The Ghost of Tiananmen Square

 

1989 was a crucial year for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The brutal military suppression of a peaceful pro-democracy mass demonstration in Tiananmen Square on the 3rd and 4th of June made the world’s eyes turn to Beijing. The idealistic minds of the young students preaching for democracy in Tiananmen Square had been crushed by military tanks and blind bullets.

What were the consequences of this massacre on the Chinese society and its government? How did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) manage to overrun this situation and keep its authority and legitimacy in the country? These are the broad questions that are intended to be answered in the following pages. This essay will start by looking at the consequences of the 4th of June on the Chinese international relations; then it will pass to analyze the government’s human-rights infringements from that day till today; and it will finish by focusing on the means of control that the CCP carried out in order to keep itself in power. This issue has had very strong impact on contemporary Chinese society and politics and it seems that this impact will keep on affecting China for some time.

Consequences on International Relationships

The first situation that must be studied in order to see how the Chinese government responded to the Tiananmen issue is in its relations with the Western powers after the 4th of June and how these affected the CCP’s approach to the situation. On a first moment, countries like France, the Netherlands and Sweden cut all diplomatic relations with China after the events of June 1989. The United Kingdom and Switzerland developed an embargo of arms, while also cancelling all formal visits between military functionaries. The United States, under George Bush’s presidency, also acted out stating an embargo of arms, suspending all formal military visits between the two countries and offering humanitarian and medical assistance to those injured during the conflict[1]. But that initial step towards real sanctions to the Chinese government has faded away through the last twenty years due to the Western power’s economic dependence on keeping a good relation with the Asian giant.

The case of the United States illustrates this situation perfectly: George Bush’s administration acted with double intentions after the Tiananmen crackdown. In a first moment they carried out the necessary and obligatory revisions of the diplomatic relationship with China, but at the same time intending to “walk the tightrope that fosters reform and maintains American geopolitical interests in the region without giving aid and comfort to a murderous regime”[2]. The 1990’s Human Rights Watch report was strongly critical of George Bush’s handling of the issues in relation to the People’s Republic of China. He and his administration were accused of having double moral standards because the U.S. government believed in the necessity of keeping the economic ties with China “at any cost, even sacrificing human rights”[3]. The United States was concerned with the Human-rights problems in China, but they simply believed that their economic relations were more important than the lives of the thousands of people killed and imprisoned during to the Tiananmen incident. Dan Burton, Member of the U.S. Congress, criticized this double approach: “they [the CCP] are forcing these people, political prisoners among them, to make products we buy, and we are giving them most-favoured-nation status to do it”[4].

Hence, in the long run, the Party did not suffer big blows in their international relations due to the June 4th incident.  But it is without a doubt that at least it has left a radical mark on the party’s image. The other countries have had to stay relatively quiet on the subject due to their economical interests in China, but the negative image has not left, and with the image, the fear of a possible similar situation in the future does not leave the minds of the people. The Human Rights Watch[5] has stated constantly the necessity to radically change the current state of the issue. They are not only putting the present blame on the Chinese government, asking them to assume responsibility for the acts committed in the Summer of 1989 in Beijing, but they are also asking the foreign powers to establish real sanctions and diplomatic breaks to and with China instead of acting blind to the Human-rights atrocities in the PRC as they have done up till now in order to keep their economic interests in the region alive.

The Witch Hunt

This ‘international silence’ to the PRC’s Human-rights atrocities has allowed the CCP to reinforce their control and oppression inside the country without having any diplomatic setbacks. After the Tiananmen incident, the persecution of “political criminals” in the mainland has become stronger and stronger. The hunt for the so-called “class enemies”, which has been following lots of different social groups throughout the times, began to focus in those related to the pro-democracy movement. The great problem is that most of these persecutions are rarely done openly and only a few of them follow the fundamental legal rights of a person. Most arrests have been done secretly and there is no principle of presumption of innocence, reason why in many cases the verdict is decided even before the trail[6].

Human Rights Watch[7] states that still today the Chinese government keeps on persecuting all those who dare to speak on the subject or intend to honour those who died in those days. The Tiananmen Mothers, led by Ding Zilin, are constantly being harassed and interrogated in order to keep them from saying more than the government wants. The survivors of Tiananmen who stayed in China also have been affected by constant surveillance and harassment. Other survivors, such as the student leaders Wang Dan or Han Dongfang, have lost the right to have a Chinese passport or to live in the country, reason why they are in forced exile.

This situation, between other factors that will be explained later, has created an incredibly difficult atmosphere for the pro-democracy movement in China to restructure itself. The tools that were used in the past to fight for democracy in China have been destroyed after June 1989[8]. The possibility of finding change through the party’s elite has been erased due to the fact that the party has been strongly purged from members who are inclined to reform; also, the possibility of mass demonstrations is unthinkable due to the fear that the example given by the Tiananmen massacre has created. For this reason, inside the mainland, the pro-democracy movement has become extremely weak, and the few who try to fight for it are being strongly harassed or imprisoned.

Another important consequence of Tiananmen on the development of possible pro-democracy movements in mainland in the future was the decision of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress all of the worker movements, as an intent to break the link that united them with the students.  All organizations were dismantled and prohibited, such as the case of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation (BWAF). The main goal was to destroy the possibility of association and organization which could lead to future dissidence[9]. The same was done with the student unions. In today’s society it can be thought that the internet censorship in China has been done, between other reasons, to also deactivate the possible development of future unification of dissent that could lead to future manifestations similar to that of 1989.

As seen in the last paragraphs, Human-rights problems have developed all over the political and social ambits of China since the 4th of June 1989. But one of the most important is the current situation of the Chinese criminal judicial system: “China’s criminal justice system is among the most deeply flawed in the world – indeed, it is essentially pre-modern”[10]. First of all, this is due to the fact that there is no presumption of innocence in the system: they have the philosophy of “verdict first, trail second”, making the simple idea of a trail irrelevant. For this reason, any inclination to pleading innocent is seen as unwillingness to cooperate and it is punished. Second of all, the detainees are prohibited from contacting a lawyer in the period prior to the trial, during custody or interrogation. The lawyer is elected just three or four days before the actual trail, so that he does not have either the time or the knowledge of the case to gather substantial evidence[11].

At least in paper, part of these issues have been amended by the Chinese government in the past few years, such as the amendment of the Law of Lawyers in 2007 which guarantees the lawyer’s right to meet with a suspect; or the 2005 Law on Administrative Punishments for Public Order and Security in which the security organs have the obligation to respect the human-rights[12]. The fear comes from the long path that separates theory from actions: because the law is on a piece of paper it does not necessarily mean that if another critical situation comes the government will follow what the paper says.

Social Control: Censorship and Education

Probably the most relevant impact of the Tiananmen massacre on contemporary Chinese society is the reinforcement of social control. The Party’s fear of an incident of such magnitude happening once again or the danger of allowing the population to freely discuss the issue has created a huge trauma in the CCP’s core which has taken them try to control the population’s opinions and thoughts through censorship, indoctrination and a series of politic and economic measures to keep the Chinese citizens in the palm of their hands.

“The largest spontaneous social movement in the history of the PRC has been erased from official history”[13], says the political scientist Béja, alluding to the complete censorship of any information related to the Tiananmen massacre carried out by the CCP. The government has taken the task of deleting all records of the incident which do not conform with the government’s declaration of it as a “political disturbance”: Internet results have been erased, books have been edited and newspapers have been punished and closed for mentioning the subject. It is believed by many that the main reason why the Chinese government has swept this problem under the rug is, in the words of Renee Xia of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, “Because the Chinese leaders know they have blood on their hands […] They fear that if the truth comes to light, the government will be under pressure to bring those responsible for this crime to justice”[14].

Since 1989 till today (more than twenty years later) there has been a suppression of the freedom of speech and association, censoring local news, prohibiting the contact of witnesses with foreign journalists, erasing information and closing down media that could be harmful to the CCP. Also, all articles, TV programs or information done by foreigners on the subject have been completely banned in the mainland arguing that “in the authorities’ view [foreign journalists] ‘distort facts’ or ‘violate the public interest’”[15]. The internet search engines in China (be it Baidu or Google) either do not find any results when “4 June” is written or the message “The search does not comply with laws, regulations and policies” appears. This shows how strong the censorship on the issue is even on the internet today.

But the censorship does not narrow only to the suppression of information. Even in the last years, journalists and cyber-dissidents such as Shi Tao or Huang Qi have been sent to jail just for talking about the subject online. But this kind of direct censorship is just half of the problem: “Self-censorship and the ignorance of the youngest generation of journalists do the rest”[16]. Censoring the papers, the TV and the internet is not as effective as actually erasing the memory of the event from the citizen’s minds.

A perfect example of the deletion of memory can be seen in the situation of China’s contemporary education system. The schools, following the CCP’s official statements on the issue, make no remark to the subject, hence making it impossible for the new generations to understand what happened. This control over the information erases the possibility of future dissidence in the new generations. Maintaining them in a life of pop-culture, easy entertainment and consumerism makes political thought difficult.

Since Tiananmen, the necessity to inject the party’s values into the country’s youth became even more important than before. For this reason “Incoming college students were compelled to attend army camps for a year of military and ideological training before starting academic work”[17]. This example brings to mind (in its own measure) the party’s search for a new Red Army similar to that of the Cultural Revolution: young men, entirely brainwashed, following the CCP’s orders without thinking of what they are actually doing.

Nationalism was an important tool for keeping the young unaware of reality. Nationalism was (and still is) used in China as a way of reinforcing the values preached by the government and at the same time rejecting the values that are contrary to it. In the case of the post-Tiananmen China its goal was to emphasize the West’s threat to their country and their way of life, structuring this around the idea that the Party is the only way of stopping the Western demon, hence uniting the concepts of Party and nation.

An example given by Michel Bonnin[18] in relation to the Party’s control over the population’s conception of their country is that of history textbooks in China. He states that not only in the first three stages of education (primary, secondary and high-school) there is no information on the pro-democracy movement nor on the incidents of the summer of 1989, but also that even the university textbooks (for undergraduate and postgraduate students) are completely rewritten by the government’s official views in order to demonize Zhao Ziyang (who was deposed of his position as General Secretary for the Party for sympathizing with the dissidents of June 1989), the Western powers and the pro-democracy movement. The main goal was that “these events would be made to disappear from social memory altogether, and be transformed into non-events for all the generations who did not actually witness them directly”[19]. This elucidates how the educational system in China has been structured so to make the memory of the democracy’s soldiers in 1989 be completely forgotten.

These consequences are not just political theory, direct interviewing of children from the generation called “post-80’s kids” (born after 1989) shows that their knowledge of the subject is either very small or inexistent. Bao Tong, former secretary to Zhao Ziyang, says that “The leaders today don’t want young people to think”[20]. This means that they have done everything possible to take out the critical thinking from their youth’s minds. The entertainment possibilities of the new media and the economic growth of the last years have created a completely different perception of life in today’s youths compared to that of 1989. Contemporary Chinese youths know everything about Hollywood stars, about the NBA and about the latest smart phone application or Korean soap-opera, but nearly nothing about politics. They have been successfully created into apolitical citizens who do not question the establishment.

But the problem goes even further: not only the majority of the young population in China is ignorant of the existence of such a thing as a pro-democracy movement, but the microscopic minority (in Chinese demographic standards) who actually knows about the 4th of June sees it more as a warning than as an inspiration: “the repression of the 1989 movement compelled students and other dissident intellectuals to withdraw from dissent in order to survive”[21]. It does not motivate them to fighting for those democratic ideals; on the contrary, it just scares them away.  Sun Yi, daughter of a Tiananmen-era dissident says that she “admires her father [for his bravery] but wonders if his sacrifices, a broken marriage and seven years in jail, were worth it”[22]. Because the economy is moving, the youths are having many possibilities that their parents could have never imagined, so it is very difficult for them to understand why would anybody want to take down an establishment that has brought them so much wealth?

Social Control: Legitimacy through Economic Growth

If the Chinese population (at least the educated urban part of the population) sees a radical improvement in their level of wealth, why would they question the institutions that have made that improvement possible? This can be considered one of the fundamental ideas that Deng Xiaoping put into movement after 1989: to retake as soon as possible the economic reforms in order to improve Chinese life standards and hence restate the Party’s legitimacy. According to Michel Bonnin, the CCP’s main goal after the 4th of June 1989 was “to rebuild its own cohesion, to regain control of the populace (especially of “hearts and minds”), and to reconstruct its own legitimacy”[23].

The first necessary step was to generate cohesion inside the party through the elimination of the “liberal reformists” such as Zhao Ziyang, while also taking power away from those who did not believe in economical reform. Andrew Nathan considers that “the events [Tiananmen] impressed upon the CCP leadership the necessity to stay united”[24]. In this way, Deng and his followers would manage to stabilize a politically orthodox and an economically reformist party, which could maintain cohesion and boost the economy in search of running away from the ghosts of Tiananmen.

Even though the incidents of 1989 had an immediate backdrop on the country’s economy and growth, Deng took charge on the subject and resumed the economic reforms as soon as possible. The growth and life standards came soon after, and this allowed the Party to hide the death of thousands of people behind the growing numbers of the GDP. During the last years, these growing numbers “have been so impressive that the developed world has abandoned its post-June 4th condemnation of the regime to accommodate China’s rise”[25].

So, the economic growth was fundamental for the Party to be able to keep social control. The workers have been given lots of benefits in order to improve their life standards, but it has also been necessary to dissolve all of the worker’s and student’s organizations in order to leave these groups without the possibility to assemble and generate dissent.

It is considered that the “Iron Rice Bowl” benefits for workers of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE), which give them cradle to grave welfare services (employment, healthcare, housing and education), is fundamental for keeping this social group under the control of the party. This is not only due to the fact that they are content with their life standards, but also because “the iron rice bowl bound employees to the enterprise so thoroughly that the party, through the SOE, could shape the political attitudes and behaviour of its employees”[26]. This strong link between the workers and the SOE (and hence the Party) works in a similar way as the education system in the youths: it cleans their minds from dissent through indoctrination.

Conclusion

The CCP has done a thorough job in erasing the 4th of June of 1989 from the people’s minds. They have censored all information on the subject, they have silenced the few voices that are looking for a change and they have successfully (up till now) controlled the population’s possible desire for dissent. But that is not the road that an aspiring First World country must take in order to achieve a harmonious a wealthy society. While the ghost of Tiananmen keeps on lingering around the Party’s mind, China will not be able to achieve its goals. For the PRC to be able to look into a bright future it must first face and take responsibility for its dark past.

 

Bibliography

– Asia Watch, “Punishment Season: Human Rights in China After Martial Law” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, pp. 369-389.

– Béja, J-P., “Editorial” to China Perspectives, 2009, 2, pp. 2-3.

– Bonnin, M., “The Chinese Communist Party and June 4th: Or how to get out of it and get away with it” in China Perspectives, 2009, 2, pp. 52-61.

– Cheng, J., “China’s Post-Tiananmen Diplomacy” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, pp. 401-416.

– Copper, J.F. & Lee, T.L., “Tiananmen Aftermath: Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China, 1990” in Occasional Papers/Reprint Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, No. 4, 1992 (111).

– Human Rights Watch, “The Tiananmen Legacy. Ongoing Persecution and Censorship”, May 13, 2009, Human Rights Watch, in

http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/05/13/tiananmen-legacy.

– Lu, S. H.P., “Postmodernity, Popular Culture, and the Intellectual: A Report on Post-Tiananmen China” in Boundary 2, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 1996), pp. 139-169.

– Mason, T. & Clements, J., “Tiananmen Square Thirteen Years After: The Prospects for Civil Unrest in China” in Asian Affairs, an American Review, Fall 2002, 29, 3, pp. 159-188.

– McGurn, W., “The U.S. and China: Sanctioning Tiananmen Square” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, pp. 233-245.

– Nathan, Andrew J. The consequences of Tiananmen Square Interview by Maria Elena Viggiano, 3/6/2009, Reset Dialogues on Civilizations http://www.restdoc.org/story/00000001371.

– Olesen, A., “Web-savvy & cynical: China’s youth since Tiananmen” in The Seattle Times, Saturday, May 30, 2009, Nation & World Section, Seattle,

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2009280577_apchinabornonthefourth.html

– Reporters Without Borders, “Tiananmen: the censorship”, 2, June of 2009, Reporters Without Borders,

www.rsf.org/china-all-references-to-tiananmen-square-02-06-2009,33198.html

– United Nations Committee Against Torture, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention: China”, Forty first session, 3-21 November 2008, Geneva.


[1] Cheng, J., “China’s Post-Tiananmen Diplomacy” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, p. 402.

[2] McGurn, W., “The U.S. and China: Sanctioning Tiananmen Square” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, p. 237.

[3] Copper, J. F. & Lee, T. L., “Tiananmen Aftermath: Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China, 1990” in Occasional Papers/Reprint Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, No. 4, 1992 (111), p. 59.

[4] Taken from: Copper, Ibid, p. 81.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “The Tiananmen Legacy. Ongoing Persecution and Censorship”, May 13, 2009, Human Rights Watch, in http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/05/13/tiananmen-legacy.

[6] Asia Watch, “Punishment Season: Human Rights in China After Martial Law” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks, Longman Group UK, London, 1990, p. 370.

[7] Human Rights Watch, Ibid.

[8] Béja, J-P., “Editorial” to China Perspectives, 2009, 2, Hong Kong, p. 2.

[9] Asia Watch, Ibid. p. 340.

[10] Ibid. p. 380.

[11] Ibid. p. 381.

[12]  United Nations Committee Against Torture, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention: China”, Forty first session, 3-21 November 2008, Geneva, p. 2.

[13] Béja, Ibid. p. 2.

[14] Taken from: Reporters Without Borders, “Tiananmen: the censorship”, 2 of June of 2009, Reporters Without Borders, http://www.rsf.org/china-all-references-to-tiananmen-square-02-06-2009,33198.html.

[15] Asia Watch, Ibid. p. 385.

[16] Reporters Without Borders, Ibid.

[17] Copper, Ibid. p. 47.

[18] Bonnin, M., “The Chinese Communist Party and June 4th: Or how to get out of it and get away with it” in China Perspectives, 2009, 2, pp. 52-61.

[19] Bonnin, Ibid. p. 55.

[20] Olesen, A., “Web-savvy & cynical: China’s youth since Tiananmen” in The Seattle Times, Saturday, May 30, 2009, Seattle, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2009280577_apchinabornonthefourth.html

[21] Mason, T. & Clements, J., “Tiananmen Square Thirteen Years After: The Prospects for Civil Unrest in China” in Asian Affairs, an American Review, Fall 2002, 29, 3, p. 175.

[22] Olesen, Ibid.

[23] Bonnin, Ibid. p. 52.

[24] Nathan, Andrew J. The consequences of Tiananmen Square Interview by Maria Elena Viggiano, 3/6/2009, Reset Dialogues on Civilizations http://www.restdoc.org/story/00000001371.

[25] Béja, Ibid. p. 3.

[26] Mason, Ibid. p. 169.

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