Memories of a Crackdown

A former Chinese official looks back on pro-democracy protests.
By Bao Tong
bao-tong-305.jpg Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.

BEIJING[June 4 is] the same as any other day. Those memories are with me every day ... I probably get quite a lot of freedom compared with a lot of other people. My being able to give media interviews freely is a step forward ... The difference between now and that era is that China has become very rich. China is on the rise. That is a very big difference ... A lot of people attribute this prosperity to 21 years of oppression. By oppression I mean that the voices that opposed corruption have disappeared, and the voices which called out for democracy have faded away. This disappearance can only be for a limited time, can only be temporary, short-term. Like the book-burning campaigns against Confucianism 2,000 years ago. There is no one in China who doesn't know about them. Whether it's in 20 years' time, 200 years' time or 2,000 years' time, I think that these events will still carry an emotional impact in the future. Some will see it from a feeling point of view, others from a moral point of view, still others will bring it up from the point of view of social progress. This sort of thing won't go away; it won't be erased from history and it won't be erased from our culture.

Social conflicts are becoming more and more acute, deeper, and more widespread. On the face of it, China is rising. Firstly, the nation is rising, but the rights of citizens are being trampled. The nation is rising on the basis [of this], and it has given rise to a sort of systemic national chauvinism, in which China's rise is the result of everyone being of the same mind and speaking with the same voice, whether they be higher up or lower down [in the system]. China truly has become richer. But perhaps we can say that the state has become richer, but what of its people?  China's wealth has been created from the cheapest, poorest labor force, the cheapest prices, and the highest production capacities in the world. The whole world agrees of course that this is the most competitive state of affairs, because it has the lowest costs. We also have the biggest population. For these reasons,  the wealth that is created goes to the state, and not to the people ... There is simply no way [for the wealth to reach the people].  The poorest people in China in fact are about on a par with the labor force in African countries, the poorest and least developed African labor force. This point has been covered up.

The central government's strategy that it employed on June 4, 1989 continues today, and that is to use the army, to use armed force to suppress different voices ... What is being suppressed is a force which is in favor of democracy and against corruption. What is being protected is a growing chasm between rich and poor. This chasm can explain many problems.  Everyone is going to have a different reaction [to June 4], and it's possible to talk about June 4 from a subjective standpoint, which has its pros and cons. But the event itself was an objective event. From an objective point of view, 21 years ago, the sensitivity of the students of the day to these issues wasn't resolved as part of normal life, but through oppression through military force, which wiped out their voices, made them go away, rendered them silent. Now they have been covered up by corruption and lies today. Now, China's central leadership has come up with the idea of a harmonious society. I think this is a great idea, to want a society to achieve harmony. But this harmony is being built on the basis of billionaires and very poor people who don't even have the right to speak out. So that this is an even greater tragedy. It shouldn't make us afraid that corruption exists. It should make us afraid that it is being concealed.

I think that we have to talk about this problem, the fact that ordinary people have no freedom to disagree with the decisions of their leaders. Back then ... one of the questions was whether or not there would be a reappraisal of Hu Yaobang's achievements ... another was whether China would institute a democratic system, and whether or not it wanted to begin weeding out corruption ... [This question] was eventually suppressed by tanks and machine-guns. This is a rare event in the history of mankind, the suppression by a government of the wishes of the people in order to preserve its corrupt rule. I think that's rare. It wouldn't happen in a NATO country ... This was carried out by a Marxist proletariat, by a party that represents the workers. I think that it was a shocking and appalling event: a tragedy. Some people say that this tragedy is already in the past now. But the truth has yet to be published. Even if we never get another "big Tiananmen," we are seeing an innumerable procession of "small Tiananmens." By "small Tiananmens" I mean mass incidents which involve anti-corruption demands from the people, or demands for democracy. These aren't just taking place in the capital, but continually at the provincial, county, township and village levels. This is an expression of demands from the people ... They are happening at a rate of one every five minutes. They are put down under the aegis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, by the use of military force. These are the 'small Tiananmens.' Once you have a big Tiananmen, you naturally pave the way for a whole succession of smaller ones. You get corrupt officials not just in central government but in provincial, county, town, and village governments. And when they become corrupt, they refuse to allow ordinary people to express their opinion. This is a shocking and appalling thing. This is definitely not a measure aimed at preserving social stability ... Actually the number of mass incidents grew from 87,000 in 2004 to 227,000 in 2008, which is one every two minutes. Is this a small matter? Is this a matter worthy of praise, that we should be proud of? ... I believe that it is a regression in the development of human feeling. It takes an inhuman view of problems, and it truly constitutes a naked challenge to civilized values.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Gu Jirou. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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