Twenty three years ago today (with adjustments for the time difference with China), I awoke in my apartment at Nanjing University to the news that the military had opened fire on people in Beijing. Live ammunition shot into crowds of people the night before, killing an unknown number.
I went downstairs to the TV lounge where my students, Chinese students from all over the country and from various backgrounds, were gathering. Regular programming had been halted, but an announcement glared at us from the screen, a simple statement that a "counterrevolutionary riot" had occurred in the capital. My students were restless. Some feared for friends and relatives in Beijing. Most worried about their own situations, how they might be punished for their participation in the local movement. All knew that what had seemed to be a moment of change - and the vast majority of my students were hopeful of positive change - had now been quite literally shot down on the streets of Beijing.
Later that day, when the news reporting had resumed on CCTV, I sat with several of my students and watched as the presenters, clad in black, read official statements that framed the events of the night before as a counterrevolutionary riot. One student, with the given name Hongjun - "red army" - took care to explain to me that we should interpret everything that was being reported as its opposite; that is, instead of accepting the official account that the army had been attacked and had acted in self-defense, we should understand it as the army had attacked and the people of Beijing had reacted in self-defense. That is what he had learned in his 24 or so years of life in the PRC.
In Nanjing, where the movement had been strong, commencing, as elsewhere, on April 15th when Hu Yaobang died, there was no violent repression on June 4th. Rather, students went out on the streets again that day to protest against the violence in Beijing. They organized a "Long March" to Beijing to support the movement and call for justice for those who had been killed. They set out, crossed over the Changjiang bridge but dispersed a day later, under harassment from local officials. They were defeated and dejected. Some friends and acqaintances of mine were arrested. We departed the country two weeks later, leaving the students who had been involved in the Nanjing protests uncertain of their futures (I have kept up with a good number of them: several are in the US; others have found ways to thrive in China).
For all of the revisionism that has happened over the years, efforts by regime apologists to blame the students and absolve the government and Deng Xiaoping of blame for the wanton killings in Beijing, one clear message rings true to this day: the Party leadership bears primary responsibility for unnecessarily killing hundreds of people.
Interestingly enough, this same message has recently been voiced by Chen Xitong, who was mayor of Beijing at the time of the killings. What is notable about Chen's statements is that there is little positive political incentive for him to take this position publicly. The regime still forcefully denies the truth about those terrible days and represses information about them. While Wen Jiabao makes regular calls for some sort of "political reform," he is on the way out and the prospects for a "reversal of the verdict" on June 4th seem remote at this point. The incoming leadership team of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have made no indication that they will liberalize in any meaningful way.
So, why is Chen saying this now? He probably is concerend about his historical legacy. He doesn't want to go down as a "hardliner" who was somehow involved in the unnecessary killings. He is 81 now, and likely wants to end his life on the right side of history.
And that says a lot. When contemplating June 4th, a man who had been an important player in the repression wants now to be on the right side of history. And at some point people in the PRC will be able to make their own history right. The regime could not repress the memory of the Great Leap Forward; and it will not be able to forever repress the memory of June 4th.