China Still Grapples With Legacy of 1989

A security guard keeps watch over Tiananmen Square. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—China's economy is surging and its role in world affairs keeps expanding, but the world's largest country is still grappling with the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, experts say.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people gathered over the weekend to mark the 17th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 incident in which Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed civilian protesters.

Beijing authorities meanwhile stepped up surveillance at the homes of "Tiananmen Mothers," who lost children in the 1989 bloodshed, and those of other dissidents and activists ahead of the anniversary.

The Tiananmen Mothers called ahead of the anniversary for an official reassessment of the protest movement, which Beijing branded a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." No official accounting for those killed in the assault has been made public.

In an unprecedented move, the Chinese government in April made a payment to the mother of a Tiananmen casualty.

Calls for better safeguards

A foreign ministry spokesman said China had already reached a conclusion regarding the “political upheavals” of 1989 and declined to say more on the subject.

But top officials acknowledge that work remains in addressing many of the concerns that prompted the 1989 movement in the first place.

In March, Premier Wen Jiabao closed the annual parliamentary session with a call for better protection of people's rights and a return to legal process by government officials.

Hunger strikers on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: AFP

"We need to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of our people according to law," he said. "We also need to educate and properly guide the general public so that they can realize more that their legitimate concerns need to be expressed through lawful and legal channels and in lawful formats."

Experts in China and overseas cite widespread social unrest, a growing gap between rich and poor, and ever worsening official corruption. Some predict a massive popular upheaval in the years to come. China's leaders themselves admit that the Party needs to work much harder if it is to remain in power.

China Youth Daily journalist Li Datong, who was sidelined to his paper’s news research department after signing a letter calling for press freedom during the 1989 protests, said the crackdown that year undercut any remaining idealism about the Party’s role.

Deng's shrewdness

“The main function of the Tiananmen crackdown was to throw everybody into despair,” Li told reporter Shen Hua.

“There was still a certain amount of confidence in the Party until that time, but the act of opening fire upon ordinary people caused that confidence to collapse. As soon as those shots rang out, the Party’s legitimacy was pretty much finished,” he said.

But commentators pointed to astute maneuvering on the part of then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who purged Party chief Zhao Ziyang and suppressed all further talk of reform of the political system on the one hand, while setting off a new round of economic reforms on the other.

“Because [Deng] reckoned that the spirit of the Tiananmen protests was informed by essentially a movement towards greater openness and political reform within the Party itself, he had Zhao Ziyang purged, as the head of the reform faction within the Party,” said Beijing-based dissident Liu Xiaobo.

“At the same time he made sure to suppress any voices within the ranks of the Party which advocated any kind of movement towards political reforms.”

Liu said the government also realized that the people who were the inspiration and the main movers behind the 1989 protests were mostly idealistic intellectuals.

So, after the crackdown, it proceeded to target major cities where intellectuals were concentrated, and pour resources into educational institutions, thereby greatly improving the standard of living of the average academic, and securing their loyalty in return.

The result of this strategy was a growing cynicism on the part of academics in China, who were benefiting economically from it, he said.

Independent historian and publisher Ding Dong agreed.

“Nowadays there are plenty among China’s intellectuals who know very well in their own minds what is going on, but in their actions they are mostly concerned with ambition rather than conscience,” he said.

Such cynics have created a “new left” in the world of Chinese scholarship, with a new emphasis on nationalism and national studies, he said.

Cheng Xiaonong, U.S.-based editor of the magazine Modern China Studies , said the 1980s were a time of great idealism in China, with a genuine critical spirit and a patriotic zeal about the future of China, which today’s intellectuals, with their concern for their own interests and attracting the attention of those in power, simply can’t match.

Media controls

Cheng said the authorities also followed up their "soft" tactics of buying support in the universities with some fairly hard ones, too.

“They had already started putting into place an intelligence network throughout China’s universities. They are now known as informants,” he said.

“These informants infiltrate classes as students in order to keep an eye on the teachers. Under this sort of pressure, a great many teachers were unable to speak their true opinions in the classroom any more,” Cheng said.

The years immediately following the crackdown were also characterized by intensive controls on state media.

Li Datong, who is once more in the news research department following his ouster from the cutting-edge Freezing Point supplement to the China Youth Daily , recalled: “For the few years following June 3, 1989, you really couldn’t even read, or watch, state media. It was chock full of Party propaganda.”

Media crackdown

But the media began to undergo market-style reforms with the advent of the second wave of economic reforms in 1992, following Deng’s “southern tour,” and became much more readable.

A few publications, such as the “Southern” group of newspapers, began to set standards for a new kind of reporting, which followed up crime, social problems, and the hardships and sorrows suffered by ordinary people. This left the old-style mainstream media increasingly marginalized.

“From 2000 onwards, you could sum it up by saying that the ‘mainstream’ media became more marginalized, and the so-called ‘fringe’ media became mainstream in every sense, whether you measure it by circulation figures, influence on public opinion, or in advertising revenues of the main urban newspapers,” said Li. “All of them had overtaken the old-time major papers.”

Since then, however, journalists and academics have repeatedly complained of far tighter media controls since President Hu Jintao took over from Jiang Zemin, with dozens of journalists and online writers targeted for harassment and prosecution, and several cutting-edge publications closed down or "rectified."

Meanwhile, the survivors and relatives of victims who make up the “Tiananmen Mothers” continue to campaign for a re-appraisal of the official verdict of counter-revolutionary rebellion on the 1989 bloodshed, even though they receive no media coverage of their work.

Qi Zhiyong, who was disabled during the crackdown, said that while the Tiananmen Mothers group knew of 186 confirmed deaths, the group had spent the past 17 years continually trying to track down missing persons, those injured and those who died.

“Of course we must continue to seek justice. Not just for the individuals concerned, but for the whole nation,” Qi said.

Qi said he had received a call on the eve of the anniversary for the past three years from the same PLA soldier, who wanted to call and "confess" his part in the bloodshed.

“He is currently a regimental or a divisional level deputy commander. Every June 4 anniversary he kneels down to pray. Every time it causes him a great deal of pain. First of all, he observes a moment of silence for the souls of those who died, in the proper military style, and then he calls me to talk about what he did.”

Officials reported 87,000 cases of "public disturbance" in 2005, many of which were triggered by disputes over land-grabbing by local governments.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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