China has moved to muzzle any debate ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown of the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, detaining several dozen activists and scholars, imposing restrictions on universities, tightening censorship restrictions and boosting security deployments in the heart of the capital.
On the night of June 3, 1989, and in the early hours of June 4, hundreds were killed as the Communist Party of China (CPC) under then leader Deng Xiaoping crushed the students’ protests by declaring martial law and sending in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to clear the square. Hundreds of ordinary Beijing residents, who had come out to support the calls for democracy and against corruption of leaders, were killed around the city as the troops moved in, firing at will.
China officially maintains the protests were a “counterrevolutionary riot” – a description that rankles with the parents and relatives of the protesters, who saw themselves as patriots and nationalists fighting against official corruption and authoritarianism.
The official position has changed little in the past 25 years. On Tuesday, the Chinese government said the “political turmoil” of 1989 was no longer relevant to today’s China.
“The Chinese government long ago reached a conclusion about the political turmoil at the end of the 1980s,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters. “In the last three decades of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected,” he said.
Mr. Hong said China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” model was suited to “China’s national conditions and the basic interests of the vast majority”.
In 25 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China has indeed seen breakneck economic growth and unprecedented prosperity, as millions have been lifted out of poverty. Former leader Deng Xiaoping carried out his famous “southern tour” to open up the southern manufacturing zones barely three years after the crackdown.
Yet, despite the transformative changes since 1989, the CPC still does not allow any discussion or debate about the events of 25 years ago.
School textbooks and newspapers never mention the event, and many younger Chinese are entirely unaware of the tumultuous protests of 1989 because of the vast censorship regulations in place.
Ironically, the only indicator of the anniversary every year is the sweeping security blanket that is deployed across the capital every year. Thousands of security volunteers, usually retirees, are deployed to watch over the streets, while SWAT teams are stationed in the main street corners surrounding the famous square.
Every year, dozens of people who are seen as being politically active in any way are detained ahead of the anniversary – they include lawyers, the small group of civil rights activists, who are pushing for political liberalisation, and ordinary citizens from the provinces, who travel to Beijing to petition higher authorities to have their grievances heard.
Before the sensitive 25th anniversary, the crackdown has been more severe than usual, activists say. Close to 50 people have been detained in the past month in more than half a dozen cities, according to the group Human Rights in China, including activists, lawyers, journalists and petitioners.
Last week, Wang Aizhong, an activist in southern Guangzhou, was detained for “provoking troubles”, while in western Chongqing, journalist Xin Jian, a news assistant for Japan’s Nikkei news, was taken from her home, reportedly for coverage related to the anniversary.
Among those detained are the civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, writer and blogger Liu Di and scholar Xu Youyu, who attended a commemoration event in Beijing in May.
One petitioner from southern Anhui province, who has travelled to Beijing on a number of occasions to protest land grabs told The Hindu in a telephone interview he had been warned not to make the trip to Beijing during this “sensitive period”.
The restrictions have even been felt on Chinese university campuses, where protest movements are, 25 years on, unheard of.
According to one student at a prominent Beijing university, students have been told to not participate in any public events on June 4.
“We’ve been told to stay in our dormitories,” the student said.