EDMONTON, Canada — Tuesday was another anniversary of the tragic morning of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government used force to crack down on student protesters and their supporters in and around Tiananmen Square.
Many may still remember the spring of 1989. For weeks, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, demanding a dialogue with the authorities for political reform. They were supported by millions of ordinary people in all the major cities throughout the country. The world was glued to the television for hourly updates on the situation, with many praying for a peaceful outcome of the confrontation between the hunger strikers and the government.
Tuesday, millions were again glued to the TV screen, not to remember Tiananmen but to learn the latest scores in the World Cup finals. Life moves on, and it seems that June 4 is history.
The passing of time, however, has not diminished the significance of Tiananmen. Yes, China has gone through unprecedented economic growth; living standards for many Chinese have improved; and China has been further integrated into international society. But the most important issues of the Tiananmen movement continue to confront the country today.
First, students in 1989 demanded that political reform be a part of the modernization process and that the Chinese polity be more transparent. Since then, the forces for reform have pushed to make encouraging changes in this direction: village elections have been instituted and are in the process of being consolidated; township level elections are being experimented with in certain parts of China; some party organizations have even implemented competitive elections; and the call for political reform is quietly gaining momentum.
Nevertheless, Chinese politics today remains closed and elite-driven. Seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo dictate all domestic and foreign-policy decisions. That makes the stakes of the coming 16th Party Congress this fall very high as a new generation of leadership prepares to take over.
Second, anticorruption was a major rallying point in the Tiananmen protest. Today, graft is still one of the most despised social phenomena in China. More than a decade of high economic growth has absorbed part of the damage done by widespread corruption. Beijing’s “strike hard” campaign has from time to time intimated offenders. But neither economic growth nor periodical campaigns are long-term solutions to the problem. Corruption is a political and social ill that cannot be cured without fundamental changes in the Chinese political system. It would still be one of the most salient factors contributing to a political crisis.
Third, the demonstrators 13 years ago advocated a more egalitarian distribution in a rapidly changing Chinese society. Since then, more than 200 million of China’s poor have been lifted out of poverty, a remarkable achievement praised by United Nations Development Program and the World Bank alike.
Yet, as Prime Minister Zhu Ronji recently acknowledged in the last People’s Congress, Chinese peasants, who constitute more than 70 percent of the Chinese population, are lagging behind in receiving their share of economic benefits; many people are losing their jobs in the cities; and regional disparities are growing. Behind and beyond the striking skyscrapers in Beijing and Shanghai, there is a widening gap between the rich and poor.
Fourth, a more open intellectual environment and a freer press were voiced as crucial to China’s future by the Tiananmen participants and their supporters nationwide. Today, the government still maintains tight control over the media. Yet, continuing decentralization, growing market forces, the rapid spread of the Internet and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization have posed formidable challenges to, and seriously eroded, that control.
Ironically, it was the June 4 crackdown that brought President Jiang Zemin and the current “third generation” leadership to power. During his term, Jiang has repeatedly rejected the call for a re-evaluation of Tiananmen. This year, he is about to hand over power to a new generation if the party constitution is followed. The younger group of leaders will have to tackle all the above problems. They will continue to be haunted by the legacy of Tiananmen.
Thirteen years are no more than a moment when measured against the millennia of Chinese history, but it is a long journey in an individual’s lifetime. A newborn baby at that time is now a teenager. A first-grade pupil is now a university student. Many teenage demonstrators are now having their own children. Even some of the student leaders of the time are now driving Mercedes in hot pursuit of business.
The issue of how to evaluate the spring of 1989 has also become more controversial over time. In addition to the Chinese government’s insistence that the use of force at the time was justifiable for maintaining stability, a revisionist trend among some journalists and researchers question the very premises of the protest. Critics argue that the student enterprise of 1989 was too self-centered, premature, unrealistic and partially responsible for the tragic ending of June 4.
However, for those who believe in the historical significance of the event, the Tiananmen protest remains a symbol of courage, an expression of idealism and a sacrifice for noble goals in the spirit of humanism. The current verdict on the June 4 event by the Chinese government will sooner or later be reversed. The Beijing spring of 1989, like the May 4 movement of 1919, will be recorded as one of the most significant moments of 20th century Chinese history.
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