25 Years: From Tiananmen to Today

On the night of June 3-4, 1989, units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Beijing, killing some hundreds of ordinary citizens as they made their way to Tiananmen Square — the focal point of massive protests that had begun in late April following the death of former party secretary Hu Yaobang.

The square was cleared of protesters, but further killings and arrests ensued over the following days. A small number of soldiers were also killed. Protests in many other Chinese cities were simultaneously brought to an end, with varying degrees of violence. Significant protests in Shanghai were settled, largely peacefully. Beijing was the worst. This much is known, although a final, credible death toll has not been published to this day.

After the event, Deng Xiaoping famously said, “This storm was bound to happen.” Not necessarily. The country-wide protests — against corruption, rising prices, an array of contradictions between what opening and reform seemed to promise and the realities of daily life, as well as demands for greater freedom and democracy — were almost certainly inevitable. But the bloody denouement in the nation’s capital was not. The crucial element was a serious power struggle at the center of China’s leadership, a struggle that was exacerbated by the popular protests, which the contending parties sought to use.

There were of course other elements: the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the Asian Development Bank meeting and, in particular, the historic visit of Mikhail Gorbachev; and there were divisions among the student leaders and their supporters, between those favoring a degree of accommodation with the authorities and others more intransigent. But in the end it was the hardliners in the government who won the power struggle. It is these hardliners who, backed by Deng, must take responsibility for the tragic way in which the protests were suppressed.

And it was this same Deng who also ensured that, against the clear inclinations of a number of those on the winning side, the crackdown did not mean turning back from the policies of opening and reform that he had himself initiated at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in late 1978. He understood that these processes, and the resultant economic growth, must be progressed above all else if stability were to remain. The domestic and international shocks resulting from the events of June 1989 notwithstanding, Deng’s Southern Tour of 1992 unleashed another wave of opening and reform that has resulted in the China we see today — with unprecedented levels of prosperity, openness to the world, international standing and influence.

For one who lived through and closely followed the events of 1989 in Beijing, it is hard to realize that a quarter of a century has now past and that “June 4” means little to many adult Chinese today who were only children, or not even born, when those events took place.

At the same time, China has changed beyond recognition and, in terms of people’s lives, in many ways for the better. Millions of Chinese travel overseas on holidays every year and return home with no greater reluctance than tourists of any other country. Many take pride in China’s global standing.

While the 1980s were a period of unalloyed admiration for the West, particularly from intellectuals and students, this has been tempered not only by patriotic education but also much more effectively by Western failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Asian financial crisis, the global financial crisis and the unmet policy challenges of the Arab Spring.

Of course, China has huge problems and challenges of its own, some of which, such as pollution, result from its own successes. Others are more traditional, such as corruption which now greatly exceeds 1989 levels. But while “mass incidents” resulting from particularly egregious and localized causes continue to take place across the country, the idea that the central leadership is vulnerable to challenge by mass protests in the heart of the nation seems implausible. This is not what people want and, even if it were, the range of coercive means — lethal and non-lethal — at the disposal of the authorities gives them a far greater degree of flexibility and effectiveness than was the case 25 years ago.

And yet those same authorities are worried. They have not forgotten what happened. Some of them are the direct or indirect beneficiaries of the power struggle that Zhao Ziyang lost and Li Peng won — resulting in the promotion of Jiang Zemin, who still exercises some influence despite his advanced age. It is noteworthy that current President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, honorably but fruitlessly opposed the decision to use the PLA.

The millions of Beijing citizens who lived through the events have not forgotten, whatever roles they played or didn’t play, and whatever they thought then or think now. And neither have the parents, siblings, relatives, teachers and friends of those who died and the greater numbers injured or imprisoned or exiled.

June 4, like March 18, May 4, May 30 and September 18, has entered Chinese history, and as such demands an explanation. From time to time an official Chinese spokesperson says, usually responding to a journalist, that this issue was settled years ago. It wasn’t. If this were the case, the date would not be as sensitive as it is.

Every year in late May people associated with the events of 1989 are encouraged in one way or another to keep quiet or take a holiday. This year, a significant anniversary, has already seen a number of arrests, but there have also been new forms of activism, including a privately sponsored seminar and a series of messages on Weibo, China’s Twitter. The issue is not going away.

One may fully understand the desire of the Chinese government, faced as they are with massive challenges, to avoid rancorous disputes and anything that risks undermining China’s hard-won stability and prosperity. Good luck to them in achieving their stated goals for the “two centenaries” (of the Chinese Communist Party (1921) and of the People Republic of China (1949), including moderate prosperity for all by 2021 and democracy by 2049.

But sooner or later it will become clear that a truthful account of June 1989 will help, not hinder, the realization of a China that is stronger for acknowledging its tragedies as well as its stunning achievements.

Professor Richard Rigby is head of the China Institute at the Australian National University and was formerly an Australian diplomat and analyst specializing on Chinese and Asian affairs.

Reposted from East Asia Forum