NOUMAAN ANWER | 4 JUNE, 2019
Tiananmen in Perspective – Thirty Years On
On the 1989 protests
Exactly three decades have passed since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. A seminal moment in both global and Chinese history, the events of 4th June 1989 live on in the world’s collective memory as an example of how the indomitable spirit of a nation’s citizens, to stand up to their government and make their voices heard.
The protests, led largely by students’ and workers’ organizations based in Beijing, crystallized around the fact that the market reforms of the 1980s had ushered in high levels of inflation, and had exacerbated political corruption. The rigidity of the limits on political participation irked students most vehemently, and demands for greater accountability of officials, democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech were made.
It would be prudent to assume absolute coherence of objectives among all protesting groups, with many accounts detailing the movements describing them as highly disorganized. The general temper, however, was one of deep-seeded dissatisfaction with status quo.
In response to the popular protests, that engulfed Beijing throughout April and May 1989, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as instructed by the Government of China, enforced martial law in several parts of the national capital. On the morning of the 4th of June, troops flooded many areas of central Beijing, killing hundreds, (if not thousands, by some estimates) of demonstrators and bystanders.
Thirty years on, not much has changed in China, as far as the ability of citizens to criticize and speak freely is concerned. The condemnable repression of ethnic minorities in the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet has escalated, unabated. Political dissidents, alongside journalists and academics who have criticized the government, are routinely imprisoned. Censorship of the press is as existent as ever, extending today, to the curbing of content online.
In light of these continually worrying trends, The Citizen has brought together perspectives on the 1989 protests, and the massacre of 4th June, in an attempt to illustrate the legacy of Tiananmen - the events that so shocked the world, three decades ago.
Shastri Ramachandaran, a senior journalist who has served as Senior Editor with the China Daily and the Global Times in Beijing, argues that the 1989 protests, and the subsequent crackdown, do occupy the minds of an influential section of politically minded sections of the Chinese population today.
However, this fact is not visible to the public eye, as discussions on the concerned events are considered taboo, in a politically restrictive society. He further opines that the larger multitude of the Chinese population are indifferent towards the whole ordeal. “Millennials in China have grown up in a world preoccupied by entirely different issues. The market economy, and the luxuries that it affords, are what they care about to a far greater extent,” he told The Citizen.
Ramachandaran also purports that the 1989 movement contributes majorly to an understanding of a distinct Asian view of human rights, very different from the standards that are advocated by the West. He believes that Western norms cannot be entirely adopted, applied and internalized in Asia. The specific cultural sensibilities of Asia – with regards to democratic freedoms, and power structures – have been excluded from the process of construction of human rights standards.
In light of this, he argues, Tiananmen square becomes a far more understandable phenomenon – a representation of the fact that among Asian powers, there exists at best, an ambivalence, and at worst, a rejection of Western-imposed ethics and values.
Continuing in the same vein, he purports that by many indices of human development, other than formal democracy and constitutionalism, China has given a far better account of itself in the past 60 years, than many so-called democracies, especially in the developing world, including India. This is specifically the case if the criteria for measurement of development is the state’s preoccupation with the well-being of its people,
Ramachandaran also believes that outside China, confusion, obfuscation, and deliberate distortion of the events of 4th June 1989 characterize the discourse on the massacre. According to him, many estimates of the death toll are exaggerated. “Because it is China, it is assumed that thousands of people died, but when it comes to American bombings in Afghanistan, no numbers are circulated, whatsoever.” This, in his opinion, signifies how biases affect our perceptions of global issues.
Shiqi Liu, a Chinese emigrant who now studies in Singapore, told The Citizen that he believes the only reason why he has any awareness of the 1989 protests, and the 4th June massacre, is because he lives away from his country of birth. “Censorship has become more significant in recent years, and in mainland china, this is still one of the most sensitive issues.”
He says that the Chinese government continually acts like nothing happened on that fateful day, while simultaneously making excuses; such as how popular movements are orchestrated by "anti-China" elements, overseas. “But in this way, how we are we ever going to face the truth?” he asks, frustratedly.
The fact that young people like Shiqi are asking such important questions is an encouraging sign. His conversation with The Citizen also highlights his concern for those who lost their lives in the protests. “If we keep hiding from the issue at hand, what about the people who died during the movement? Do they get justice?” However, he admits that it is difficult for young people on the mainland to keep track of controversial events of this sort – “Personal opinion, alongside mixed feelings that are created when we watch the news, influence the way we think. As Chinese people, this is something we really should remember, but we almost can’t.”
According to another Chinese student, who studies at the University of Macao. one cannot gauge thirty years on, as to whether circumstances would be any better if the authorities had chosen to act differently. Preferring to keep his identity concealed out of fear of possible repercussions, he personally believes that the government’s actions were illegitimate.
He goes on to say, however, that many of his contemporaries on the mainland would believe anything the Chinese media sold them, even with regards to an issue of this magnitude. “No matter whether true or false, they don’t even try to make judgements on the media perspective, because that’s the only information they get.”
Professor Harsh V. Pant, the Director of the Strategic Studies Program at Observer Research Foundation, believes that the events of Tiananmen square need to be located within a climate of global transition. Given that in 1989, the world’s Cold War architecture was already in the process of disintegration, the movements become especially relevant.
Referencing the photograph of the “Tank Man”- perhaps the most well-recognized iconography of the armed forces crackdown of 4th June 1989, Pant argues that the imagery of the event continues to be extremely powerful. He further purports that the fact that the all-powerful Communist Chinese government was being challenged by the people’s power, was a seminal achievement, marking a high point of liberal internationalism.
"Tank Man" has become a globally recognized symbol of people's resistance to authoritarianism.
Pant also believes that it is watertight censorship, in light of the significant increments in China’s state power in the past three decades, that most deeply influences Chinese perspectives on the events on 1989. “The state has tried hard to obliterate the memory of Tiananmen from the Chinese consciousness, and it’s these tendencies that make the vulnerabilities of Chinese power most evident.
If today, the imagery of Tiananmen was to catch on, the possibility of the government losing the powerful political grip it has over the country, could soon become all too real. In that sense, repressing Tiananmen is a very personal project for the Communist party. Allowing even a slight amount of space to discuss Tiananmen could blossom into something far more problematic in the cultural consciousness of the nation,” he said, in conversation with The Citizen.
He further highlights the fact that the way in which Tiananmen is discussed today is symbolic of the way in which Human Rights discourse has been swept under the carpet in the theatres of global power. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. China’s exponential economic expansion became the dominant narrative and human rights violations became marginal in the face of the story of China’s aggrandizement.
Pant emphasizes that the existence of an arc - from one man, in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, to the mass-incarceration of an entire ethnic group – the Uighurs of the Xinjiang province - in concentration camps, today. China’s economic prowess makes the nation a crucial trading partner for other countries, and therefore, nobody is willing to confront China on the aforementioned issues.
The fact that the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), New Delhi, refused to provide a comment on the concerned subject further reinforces the fact that in other nations, the discussion on Tiananmen Square – or human rights in general, is stifled by the strength of Chinese retaliatory capacity. It is only understandable that ICS, a think tank that aims to cultivate a deeper understanding of the People’s Republic, only possible with reasonable cordiality with the Chinese government, would not want to make any statements that would irk members of Beijing’s diplomatic mission in India. Tiananmen, in their words, “is too controversial to discuss.”
Pant also believes that even outside China, no one gives Tiananmen a serious-enough platform. He argues that restricted attention, and the solely instrumental usage of the repression of 1989, (such as in order to apply occasional tokenistic pressurize on China for its human rights record) prevents a more productive discourse from developing.
He believes that it is essential that occasions like the thirty-year anniversary of the crackdown, must be mobilized by global media, academia, and civil society, to build a stronger understanding of China’s history of political repression. In the absence of such developments, Pant argues that the Chinese government will continue to believe that because they could get away with Tiananmen, they will get away with Xinjiang too.
Shastri Ramachandaran, meanwhile, argues that the Chinese government will bring change to the country, only when China decides to do it, as a people. He sees the potential for productive developments, especially in phenomenon such as the protest of millions of Chinese micro-bloggers, following the incarceration of a popular, reform-minded Communist Party Secretary, Bo Xilai, in 2013.
This, according to him, symbolizes the fact that when the time comes, the Chinese people won’t be kept down. “But”, he adds, importantly, “they will only overthrow the existing order in favour of something that is actually better.”
The far-reaching claws of government censorship almost entirely restrict artistic expressions of the movement as well. The most famous example is that of Chen Guang, a PLA soldier who shot pictures of the protests of 4th June, for the military. In later interviews, he expressed the fact that the events of 1989 deeply influenced his oeuvre – which includes oil paintings of the demonstration.
Chen Guang, a soldier-turned-artist captures the atrocities of Tiananmen in his work.
He was arrested at his studio by Beijing police in 2014, after participating in performance art commemorating the massacre, in the lead-up to the 25th Anniversary of the protests – an appropriate representation of the extent to which the Chinese state wishes to repress any popular reimagination of the events of 1989.
Debate and introspection on Tiananmen continue. On being asked whether the movement could serve as a platform for the youth to organize political dissidence against the state again, Shiqi says that at this point, that the government would never allow something of the sort to happen.
However, his mentioning of a Victor Hugo quote “governments are sometimes bandits, peoples, never.”, right after referring to the movement as inspirational, symbolizes enduring revolutionary élan, and potential, within the Chinese youth, even thirty years on.