Today marks twenty years since Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to shoot down hundreds, if not thousands of peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square. In the past two decades since, China has enjoyed enormous economic growth- mainly because Chairman Deng and his successors made a decision after the June 4, 1989 massacre that in order to retain centralized power, they would allow the people more economic freedom. The result has been a rising middle class that may be as large as 300 million and even a substantial number of super wealthy entrepreneurs who have all embraced Deng’s 1992 slogan that “to be rich is glorious”. The new focus on a more capitalist economy, however, has also meant an ever widening gap between rich and poor, with increased poverty in the countryside, weakening of the family unit as young people are forced to move from farms to cities seeking work, choking pollution, abusive police and many other negatives.
It is interesting that until very recently there were few obvious signs of protest akin to the short-lived 1989 student democracy movement. This has been primarily due to the fact that while allowing economic freedom, the government has kept a tight rein on political freedom. For example, people who try to take local issues to provincial or central agencies are regularly detained in “black jails” where they may be tortured or at least strenuously persuaded to “forget” their concerns. Parents of victims of the Sichuan earthquake and tainted milk have been warned not to speak about this to the foreign press.
With the rise of the internet, government control has become much more difficult.. According to a NY Times article, surveys show that four of five university students still rely on China’s heavily censored media for their news. However, in a digital age when nearly 70,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States and roughly 163,000 foreign students study at Chinese universities, walls blocking information dissemination are porous. Within the country, despite 30,000 “cyber cops”, there are brave souls who regularly blog about government corruption and urge reform. In December, over 300 prominent Chinese citizens signed a petition they dubbed Charter 08 recommending the end of one party rule. According to Yang Jianli, a dissident jailed after participating in the 1989 protests and now living in exile in the US, the document garnered more than 10,000 signatures with real names and e-mail addresses before the government shut down the online website. Some of the initial signers have been jailed and many more are under police surveillance
Even with this kind of intimidation, Yang estimates that 100,000,anti-government protests occur annually in China. A growing number of lawyers like Gao Zhisheng who defended the Falun Gong have been willing to endure torture and jail.
All of the government pushback demonstrates the leaders’ real fears that serious democratic reform could mean the end of their hold on power. Since that day on June 4, 1989 when the PRC turned its guns on its people, there has been virtually no discussion of what actually happened in the square on the Internet or in textbooks.
The government continues to keep tight control of any information about what is officially called “the June 4 incident”. In March, mothers of students killed in the square appealed to the National People’s Congress to end the taboo against acknowledging the event not as a “political disturbance” but as a massacre.
Around that same time, Zhang Shijun, a former soldier who had participated in the massacre, posted a letter on the Internet asking President Hu Jintao to “use his wisdom” to reevaluate Tiananmen,
And now, a just published secret memoir by moderate leader Zhao Ziyang, created while he was under house arrest, gives a disapproving account of the bitter power struggle behind the scenes as the students occupied the square, the deep rivalries between reformists and hardliners in the leadership as well as the critical role Deng played in the decision to use force.
Young people born after 1989 know virtually nothing about this history. They are rightfully proud of the positive transformative accomplishments of their country since the tragic events of 1989. Maybe following today’s important anniversary, the Chinese government will finally decide to open the door, acknowledge the true facts, and then move on.