I say “tomato”, you say “massacre”, let’s call the whole thing off

It is a truism of public relations and communication that he who controls the language with which an issue is defined controls the debate. If you can attach your terminology to a situation, you have leverage over public opinion. Don’t like the inheritance tax? Label it a “death tax”. Is that guy with the AK-47 a gunman or a freedom fighter? Is the person with the explosive vest a martyr or a terrorist? Which label works for you? Did that politician lie or misspeak? War or police action? “Dead-enders”, insurgency or civil war? If you can assign the language you can frame the discussion.

The power of language is especially apparent when words are emotionally charged. There is a reason why there are grinding political conflicts about when and how to apply the word “genocide”. The word demands action and commitment. The obtuse language of diplomacy has essentially developed to allow governments to escape commitment when it is inconvenient. You can debate and prevaricate about “internal displacement”, “human rights” and even “ethnic cleansing”. Once something is accepted in popular discourse as “genocide” the debate is over. Act or be complicit.

“Massacre” is a similarly charged word. The dictionary definition is: “The unnecessary, indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings or animals, as in barbarous warfare or persecution or for revenge or plunder”. Indiscriminate killing. Barbarous. These are the things that “massacre” evokes. It is a word to describe a deed of evil.

That’s why Imagethief has followed with some interest the controversy generated by Ma Lik, Chairman of Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), one of Hong Kong’s political parties. The DAB is often described as “pro-Beijing”, and with his recent comment, Ma has left little doubt. Last Wednesday’s South China Morning Post* reported on Ma Lik’s statments on the front page, under the headline, “Fury at DAB chief’s Tiananmen tirade”. The lede said it all:

Hong Kong will not be ready for universal sufferage until around 2022 because the people lack national identity and many still believe there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the leader of the main pro-Beijing party said yesterday.


[Ma] said one example to show Hong Kong society was not mature was people’s belief that pro-democracy advocates were “massacred” in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The quotation marks are theirs. It is the word “massacre” itself that is in contention, as became clear when the story got to the quotes:

“We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4. I never said that nobody was killed, but it was not a massacre,” Mr. Ma told a media gathering less than three weeks before the 18th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on protesting students. “A massacre would mean the Communist Party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.”

Indeed. See the definition above. In addition to Ma’s own comments, the interesting thing in the paragraph above is the use of the word “crackdown” by the newspaper to describe the incident. Newspapers are, of course, wary of making emotional judgments about events, and language like “massacre” does render judgment. That’s why when you Google Tiananmen + crackdown you get a lot of newspaper articles. “Crackdown” has become an accepted, non-judgmental way of defining what happened on that late spring day in 1989.Google Tiananmen + massacre and you get plenty of returns, but fewer newspaper pieces. (You get a lot of CNN online articles, however.)

For the sake of comparison, the dictionary defines “crackdown” as, “the severe or stern enforcement of regulations, laws, etc., as to root out abuses or correct a problem” or, slightly more forcefully, as, “an act or example of forceful regulation, repression, or restraint”. So we get as far as repression.

Massacre or crackdown? You decide.

I wasn’t there, but I’ll inject something judgmental into this piece. It’s part of journalist John Pomfret’s first-hand account of the events of that day from his excellent book,Chinese Lessons:

The soldiers began to fire live ammunition low into the crowd, hitting people in the stomach and legs. The night, balmy with a calm breeze, crackled with automatic gunfire. People fled in all directions. Some returned, rocks in hand. Armored personnel carriers rolled onto the bridge and began cutting the busses aside, cutting a path into the inner city.

I was petrified. Because I had never heard live gunfire before, it took me a few minutes to realize that I, too, could get shot. I was standing about one hundred feet north of the intersection. A crowd surrounded me and began yelling: “They are shooting us! They are shooting us! They are shooting the people!” I saw in their eyes a wild insistence. “You must report this to the world,” yelled one man. Then  the bullets zinged in our direction. I found what I took to be relative safety by lying flat on thw asphalt, pinne dup against a curb. Others ran. I remember thinking they must be crazy. As I lay on the ground with my cheek against the roadbed, I saw several demonstrators fall. The armored personnel carriers had done their work, ramming a channel through the burning busses. Then came the troop trucks, fifty of them rolling through the cumpled roadblock. Random gunfire killed a housekeeper on the fourteenth floor of one building. Another woman was wounded as she looked out of an eighth-floor window.

So is it a massacre? These are the kinds of things we foreigners have to go on when we assign words to events like what happened in Tiananmen Square or elsewhere in Beijing on that day. (In the passage above Pomfret is writing about Muxidi Bridge, to the west of Tiananmen. Pomfret himself uses “crackdown”.)

Citing the above won’t satisfy Ma Lik. Part of his complaint is that he feels that the events of 1989 are being defined by foreigners. Or so I interpret from this quote:

“The government should say what actually happened on June 4… It is not something that teachers can teach whatever they want about. Are saying [what happened] should be decided by gweilos?

The ellipsis and brackets are the Post’s.

In fact Ma Lik is doing two things. One is an extremely clumsy but otherwise garden-variety political language control maneuver. He is attempting to define the language used to describe the events of June 4th 1989 in order to serve a particular political agenda. He may also believe what he is saying whole-heartedly. Attempts to manipulate language are not necessarily cynical or dishonest, although they certainly can be.

But there is a second, and to my mind spookier, part of his statements that I have not seen remarked upon much in initial or follow-up coverage. It is hinted it at in that last quote. This is that Ma Lik wants not only to redefine the language that is used to describe the Tiananmen Square events, but that he wants to institutionalize that redefinition as a pre-requisite for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. According to the Post,

[Ma] said local students had not received proper “national education” since the handover and many still “care nothing” about the mainland.

And later,

Mr Ma, who is not known as an outspoken, hard-core leftist, said universal suffrage could not be introduced before the public adopted “heart-felt” patriotism.

In other words, “you’re not mature enough to be trusted with democracy”. This old saw, played to various melodies, is a favorite of undemocratic regimes across Asia.

Ma has climbed down a bit from his initial statements. A follow-up Post story (paywall) reports:

Mr Ma, who left for Guangzhou after speaking on the radio programme, said he was only trying to call for more rational and balanced views towards the incident. “I think what is most important is to find out the whole truth.”

He also said it was not his intention to ask the Hong Kong government to issue a definitive guideline to schools on how the crackdown should be taught. He only thought teachers should not “teach whatever they wanted”.

I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that. No one thinks teachers should have an unfettered reach to teach whatever they want. That’s why we have standards and curricula. In the US, school curricula, especially with regard to things like evolution, are the subject of vigorous, noisy debate. That is as it should be. The difference is that in the US no one who didn’t want to be labeled a crank would argue that a doctrinal viewpoint across society is a pre-requisite for a successful democracy.

That’s the thing about democracy; by it’s very nature it accepts that people will have different viewpoints, different beliefs and different opinions about important events and topics. They will use different language to describe the same thing. They will fight compete vigorously with each other to define the political environment in the language of their choosing, in order to reflect their beliefs and politics. That’s the contest of ideas that is fundamental to healthy  democracy. It is the essence of democracy.

If Ma wants to suggest that what happened in Tiananmen wasn’t a massacre that should be his right in a democracy or any society that allows freedom of speech. After all, you can’t have a true democracy without freedom of political speech, even if that sometimes yields ideas that are distasteful to some. To suggest, however, that homogeneous belief is a prerequisite for democracy is not only to utterly miss the point of democracy, it is also, sadly, to render the very idea irrelevant.

See also:

ESWN: Ma Lik’s comments on June 4th.

*Sorry, I don’t have a link for this article. The South China Morning Post not only has an all-consuming paywall, but it also has the single worst search engine and archiving system of any online newspaper I have ever dealt with.

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