Chinese President Xi Jinping maintained tight control over protest activities as the 27th anniversary of China’s 1989 violent crackdown on a pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square passed on June 4. Xi should realize that suppressing people’s voices will only weaken the country’s social foundation even his regime succeeds in maintaining order on the surface.

Last Saturday, large numbers of police officers were mobilized at Tiananmen Square, where they took away several people who were distributing flyers from a bus. The authorities also kept close watch as members of an association of mothers whose children were killed during the Tiananmen Square incident visited their graves in Beijing.

A human rights group website has reported that some 50 activists had been detained or simply disappeared as of June 4. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, a pastor of an underground church was reportedly detained on suspicion that he disturbed the public order. Authorities also deleted social media posts that referred to the Tiananmen incident.

Although large numbers of students and citizens were killed during the Tiananmen incident, the Chinese government has justified its actions by saying that the suppression was aimed at putting down a counter-revolutionary riot. The late Zhao Ziyang, then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who visited the students gathered at the square and expressed an understanding of their demand for democratization, fell from grace following the incident, being stripped of all his positions and placed under house arrest.

After assuming the presidency in 2013, Xi not only began a crackdown on corruption by elite officials but also tightened political regimentation, citing a need to ensure the safety of the state. In 2014, he became chairman of the National Security Commission, an organization newly created in the Communist Party, and implemented a series of laws — including a counter-espionage law, a state security law and a law to control foreign NGOs — designed to tighten his regime’s grip on activities that it regards as harmful to the country.

In January 2015, China arrested four Japanese on suspicion of violating the counter-espionage law. After the state security law went into effect last July, the Human Rights Watch group revealed that China arrested more than 120 human rights lawyers. In March, a Chinese professor teaching at Hosei University in Tokyo was detained and questioned by China’s state security authorities in the city of Shenyang for more than 20 days — before being allowed to return to Tokyo.

Wang Dan, a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests who now teaches in Taiwan, reported earlier this month during a visit to Tokyo that the human rights situation in China has suffered a huge setback under the Xi regime and termed the situation a dark age for China’s democratization.

Yet voices speaking out against Xi’s regimentation drive are still heard. Daring posts on social media have called for Xi’s resignation for his failures in diplomacy and economic management. In a February incident that received widespread attention, Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken real estate tycoon and member of the Chinese Communist Party, criticized Xi on his Weibo microblog — where he had nearly 38 million followers — saying that people will abandon the mass media when they stop representing their interests. Ren was referring to Xi’s visits that month to three major media outlets — the People’s Daily, which is the Communist Party’s organ, the state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television — where he demanded that the state media push the party’s agenda.

As expected, the Chinese authorities moved swiftly to erase his microblog and said he would face additional punishment. But what happened next was a surprise. Prominent citizens, including party insiders, journalists and academics, came forward and defended Ren, suggesting that he is far from alone in his discontent with Xi’s regimentation drive.

There is a view that likens the current regimentation under Xi’s leadership to the Cultural Revolution, which Mao Zedong started in 1966. But Xi doesn’t have Mao’s charisma and he lacks enthusiastic supporters like the Red Guards. More importantly, China is much richer than when it was going through the Cultural Revolution and open to the outside world. Chinese citizens today have much better access to information from abroad and it’s no surprise if they have a stronger sense of rights and a desire for democratic reforms.

The Xi regime claims that China’s socialism fits in with the country’s situation and reflects the wishes of its people as a whole. But Xi should understand that ignoring and suppressing citizens’ expressions of discontent with widespread corruption, environmental disruption, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the nation’s slowing economic growth, won’t make those sentiments disappear. It will only serve to increase the amount of frustration and resentment felt by people, and eventually could trigger social and political instability. The right way for the Xi regime to move forward would be to embark on bold reforms to democratize China’s political, economic and social structures.

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