​Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown – 25 years on

Twenty-five years after the bloody military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, China is seeking to quell all discussion of the massacre by locking up, charging or harassing artists, scholars, lawyers, bloggers and relatives of victims.

The anniversary has been preceded by scores of detentions, with others placed under house arrest. Some detainees have been charged with offences carrying prison terms of several years for holding a private memorial gathering. Google services have been disrupted and police have warned some foreign journalists they face unspecified consequences for covering sensitive issues.

“We are seeing much harsher measures taken against a far broader swath of people this year,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are believed to have died when troops opened fire late on June 3 1989. Most of the victims were ordinary workers killed around the city, reflecting the mass support that the student-led protests had drawn.

But the official verdict dismissed the events as a counter-revolutionary riot.


“The Chinese government long ago reached a conclusion about the political turmoil at the end of the 1980s,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told a daily news briefing on Tuesday.

“In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected.”

‘There are only law breakers’
Asked about recent detentions, he added: “In China there are only law breakers; there are no so-called dissidents.”

After years of enforced silence, many young people have little idea if any of what took place. Others have come to believe that the crackdown was inevitable or even necessary for the sake of stability.

Here, three protesters and an expert on the split within the Communist party discuss how the massacre shaped today’s China, the alternative courses that the country might have taken, and the prospects for political reform.

Shen Tong, a student leader, now lives in the US. He is a partner in investment firm SOSVentures and founder of its accelerator programme FoodX.

There were three choices in 1989: first, to continue in the same mould, with half-hearted reform. The second has been common in the last 25 years: street protests following mostly non-violent principles and challenging government power and winning, like the colour revolutions and Arab spring. I don’t think any society has had such a widespread and large-scale protest that only asked for reform, an opportunity for negotiation and a peaceful outcome.

There was such a mandate from the general public. There was a very obvious and clear candidate to lead reform – Zhao Ziyang (then general secretary of the party). Perhaps it is naive to think so, but there could have been genuine and top-down change in response to this overwhelming jolt.

The third outcome was the route China has actually taken. A smaller part of the government and party usurped power and put Zhao under house arrest. The government used overwhelming, shocking force – and fear works.

The limitation in my thinking then – still by and large shared by the Chinese liberal intelligentsia today – was the idea that somehow if we were even more moderate and careful to not harm leaders’ sensitivities and egos we could not only minimise the inevitable crackdown, but somehow China would be better off.

In recent years I have realised how naive and wrong I was. More aggressive and confrontational tactics have led to peaceful transformations.

If Chinese Communist history is any guide, no matter how careful we were, no matter how ‘well-behaved’, the crackdown was inevitable. If we’d asked for a little bit more. if we’d asked for regime change – China would have been very different. We had generals warning the government not to open fire.

When another opportunity comes about, will protests be so organised and peaceful? It is when; there’s no if; there’s a moral direction in history. The night before they began, the protests were impossible; the morning after, they were inevitable. The overall feeling was a celebration. It’s a positive legacy: it shows China deserves that change and may very well pull it off again. We have forgotten how beautiful it was because the ending was so overwhelmingly tragic.

Wang Chaohua was one of the 21 “most wanted” student leaders sought by authorities. She fled into exile after months in hiding and is a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Political liberalisation had already slowed down. That logic simply became crystallised by the Tiananmen crackdown. But if there had not been the military crackdown, even if some people were persecuted afterwards, at least the form of mass protest would retain some legitimacy.

Over time, the public space for activism became narrower and narrower in terms of the control of political discourse. You can do things, but you can’t explain them in political terms. Now anybody, even staying at home, could ‘pose a threat to public order’.

Another thing that happened in 1989 was a complete shift of attention. Reforms started from the countryside [but] the government turned its attention to the cities to keep them stable. Whenever it saw signs the city folks felt discontent it rushed to pacify them. The countryside has become the target of exploitation.

I do see hope. [While some members of] the younger generation say that China needed stability in 1989, they also lament the fact college students were so much more idealistic ‘not like us today’.

On the negative side, the regime has become more conscious of the power in its hands. Economic development has made officials see how easy it is to be corrupt. The regime has become less and less efficient and is more often using the police force. I see these two sides as making it more likely than it was in 2000 that China will have some really crushing moment in the next five or 10 years. 

I don’t think the party can reform itself. It has become such an entangled web of interests; you can’t get it working no matter how great a leader is parachuted in at the top. So it would be more likely that a sudden incident or economic crisis would cause a catastrophic moment. The outcome of that is very difficult to predict. We can’t be sure it would be a bright or satisfying one, leading to a better political future.

Rowena He joined protests in Guangzhou as a schoolgirl. She is now a lecturer at Harvard and author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle.

Tiananmen didn’t end in 1989. Chinese society is struggling with an open, unhealed wound. Let’s forget about the big words and theories and get down to human issues: when people’s children are killed, are they able to mourn for them? Those are very basic rights that every parent in the world deserves.

History was erased and twisted by those in power. It’s not just about twisting the facts of what happened; it’s the values they twisted. Even if students know about the crackdown, they say, that’s okay. When the regime ordered the army to fire on people in the name of national pride and economic development, it sent the message that anything can be done to become rich.

Over the years the policy has led to higher average living standards, a booming economy, and a more predominant place for China in the world – but has also engendered enormous inequality, massive corruption, growing environmental problems and profound popular cynicism, massive expenditure on stability maintenance and now a sense of belligerence on the international stage.

If you play the game you have social status and a good life. Chinese intellectuals started to develop this cynicism and reluctance to be critical and enthusiastically discuss social and political issues.

We were idealistic; we had been exposed to all those revolutionary stories. People saw it as their responsibility to help improve the country. If another Tiananmen happened now it would not be out of idealism and passion, but grievances and anger.

China lost a golden opportunity for the Communist party to reform itself and start looking to Taiwan’s example: Let people have free speech and press and release political prisoners and in this way civil society will be able to develop. I think history is on our side, but China has to face its past in order to have a future.

Andrew Nathan is editor of the Tiananmen Papers, a compilation of leaked materials from 1989, and an expert on elite Chinese politics at Columbia University.

I think Li Peng [then China’s premier] was right that had they agreed to dialogue with the students on authentic grounds, giving some real power to civil society, it would have changed the form of rule. But they could have done that – and Zhao Ziyang wanted to do it, and had quite a bit of support in the leadership and party.

The alternative to a crackdown was there. Even Deng Xiaoping saw the good sense of the proposal until Li Peng came to him and said “the students are calling for your head”. On the student side, there were always people saying: “We’ve made the point, let’s withdraw.”

When we look back at 1978 [when reform and opening began] to 1989, it was a very ambiguous, zig-zagging period with respect to the political model. Deng Xiaoping did not have a blueprint. The openness to experimentation really ended with the crisis in 1989.

It’s the kind of system that has a lot of problems: it produces abuse of power; has difficulty satisfying civil society; creates a middle class which is pretty conservative because it has benefited from economic reform, but also has a lot of expectations and demands of the government: efficiency, services, probity.

Had they moved to a political model that had more transparency, more independent rule of law, more independent media, more chances for civil society to supervise, I believe China would still have had economic growth – it was a period of the growth of Asia and the globalised trading economy – but a more healthy form. I think China would be more stable.

When we talk about China becoming a democracy, it’s confusing because the term is so incredibly broad. I have never thought China would adopt the US constitution.

The Chinese constitution has the National People’s Congress [the largely rubber-stamp parliament], a head of state, the state council, a chapter on citizens’ rights and duties. All they have to do is get rid of the piece that says this is conditional on total obedience to the Communist party. Would China have achieved that by now [without the crackdown]? I think, perhaps. Li Peng had a good point: once you start to open this up it’s going to grow very fast. – Guardian News and Media 2014

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