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Tiananmen Square, then, now and to come

By attempting to suppress the memory of the popular protest, China ensures there will be another

June 4, 2014 10:15AM ET

June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that shocked the world. A quarter century ago, a series of student protests broke out in China’s capital, Beijing, in mid-April. They soon spread to more than 100 cities in the country. After nearly two months, the popular protest came to an abrupt end, with brutal military assaults resulting in the deaths of at least hundreds of civilians. To date, there has never been an independent investigation. People who have tried to collect information about the victims of the June 4 crackdown have been charged with stealing or leaking so-called state secrets.

No one expected that the protests would rapidly explode into a nationwide movement. Yet in the early months of 1989, an edgy atmosphere had already permeated university campuses and the intellectual circles that gathered around key players in the launch of China’s Reform Era in 1978–79. Deng Xiaoping’s government, struggling to push its economic reforms the previous year — inflation was up to 19 percent — had tightened control over speeches and publications. Its message was clear: Keep quiet and follow orders, and “we” will sort out these economic problems for “you.” But it was precisely this sort of tone — in stark contrast to the “thought liberation” spirit that a decade earlier paved the way for the opening up and reform that marked the New Era (xin shiqi) of the 1980s — that made people agitated.

This was also what brought me into the protest. At the time a graduate student studying modern literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, I hoped to see real changes in China’s public life. Changes that would ensure that popular voices could participate in political decision making and move the country toward democratization. Changes that could be brought about by the massive demonstrations. 

Erosion of civil rights

Two interrelated issues in particular aroused people’s defiant spirits that year.

The first was a yearning to be respected as an independent-minded citizen. This desire was best captured in a song written by the famous rock singer Cui Jian, who performed it in mid-May to roaring cheers from thousands of the student hunger strikers occupying Tiananmen Square. Its lyrics allude ironically to the party’s thought control:

With a piece of red cloth, it was you the other day

Covered my eyes and also the sky

You asked me what I see

I answered that I have seen happiness

The sensation made me so cozy

That I forgot I had nowhere to live

You asked where else I’d want to go

I said I’ve fallen in love with your road

Seeing neither you nor any road

And my hand being clutched by you

You asked what I was thinking

I said I want simply to follow you

The question that the song asked (and that we demonstrators were asking ourselves) was, were we going to live like this forever, blinded by authoritarian control and unable to make our own judgments? The answer was obvious to all.

The second issue was an explicit political demand, focusing specifically on the erosion of the civil rights guaranteed by the constitution of the People’s Republic. The constitution, revised at the beginning of the Reform Era and then ratified by the National People’s Congress in 1982, was both the fruition of the liberating spirit of the early 1980s and a document consolidating Deng’s return to power; it also ensured a long honeymoon period of popular support. 

The official reaction to the Tiananmen anniversary, worse than on this date five years ago, is cruel, arrogant and counterproductive to the regime’s own survival.

But things had changed dramatically by 1989. People caught hints of imminent betrayal of their earlier support. Outspoken intellectuals were expelled from the party. Debates over the proposed development of the Three Gorges Dam were banned from publication. And then in April the death of a former party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, triggered the student protests. Hu had been purged two years earlier for being too liberal and too soft toward critics of the party. While mourning him, young faculty members and students from the Politics and Law University of China made a huge placard, holding it on their shoulders through many marches and rallies that spring. Inscribed on it in large characters were words taken from Article 35 of the new constitution, which grants citizens of the PRC “the freedom of speech, publication, assembly, association, demonstration and protest.” 

Erasure and eruption

The bloody crackdown in June 1989 ushered in a period of high economic growth under authoritarian rule. The government deployed every means possible to try to erase people’s memory of the Tiananmen protest and the massacre.

Because of my involvement in the demonstrations, my name appeared on the government’s most-wanted list. I was lucky to be able to flee the country after eight months in hiding. Many of my fellow protesters were killed, injured or imprisoned for long terms. Some of their families experience continued police harassment even today. Such tactics have aimed to create fear and enforce a total silence concerning recent history. Many young people born after 1989 know little about it.

Yet the actual situation on the ground is not always what the party censors would like to see. The dual desires for independence and political rights are living on as hidden flames, occasionally rekindled, especially when conflicts arise between citizens and officials. Such conflicts are common in a country that has witnessed a growing income gap and social polarization. The New Citizen Movement, initiated by the law scholar and civil activist Xu Zhiyong two years ago and aimed at raising civil rights consciousness, helped the children of China’s vast army of migrant workers receive education away from their hometowns. In a manifesto written in 2012, Xu explicated the mission of the movement in a succinct statement: “Let us start from this very moment. Let us speak out firmly and proudly [about] the identity that ought to belong to us all: I am a citizen; we are citizens.”

On the other hand, the government has continued its slide into tyranny since 1989. The cruel logic enforced by the military crackdown has gradually crystallized alongside China’s economic growth over the past 25 years. After two rounds of once-a-decade leadership succession, the country’s chiefs have only become lazier at heeding public concerns: Coercive power has become their most convenient and frequent choice when encountering a challenging situation. They have myopically focused on an aggressive installation of a top-down “stability maintenance” security apparatus, which enjoys a bigger budget than national defense. Citizens’ rights and demands, including the memory of Tiananmen, have been slighted and manipulated, often for gains in factional infighting.

It is against this backdrop that the charge of “disturbing public order” has been excessively trotted out to send activists such as Xu to prison. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been rounded up ahead of the June 4 anniversary. The official reaction, worse than on this date five years ago, is cruel, arrogant and counterproductive to the regime’s own survival. Vested interests corrupting the party’s polity have multiplied to such an extent that we have reason to expect large-scale social clashes in the near future. We are living to preserve the memory of Tiananmen. And it will haunt the regime to its end. 

Chaohua Wang was among the 21 students most wanted by the Chinese government after the Tiananmen Square massacre. She is an independent scholar and a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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