By Elaine Dunn
Ask any college-aged person in China about the Tiananmen Square Massacre and chances are (s)he will not know much. This is by design. The Chinese government has enforced silence about the incident and treats what took place on June 3 and 4 as a “revolutionary riot.”
That night, the tanks not only crushed the students physically, they also squelched any hope for political liberalization.
Student activists were full of hope for political reform the night of June 3, 1989. By the following morning, that hope had been completely shattered, with numerous dead and injured. How many deaths? The world may never know as the Chinese government still maintains that June 4, 1989, is "much ado about nothing" and a "strictly internal affair."
Twenty-five years later, religious liberty, civil freedom or democracy had still not come to the Chinese. Christians still worship underground; the country’s one-child policy, though relaxed, is still enforced; forced abortions continue; and the government has reverted to placing the children of dissidents in detention. And, there still lacks channels for ordinary citizens to “provide feedback” to the government without fear of reprisal.
While many Chinese have moved on away from politics, focusing on getting ahead economically instead, a law-based, rights-oriented movement known as the weiquan was started to monitor and document human rights cases across the country. Members endure police monitoring, detention, arrest, and, sometimes, disappearance. They hold protests over land or housing issues in rural areas, and environmental or infrastructure projects in major urban areas, and try to represent politically unpopular cases.
Every year since 1989, in the weeks leading up to June 4 critics of the Chinese government expect higher-than-usual scrutiny. This year's crackdown started in early May. Approximately a dozen people, including well-known human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, academics Xu Youyu and Hao Jian, blogger Liu Di, and dissident Hu Shigen were all detained on charges of causing a disturbance a few days after they gathered to discuss Tiananmen. Furthermore, the mother of one of the students killed in Tiananmen was told she would not be allowed to travel to Beijing to observe the 25th anniversary of her son’s death.
So just how much impact did the Tiananmen Square massacre have on China? Did the Tiananmen Massacre victims die in vain?
Over the years, there have been a few reforms. Living standards have improved and China has gained more stature globally. A week before the 25th anniversary, a foreign ministry spokesman said, "In the last three decades and more 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." China's central and local governments occasionally make concessions, although most probably just to placate popular frustrations.
A few of the changes that have occurred:
After Tiananmen, the Communist Party realized it had to “adapt or die.” It reluctantly began to embrace the Western market economy, allowing the younger generation a taste of what their Western counterparts enjoy, which, in turn, generated unmatched economic growth.
"Re-education through labor," - the widely abhorred detention system where the police can jail people for up to three years with no trial - was abolished in late 2013.
Capital markets opened up
Activities at controversial chemical and industrial plants were stopped.
On the other hand, some democracy activists would say things have gotten worse. The government still tosses critics in prison. It still squashes any independent social movement, and it has even intensified censorship of the Internet and social media. There is no freedom of assembly. There still exists huge inequality between rural and urban residents, massive corruption, cynicism amongst the masses, especially the netizens, looming environmental problems. And, economic growth is slowing down.
For those who were involved in the Tiananmen Massacre, the tragedy will always represent “what ifs:” What if the government had heeded their demands for reform? What if the Communist Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang's had called for political liberalization and reduced corruption?
No one will know for certain what today’s China would be like had the central government not crushed the student demonstrators physically and metaphorically on that June night in 1989, but many of those who were around then still hope to see their government acknowledge what actually took place rather than covering up and whitewashing history.
In May this year, Bao Tong, a reform-minded Director of the Office of Political Reform (in 1989) and personal secretary and friend of Zhao Zhiyang, closed an interview with the Financial Times with these words:
China has almost erased the memory of Tiananmen by making it illegal to talk about what happened. But there are miniature Tiananmens in China every day, in counties and villages where people try to show their discontent and the government sends 500 policemen to put them down. This is democracy and law with Chinese characteristics.... I believe there will be real democracy in China sooner or later, as long as there are people who want to be treated equally and have their rights respected.
It will rely on our own efforts, it will depend on when we, the Chinese people, are willing to stand up and protect our own rights.