Former B.C. lawmaker remembers the spring of 1989 and ponders the legacy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre
Editor’s note: The Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement [VSSDM] held a 30th anniversary memorial to the victims of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 2. The venue was the University of British Columbia’s replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that Chinese soldiers destroyed in their deadly crackdown on the peaceful student protests for democracy and free speech in Beijing. Dr. Tom Perry was an NDP MLA from 1986 to 1996, and spent two years as the minister of advanced education, training and technology. In 1989, he represented Vancouver-Point Grey. He could not attend the memorial because of teaching commitments in Tumbler Ridge.
This is Perry’s letter to VSSDM that was read at the June 2 memorial.
I remember clearly how it felt in May and the beginning of June 1989 to observe from afar what appeared to be the stirrings of a progressive democratic movement in China. My entire family was excited, including my parents who had lived through World War II and the Great Depression, and who greatly admired many accomplishments of the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Our family had always considered ourselves friendly to China’s attempt to lift its people out of profound misery, ignorance, war, and starvation – even if we knew little about China.
Encouraged by what appeared to be happening in the spring of 1989, I gave a speech in the Legislative Assembly on Friday, June 2, 1989 – precisely 30 years ago. Of course I had no idea of what was about to happen, and was already being planned by the government.
My speech expressed the admiration of Canadians for what most of us may have believed was an inevitable historical progression of human rights. Here is part of what I said in the B.C. Legislature the day before the catastrophic repression of a peaceful demonstration:
“… Now we acknowledge China not only as the inheritor of a proud and ancient culture but often as a world leader in health, education and, increasingly, science and technology.
“Far be it from us to prescribe to any nation, great or small, how to develop its society or govern its citizens. But it is natural and totally appropriate that we Canadians should wish for the Chinese people, if they so wish them for themselves, those same rights to freedom of speech, association, religion and security of person that our society has recognized for hundreds of years, and which the world as a whole accepted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the founding of the United Nations…
“The greatest achievements of the human spirit, be it the age-old struggle for self-expression of the Jews, celebrated each year at Passover; be it the slave rebellions in ancient Rome or in nineteenth-century America; be it the Enlightenment in Europe; be it the revolutions in France, the United States, Mexico, South America or Russia: all have been inspired and ultimately won by the synthesis of courageous and creative leadership with the genuine and legitimate aspirations of ordinary people.
“We have seen that democratization seems to be an inevitable and insuppressible tendency of human society. We have seen it recently in the Philippines, in the Soviet Union and Poland, and now in China. In all of these movements students and scholars have played an important part. I think that is why Canadians are so enthralled by the developments in Beijing and elsewhere in China. No wonder that Chinese students studying in Canada, as elsewhere in the world, have expressed their solidarity with compatriots and colleagues back home…”
It was disturbing to me at that time that a Government (Social Credit) Member of the Legislative Assembly, Russ Fraser, had criticized Chinese students who were studying in B.C. for having supported their compatriots in China. In retrospect perhaps what Mr. Fraser said was an early warning about becoming complacent about human rights that have been won through centuries, if not millennia of hard struggles.
Think about what has happened since. Not only the very next day when the police, acting on government orders, broke up the Tiananmen demonstrations, killing a very large but still unknown number of protestors. What about Russia, Poland, the Philippines, all of which appeared to be bright examples of democratic reform only thirty years ago? What about the United States, formerly so prominent a beacon of democracy and progress for much of the world? Or Turkey? Or how the relatively advanced societies of Iraq and Syria have been ripped apart by totally unjustified militarism?
The Tiananmen Square repression also taught me something about Canada. It seemed natural to me then, as it does now, to stand at the side of students and others who had hoped for something much better. I soon learned that many of my fellow elected officials were afraid to do so. When Chinese students visited the Legislative Assembly on the following Monday, very few Members of the Legislature wished to meet them.
Why was this? I think the answer was that concern about economic relationships took precedence over concern for human rights. Or that many elected officials considered the struggle for real democracy unlikely to succeed, if not hopeless.
Before we condemn them, perhaps on this 30th anniversary of Tiananmen we should consider our own actions today with respect to democratic participation. How many of those around us on this beautiful UBC campus have consistently voted in elections? Of them, how many have informed themselves well about issues and considered the real merits of candidates – rather than voting by rote, or simply following what their friends or families do? How many are considering in depth the decisions of two Liberal Members of Parliament to contest the 2019 election as Independents, and whether or not political party discipline should remain as suffocating as it has become in Canada?
To me, one of the lessons from Tiananmen Square was that democracy is NOT an inevitable trend. Quite the contrary. Repression and dictatorship may be the inevitable consequences of ignorance, bigotry, and failure by individual citizens to exercise their democratic responsibilities as well as their rights.
In Canada we are still well ahead of the curve compared with most of the world. But for how long? What can we as individuals do both here and abroad to foster universal respect for human dignity, human rights, a compassionate and more just society? What might we change in our own lives?
Something to think about not only on June 2nd, but also as we approach Canada Day on July 1st.
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Editor's note: The Vancouver Society in Support