The cries for freedom that still rattle China

Beneath the veneer of stability 30 years after the Tiananmen massacre, Chinese society continues to be restless in ways the party cannot always control. Truth cannot be arrested or exterminated.

Security officers surround Wang Qiaoling, second from left, and Li Wenzu, the wives of detained human rights lawyers, as they attempt to deliver a petition to the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, China, Dec. 28, 2018.

In 2016, Chinese police arrested four people in connection with the sale of liquor bottles labeled “64” and later charged them with “inciting subversion of state power.” In late May this year, a Chinese filmmaker tweeted a photo of the bottles. A half hour later, he received a phone call from police.

The 64 label had little to do with liquor. It refers to June 4, or the day 30 years ago that the ruling Communist Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on civilians in Beijing who were peacefully demanding democracy. Thousands were killed.

Ever since, the government has also tried to kill any commemoration in China of this violent suppression of a cry for freedom and accountability. The internet, for example, is carefully scrubbed of references to June 4.

The party’s fear of losing power prevents it from holding an open and honest dialogue with its own citizens. “If the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded, it would have created a model for the dialogue between state and the society which is so important,” said Wang Dan, a prominent student leader at the time, at a recent Harvard University panel. A dialogue is a “fundamental safeguard for social stability. Only then can two sides make [an] effort to ensure smooth and steady transformation.”

The party contends stability in China comes only from the absolute power of its leaders, or rather leader. President Xi Jinping has removed term limits for the presidency. To prevent dissent from minority Muslims known as Uyghurs, China has thrown more than 1 million of them into internment camps. Human rights activists – and their lawyers – are routinely jailed. Outspoken scholars like Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun are suppressed.

Yet beneath the veneer of stability, society continues to be restless in ways the party cannot always control. At least 1,700 labor disputes were recorded in 2018 by the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group, up from about 1,200 in the year before. Feminists have found ingenious ways to get past internet censors and share their #MeToo stories. Young Marxists in elite universities are campaigning for workers’ rights. Even military veterans have protested to demand better job prospects and benefits.

Together, these demands form the vision of a country different than the one set by the party. Many of them speak to individual rights, free expression, and equality before the kind of law derived from democratic rule. It is far different from Mr. Xi’s professed “Chinese dream” that is centered on the party’s role in “rejuvenating” the nation.

“The subject of the ‘Chinese Dream’ is one hundred percent about the party,” wrote Bao Tong, who once served as secretary to Zhao Ziyang, a reform-minded head of the party during the Tiananmen Square protests. “It certainly isn’t the Chinese people, who are the main body of China.”

Among Chinese born after 1989, the June 4 anniversary may mean little. Yet the more the party cracks down on dissent, the more the spirit of June 4 continues to show up in small but just as revealing ways.

The popular calls for dialogue and accountability, or what Mr. Wang calls the people and government “being of one heart and mind,” will find their release. Truth cannot be arrested or exterminated. It must and will endure. 

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