The crackdown 25 years ago today cowed the Chinese people and the world, eroding democratic values across the globe
Twenty-five years ago this week, horrific scenes took place at Muxidi in central Beijing. Thousands of students and workers attempted to halt the advance of the People’s Liberation Army toward Tiananmen Square and realised, in disbelief, that the soldiers were using live ammunition against them. Deng Xiaoping, China’s behind-the-scenes “paramount leader”, gave troops an order that the square must be cleared by June 4. As the bloodied bodies fell to the ground, people screamed “Fascists”, “Murderers”, and “Gangster government”. Muxidi on Chang’an Avenue, running past Tiananmen Square, was the main site of the massacre, marking the brutal end of nearly seven dramatic weeks of marches for democracy in the capital and across the country.
Blood stains have long been washed away, but the mindset behind the tragedy – unswerving support for China’s rise, with no toleration for criticism, questions or protest – has since propelled China’s phenomenal growth and altered the nature of the world’s interaction with Beijing.
In retrospect, the outcome of the violent crackdown, now known simply as Tiananmen or June 4, cowed both China and the world. Without the massacre and the harsh turn toward a market society and robust economic growth, a Western leader such as Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg would hardly circumvent meeting Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile. The Dalai Lama visited Oslo this year to commemorate the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 1989. Solberg explained: “It is not as if China said that we cannot meet the Dalai Lama, we just know that if we do, we are going to remain in the freezer for even longer.”
China’s rise depended on harsh rule by the Communist Party with an intense focus on creating jobs and accruing new technologies by becoming the factory the world, an export juggernaut and lender to the West.
Chinese worried about such a future in 1989. Mourning over the April 15 death of former General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Hu was a rare liberal light in the Communist Party, advocating a freer press, and the man behind the rehabilitation of millions of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Sorrow swelled into a broad social protest promoting democracy and opposing corruption. Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of China, soon became the headquarters of the mobilisation.
Student demands were met with silence, and began to occupy Tiananmen Square day and night. The government continued its rebuff, and thousands of students started a stakes-raising hunger strike. A long-planned welcoming ceremony in the square for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was cancelled on May 15. The “party elders”, including Deng, lost face and were furious. To the detriment of moderate Secretary General Zhao Ziyang and the triumph of hardliner Premier Li Peng, Deng “suggested” that martial law be declared. After failing to dislodge the students, a frustrated Deng, backed by nervous Li, ordered elite troops to clear the square. Four years later, government figures stated that 241 people had been killed, whereas the Chinese Red Cross had initially put the death toll at 2,600.
Yet today, few in China know about any number of casualties. The tragedy is not discussed. State censorship was effective in keeping information away from the vast majority of Chinese youth. Efforts to silence activists wishing to commemorate the massacre have redoubled, as the May arrests of lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, writer Liu Di and philosopher Xu Youyu indicate.
Western political and economic elites have also played their part in the powerful memory politics of the People’s Republic. On May 17, 1989, Deng let slip his opinion that “The Westerners will forget”. He was responding to fears of cadres that foreigners might impose sanctions and ostracise China if the army was used against students. Deng understood too well the Western dreams of tapping China’s market potential and the geopolitical fear of Beijing realigning with Moscow.
Two months later, during a secret visit with Deng, US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft carried a message explaining that president George HW Bush would do everything he could to maintain the relationship. Isolating China was never a serious issue among the pragmatic leaders of the western world.
The government crackdown was framed as preserving stability. Sanctions were short-lived. Already by the beginning of 1990, foreign direct investment started pouring into China, regarded as a safe destination for foreign money. Deng’s words that “development is a hard truth” and that the People’s Republic more than anything needed stability did not fall on deaf ears. When Sweden’s former Prime Minister Goran Persson visited China in 1996, he bluntly compared authoritarian China and newly democratic Russia in a speech before hundreds of businessmen: “To me, it is enormously striking what political stability means for economic growth when you look at the Chinese case.”
The significance of the massacre in Beijing is enormous, but how and why remain poorly understood to this day. For China, Deng’s decision to use tanks against civilians sent a signal that still pulsates throughout society: Never oppose the party-state.
The crackdown made it easier, after Deng had secured final victory against party orthodoxy in 1992, to enforce massive industry layoffs. Market reform compelled people to redirect their energies and forget 1989. Citizens were also expected to overlook fraud, kickbacks, nepotism and other corrupt practices of political leaders lining their pockets and those of family members, with help from banks throughout the West.
As a result, China has become an unequal country that many say is lacking in both solidarity and morals. Economic growth has also made non-democratic China more nationalistic and self-assured, whereas the rise of authoritarianism worldwide leaves liberal democracies insecure as their basic values are eroded.
Global complicity in supporting authoritarian capitalism in China and elsewhere has led to China’s modern dominance of global politics. Conventional wisdom holds western responses to the attacks of 9/11 responsible, as two long wars sapped the US budgets and energy for warfare, but these only partially explain the trend.
The tiptoeing of Western leaders during visits to Beijing illustrates who calls the shots in modern global politics. UK Prime Minister David Cameron led a delegation of businessmen to China in December 2013. His tweets from December 2 to 4 illustrate the priorities of vis-à-vis China: Of 27 tweets, only one concerned human rights; the others were business related. Concluding his trip, Cameron tweeted: “The end of a successful trip. £6billion of deals and a step up in the relationship between the UK and China.”
While lip service is paid to human rights, the world’s soon-to-be largest economy continues to pursue Deng’s mix of dictatorial politics and free-market economics. The hope that the winds of liberal democracy might sweep the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been dashed.
Nonetheless, Western policymakers enthusiastically promote national business interests in China, still hoping that democracy will naturally follow from China’s embrace of capitalism. At a time when the wind has changed, the world must revisit the failed promises of 1989 and pose new questions. Pu Zhiqiang has argued that “a certain lazy comfort” attends the collective amnesia about the massacre. Complacency and fear are shoving universal human rights into deep freeze as quaint, but impractical endeavours of the past. However, the party-state’s enforced amnesia about the country’s recent past won’t work forever. Rising China is up against the very nature of memory. Suppressed memories want to return, and they will – in subtle and sublime ways.
Johan Lagerkvist is senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and associate professor at Stockholm University. His new book “Tiananmen Redux” will be published in English later this year.