In one video, dozens of high school students in Guizhou gathered on June 4 to support Palestine, bearing a Palestinian flag and shouting “Free Palestine!” At another high school in Guangdong, a student waved a Palestinian flag during an end-of-year gathering. On June 5, Li Laoshi also shared a screenshot, allegedly from a university in Gansu, of a notice warning students to avoid participating in activities in support of Palestine. China’s position on the conflict is often understood as straightforwardly pro-Palestinian, but the truth appears more complicated. On June 3, the Sinophone group Palestine Solidarity Action Network shared a thread on X describing the nature of Chinese social media platforms’ censorship of pro-Palestinian content. The thread argued that this censorship permits content that evokes sympathy for Palestinians, but filters out content that might mobilize users against the forces complicit in Palestinian suffering—including various Chinese actors.

In Taiwan, Aurora Chang also shared a photo of Taipei’s memorial event for the anniversary, with participants holding up the flags of Palestine, Tibet, Ukraine, and Hong Kong’s “Revolution of Our Times”:


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