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Tiananmen Square massacre casts a long shadow over modern Chinese politics

Friday marked the 32nd anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, where hundreds and perhaps thousands of people were killed by the Chinese government amid a Democratic protest movement. But many Chinese know nothing of what happened that day. Nick Schifrin spoke with a former senior-ranking member of the school where China’s Communist Party leaders are educated to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There were no vigils in Hong Kong, and certainly none in Beijing, to mark this 32nd anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

    The Chinese army killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, after weeks of democratic protest. But many Chinese, through government control of media, and repression, know nothing of what happened that day.

    Nick Schifrin has a rare interview with a Chinese political dissident, who says the fate of today's China was sealed in the events of 1989.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In downtown Beijing, there is nothing to see, no mentioning of the day that changed China, no memorial for the dead, only a quiet, secure Tiananmen Square.

    Thirty-two years ago, for seven weeks, students filled the square with revolutionary fervor. They demanded reforms to the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. At first, they repelled an attempt to clear the square, but the next day, overwhelming military force. One man, however brave, could not prevent the inevitable.

    Soldiers fired at peaceful protesters. At least hundreds were killed.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    I could never imagine that the army would open fire on the students. The shooting exposed what CCP had been telling us were all lies.

    I was really shocked and began my own independent thinking. June 4 sowed a seed of doubt in my heart.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Cai Xia's heart used to have no doubt. She grew up in a revolutionary, communist family. That's her on the right. Her father was a veteran army commander, and she says she was a true believer.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    I believed the CCP wholeheartedly since I was young. Also, my parents were very strict about our upbringing, teaching us to have high moral standards, a pure heart, and not to become privileged kids.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    By 1989, she was a rising star in the party. She lectured at a Communist Party School near Shanghai and witnessed a sanitized version of Tiananmen on Chinese TV.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    At that time, the CCP denied that the army opened fire and that any student or resident was shot and killed. But I learned that not only bullets were fired at the Tiananmen Square, but also along the road all the way leading to the square.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When did you learn that? How did you learn the truth?

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    I had stayed in Beijing since 1992. Every year around the anniversary of June 4, people would talk about it. And I heard the stories bit by bit from the circle of friends.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    By then, Cai Xia had risen to the pinnacle of Communist Party education, the Central Party School in Beijing. We visited in 2019. Party leaders are educated here. The party's revered figures are immortalized in larger-than-life statues.

    And Xi Jinping was the school's president, before he became party leader, military commander in chief, and Chinese president in 2012.

    How concerned, how fearful, even today are the leaders of the Communist Party if the population would learn the truth?

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    I think the CCP Is concerned that, if people knew about the truth of June 4, it would lose the legitimacy of its rule, because the students were demanding democracy and to crack down on corruption. They were the voice for justice of the Chinese people.

    People were demanding basic human rights. So, the CCP tried everything they could to cover up the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    While at the Party School, Cai Xia says, for the first time, she saw Chinese propaganda up close. That solidified the doubts she'd already been harboring that a system she'd once considered sacred was actually a deceptive dictatorship.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    My change of heart did not happen with one event or one book. It was a gradual process.

    When I was young, I was never told about love or humanitarianism. When I joined the army, I was assigned to take care of library, where I read many Western classics. I read the book of the rise and fall of the Third Reich about Hitler. Later, I watched a video depicting Hitler's rally.

    It really shocked me. The scene and sound of the rally was so similar to that of the Cultural Revolution. I witnessed from the inside how the CCP actually operated and realized that their high-sounding narratives to the public were all deception.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2019, Cai Xia came to the U.S. as a tourist. She got stuck here because of the pandemic, but she calls herself a dissident. She knows she cannot go home.

    In December, 2020, she published an article in "Foreign Affairs" and wrote: "The ideas the party sanctimoniously promoted were in fact self-serving tools used to deceive the Chinese people."

    The Chinese Communist Party denounces and persecutes critics like Cai Xia. It argues that, by protecting the party, it's protecting the country. And the party says Chinese people's freedom comes from a country that's prosperous.

    What the party says is that it is guaranteeing people's economic freedom and that any threat to the party is actually a threat to the Chinese state. Can you respond to that?

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    They only implemented economic freedom in a limited way, to create more wealth and collect more revenue for the government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Cai Xia says today's China wasn't inevitable. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Deng Xiaoping called for reform and political liberalization. Cai Xia says that died in Tiananmen Square.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    Opening fire on June 4 turned China back to the totalitarian state, and China lost the possibility of a peaceful transformation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, today, Xi Jinping has centralized power even more.

  • Cai Xia (through translator):

    Reports from below are made by guessing what the above would like to hear, and only reporting the good news.

    On the other hand, when a decision is made, everyone will agree and praise it. Therefore, Xi Jinping increasingly believes he is correct, and is increasingly unable to listen to dissenting points of view.

    The CCP has deceived the American people and government for so many years. If it were not for the Wuhan virus that has spread throughout the world, people may still not see through the true nature of the CCP regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that regime has ensured its true nature is invisible in today's Beijing.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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