Rebranding History

Woke up this morning and heard ‘crackdown’ again…this time on NPR.

While having a conversation last night during the Olympics Opening Ceremony, a friend expressed disappointment with NBC for the treatment of Tiananmen Square in the historical overview of China. The word NBC employed to describe Tiananmen was: crackdown. Webster’s definition of crackdown: as to take positive regulatory or disciplinary action. If that is the correct definition of Tiananmen, I must have watched different video footage when I was 15 years old. If you want a refresher…there are endless videos and readings online. But make no mistake, there is nothing positive about what you will see. Tiananmen was a time when ‘democracy was sweeping the globe’, the Wall was crumbling, perestroika was working and the people of China were ready to have a voice. As the days clicked by in 1989 and the people began to crowd into Tiananmen Square, I remember thinking that this could be their moment. But all of that came to a halt on June 4th when the tanks rolled down the street.

Fast forward fourteen years when I had the extreme privilege of visiting China during the summer of 2003. We traveled to many places in China but I knew that when I got to Beijing, I wanted to see one thing for myself. The city was quiet that morning and I wanted to get there without the crowd I was traveling with, to have a moment before the hawkers and tourists and lines rolled in. I needed to be there, I needed to stand there. At one point I turned around and looked back towards Mao’s tomb and my mind flashed to the scene of the military coming down the street. It was unchanged, I could see the tanks in my mind, and I was frozen. This was a place where a generation of people tried to fight against oppression of action and thought, and lost. This was the scene of a massacre, not a crackdown.

Possibly most upsetting about the media’s word choice in using crackdown is that it adopts the Chinese government perspective of Tiananmen, rather than the perspective from the rest of the world as we watched. When the media starts to adopt the language of the Communist government to describe a catastrophic violent action against free speech and action, we should all take notice and question the re-branding of a staggering human rights nightmare.

Words can be incredibly insidious in changing the memory of an event. The use of the word crackdown is one of those moments and, although I wholeheartedly want the Olympics to give the Chinese people their voice, I think much would be lost if the global collective culture began to actually think of Tiananmen as nothing more than a government action to bring order, rather than the massacre that it was. Could be an interesting moment to parse out in the classroom with students about the ‘smoothing’ of history over time by using vocabulary differently… this unfortunately is not the only example.