The 25th anniversary of the bloody government crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square will not be marked publically in China, but the event is being remembered elsewhere, both for its extensive loss of life and the potential for political reforms that time represented.
In the spring of 1989, mass demonstrations erupted in Beijing and other Chinese cities. The protesters, most of them university students, were calling for change.
“They were tapping into a lot of long-buried feelings around the country, so the students didn’t really organize much,” said Andrew Nathan, political science professor at Columbia University, and one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, a compilation of secret Chinese government documents concerning the crackdown.
“But once they started showing up asking for a fight against corruption, and for the memory of the leader who had just passed way, Hu Yaobang, to be honored, and for what they called democracy, then a lot of people came pouring out to support those ideas,” he said.
Hu had been a reformist and worked to build China’s market economy. He was purged during the Cultural Revolution and was known as a critic of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Another prominent China scholar, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of China in the 21st Century, said the protests followed earlier unrest.
“I was there in the 1986-1987 academic year, and there was a wave of protest then, and that grew quite large in cities such as Shanghai, and then were tamped down quite quickly, but the grievances didn’t go away,” he said.
Wasserstrom says high inflation and other economic concerns, including resentment against unethical practices and nepotism of the Communist Party elite, also fueled the unrest.
“[It's] still a simmering cause of discontent in China now,” he said.
The Tiananmen Square protests began in mid-April and lasted until the june 4 crackdown. Nathan believes officials allowed demonstrations to continue because they were unsure how to handle them.
“They were divided, they couldn’t decide what to do,” he said.
The liberal faction, headed by Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who agreed with the need for reform, and the conservatives, who wanted a crackdown, consulted with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
According to Nathan, Deng was unwilling to get involved until Premier Li Peng warned Deng that the students wanted his downfall as well.
Chinese officials retaliated by first publishing an editorial threatening the students, then imposed martial law, and finally launched the crackdown.
“What seems surprising is how long it took, for the government to take decisive action, and I think that division at the top is a key part of things,” said Wasserstrom.
“A series of moves that the government made that they thought would tamp down the protests actually served to rev them up.”
The government’s campaign to suppress any mention of its brutal crackdown has been called "forced amnesia": public references to the Tiananmen protests or June 4 crackdown are prohibited. In early May, several activists were detained after attending a meeting examining the 1989 crackdown.
“There are people, including younger Chinese, certainly who know that something happened then,” said Wasserstrom. “What the Communist Party keeps saying is, ‘look how far we’ve come; look at how strong China is in the world; look at the booming economy; look at the spectacle of the Olympics.’”
Nathan, who is banned from China because of his involvement with The Tiananmen Papers, believes Beijing remains very insecure. “I still feel as though the Chinese regime, although it’s strong and economically prosperous, isn’t the last word for China,” he said.
“The desire to change things has never disappeared from within China, and the lack of confidence, despite all the things that the country has accomplished materially, the Communist Party, as shown by the repression of the memory of 1989, is still fundamentally insecure in many ways.”