The official Chinese verdict on the Tiananmen Incident is definitive and clear: History has validated the decision to crack down on the protesters and there can and should be no revisiting of those fateful days.
Yet the Beijing government’s actions on the anniversary of that date signal considerably less confidence about its actions two decades ago. Every year as the anniversary approaches, dissidents real and imagined are isolated. The media is censored. Security forces are deployed en masse to prevent any protest. These are not the actions of a confident government. The ghosts of Tiananmen do not rest.
It is still unknown how many people died on June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army cleared Tiananmen Square, the massive public space in the heart of Beijing, to end weeks of protests by students and prodemocracy activists. The official death toll has never been released, but the government has asserted that the number is small and that the number of soldiers who died far outnumbered the civilian casualties.
Other reports, from Western journalists, human rights groups and Chinese activists, insist that hundreds, more likely thousands, died, virtually all of them unarmed protesters. Many of the protest leaders fled China, and have been unable to return. Overseas monitoring groups estimate that 30 people remain in prison on charges related to the protests.
In many respects, June 4 is just another day in China. Commemorations of the incident are strictly forbidden on the mainland. The media makes no mention of June 4. This year, the usual censorship was increased. In addition to the domestic blackout, pages from foreign newspapers and magazines that featured articles on the incident were ripped out. Television broadcasts that touched on the anniversary were blacked out. Journalists and news crews were prevented by security forces from filming at Tiananmen. An oppressive security presence blanketed the square on the anniversary, checking bags and IDs, and removing anyone deemed suspicious.
In a sign of the government’s growing nervousness, the Great Firewall of China has been strengthened. This year, electronic communications media like Twitter, YouTube and social networking sites were cut off. Access to some blogs has been cut and Internet monitors have shut down message boards on thousands of college and university Web sites.
Some observers wonder why all the fuss. There is little sign of a nascent democracy movement in China. Most Chinese have accepted the official verdict on June 4.
As a Foreign Ministry spokesperson explained at a June 4 press conference this year, “Our party and government have long made a clear conclusion on the political turbulence that took place in the late 1980s and the issues related to it.” For Beijing, the protests were a counterrevolutionary plot. Moreover, the economic prosperity that followed the crushing of the protests justifies the violence.
For the Chinese government, stability is prized above all else. It provides the foundation for growth and development, which is, today, the source of legitimacy for the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Challenging the decisions of June 4, 1989, is tantamount to questioning the basis for continuing Communist Party rule in China.
Yet the leadership is plainly nervous. That unease may reflect the ongoing determination in Hong Kong to not forget. Each year, tens of thousands of people — this year, as many as 150,000 — observe that fateful day with candlelight vigils.
Sensitivities may also be higher because this is the 20th anniversary, a milestone that was marked by the publication of memoirs by former party chief Zhao Zhiyang who was forced to step down over his handling of the protests. Zhao favored a softer line toward the demonstrators. He lost out when the party debated its response, was forced from his job, and remained under house arrest until he died in 2005. He secretly recorded his memoirs of his entire term in office, which were smuggled out of the country after his death. They were published last month and offer a stark contrast to the official version of events.
Zhao’s recollections are just one man’s version of history. Beijing is concerned, however, because others have echoed his call for a re-evaluation. A small group of intellectuals has demanded a reassessment of June 4; they have published letters and manifestos, but circulation has been limited by the Internet crackdown. The government also keeps a close eye on the authors, ordering some to the countryside in advance of the anniversary and forbidding others to talk to journalists.
This crackdown betrays the Beijing government’s lack of confidence. Fear of free thinking is born of insecurity, not strength. The readiness to condemn those who call for an honest and accurate assessment of the events of June 4 is proof that the leadership is nervous.
The economic downturn compounds worries about stability; the reopening of the verdict on Tiananmen could throw fuel on a smoldering fire. It is more reason than ever to be nervous on June 4.
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