Professor discovers little interest in staging a 20th year look at Tiananmen Square

Historians in the News

[Terrence Cheng is the incoming chairman of the English department at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is author of two novels, including Sons of Heaven (William Morrow, 2002), which is set during the Tiananmen Square massacre and fictionalizes the lives of Deng Xiaoping and the man who faced the tanks. ]

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military, under orders from the highest levels of government, violently crushed peaceful civilian demonstrations in Beijing, most symbolically in and around Tiananmen Square. In the end, the Chinese government claimed that the death toll was approximately 200, but the Chinese Red Cross reported 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. The true number of casualties remains unknown.

The days that followed June 4 rang with cries of shocked outrage from around the world, but two decades later those calls for justice and change are but a whisper, thanks in large part to China's dominant global influence. This fact was most succinctly expressed during Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to China in February, when she said that human rights cannot interfere with economic and security concerns.

I experienced a similar conflict of priorities when I reached out to more than 60 professors from various departments across the City University of New York's 23 institutions, in an attempt to organize an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I invited faculty members and other interested colleagues to participate in an event that might include discussion panels, position papers, and the presentation of fiction, poetry, photography, artwork, and performance pieces, in hopes of creating a dynamic and multifaceted academic retrospective.

The first response I received was a reply-all e-mail message from a professor of Asian history: "The way this is framed is too political. I would advise ... not to participate in this event unless it has some scholarly merit. As it stands now, it seems the aim of this project is to make people aware of the 'massacre' and nothing else."

I understood that some would not want to participate in an event of this nature, but I did not foresee such openly hostile opposition. I would later discover that this professor is of Asian descent and had lived for many years in China and had been educated there, which made his response even more confusing....

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