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Remembering Tiananmen/Straits Times

   Goh Sui Noi

   Jun 7, 2019
   "We remember June Fourth because there are people who dearly want us to remember. It comforts them to know that we remember.
   "We remember June Fourth because there are also people who desperately want us not to remember. They want us to forget because forgetting helps to preserve their political power."
   These poignant lines are from a poem by sinologist Perry Link. They encapsulate the struggle to this day between those Chinese people who desire political change and their rulers who seek to eliminate threats to their power, 30 years after the bloody crackdown on June 3-4 against pro-democracy protesters camped out on Tiananmen Square.
   The poem was read at a dinner during a three-day forum last month in Taipei to commemorate the incident, now described by the authorities as a "political turbulence", but by those who lived through the harrowing night as a "massacre".
   Several hundred, perhaps thousands, died that night - unarmed protesters comprising mainly students and workers, and residents who had come out to support them, fired upon by soldiers and rolled over by tanks in and outside the square.
   Beijing has sought to obliterate from Chinese memory the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement and the violent suppression of it, banning public commemoration of the event and censoring any mention of it on social media, among other measures.
   It looks to have succeeded, with many young Chinese today having little knowledge or understanding of what happened, and little interest in it as well.
   "The contents, the demands, the modes of organisation of this huge mass movement have been forgotten, and only a very small number of Chinese people who didn't experience it know anything about it," wrote China scholar Jean-Philippe Beja of Sciences Po in a paper that he presented at the Taipei forum.
   As for the reason why, "it is to pre-empt the pre-crackdown protests being an inspiration to Chinese citizens, particularly the younger generations, to organise themselves to protest and challenge the party's monopoly of power", said Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, in an e-mail interview.
   The protests had occurred at a time when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was facing divisions internally between reformists who thought political reform was necessary to the deepening of economic reform, and conservatives who were worried that any political change would threaten the CCP's hold on power.
   Perhaps because of these internal divisions, the decision was made to send in the troops to quell the demonstrations that had spread to other cities, and brought up to a million people onto the square at their peak.
   For some, like Dr Teng Biao, 45, a human rights activist, it was to cow the Chinese people into submission in order to maintain stability. He pointed out that then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was alleged to have said that the regime would be willing to "kill 200,000 people in exchange for 20 years of stability".
   Others, like Tiananmen protester and exile Wu Renhua, 63, believe it is because China's political system of one-party dictatorship does not allow anyone to challenge it.
   "Once there are people going into the streets to demonstrate, it views this as a challenge and a threat to its rule. So long as the student pro-democracy movement reaches a certain scale and becomes a threat to its power, it will resort to suppression," he said.
   Certainly, Chinese politics took a conservative turn after Tiananmen - Professor Link again: "We remember June Fourth because it was a historic turning point for one-fifth of the world. A turning point in a frightening direction."
   Ms Wang Chaohua, now 66, one of only two women student leaders at the Tiananmen protests and now an exile in the United States, agrees that June 4 was a crucial moment for China politically.
   She remembers that after the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 - a period of social and political chaos - the Chinese government's slogan was "stability, unity and looking forward". It wanted the people to put the tortured past of the Cultural Revolution behind them and look towards the future together.
   After 1989, she told this reporter in Taipei, the new slogans were "stability prevails over all else" and "development is the absolute principle".
   There was no more mention of unity, she noted. The accommodating of different social groups and organisations had ended.
   Safeguarding the CCP's rule became the highest principle under the new development ideology, she added.
   "Any social energy emitted that threatens the rule of the CCP needs to be suppressed, any form of instability must be nipped in the bud," she said.
   Mr Wu puts it thus: With each successive leader after June 4 - from president Jiang Zemin to president Hu Jintao to current leader Xi Jinping - China has taken a step backwards politically.
   "In the 30 years since the Tiananmen incident, we have not seen China making progress in the area of democracy. Instead, it is going down the path of greater autocracy," he said.
   Political control is tighter than ever, with the use of the latest technology - artificial intelligence, facial recognition, big data - to suppress dissent.
   And while China in the last 30 years has wrought an economic miracle, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and making life better for most Chinese, critics contend that without political reforms, this development has been accompanied by many ills.
   Corruption is rife among the ruling class, unbridled development has caused environmental damage, new-found wealth is not equitably redistributed so that income gaps have widened, and there is a sense of social and moral decay.
   China may be the second-largest economy in the world, but its development model "is a disaster for the vast majority of the Chinese people", said Dr Teng.
   For the Tiananmen protesters now in exile, and the rights activists who have followed in their footsteps in fighting for change, keeping alive not just the memory of the suppression but also that of the movement and what it demands, as well as the Chinese people's courage to stand up to the powers that be, is therefore as important if not more so than before.
   For, as Prof Link wrote: "We remember June Fourth because the worst of China is there - but the best of China is there, too."
   Some of the best and brightest of the generation of young people in 1989 had taken part in the protests that began as gatherings on the square to mourn the reformist former general-secretary of the CCP, Mr Hu Yaobang, who had died of a heart attack on April 15.
   They came from China's top universities, like Peking and Tsinghua. Some were already political activists, like Peking University student Wang Dan, who in 1988 was organising democracy salons to discuss political issues.
   The gatherings in April burgeoned and morphed into a pro-democracy movement that demanded the government deal with issues such as corruption and runaway inflation, allow greater media freedom, and implement educational and political reforms.
   But the student-led movement became a mass movement on April 27 when the students marched in defiance of an April 26 People's Daily editorial - a sign that this came from the very top of the Chinese leadership, Mr Deng himself - calling for an end to the "disturbances"; on that pivotal day, Beijing residents came out in their thousands to provide food and drinks to the demonstrators, or put themselves between the protesters and the police.
   Said Dr Wang Dan, now a historian, of that day: "It was the first time since 1949 under the Communist Party rule that the people had taken to the streets、、. From that day on, the government was the government, the people, the people, and the government was not with the people."
   On that day, too, wrote Professor Beja, "the Chinese people stood up: fear had receded and free expression was taking place".

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