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the legacy of june fourth

Experts assess the impact of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre on the Chinese government and people and explain how Tiananmen 1989 set China on a dramatic new course in the years that followed.

Nicholas Bequelin
China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

I think that June Fourth is … the backdrop of everything political with China. It is because of June Fourth that Chinese citizens are not challenging [the state directly], because they know that if they do … [the state] will send the army and tanks.

… Even people who don't know about June Fourth have integrated this principle through, for instance, their parents or the peer pressure coming from Chinese society. Because maybe they don't know about June Fourth, but their parents will know, and if they see their kids starting to engage in political commentaries, they will immediately tell them to stop because of the risk involved. …

But in '89 China missed a big chance for organic evolution. The population was still behind the system after the excess of the Cultural Revolution. Certainly the open-ended reform period in the '70s and '80s was hugely beneficial for the society. They wanted to [go] further. They were the first to ask for more free markets on which Chinese governments today base so much of [their] strength. Intellectuals, students and workers and residents, urban residents, were all for this kind of organic progressive reform.

Now what we see [that] more and more people are driven to despair. [You see] the criminalization of a lot of local governments who can't maintain order through normal ways, so they hire thugs and secret societies or criminal gangs to enforce order. … All this shows that tensions are much more acute today. …

[What are your thoughts about the efforts made to try to erase the events of Tiananmen 1989 from the collective memory of the Chinese people?]

June Fourth is political dynamite for the Party. They used the army to kill and crush peaceful demonstrators, and this is something that the party has been trying to erase ever since. … But what it does to the Chinese collective psyche is of course very dangerous. It's a distortion of history; it's building the future of the country on a lie. ….

The resentment created by the June Fourth crackdown is still there, there is no political space to express it, there is no public space to express it. There is no media; there are no books; there are no intellectuals that can talk about it, but it is there. It is just under the surface. … Probably it will re-remerge at the first occasion if there is political change or transition. … There is a lot of political capital to be gained in this and if the leadership enters a crisis … there will be people who will want to tap into … the June Fourth issue to further their own goals.

So don't write off June Fourth. It is not a model for what you can do about China. Chinese people know [this very well] -- you have to do things under the radar, you have to push the envelope progressively. But at the first occasion, it will re-emerge.

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

… [W]hat does it do to you, psychically, to have been through an experience like this -- to have had an army double the size of the army that the Americans sent into Iraq, occupying your city, deaths, everything crushed, and [you're] not allowed to speak about it, not allowed to grieve about it, not allowed to share?

I think it's deeply painful for countless Beijing citizens and residents even today. What they experienced in May '89 was for the first time, a real sense of civic pride, civic responsibility and a feeling that their efforts would contribute to a better China. There was great sincerity and commitment on the part of the average person in Beijing at that time.

After the massacre, the enforced prohibition on any discussion of it, no challenge allowed to what the government did that night, no debate -- that has induced deep cynicism amongst those same people who were active participants in the May '89 movement towards the realm of politics as a whole. They have been beaten back. Once again, the message has been driven home that they have no role in politics. They're not wanted. None of their business! Stay out!

[The people have] gotten the message. They're now deeply cynical about anything like that. Those aspirations have been crushed, and all that's left is what the Party is now offering them, which is the chance to make more money, if they're lucky. And who wouldn't take up that offer if it's all that's on offer? We all would. … [A]ll that's left is … to just think of your own life, your own family, getting ahead in life, making more money. Just don't even think of entering into the big debate about China's future and political reform. …

Timothy Brook
Professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia.

Tiananmen was a trauma for the people who experienced it, and the people who experienced it were in the millions. Anyone who was living in Beijing at the time knew what was going on. The people of Beijing have a blank space in their memories. That space is actually filled with memories, possibly memories of friends or relatives who died, but it's a space that they can't show to anyone else. So they live their lives with this part of their experience, this part of their memory on hold. There is no way to forget something this terrible.

For the moment the Chinese government is hoping that the prosperity that its economic reforms have brought about will buy them all the time that they want, that people will set aside these political issues because they are content to live better lives. But ultimately it's going to come back, you can't keep this kind of trauma out of the public memory forever. Eventually the diaries, the letters, the photography, the film footage that the people took, this has all got to come back.

Whenever I'm in China I take a copy or two of my book back because I'm often asked what I, as a foreigner, might know about what happened on June Fourth. People are keenly interested to know what went on, even people who weren't in Beijing at the time. They know that this event happened, they know it's an event they can't talk about, and they're desperate to know more. I think that desperation only grows with time. Tiananmen is becoming bigger and bigger as it remains silent and unaddressed.

… It seems to us that the reaction to these events was this extraordinary decision to go full throttle on liberal capitalism while blocking off any kind of political freedom. Does that make any sense?

… If you go back to the 1980s, you see the Chinese government trying to experiment with new ways to develop the economy. One suspects that they might have continued in this kind of experimental fashion of both liberalizing the ideological realm as they're liberalizing the economy. When Tiananmen came about they knew they couldn't continue with any kind of ideological liberalization; they had to focus on the economy.

So the decision to develop the economy exclusively does stem from the experience of 1989, and it's a deal that I think a lot of the Chinese people have been willing to accept. The improvements they've seen in their living standards, compared to the changes for decades before 1989, have been extraordinary. So I think a lot of people have been willing to accept this deal with the devil -- to say, all right, things went very badly in 1989, but in a sense we have been rewarded [for] not asking the government to return to that event and to account for the way in which it conducted itself.

… Tiananmen [also] created a crisis of belief for Chinese people. They could no longer really believe in the Chinese government as their government. They could no longer believe in the People's Liberation Army as their army. It left this huge well of cynicism for the first couple of years of the 1990s, and then the Chinese government is finally able to get its economic reforms going, hoping to buy off the people of Beijing with the promise of a better life. If you go to Beijing today the city is transformed. You can still find Chang'an Boulevard, you can still find Tiananmen Square, but somehow the evidence of Beijing's past is quickly disappearing, and this is what the government hopes will happen.

John Pomfret
Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post (1998-2003).

… What does it do to you when an event in history can't be openly talked about?

… History can disappear for most people, I think. I used to not think that, but I think it actually can, having lived in China and then also living in Yugoslavia for four years. For many people it can disappear; for some it can't.

In a society where it is made to disappear, for those few for whom history cannot disappear, the weight is that much [greater]. In China, one of the most calamitous events in the last 50 years was the Great Leap Forward, during which 30 million people died. In Chinese the expression they use to describe it is "the three years of natural disasters." So you are dealing with a party which refuses to confront main elements of its historical past. Tiananmen is just one of them, and actually it is relatively small. It just so happens to be the most recent one. And the one that was live on TV. …

The big story at the moment is China's explosive economic growth, but I feel that you can't tell that story completely without going back to 1989. It is almost as if that spurt forward was the answer to Tiananmen Square.

Yes, they're basically the yin and yang of modern Chinese history for the last 25 years. You have Tiananmen; you have the crackdown; the closing of the political door towards change. Deng [Xiaoping] and the people around him realized that you had to open another door, because if not, the society was going to explode, and the other door was to get rich and glorious. You cannot separate those two things when you look at Chinese history.

Deng, tyrant that he was, was a very smart guy. He understood that in order for China to make it in the modern world it didn't necessarily have to be free but it had to be rich. I think the effective deal was, "You forget about this, and we will give you a way out, to make money and to have a much better life." And that social contract, if you will, has worked quite well for the Communist Party, and for the elites, and now the new middle class of China.

Orville Schell
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

I think there is no doubt that the present leadership fears relaxing control, particularly over the media and discussions of events like 1989 and a myriad of others, because it fears that once the discussions begin -- like those demonstrations in 1989 -- they will be very hard to stop. In this they may be right.

But there is another theory that says if you allowed a modicum of discussion to go in an orderly fashion, it would serve as a pressure-release valve, whereas if you don't have any discussion, at some point the pressure will build up. What the Party has relied on to prevent the pressure from building up is to allow people to exercise all of their ambitions and urges to be able to advance themselves and to have lives on the economic side of the ledger.

This was Deng Xiaoping's great moment of genius. After the massacre of 1989, he in effect said, we will not stop economic reform; we will in effect halt political reform. What he basically said to people was: "Folks, you are in a room. There are two doors. One door says 'Politics'; one door says 'Economics.' You open the economic door, you are on your own. You can go the full distance to basically whatever you want: get wealthy, help your family have a bright future, move forward into a glorious future. If you open the political door, you are going to run right into one obstruction after another, and you are going to run into the state." People logically being practical -- and Chinese are very practical -- opened the economic door. They wouldn't open the political door. It [would have been] foolish to do so.

Xiao Qiang
Director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

It is an undeniable fact that after the massacre, the Chinese authorities successfully co-opted the intellectual and business elite, convinced them of the story that only under the status quo of the Communist Party [can China] go on the path of economic development and build up the country. And everybody has to sort of work under that assumption. Do not ever challenge that.

I think if you want to succeed in today's China, that is [the] general environment that you operate with. So [for] those who succeed economically and businesswise and [in] social status in China, it's part of that co-opted story.

But that does not mean that this generation really forgets the memory. It's deep inside their mind. I know it's still there, and it's still, in a certain way, a drive for a more open China in the coming years. ... Deep down I believe this generation of the Chinese people are the children of that hope, the hope for a democratic China. While this generation now [is becoming] more and more successful and important in China's political and economic life, I think that [it's] only increasing the chance for China to become a democratic country.

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posted apr. 11, 2006

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