Twenty-five years have passed since the Chinese leadership suppressed by force the student-led democratization movement centered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. With Chinese media keeping silent over the anniversary, it looks as if the Chinese Communist Party and government were trying to erase the memory of that movement, which called for elimination of corruption, government accountability, freedom of speech and the press and expansion of workers’ rights, among other things.
While China has since achieved robust economic growth to become the world’s No. 2 economy today, there are no signs that the CCP leadership are making serious efforts for democratization. However, political regimentation as pursued by President Xi Jinping will not bring about true stability to the country. It is high time that the Chinese leadership carried out political reforms to establish a democratic system — a prerequisite for a stable society.
A vigil for the April 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist former general secretary of the CCP, led to the start of the democratization movement. Although it gained momentum, receiving support from citizens and some media, hardline party leaders eventually cracked down on the demonstrators at and near Tiananmen Square by sending in troops with tanks and assault rifles to put the protests down on the early morning of June 4, 1989. The Chinese authorities say that 319 citizens and students were killed, but other estimates put the number of victims much higher.
The Chinese leadership condemned the movement as a “counter-revolutionary riot” and claimed that the demonstrators were trying to overthrow China’s socialist regime, and continued to reject the democratization as demanded by the protesters.
Rapid economic growth has since made China richer, with the country’s gross domestic product reaching 56.884 trillion yuan (an equivalent of some ¥950 trillion) — more than 33 times higher than in 1989. But in the process, China has suffered serious social problems, such as a widening gap between rich and poor and between urban and rural areas, rampant corruption of officials and environmental disruption.
Protests are taking place in large numbers, including demonstrations against land expropriation and construction of chemical plants and garbage disposal facilities. In 2011 alone, 180,000 protest demonstrations took place across China. Adding to the deteriorating public security are the recent series of terrorist attacks blamed on Uighur activists.
China’s leadership should be aware that as the nation has grown wealthier, its people have developed a stronger sense of human rights and embraced diverse values, and that they do not have blind faith in the current regime of state capitalism under the CCP’s exclusive leadership.
The response by Xi, who became party chief in November 2012, has been to clamp down on protests by intellectuals and minority activists and tighten control of Internet media, while selling people what he calls the “Chinese dream” of building an all-round well-off society and restoring China’s greatness.
In April, Xi held the first meeting of the party’s new Central National Security Commission, and cited “politics” as one of the areas where security must be ensured — an indication that he has no plans to ease the CCP’s grip on power. However, a highhanded approach toward dealing with people’s discontent and dissent will not work in the long run. Eliminating privileges accorded to party officials would be an important first step toward democratization. To help ensure that, the Chinese leadership should make the judiciary free from party influence so Chinese citizens can receive equal treatment under the law irrespective of their positions in society.