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Tiananmen 1989: our shattered hopes

by Lun Zhang, Adrien Gombeaud, and Ameziane
2020 / 115 pages

I asked my 13 year-old and her friend whether they’d heard about China’s Tiananmen Square and neither knew anything about it. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been: the massacre the square is known for – with the government’s tanks rolling over protesting Chinese students, killing hundreds and maybe thousands – happened 20 years before they were born.

Tiananmen 1989 is a lightly fictionalized biography of one of the student organizers, Lin Zhang – all the main figures are real, but some surrounding fictionalized characters have been added to round things out.

The comic begins 30 years prior to the protests, with Lin Zhang’s early years, and accounts of various Chinese Communist Party government leaders rising in influence, then getting purged, and some later being “rehabilitated.” That’s three decades covered in the first 25 pages.

From there it slows down, and for the next 75 pages we get an inside look at the protest’s 50 days, beginning on April 16, 1989. We learn that the tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of students arriving at Tiananmen Square was a spontaneous event, organized only after the fact. We hear students debate with each other about what a win would look like. We see hundreds of students decide to hunger strike en masse. And then we watch as the soldiers march in shooting.

Cautions

Thankfully the violence is depicted with moderation – we see a couple of people shot, and some bodies at a distance. This isn’t a graphic novel you’d want to put in your elementary school library, but no high schooler would be shocked.

Language concerns are limited to a couple uses of “bastard.”

The more notable caution would be ideological. The god of this book is democracy. That’s what the students were after, and willing to die for. It’s what they placed all their hope in. They spoke of their fight in spiritual tones, likening it to a battle of “light vs. darkness.”  Near the end of the protest they even crafted a “goddess of democracy” statue. Young readers need to understand that democracy wouldn’t have been the fix-all that the students thought it would be. Their communist state was founded on the sin of envy, and a turn to democracy wouldn’t have done anything to excise the envy – it is prevalent, and every bit as destructive, in democracies too.

While this is an insider’s perspective, I was impressed with its moderate tone. He’s criticizing his government, but also celebrates some within it. I did wonder if some bias might have been evident in the numbers: he wrote of a million protesters, whereas other accounts list as few as 100,000.

Conclusion

I think the memory of the massacre has faded even among those old enough to have seen it happen, reported live by CNN and the BBC, and carried by stations around the world. Do Canadians still remember what happened after martial law was declared, and thousands of Chinese troops descended on the unarmed students? Governments around the world condemned the Communist Party leadership for its violent overreaction.

If Canadians still remembered, I rather suspect Prime Minister Trudeau wouldn’t have dared invoke the Emergency Measures Act this past summer to turn the police on the Freedom Convoy protest on Parliament Hill. Connections would have been made.

If our young people were taught about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, they’d be aware that powerful governments have done enormous harm to their own citizenry. Yet a recent poll of Americans shared that among the under-30s polled, 29% would favor an in-home government surveillance camera, installed in the name of reducing domestic crime. A third of these young people trust their government so completely they’d like it in their houses.

There’s good reason then, to get this book into our school libraries. God calls us to honor those He puts in place over us, but it is only when we understand how power can corrupt, and how power has been abused, that we will know the importance of limited, restrained government.

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