Tiananmen protests: Could they happen again?

Harsh security on the anniversary of the pro-democracy protest suggests deep official concern about any potential unrest. But many Chinese don't know what happened – and may not care.

Ng Han Guan
Tiananmen Square in Beijing was under close guard to short-circuit any possibility of demonstrations marking the 25th anniversary of bloody pro-democracy protests there. One group of visitors in the square today was most preoccupied with taking a selfie.

Could it happen again?

Twenty-five years after Chinese Army troops crushed student pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, and with them a generation’s hope of political reform, how likely is it that Chinese citizens might once again rise up in revolt?

To most observers, few prospects look less probable. So why is the government behaving as if any mention of the Tiananmen massacre might spark a revolution?

Plenty of sporadic protests flare up around China every year – expressions of anger against local authorities because of land grabs or unpaid wages or polluted water or corruption. But nothing resembling an organized movement to challenge the ruling Communist party is on the horizon.

Yet the police are using extraordinarily harsh measures this year to erase all memory of the events of June 4, 1989, arresting anyone of note who dares to commemorate the massacre. The Chinese government, it seems, is still frightened by the potential power of historical memory.

“What terrifies them,” says one political researcher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of official retribution, “is that the small number of people who keep the flame alive in their minds might someday use that fire to kindle new unrest.”

There are few signs, however, that many among the general populace in China care much about the 25th  anniversary of the Army assault on Tiananmen square in which several hundred people, perhaps thousands, died.

Even the Internet, normally abuzz with political comment, is quiet amid heightened censorship. “The people making trouble are being locked up and everybody else is keeping quiet,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of “Danwei,” a website that monitors the Chinese Internet. “It does not seem to me that there is a huge desire to talk about [the anniversary] that is not being met.”

Many Chinese under 35 are unaware of the Tiananmen protests, echoed in cities around the country, or of the way they were snuffed out by Army tanks. The government at the time deemed the weeks-long demonstration a “counter-revolutionary riot;” all mentions of the protest and resulting crackdown have since been scrubbed from the history books. 

The strictest taboo

Even those citizens who remember 1989, or who have learned since what happened, know that it would be foolhardy to talk about the subject in public. The topic is China’s strictest taboo.

It stays that way partly because of an unofficial “grand bargain” that the ruling Communist party has struck with the Chinese people, based on Deng Xiaoping’s conviction that nothing should be allowed to impede economic growth: You stay out of politics and we will help you grow richer.

“Most Chinese have accepted that bargain because they know it is the only bargain on offer,” says Steven Levine, a former professor of Chinese politics who launched the Tiananmen Initiative Project to commemorate the 1989 events internationally. “Only a very few brave dissidents go public because the costs can be very high.”

“The government has been very sophisticated in dealing with memory inside China,” says Rowena He, author of the just published “Tiananmen Exiles,” based on interviews with leaders of the 1989 protests.

“The general population doesn’t know anything about it, and if they do, the younger ones say ‘so what?’ The lack of empathy and understanding of the event’s historical significance is profoundly concerning,” she adds.

The government has reinforced official amnesia with repression. International human rights groups say scores of writers, artists, journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists have been arrested, “disappeared,” or put under house arrest in recent weeks. Hundreds of others have been warned by police not to say anything in public.

The Tiananmen Mothers have, as always, been banned from mourning their dead children in public. And five intellectuals have been arrested on charges of “creating a public disturbance,” even though the seminar to commemorate the 1989 crackdown that they attended was held in a private place.

No choice but to react harshly to pressure for reform?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States, and the European Union have called for the detainees’ release, but “China doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore,” says Geremie Barme, head of the “Australian Centre on China in the World” at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Nor, he says, does the Chinese government have any choice but to react ferociously to any flutter of unofficial thinking.

The triumph of the hardliners within the Communist party in 1989 set the party “so firmly against serious political reform that it recognizes any moves towards” such changes, such as a freer media or a more independent judiciary “could be fatal to it,” argues Dr. Barme.

But the issues that the demonstrators raised a generation ago such as democratic rights, the role of a single party and the importance of the Constitution “are still unresolved … and they won’t go away,” says Barme. “Unless the government appraises the events of 1989 in a more rational fashion the issues will keep coming up.”

In the meantime, Chinese citizens do not need to know much about what happened and why in 1989 to have gotten the government’s message, says Dr. He: Nothing – not even human life – trumps the imperative of economic development.

“The crackdown said that any principle can be compromised, that there is no bottom line, when it comes to ensuring stability and prosperity,” says He.

And the results, she adds, are evident in today’s China, richer than ever before but also rife with corruption, environmental disaster, arbitrary official injustice, and a growing wealth gap.

Those shortcomings, He believes, are feeding “accumulated grievances, frustration, and anger.” If the authorities cannot keep a lid on such dissatisfaction, it could boil over into widespread protests, she predicts.

“They would not be like Tiananmen, though,” she says. The students then were not trying to overthrow the regime, but to improve it. “Next time,” He predicts, “another social movement would not be so constrained in its language or its behavior.” 

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