THE JUNE 4TH INCIDENT
Public rituals surrounding anniversaries make profound statements about the value of human beings, their absence even more so.
Important milestones are, in a sense, just a quirk of mathematics. To reach fifty years of marriages is no more of an achievement than reaching forty-nine, but our preference for noughts always wins out. Neat and round anniversaries afford us vital space to celebrate or remember and 2014 is one hundred years after the start of the Great War and seventy-five after the commencement of the Second World War. This will initiate six years of poignant anniversaries around the themes of conflict and loss.
The Great War will receive more attention for now, though all first-hand human memory of it has been extinguished, reminding us how soon this will also be true of the Second World War generation. What remains untold and of abiding significance may be lost to recorded history unless it is shared, hence projects like Steven Spielberg’s to obtain lasting testimony from Holocaust survivors.
One of the most important public functions of the anniversary is to mark death and trauma. In 2014, two other events that are burnt on human imagination will be twenty-five years old and the profoundly different way they are officially remembered tells us everything we need to know about the importance of public memory and lament. On April 15, 1989, ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the Hillsborough disaster. The club has marked the anniversary assiduously since, giving dignity and respect to the dead and the bereaved. Just as significantly, it has given space for the protest against the way fans were treated by the police on the day and by some quarters of the media afterwards. Only in 2012, with the inquiry led by the Bishop of Liverpool, are there signs that the justice denied victims in 1989 might be emerging. Throughout this ordeal, people have been freely able to lament and to demonstrate.
Less than two months after Hillsborough, the Chinese democracy movement, which was gathering force as those events unfolded in Sheffield, met its brutal and sickening end in the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4. In many ways it was the precursor to the largely peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe that 1989 ended so euphorically with. While the countries of Eastern Europe plot their way with varying degrees of success today, China is still living with the effects of that fateful day – not that its people are allowed to articulate this. Known blandly as the ‘June 4th incident’, China’s censors banned words like ‘candle’, ‘that year’ and ‘special day’ from search engines on the twenty-fourth anniversary in 2013. Even combinations of numbers that might refer to June 4, like 6-4 or 63+1 or 35 (shorthand for May 35th) were blocked. The authorities know the value of memory, even as they deny it public expression.
Crude attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to control free debate have proven more successful than we would like to think, especially among the generation that has no memory of 1989. Social engineering like this is exquisitely satirised in Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years (Black Swan 2012), where a calendar month goes missing from China’s recent history and no-one can seem to remember why.
Public rituals surrounding anniversaries make profound statements about the value of human beings. When death is commemorated, we preserve the sanctity of human life and the dignity of personhood. Without this, our relationships become twisted and devalued. The suppression of grief and lament in Chinese society around Tiananmen is a function of the callous disregard the State often shows those who publicly disagree with it and perpetuates the insignificance of the individual compared to the State.
Jewish religious thinking has always created space for people to commemorate the suffering of people and the goodness of God, most clearly in the Passover meal. Jesus’ re-imagining of this feast as his own sacrifice remains at the heart of authentic Christian worship. His death is unique in its capacity to connect God and the human race and alters the course of the cosmos, so great is its effect. It also, subversively, affirms the value of every human death, especially those who perish violently and whose names are forgotten, like those who were crucified either side of Jesus. No human being dies nameless and unknown before God. Our memorialising of Jesus’ death is the most life-affirming act, preserving our dignity and enshrining a hope for what is to come that cannot be extinguished.
We need memorials which reflect the love God has for us and the hope God he has set before us. It is no co-incidence that those who deny June 4, 1989 also deny free observance of Jesus’ own death for others.
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