On this day 20 years ago, hundreds or thousands of peaceful protestors, many of them students, were killed in Beijing for demanding democracy. The world remembers them; Mainland China does not.
Protests and vigils took place in Hong Kong this week. The Mainland Chinese press did not report on them. The protestors were not demanding a change of government in Beijing; they were only demanding restitution for the Tiananmen killings (“平反六四”). And what effect did it have? 可想而知–not much. In fact, today’s China Daily (one of China’s biggest English daily newspapers) headlined letters of protest by Mainland Chinese at France’s recent honouring of the Dalai Lama.
The 1980s were a time of opening for China. The China that had been closed for thirty years inside Mao’s fist was opening up to the rest of the world’s media, people, business and ideas. Less well known is that it was also opening up to self-scrutiny. Deng Xiaoping was moving forward on reforms, and China’s leaders were interested in political reform for better stability. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was divided between reformers and conservatives, and the intellectuals of China were coming out of the shadows to give their opinions of China’s development. Tolerance of debate and dissent grew; but as the CCP soon realised, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile.
As with much of the rest of the communist world (and perhaps spurred by them), demonstrations, protests and riots grew in number. In 1987 and 8, rioters in Lhasa demanded Tibetan independence. College students elsewhere in China, led by “well-established intellectuals” (Zhao, 147), were specific in the reforms they proposed. The long and the short of it was, the CCP should hold elections and be willing to hand over power.
Students and other protestors marched in many cities in China in the thousands between April and June 1989. By June 4th, as many as a million people stood in Tiananmen Square. Though they did not all agree what they were protesting, they were all venting their anger at the CCP. The soldiers opened fire on June 3 at 22:30. (Wikipedia)
Most chinese people have taken a very different tack since 1989. Their living standards have improved and are more focused on family, education and money than on politics. The CCP has become adept at manipulating nationalist feeling and directing it outward, mostly against Japan and America. And because they are not taught about the Tiananmen Incident, they feel less angry against their government.
As I wrote at the time of the riots in Tibet in 2008, people who dream of China’s liberalisation are likely to be disappointed. Today’s urban, middle class Chinese believe they benefit from the Communist Party’s rule and thank it for bringing them such prosperity. Government control of the media means few of them are aware of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, or that the government behaved drastically in Tiananmen, or even that there was any incident at all. What Tiananmen massacre?
Many self-styled China Watchers hope for China’s eventual democratisation. Some even say it is inevitable. Given the tens of thousands of protests around China every year, the liberalisation that comes with economic growth, better education, international exchanges and so on, China is bound to have a democratic revolution of some kind. Having lived in China, I believe that democracy is not inevitable. What we should really take from the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 is that China’s authoritarian government is willing to use violence to maintain power for a long time to come. It has done so before, and it will do so again.
Zhao Suisheng: China and Democracy