Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3-4, troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army crushed the democracy protests that had spread from Tiananmen Square in Beijing across China. Every year, around this time, Chinese Communist authorities round up dissidents and tighten security, seeking to prevent any public tribute, no matter how modest, to the victims of 1989.
This year, Chinese authorities seem especially nervous, moving to prevent not only public commemorations but private ones as well. Five participants in a May 3 discussion of the events of 1989 held at a private home have been charged, nonsensically, with “creating a disturbance in a public place, causing serious disorder.” (Five years ago, a similar, private gathering was permitted.) Among those criminally detained are Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer, and Xu Youyu, a philosophy professor. Both of them have serious health problems, as did Cao Shunli, an activist who died on March 14 after being denied medical treatment in custody. Cao had been detained for leading a peaceful sit-in of citizens seeking participation in a review of China’s human rights record.
Separately, Ding Zilin, 77, a founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that has documented some of the 1989 deaths, including that of Ding’s 17-year old son, has been barred from returning home to Beijing until after the anniversary. According to China Human Rights Defenders, more than 50 individuals have been targeted for detention, disappearance or harassment.
Anniversaries are typically backward-looking affairs, but for China, the events of 1989 are intimately linked to the future of Communist Party rule. After Tiananmen, writes Perry Link, a China scholar and an editor of a collection of leaked Party documents about the crackdown, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiao-ping embarked on “a systematic effort to extinguish [people’s] political longings and to mold them into ‘patriotic’ subjects focused on nationalism and money.” Mao’s brutal ideological campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s may have been more damaging, according to Link, “but Deng’s formula for the Chinese people of ‘money, yes; ideas, no’ ... laid the foundation for so much of what we see in China today ... ethical deterioration ... fear ... dread ... [and] intimidation.”
Deng’s bargain may be already fraying. Wei Qian, 29, a young bank employee, decided to use funds saved for a beach vacation in Thailand in an online auction entitling the winning bidder to spend an evening with a political author she calls the “Goddess of Democracy” (also the name of the statue erected by protesters at Tiananmen). The proceeds will go to help political prisoners.
As financial inducements or other kinds of cooptation fail, the regime will rely on more repression. In the past year, according to the group China Human Rights Defenders, dozens of activists have been detained, arrested, or disappeared, including many from the New Citizens Movement, which seeks, among other things, disclosure of assets by Chinese officials. In January, Xu Zhiyong, a leader of the movement, was sentenced to four years in jail. (A clandestine video of a handcuffed Xu in detention appealing to fellow citizens to work for democracy appears here.) Other New Citizens Movement activists have been sentenced to two-year terms, and more await trial.
Despite the arrests, leading dissidents see success, pointing to a continuum of democracy movements stretching back at least a decade. These include the Open Constitution Initiative, or Gongmeng, a legal think tank founded in 2003 which, among other things, questioned Beijing’s Tibet policies—a topic that rivals Tiananmen in sensitivity; the “rights defense” or Weiquan movement, a loose network of lawyers and activists seeking to advance rights within the existing system; and Charter 08, a blueprint for democracy, rule of law, and human rights modeled after Charter 77, the Czechoslovak initiative that led to the Velvet Revolution and inspired dissent throughout the Soviet bloc.
All of these efforts have been suppressed, as were the authors of Charter 77, and leaders of Soviet dissent before the fall of the Soviet Union. (Liu Xiaobo, a writer who flew home from New York in 1989 to join the protesters, and later Charter 08’s most prominent signer, was detained on the eve of its release and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in jail.)
A generation ago, Beijing watched nervously as the Soviet Union loosened its grip only to fall, and split apart. China’s Communist Party has spent the last 25 years determined to avoid the same fate. It spends more money on internal security than on the military. The media is strictly regulated and the Internet heavily policed.
Even so, the Party has not been able to erase Tiananmen from Chinese consciousness. When Internet censors purge references to “6/4,” users substitute “May 35.” As a 15-year-old boy, the author Murong Xuecun bought the regime’s line on the protests of 1989, but once at college he learned the truth, which was “passed down from one student body to the next.” Now living abroad, he has decided to return to China and take his place among fellow dissidents.
Eventually, China’s communist leaders may find their efforts to suppress memory backfire. According to Min Xin Pei, a scholar of totalitarian transitions at Claremont McKenna College, half of China’s population was born after 1976. They don’t remember the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution in which millions were sent to perform manual labor in the countryside, as marauding Red Guards sowed paranoia among family and friends. Might this contribute to a change of rule one day? “The basis of rule of all authoritarian regimes is one simple fact—fear,” Pei told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy. “A psychological shift can come very very quickly.” What that shift will bring, no one can say for sure. But the world will have had at least 25 years to prepare for it.