China’s rulers have suppressed memories of Tiananmen protests of 1989 while offering prosperity and stability. But what if a crisis erupted?

Tiananmen
Students clean a memorial for those killed in 1989 protests in China, Hong Kong, 4 June 2019 (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

By Jane Macartney

Emerging from the midnight darkness enveloping Beijing’s main street, a People’s Liberation Army soldier pointed his AK-47 at two young men who were crouched by the roadside to watch massed troops marching on Tiananmen Square.

He shouted at them to raise their hands and get lost, and then shot one in the back as they fled. His friend pulled him onto his back and dragged him away.

That man, barely more than a boy, may have become one of the hundreds killed on that balmy June night in 1989 when China’s military finally crushed student demonstrations that had paralysed the capital for weeks.

It seems a remote event, a generation ago. Even for a witness like myself.

Ask a student in China today about those heady days of mass protest and the violence that brought their bloody end, and many will look back with a blank stare of seeming ignorance.

The ruling Communist Party that ordered in the army suppresses all reference to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the violence of their finale. The use of words such as “June 4,” “6-4,” “Tiananmen Square” or even “8 x 8” (totalling 64) are among the hundreds banned from the internet over the anniversary period.

Collective amnesia is the aim of the Party.

The online censorship can only spark curiosity among the young about what could have happened to trigger this annual disappearance of countless apparently harmless words.

In fact, some of those who profess no knowledge of Tiananmen Square are simply exercising discretion. Even a few of those not born in 1989 may have heard tell of the day the army turned its guns on peaceful demonstrators. It is simply easier to avoid controversy by not talking about it. It is true that probably most know nothing at all.

That collective amnesia is the aim of the Party as it enforces silence. It wants to avert a recurrence and hide its bloody actions.

With the passage of the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, that very silence underscores the continued tremendous importance of the event.

The crackdown casts a huge shadow over the ruling Party. The leadership knows the brutal repression changed the course of Chinese history — and could again.

The students who launched those demonstrations wanted better job opportunities, greater freedom of expression and less corruption, as well as higher incomes, foreign books and trendy sports shoes. The Party’s careful censorship of history meant these students were undeterred by real knowledge of the many previous crackdowns against similar protests — as recently as 1976 and 1979.

Thanks to censorship, fewer and fewer people now remember the hail of gunfire and advance of tanks three decades ago. That poses a paradoxical new risk for the Party.

The rulers and the ruled have made an unspoken bargain.

The risk-averse leaders have achieved such phenomenal success with market reform that the dreams of those students have been far surpassed.

People who, in 1989, had never owned a car, let alone a home, now regard such possessions as basic entitlements. Many holiday in the Maldives and own Louis Vuitton handbags. Per capita income has soared from $311 in 1989 to $8,827 in 2017, according to the World Bank.

The rulers and the ruled know they have made an unspoken bargain: no more questioning of the leadership in return for economic prosperity and political stability.

But the risk is that some economic crisis — such as the unforeseen trade war launched by the United States — could curb growth, erode prosperity and swell the jobless. Or that corruption could trigger an outpouring of anger.

Even the Party’s tough repression in recent years of tentative discussion or online debate could fail to curb an outburst of youthful energy if students poured back into the streets. Such demonstrations would certainly be viewed by the Party as a dire threat to its rule.

And the Party knows it has the military might to halt protest. It counts on a historic terror of chaos for silent support from the public. It is far from clear that increased prosperity will lead to outspoken demands for political change.

(For another story on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, click here.)

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why did students protest in China in June 1989?
  2. What happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989?
  3. Why do China’s leaders suppress references to protests in and around Tiananmen Square?

Jane Macartney worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times and Reuters. She was The Times correspondent in China for six years and lived in Japan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London when working for Reuters. She reported on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and traveled to Tibet during periods of unrest there. She is the author of part of a book on the 1989 student movement in China.

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