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Tiananmen Twenty Years Later

In this year of awkward anniversaries, the Chinese Communist regime is finding it impossible to suppress the memory of the massacre of June 4, 1989.

By From the June 2009 issue

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June 4, 1989. I had grabbed a few hours’ sleep after reporting the ominous buildup of PLA infantry units around the back of the Great Hall of the People all the previous day. It had been obvious to me since that afternoon that the crackdown would begin that evening. By the time I made my way back to Changan Avenue and as close as I could get to Tiananmen Square, Beijing was incredibly noisy. Shortly after 3:00 a.m. I counted signs of tracer fire or the crack of automatic weapons in at least eight different sectors of the city as I rotated in place. Now, around 5:30 a.m., I was crouched down behind a pile of bricks on a side street near the Beijing Hotel and perpendicular to Changan Avenue, which led straight into the square. Tanks and trucks filled with troops were roaring by, completing from the eastern side of the city the army’s assault on the square that had started around 10:00 p.m. the previous evening in the western suburbs. From a location that sounded as though it were inside the Forbidden City itself, came several- second bursts of automatic rifle fire. There would be a few intermittent shootings from dawn until the early afternoon of Sunday, June 4. But by 6:00 a.m., the styrofoam statue of the Goddess of Democracy had been knocked down, the last remaining students had left the square, and the Chinese government’s suppression of one of the most dramatic spontaneous upsurges in support of democracy by any national movement in the 20th century was complete. It looked as though it might take several more weeks before the stunned world could absorb what had happened.

In fact, the world absorbed it all too quickly. Before the end of June 1989 President George H. W. Bush dispatched his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to Beijing “to keep open the lines of communication,” as Scowcroft later said. A photograph of Scowcroft raising a glass to toast the Beijing leadership understandably offended many people. Quite rapidly, however, governments decided it wasn’t in their long-term interests to sulk indefinitely over the Tiananmen Massacre.

China cracked down hard on the student leaders of the democracy movement, arresting some immediately, putting others on a “most-wanted” list, and endlessly showing on national TV grainy mug shots of those it was still trying to arrest. Several managed to slip out of China on Western passports subversively provided them by diplomats or by availing themselves of an underground railroad of sympathizers within Chinese officialdom on the way to smugglers’ speedboats to Hong Kong.

As for the Chinese people, the Tiananmen Massacre was first dubbed by the regime a “counterrevolutionary incident,” and then, by degrees, crammed down the memory hole of things that—in the official view—simply never happened. In recent years, new students arriving from China have often stunned their American college hosts by refusing to believe that the video news footage of Tiananmen they could now freely watch was authentic.

FOR MUCH OF THE 1990s, China rode the crest of a wave of economic growth—14 percent in some years—that caused both domestic living standards and national pride to soar. Through successful economic management China’s leaders somehow succeeded in quickly distracting national attention from political might-have-beens to financial yes-we-cans. Chinese billionaires began to pop up in Forbes. By the end of the decade, the regime had also stoked up nationalist and anti-foreign sentiment after the election of a president on Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, who threatened to declare it independent, and the inadvertent American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war. The annual candlelight June 4 protest vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park continued year after year, even after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. But the numbers seemed to dwindle each year. Some observers wondered if Tiananmen—the massacre—had indeed been made to disappear from the Chinese national memory, as the government earnestly wished.

Anxiety that the Tiananmen Massacre had indeed suffered an Orwellian fate was heightened by the regime’s apparent success in curbing any dissent as the 1990s gave way to the 2000. China demonstrated a suffocatingly effective control of Internet information through “The Great Chinese Firewall,” as it became known, a filtering system reportedly policed by tens of thousands of diligent URL-watchers. The French organization Reporters Without Borders estimated that the authorities had blocked at least 2,500 Internet sites from being viewed in China. Beijing also slapped 10-year jail sentences on bloggers who dared to mention Tiananmen. In one tragicomic incident, it fired three editors of a Chengdu newspaper that had run a classified ad from the “mothers of 6-4.” The young female clerk who took the ad apparently hadn’t the slightest idea what “6-4” meant—i.e., June 4, 1989.

Meanwhile, the Beijing security services relentlessly harassed the handful of brave activists trying to keep the memory of Tiananmen alive. Surely one of the bravest of such groups is the Mothers of Tiananmen, made up of some 155 parents of young people killed and wounded in the massacre. Despite police surveillance and threats, the group has somehow managed to survive on the Internet and in Beijing. In a letter to the authorities this past February, Ding Zilin, founder of the group and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called on them to “break the taboo” against discussion of Tiananmen and to conduct an open and thorough investigation of what happened in Beijing that June night 20 years ago. “China has become an air-tight iron chamber,” she wrote, “and all the demands of the people about June 4, all the anguish, lament, and moaning of the victims’ relatives and the wounded, has been sealed off.”

BUT NOT QUITE. Of all the nations in the world, perhaps none has a greater sense of its own history than China. Chinese routinely refer to great historical incidents of the past century by employing numerals to designate the month and the day on which they occurred. There is “5-4,” which refers to the historic May 4, 1919, student demonstrations in Beijing to protest the decision at the Versailles Peace Conference to transfer the China enclaves of defeated Germany to Japan. Then there is “4-5,” the demonstrations of April 5, 1976, in Beijing against Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, and her Cultural Revolution leftist acolytes (later to be called, officially, the Gang of Four). Thus there was at least the possibility that such a traumatic event in China’s past as “6-4” could never be permanently erased from China’s historical memory.

In late December of last year, a Chinese Politburo member, Li Yuanchao, expressed in public the idea that 2009 might be a difficult year for China when the country would have to undergo a stringent test. He was clearly alluding to the crop of awkward anniversaries scheduled to occur this year: the May 4, 1919 student demonstrations, the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and of course the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre itself. Eighteen days before Li’s speech, however, a remarkable document, calculated to embody Li’s worst nightmares, had already been released in Beijing. Called Charter 08, and consciously modeled on the Charter 77 dissident document released by Czech intellectuals in 1977, it offered a ringing declaration of democratic principles.

Amazingly, on the day of its release over the Internet, it was signed by 300 well-known intellectuals. Despite immediate regime attempts to suppress it, and to arrest some signatories, the Charter suddenly took off in private e-mails and within the briefest time had accumulated 8,000 brave signatures. These came from a surprisingly varied collection of “ordinary” Chinese, businessmen and professionals, as well as intellectuals. Boston University Sinologist and emerita history professor Merle Goldman, a veteran scholar of Chinese dissent, described the signatories as “a multi-class movement.”

The document itself was worthy of the thousands who signed it. Noting that a century had passed since the writing of China’s first constitution in 1908, Charter 08 ringingly declared, “The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clear that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.” It denounced the Communist Party for having “produced a long trail of human rights disasters,” and specifically mentioned the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966– 1969), and June Fourth (the Tiananmen Massacre). It also blasted “endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law,” and everything from “crony capitalism” to “pillage of the natural environment.” Charter 08 itemized the “fundamental principles” of freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism (meaning the balance of powers in society), democracy, and constitutional rule. It laid out 19 specific features of a completely transformed China, ranging from a new constitution, the separation of powers, and an independent judiciary to freedom of expression and religion, a federated republic, and a Truth Investigation Committee to right all the political wrongs committed since Communism came to China. The document is certainly the most sensational restatement of democratic aspirations for China since the Tiananmen Massacre.

The document’s creator is unknown, although a prominent Beijing scholar and democratic activist, Liu Xiaobo, was believed to have been closely involved with its composition and was arrested two days before Charter 08 was released. Liu was himself a signatory of the charter. He had been intermittently in prison in the wake of June Fourth, and had served three years of re-education through labor during 1996–1999. A president of the Chinese branch of PEN, an international association of writers, Liu has been a gadfly to the regime for the past two decades. Currently there is a worldwide campaign of internationally known writers, including Salman Rushdie, working for his release.

WHATEVER HAPPENS TO LIU, the year of fateful anniversaries, has already opened with a rush of significant protest inside China. Despite the regime’s attempts to suffocate the Chinese people with historical amnesia, despite the Communist Party’s continuing overwhelming domination of cultural and political life in China, there are cracks appearing in the wall of that ancient autocracy. Even among top Communist Party ideologists there are doubts whether a continuation of unchanging totalitarian rule is good, or is even possible. “Anyone can see that China today,” wrote party ideologist Yun Long in the People’s Daily last August, “is a blend and a clash of different stages of development, and of East and West; a chaotically interwoven state of affairs resulting from the jigsaw-like intertwining of the old system and the new productive forces.” Phew. Then he added that people in China who “stick to the ‘bottom line’ and refuse to let it go, are bound to wind up with a battered and bloodied head.” One must hope that this isn’t a result of actions of Chinese soldiers.

But change, ideologist Yun Long made clear, just has to come. When and how, he wouldn’t speculate. But 20 years after that tragic and cacophonous suppression of protest on the streets of Beijing, now might not be a bad time to begin.

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About the Author

David Aikman is a former senior correspondent for Time Magazine and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Delusion of Disbelief: How the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness and The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Unending Conflict in the Middle East.