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Far more than an incident

OVER THE PAST 100 years Tiananmen Square in Beijing has played host to history defining events, which have been both controversial and subject to considerable government interpretation. In one particular case, even a reversal of verdict.
In 1919, as people were beginning to assert themselves as self-determining with a popular power base rather than an elitist one, a mass gathering in the famed square on May 4 cited what was called government weakness in giving into Japan in the Versailles Treaty.
Students massed in the square sparking what was to evolve into a national movement, becoming the lynchpin of the New Culture Movement. However short-lived the movement was, it has been regarded as patriotic and spawned many social leaders of the ensuing decades.
Without doubt the most significant act of the last century occurred when on 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong stood in the famed square and proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
A period of reorganisation in society followed, but on 5 April 1976 an incident sparked by the faculty at the respected Nanjing University began a movement to counter the disaster of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four.
Angered at the removal of a temporary memorial to the late Zhou Enlai, who had struggled against the infamous gang, people of all ranks in society had come to honour him on the previous day, but by the following morning, all signs of the outpouring of respect and love had been removed.
Up to 100,000 people were involved in a day of violence, during which police vehicles were set on fire in a display of anger over the treatment of Zhou’s memorial, revolt against Mao’s policies and concern over the nation’s future.
Initially condemned as counterrevolutionary and instrumental in bringing down Deng Xiaoping, Deng was later reinstated and instrumental in redescribing the counterrevolutionary verdict as patriotic!
But in 1989, another student gathering occurred in what is known in China as the June 4 Incident. What had been referred to as the ’89 Democracy Movement has become better remembered as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after troops and tanks forcibly cut a swathe through the massed protesters.
At its peak, around one million people from various walks in life had gathered, loosely united around calls for greater government accountability, freedom of speech and media, and grass roots participation in policy making to counter what was seen as a stagnant political, educational and economic system.
But its mortal sin was challenging the legitimacy of the one-party rule and on June 4, the government moved and Deng, who had been the hero in 1976 and later rehabilitated the condemned, became the devil in the ensuing bloodshed.
Despite repeated calls, Beijing has doggedly resisted any change in its condemnatory stance against those who took part and the backwash is still felt in this century in the curtailment of political expression, media and religious freedom and lack of protection of human rights.
But as the Tiananmen Incident of 1976 shows, reversal of judgement does have precedent and even in China can be a possibility. But as the backwash of what was far more than an incident on June 4 begins to impact more and more on Hong Kong, the Tiananmen Vigil in Victoria Park takes on a much greater significance. JiM