More than two decades later, China’s Communist Party is still facing calls for a full accounting of its bloody 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square. And while the party shows no signs of changing its stance on the protests, the calls for more political openness and public disgust with official graft continue to this day.
The difference now, according to political analysts, historians and activists, is that the stakes are much higher and the problems the party faces are even bigger.
The Communist Party’s official verdict on the protests is that they were a counter-revolutionary rebellion. And when pressed, officials focus on the changes China has made since that day and not what may or may not have happened.
It is not known how many died in the crackdown, but human-rights groups say hundreds were killed.
Despair grows, hope wavers
Zhang Xianling lost her son during the crackdown in early June of 1989. After more that two decades, her comments waver between despair and hope.
Zhang said she hopes China’s new leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, can have a new vision. At the same time, she worries they will continue to ignore the Communist Party’s mistakes.
“We hope that they can reassess the old sufferings and start a new vision,” Zhang said. “That they can acknowledge the murders of Tiananmen as the rest of the world did and have a more relaxed vision on June 4th by expressing that they want to address it.”
Zhang is part of a group of parents, relatives and friends of those killed, called the Tiananmen Mothers. Since 1995, the group has been pressing the government to tell the truth about what happened on June 4th and hold those responsible accountable.
The group says it has written 36 letters to Communist Party leaders and the government’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress. To this day, they have not received a single response.
In this year’s letter, the Tiananmen Mothers urged the Communist Party to address all of its mistakes during the past six decades.
“Tianamen happened in the second 30 years,” Zhang said. “During the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap forward they [the Communist Party] already starved to death millions of people and killed millions. In both 30 years there have been massacres. How can we deny this?”
Reform now an ugly word
Students who gathered in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 were asking the government to promote a wide range of reforms from political freedoms to addressing the problem of corruption.
Calls for reform continue to this day, but the public’s perception of change is dramatically different.
“In the 1980s, reform was a word that everybody supported and admired. Reform thinking and moving forward the reform process were all positive concepts,” said Chinese historian Zhang Lifan. “Now it’s not the same, reform is a concept used to plunder. For example, in order to achieve economic growth and political praise a city official would expropriate land to build a new district; this is reform.”
During China’s recent leadership reshuffle, the country’s new leaders outlined a wide range of reforms, stressing the need for the party to improve the rule of law, promote more economic reforms and address the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.
Political reforms have not been mentioned.
While most Chinese say they are still cautiously optimistic, and that it is too early to judge, there is growing concern that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.
The party has said repeatedly it is in a life or death struggle with corruption. But at the same time in recent weeks, authorities have detained several activists for calling for government officials to disclose their personal assets.
Corruption was just as much a concern for the public in the late 1980s as it is today. The difference, analysts say, is that in the 1980s corruption was a lot simpler. Insider-track dealing or “guandao,” as it was called in Chinese, was something that could be controlled.
“Corruption is different now, it’s really in the bones of the organization, it’s gone mafia-style, it’s gone family,” said David Kelly of China Policy, a group that monitors Chinese views on reform, the economy and other topics such as corruption.
Kelly said when officials broke the rules in the 1980s and made a bit of money on the side, they were actually helping break a deadlock in the supply of goods.
“Now it’s not about getting a bit of petrol that you need for your taxi company say,” Kelly said. “Now it’s about buying a job for your son, 'Yes let’s buy him a lieutenant generalship in the army.' Some of these reports may be exaggerated, but it’s a different world now.”
Chinese historian Zhang Lifan said things started to change in the 1990s when officials would ask how much individuals were willing to pay for their help or how they wished to send their children abroad to study in exchange.
“The way of doing things and the appetite were different,” Zhang said. “For example, around the year 2000, a city party secretary was sentenced to life in prison for taking bribes of about one-million Chinese yuan. But if you look at that with today’s eyes, someone who takes bribes of one-million Chinese yuan is a good government official.”
More freedom, political control tight
In the spring of 1989, Zhou Duo was asked to help the government negotiate a settlement with the student protesters. In the end, he joined them by participating in a hunger strike along with liberal scholar Liu Xiaobo.
Zhou continues to pay a price to this day for not siding with the government in its account of what happened, and he was imprisoned for a year after the crackdown.
Despite all that, Zhou said Chinese enjoy more freedoms today than in the late 1980s. He also is cautiously optimistic that change will continue to come, albeit gradually.
“We’ve made big progress on the amount of freedom [we enjoy]. At the time if you talked about environmental pollution, or wore bell-bottom trousers or any outlandish outfit you would always be reprimanded.” Zhou says, “Freedom is nowadays increasingly ample in China, but still there is no political freedom. Repression of political ideas and divergences is very strong.”
Much like the events surrounding June 4, those who push too far, too fast, are quickly detained and held without charge or thrown behind bars. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence for sharing his views online.
The group Chinese Human Rights Defenders reports at least a dozen individuals have been harassed or detained in the run-up to this year’s anniversary.
In a statement last week, the U.S. State Department said China should “end harassment of those who participated in the protests and fully account for those killed, detained or missing.”
China's government says the United States should mind its own business, and it has already reached a clear conclusion about the events of 1989. It also warned, as it routinely does, that such “prejudiced” remarks could impact ties between the two countries.
U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s leader meet later this week in California for their first summit, where the thorny issue of human rights could come up.
Despite China’s dramatic changes since June of 1989, the country’s lack of political freedoms and respect for the rule of law continue to frustrate its relations with many Western countries.