Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. It is an indication of the extraordinary sensitivity that still surrounds that event that public discussion of it is muted, if not suppressed, and the death toll remains unknown and bitterly contested. The rest of the world has an obligation to remember what happened that fateful night so that it has no illusions about the nature of the regime with which it must deal. More importantly, the Chinese people must learn what occurred so that they understand that their future is not determined — and that the pursuit of democratic dreams may well prove bloody.
The events that culminated in the night of horror — June 3 and 4, 1989 — began months earlier, as Chinese from all walks of life took to the streets to demand freedom of expression and an end to the endemic corruption that had warped Chinese officialdom since the end of the Maoist era. The trigger for the protests was the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang in April that year.
While it is commonly believed that the demonstrations were a student phenomenon, in fact — and alarmingly for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — it was a broad swath of Chinese society that took to the streets. Most troubling were the large numbers of ordinary citizens, blue-collar workers in particular, who complained about rising prices and their inability to engage in bargaining for their labor. And while international attention (and memory) has focused on the Beijing protests, they occurred across the country. Anger was nationwide.
The Chinese government was split on how to deal with the protests. The faction that favored accommodation with the students ultimately lost out to the hard-line group that was led by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. He believed in economic liberalization but he was not prepared to countenance any loosening of the CCP’s grip on political power. That view prevailed among the leadership and is the guiding philosophy of top party officials to this day.
The government declared martial law in late May and on the night of June 3-4 sent the army in to clear Tiananmen Square and other protest sites throughout China. While most protestors either urged the soldiers to put down their weapons or dispersed, a small group attacked soldiers, lit vehicles on fire and even killed some soldiers. That enraged the CCP and provided some justification for claims that the government was crushing a counter-revolution and that the protestors were criminals and hooligans.
To this day, there is no authoritative death toll. The Chinese government asserts that several hundred people died, a number that included tens of soldiers and police. It blames “ruffians” for the lives lost. Historians believe that figure is a lower bound; most insist the number is much higher, the vast majority victims of civilians, and some argue the total number of people killed could be as high as 10,000.
The world was properly horrified and repulsed by the crackdown. International isolation followed, but that soon gave way as several governments, with Japan leading the way, sought to reintegrate China into global affairs. While some forms of engagement — arms sales — remain off-limits, the overwhelming inclination of states has been to try to ignore those events and work with China to exploit market opportunities or change the Chinese leadership’s thinking and behavior.
Thirty years later, that approach can be declared a failure. If anything, the CCP has learned that hopes for political change must be crushed, that force must remain an option. The Chinese leadership is institutionalizing tools of repression: One proving ground is Xinjiang province, where millions of Uighurs and other Muslims have been incarcerated in re-education camps. More discrete efforts occur every year at this time when dozens of other individuals who seek to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre are arrested, subjected to house arrest or sent to the provinces to deny them attention. This Chinese “model” of authoritarianism — economic reform coupled with increasingly centralized political power — is gaining support around the world. This tide of illiberalism is one of the legacies of Tiananmen.
Sadly, in some ways, the Chinese population has accepted this new social contract, accepting better material lives in exchange for shrinking political space. The Beijing government facilitates this quiescence by repressing memory and encouraging the belief that there is no alternative to a brutal and repressive state. The world must push back — not so that we will not forget, but so that Chinese can learn of their past and hope for a better future.