With thoroughness and speed, police in Beijing rounded up participants in a private gathering, held on May 3, that marked the 25th anniversary of the 1989 protests, which were ended by an army massacre of civilians in the streets of that city. Of the 15 or so in attendance that day, a few were merely questioned and warned, but at least five, including prominent human-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, were taken into custody. One person who was present at the event has disappeared.
Every year during the “sensitive period,” the run-up to the anniversary of “Tiananmen,” Beijing detains activists or puts them under house arrest. Human-rights leaders tell us that the Communist party’s actions are meant to instill fear among those who might try to commemorate the massacre or mourn its victims, which of course is true. It is also true that no matter how many are taken away, the community of Tiananmen participants, now dwindling in number, will never forget the hope and agony of the “Beijing Spring” of 1989.
Yet since the regime suppresses news of detentions and the Communist party now barely speaks of Tiananmen, many young Chinese know little or nothing about the events then. This official silence is changing their perception of the one-party state, which in turn is changing the country in surprising and unintended ways.
On the 15th of April in 1989, students began appearing in Tiananmen Square, in the center of the Chinese capital. They were inspired to protest by the sudden death that day of Hu Yaobang, a reformist official who had been dismissed by Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, two years before. Before long a small crowd became a spontaneous movement spanning the country, with demonstrators from all walks of life assembling in the capital and 370 other Chinese cities.
That movement, in Deng’s view, challenged the party’s authority to rule, and he was determined to reassert control — first over a fractured ruling organization, then over the army, and finally over the country itself. When conciliation with student leaders did not work and a declaration of martial law failed, Deng called out the People’s Liberation Army.
It took him weeks to find a general who would lead a charge against the Chinese people, but he finally succeeded. On the evening of June 3, mechanized troops of the vicious 27th Army swept in from the western approaches of Beijing, heading for the city’s center. Citizens defended their neighborhoods, battling armored cars with stones and bottles filled with gasoline, even killing soldiers who were pushing their way, block by block, to the heart of the city.
By the time the leading units reached Tiananmen in the first hours of June 4, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of citizens had died. “We must minimize harm,” Deng had said, according to a memoir supposedly written by former premier Li Peng. In June of 1989, however, the Chinese identified Deng with this command to his soldiers: “Don’t be afraid to spill blood.”
Deng not only was unafraid to spill blood, he was determined to do so, to teach the Chinese people a lesson in obedience. But his two immediate successors as leader, both of whom he hand-picked, took the opposite tack: Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did their best to scrub the past of the horrors of the time. Xi Jinping, the current supremo, has also enforced silence on the matter. What Deng openly celebrated — a brutal mass crime — has been reduced, when it is mentioned at all these days by officials, to “that 1989 affair” — or, more awkwardly, “the event that happened in the late ’80s of last century.”
The Communist party’s embarrassment is now even more evident. The official verdict is that the demonstrators in Tiananmen — students, laborers, housewives — were participating in a “counter-revolutionary uprising” and Deng was justified in employing the most brutal measures to preserve order. Today’s leaders have not overturned that verdict, but it’s clear that few of them really believe it.
How do we know this? After a period of relative candor on casualties in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter, the party’s narrative of the event began to change, claiming that “only soldiers died” and “no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.” In 2011, the official China Daily ran an article titled “Tiananmen Massacre a Myth.”
These days the party rarely mentions 1989, preferring to present itself as modern and progressive, benevolent and benign. And party leaders have been largely successful in controlling the narrative in China. Even at a time of unprecedented information flows, they have been able to keep young Chinese from gaining any real understanding of the events of that critical season.
The party’s total control over education helps. As Cai, a 21-year-old student at Peking University Law School, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in 2009, “In our high school textbook June 4 is mentioned in one sentence, saying it was political turmoil in which the students’ passion was manipulated by a small number of evil people, and it developed into a riot that was successfully eased by the central authorities’ prompt action.”
Some students don’t even get that one line of text. Min, once a resident of Shanghai, did not learn of the slaughter in Beijing until she was out of school and in her mid-20s. And then she found out only because she was dating an American banker, who one day in 1996 casually mentioned the event in front of us, in a conversation in a noisy restaurant. I was stunned that she had lived in China’s grandest metropolis and had heard nothing about the tumultuous events, even though her Shanghai had one of the largest demonstrations of the spring.
Silence evidently works. The party has been mostly successful in shaping its new image in the minds of the young. Lu Jing, who was six at the time of the massacre, remembers hearing that no students died in 1989. As she later told AFP, “China in this respect is democratic, as China wouldn’t hurt its own people.”
China now has a generation in the dark. Many young Chinese believe their government is better today than it has been in centuries. They may understand some of the coerciveness of the political system, but compared with Maoist times, they think themselves to be relatively free. This is evident in recent surveys of various aspects of daily life — for example, one conducted for the BBC World Service about the Internet and released at the end of March. Beijing runs the world’s most comprehensive and sophisticated set of web controls, and yet a multitude of Chinese, thinking their government tolerant, believe they can say what they want online. This perception is clearly erroneous, but what’s important is that as a consequence of it, people have been changing their notion of their relationship with the one-party state.
And because many do not know what their government did in 1989, they freely take to the streets when they feel aggrieved. The number of “mass incidents” each year is now believed to have skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands. Protests have not only become more frequent in recent years; they also seem to be larger and more violent.
As Ekkart Zimmermann, the great political scientist, noted, the more successful tyrants in history realized that coercion had to be applied consistently. In China today, coercion seems to be consistently applied, yet it is nonetheless losing its effect.
There are a number of reasons for this trend, including the relaxation of controls over daily life and the confidence bred by the accumulation of individual wealth. But in large part repression is failing because party leaders will not, in an increasingly modern society, admit the extent to which they are coercive. They also will not admit how their predecessors, from whom they derive their legitimacy, relished the killing of citizens in great numbers in the center of their country.
Deng believed fear would keep the Chinese people in line, and so was blatant in his use of force. Xi is following in the footsteps of Jiang and Hu, however, and is subtle in his methods, hiding coercion as much as he can. For instance, when authorities took Pu Zhiqiang and his friends into custody this month, they were not willing to detail their crimes, charging them with nothing more descriptive than “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” State media, in connection with Pu’s arrest, felt it had to say something, but it could manage only one obscure reference to the “June 4th incident.”
This acute embarrassment, becoming more evident as time has progressed, will have consequences. As a Shanghai businessman told me five years ago, just before the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, “No one fears the government any more.”
If any group in China feels fear now, it is the Chinese leadership, unwilling to admit what it is doing. Twenty-five years ago, Wu’er Kaixi, a leader of the Tiananmen protests, ranked second on Beijing’s list of most-wanted dissidents. Five years ago, he tried to enter Macau, a special administrative region of the People’s Republic, to surrender himself to Beijing so that he could see his ailing parents, among other reasons, but authorities, apparently knowing his intention, refused him entry. Mr. Wu’er then attempted to turn himself over to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo in 2010 and the one in Washington in 2012. Officials rebuffed him both times.
Last year, immigration officials in Hong Kong, another special administrative region of the People’s Republic, denied Wu’er entry after he asked them to transfer him to mainland China. Instead, they put him on a plane to Taiwan, where he resided.
So it has come to this: Today the Communist party, fearing its people, cannot even bring itself to apprehend a fugitive dissident. To try Mr. Wu’er in a people’s court — even to hold him in a “black jail” without trial — would raise issues the party cannot face, much less resolve, even though they are now a quarter century old.
China’s rulers, seeking legitimacy, present themselves as the acceptable face of Communism, but by doing so, they are irrevocably changing Chinese society. Now the nation’s people are becoming even more demanding and defiant, and that is the most important consequence of having leaders who won’t admit what happened one night 25 years ago.
– Mr. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.