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Hither and Yon

WorldTribune.com: Tiananmen and Gwangju -- Contrasting Aftermaths of Two Bloody Showdowns

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
In all the stories I’ve been reading about the Tiananmen massacre 25 years ago, one element seems to have been missing. That’s the comparison between Tiananmen and Gwangju, South Korea.
When I got to Beijing in May 1989 and saw these students taking over the square, I was thinking how much the showdown resembled that brief period in May 1980 when students occupied the entire city of Gwangju.
The young people on Tiananmen did not seem to have taken their cue from what happened in Gwangju. Probably few if any of them really knew about it. As the Tiananmen uprising escalated, however, the similarities were striking. Official law vanished from the center of Beijing. Students and others rampaged through the streets while the authorities were helpless to do anything about them. It was as if China were on the verge of a new era in which the dynamic forces of democracy would triumph over the moribund power of communism.
It was that way in Gwangju, too. At the governor’s building, on a traffic circle in the middle of the city, eager young zealots preached their hatred of the dictatorial regime that they said had oppressed the entire country, not just the southwestern region. They handed out press cards and issued statements in both Korean and English. Their comments were inflammatory and quotable, just the way journalists like them.
The uprisings in Gwangju and Beijing both ended in tragedies that should have been predictable but were basically unforeseen. Just as the special forces, under orders from President Chun Doo-Hwan, led by his Korea Military Academy classmate and future president, Roh Tae-Woo, brutally suppressed the Gwangju uprising, so units of the People’s Liberation Army blew apart the protesters on Tiananmen Square, pursuing them down side streets, killing many of them and arresting many more.
The similarities between Tiananmen and Gwangju end about there. In the long aftermath, the victims at Gwangju came to be honored, their graves in rows at a memorial on the edge of the city. Seven years after the Gwangju uprising, Chun was forced to agree to a democracy constitution that provided for elections for president. The reaction against Chun was all the more remarkable considering that Kim Dae-Jung, the hero of the Jeolla region, had been tried, convicted, sentenced to death and then imprisoned on charges of instigating the Gwangju revolt.
Yes, General Roh won the first election under the new constitution in December 1987, but that was partly because Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young-Sam, who had also been arrested under the Chun regime, insisted on running separate presidential campaigns. In the end, the Roh presidency was a prelude to the presidencies first of Kim Young-Sam and then of Kim Dae-Jung, while Chun and Roh were both tried and sentenced for massive corruption as well as the slaughter at Gwangju.
Compare the aftermath of the Gwangju revolt with the history of China after Tiananmen. Are the victims of Tiananmen memorialized in Beijing? Are their gravesites marked by a memorial museum anywhere in China? Did the spirit of Tiananmen endure in a democracy movement that finally brought about the downfall of those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of protesters?
Democracy advocates may remember Tiananmen in observances in Hong Kong, the former British colony that fell under Chinese government control in 1997, and elsewhere, but they’re not able to venerate the heroism of the protesters on the Chinese mainland. Instead, repression at Tiananmen is remembered in hundreds of smaller protests and movements that the central government is able to suppress, sometimes in bloody crackdowns, more often in arrests of the perpetrators and sympathizers.
If Tiananmen was a turning point in Chinese history, it was a turn in reverse. It’s easy, looking back on China then and now, to marvel over how much China has changed. With the economic rise of China has come a sort of freedom – the freedom to run private enterprises that previously would have had to have operated as arms of the state. Economic freedom has also given the freedom for Chinese to go abroad as tourists, to talk rather critically at times of their leaders, to read and attend cultural events that would have been unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago.
Yet this freedom is highly circumscribed. The Internet is carefully monitored, and access to Google and other potentially negative or critical outlets is denied or difficult. There is no real opposition to the rule of the party, no political movement led by veterans of Tiananmen.
Unlike Tiananmen, Gwangju marked a turning in Korean history toward democracy. The revolt may have had its roots in regional opposition to central government rule, but it stood for more than that. Opponents of the central government this month won numerous elections for governor and mayor, including the all-important post of mayor of Seoul. A lively opposition today opposes the conservative rule of the central government. Democracy is a legacy of Gwangju – the opposite of the dictatorship and repression reinforced in the years after Tiananmen.
Columnist Donald Kirk witnessed the uprisings in both Tiananmen and Gwangju. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com
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