Tiananmen Square watch withdrawn from controversial sale by auction house

Written by By Eoin McSweeney, CNN

An English luxury auction house has withdrawn a commemorative watch given to a Chinese soldier following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre after its vendor received threats on social media.
The owner of the watch was concerned for their safety, Fellows Auctioneers said in a statement Wednesday. Communist authorities gave timepieces like these to troops in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the statement said.

The owner of the watch was not associated with the Chinese armed forces or government “to the best of our knowledge,” said Fellows.

The stainless steel item had “89.6 In Commemoration of Quelling the Rebellion” inscribed on it and was supposed to be put up for auction on April 19.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) would have also given soldiers medals and a book of photos entitled “Defenders of the Capital,” said Louisa Lim, the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2015.

“The fact that such commemorative mementos were given out signifies the importance the Chinese Communist Party placed upon the quelling of the pro-democracy protests, which were framed as a counter-revolutionary rebellion,” she told CNN Friday.

It is unclear how many are in circulation, Lim added.

For about a decade leading up to 1989, China’s economy had been steadily opening up and allowing small amounts of free enterprise in the Communist country, after years of strict state control under Chairman Mao Zedong.
CNN photojournalist Jonathan Schaer  captured this photo of the infamous standoff in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

CNN photojournalist Jonathan Schaer captured this photo of the infamous standoff in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Credit: CNN

Large-scale protests began in April that year, calling for greater social freedoms, such as freedom of speech and even democracy. The protesters occupied Tiananmen Square, the massive public space in the center of Beijing which faces onto the Forbidden City, former home of the Chinese emperors, and the Great Hall of the People.

On the night of June 3, convoys of armed troops entered Beijing with an aim to clear the square by whatever means necessary. Blocked by civilians in the streets who were attempting to protect the students, the troops opened fire.

No official death toll was ever released by the Chinese government, but human rights groups estimate it was in the hundreds, if not thousands.

“It [the Tiananmen Square massacre] is a very dark page in human history, not just Chinese history,” Steve Tsang, director of the Chinese Institute of the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, told CNN Friday.

“Everybody is in the wrong here. Fellows should never have accepted to auction something like this to begin with … the owner should never have put it up for auction. Anyone who tries to profit from the massacre should be so ashamed.”

Fellows said it considered the watch “of international interest” and that it “was a reminder of the events of June 1989.”

“In the past we have sold war medals from all sides of global conflicts, a ring commemorating the regicide of Charles I, and watches acquired from prisoners of war. It is not our place to comment on events of the past. It is important for us to shine a light on historical events and report upon them in a respectful and unbiased manner,” the auction house said in the statement.

Tsang was unimpressed with this defense, suggesting that such sales were equally wrong in the past.

“By somebody behaving badly, and by bringing people’s attention to this event, that’s the only positive thing that comes out of this story,” he concluded.

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