A woman hangs on the words of a eulogy to the victims of the 1989 crackdown, Hong Kong, June 4, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

On and in the lead-up to June 4, many people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet in mainland China, any mention or coverage of the Chinese army’s violent crackdown on the peaceful student-led protests was totally forbidden.

Such strict censorship – indeed, a long, concerted campaign to eradicate the 1989 bloodbath from public memory – is a clear indication that China – or more precisely, its ruling regime, the Communist Party of China – is still deeply scared of the events that took place 30 years ago.

When a country or a ruling regime is afraid of – and consequently, seeks to ignore or erase – a major historical happening of its own making, there must be something wrong with its past and present. Such an attitude also doesn’t bode well for its future.

Responding to a question after a combative speech at the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe defended the bloody crackdown, calling it the “correct” decision and citing China’s stability and development since then to justify it.

A day later, the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, the CPC’s official mouthpiece, referred to the atrocity that resulted in the deaths of hundreds – possibly thousands – of civilians between June 3 and 4, 1989, as merely an “incident.” More tellingly, the state-run tabloid called it a “vaccination … against any major political turmoil in the future” and trumpeted China’s economic progress in the decades since.

The Global Times also editorialized: “Today’s China obviously has no political conditions to suddenly reproduce the riot of 30 years ago. Chinese society, including its intellectual elite, is now far more mature than it was in 1989.”

Wei made the above comments because he was asked about the bloody military crackdown while the Global Times failed to mention it directly. What’s more, the party-backed paper’s editorial, titled “June 4 immunized China against turmoil,” was apparently only available in its online English-language edition. As such, without doubt, it was primarily aimed at foreign audiences. It’s improbable, if not unthinkable, that the nationalist outlet or any other Chinese state-run paper dares to publish a piece in Chinese on the “Tiananmen incident.”

The massacre is so taboo a topic for the Chinese government that any allusion, however scant, to the event is strictly prohibited. For example, the numbers 46 and 64, references to the date of the military subjugation, are removed from online posts by the world’s biggest censorship machine

The massacre is so taboo a topic for the Chinese government that any allusion, however scant, to the event is strictly prohibited. For example, the numbers 46 and 64, references to the date of the military subjugation, are removed from online posts by the world’s biggest censorship machine.

It was reported that in 2012, Chinese censors blocked access to the search term “Shanghai stock market” after the index coincidentally fell exactly 64.89 points on the anniversary of the bloodbath. A Chinese filmmaker was reportedly arrested last month after he tweeted a picture of a bottle with a label that had the number 64 written on it.

Undeniably, as pointed out by the Global Times, since the June 4 event, China has achieved remarkable economic success, becoming “the world’s second-largest economy, with rapid improvement of people’s living standards.”

Yet if the violent crackdown on the pro-democracy protests three decades ago was a “correct” policy, or China’s hitherto achievement justifies the oppression or the Chinese people have now “become politically mature,” why is the CPC still so scared of any mention of it?

There are many reasons for this. One is that the actions taken – or perhaps the crimes committed – by the CPC’s hardline leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, were awful.

China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China. The CPC, which founded the republic in 1949 and has ruled it ever since, sees itself as the PRC’s progressive force and infallible savior. The country’s 1982 constitution and its amended ones clearly stated that “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people” and that “Citizens of the [PRC] enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

But the party’s leaders then ordered tanks and soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army to march in Beijing and cruelly crush the students, workers, intellectuals or ordinary citizens, who gathered to call for more transparency, more freedom (of speech, the press, assembly and demonstration) and more power to the people. Only a dictatorial regime would willingly commit such a cruel act on its people.

Another key reason is that, though it has changed significantly since 1989, especially on the economic front, the PRC remains the same politically. If Wei Fenghe or any other Chinese official and leader publicly said they regretted the violent oppression or at least admitted that the CPC had learned from its mistakes, it would certainly signal that the communist country is willing to embark on some fundamental democratic reforms that the pro-democracy demonstrators demanded 30 years ago.

But under the current rule of Xi Jinping – China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong – such political reforms are becoming increasingly unlikely, if not inconceivable.

An editorial in British newspaper The Times on June 4 said that the Chinese defense minister’s comment was “an ice-cold reminder that China, for all its brash attempts to modernize its cities and earnest attempts to eliminate poverty, is still ruled by a regime ready to use force to stay in power.”

Many China watchers and experts would agree with such an assessment by The Times. For example, in a recent piece, Larry Wortzel, an Asia/China scholar, concluded that “if the Party center felt threatened again, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping would vacillate and debate: He would not hesitate to crush widespread unrest. The CPC leadership remains as determined as ever to maintain their ruling position, and armed force remains the ultimate guarantor of the Party’s grip on power.”

In its editorial, The Times also said that the reason Beijing “is mobilizing so many Internet censors and undercover policemen this week is that China is still a Leninist state afraid of challenge from the dead as much as the living.”

Indeed, China’s current leaders, particularly Xi, who got the one-party state’s constitution changed to stay in power for an indefinite period, if not for life, don’t allow any open discussion or commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown or the party’s any other past horrors – such as the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the horrifying Great Chinese Famine or the ruinous Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong’s rule – because such discussion or commemoration would raise serious questions about their party’s legacy, legitimacy and authority.

For the authoritarian regime, which puts its survival above anything else, any question about – or opposition to – its past and present policies is seen as a threat to its survival. This also means, though it controls virtually everything – from army to media – the CPC and its top leaders, notably Xi, still feel insecure.

The world is not silent

While China has been utterly silent on their 30th anniversary, the peaceful demonstrations and their bloody endings are vividly revived and widely remembered outside the PRC, with people, organizations and news agencies across the world speaking out against the CPC’s repression, hailing the protesters’ courage and commemorating their suffering.

In a statement on June 3, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the CPC’s violent repressions of “peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy, human rights, and an end to rampant corruption” and the Chinese protesters’ grievous suffering “in pursuit of a better future for their country” 30 years ago “still stir our conscience, and the conscience of freedom-loving people around the world.”

“Over the decades that followed, the United States hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. Those hopes have been dashed,” he added, and listed a wide range of Beijing’s abuses.

The top US diplomat also said: “We salute the heroes of the Chinese people who bravely stood up 30 years ago … to demand their rights. Their exemplary courage has served as an inspiration to future generations calling for freedom and democracy around the world.”

He then urged the Chinese government “to make a full, public accounting of those killed or missing” in the events 30 years ago, to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “release all those held for seeking to exercise these rights and freedoms.”

China reacted angrily to Pompeo’s statement, saying it “firmly opposes it and has made stern representations to the US side.”

Yet Pompeo’s statement wasn’t the only one that was issued on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen events this year.

On June 4, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution commemorating the victims of China’s violent suppression and calling on Beijing to respect human rights.

Several other countries also issued statements, saying that they marked the 1989 events and urging the Chinese government to remember them, or expressing their concerns about the current human-rights situation in China and calling on Beijing to respect basic freedoms.

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, said the 28-member grouping “continues to mourn the [1989 crackdown’] victims and offers its condolences to their families.”

In her statement, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her country “asks Chinese authorities to break the silence on these events by openly accounting for the Chinese citizens who were killed, detained or went missing” and calls “upon China to uphold all of its human-rights obligations.”

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said her country “joins the international community in remembering the tragic loss of life on 4 June 1989. Australia remains concerned about continuing constraints on freedom of association, expression and political participation in China.”

Margot Wallström, Sweden’s deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, tweeted: “30 years since violent repression of peaceful protests on #Tiananmen in Beijing. Today we remember the victims and reiterate our demand for accountability and respect for human rights in China.”

Judging by their reactions, many, if not most, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are also very critical of Beijing’s past and present posture. Even some Chinese criticize their government. Ai Weiwei, a well-known Chinese contemporary artist and activist, recently wrote: “China is a society without citizens. It is dominated by the CPC. And even after 70 years in power the government still does not trust its people: 1.4 billion have never in those 70 years had the opportunity to vote for their rulers.”

All of this shows, though it is now the world’s second-largest economy and military, it is still subject – and vulnerable – to widespread condemnations.

Unless the CPC carries out some major political reforms that, in turn, enable it to look honestly at, learn from and overcome its past mistakes, then terrible events like the Tiananmen Square massacre will continue to haunt it.

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