Written by Jackie Sheehan.
In the first few years after the 1989 citizens’ movement, we used to try to predict when the next such outbreak would occur in China. Even then, there was little likelihood that any anniversary gathering on the Square would find the political space to develop in the way that 1989 did. It is an interesting exercise in counterfactuals to speculate whether 1989 would have grown as fast all across China as it did if it had started with student activists’ original plan for events in Beijing on the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, alongside the CCP’s rival commemoration of that key event in their own founding story.
Instead, Hu Yaobang died on April 15th, and without wishing to sound heartless, he was the perfect ex-leader for the job, with his anti-corruption, protest-tolerating credentials. The 1989 movement got away from the top party leadership in that crucial first week between Hu’s death and his funeral. They didn’t dare to suppress it during a period of legitimate mourning – learning perhaps from the backlash against the Gang of Four on April 5th 1976, when they tried to smear the memory of Zhou Enlai around the Qing Ming festival when heroes of the revolution were supposed to be remembered – and by the time they decided what to do, it was too late. People from all walks of life in Beijing had met in the Square, hearing speeches and broadcasts, reading pamphlets and posters, and discovering that others were asking the same questions as they were, and these scenes were repeated in cities all over China.
Workers’ protest from day one thus broke out of the tidy cellular pattern of work-unit activity vulnerable to established, top-down lines of control, and was off and running before CCP leaders could even agree to call it “counter-revolutionary turmoil”, while Beijing’s students were revelling in the scale and spectacle of those early marches from the university district down to the Square. Publishers like anniversaries, too, and studies of the first forty years of the PRC by Jonathan Spence and Jack Gray needed hasty revisions to their final chapters in order to take account of this grassroots mass movement that their authors, along with everyone else, would have thought impossible to organize in the conditions then prevailing in China, before the examples of Eastern Europe’s velvet or violent revolutions later that year made the survival of CCP rule an exception requiring an explanation rather than a given.
Anniversaries are powerful things in Chinese political history, but the trouble with planning uprisings around them in a repressive, authoritarian state is that you tend to lose the element of surprise. So it is not to prevent “turmoil” that Tiananmen Square has been flooded with plainclothes police every early June for the last 25 years, when it was accessible at all. The Square was a construction site on June 4th 1999, as its makeover for the celebrations of the PRC’s 50th anniversary that October 1st ran over schedule – builders’ deadlines, of course, and by no means a calculated plan to avoid on-site commemorations on the first really big anniversary of 1989. The controls today on access, with railings all around the Square and access only through six police checkpoints, and an appointment needed to get to the Monument to the People’s Heroes, mean it is hardly a public space any more in any real sense.
From June 4th 1989 onwards, the main focus for the CCP leadership was to win the contest to define what had just happened, to control how events were remembered and enforce the official verdict of “counter-revolutionary turmoil” against participants’ demands for the movement to be recognized as “patriotic and democratic.” This is still the underlying purpose of the annual round-up of usual suspects to prevent commemorative activities or any discussion of 1989 by former participants (soldiers as well as civilians): CCP leaders want China to forget the June 4th that doesn’t fit the party version of events, but above all, they want the world to see that China has forgotten it.
This is why Bao Tong, former aide to Zhao Ziyang, is on a police-organized holiday until mid-June, and why the Tiananmen Mothers have had to stop, for now, travelling around China collecting the stories of families of the dead and disappeared, many of whom are still prevented from making the traditional offerings for their children on the anniversary of their death. It is why artist and Australian citizen Guo Jian is serving 15 days’ detention in China over an artwork, a diorama of Tiananmen Square covered with minced pork and left to rot, which was never exhibited publicly anywhere, and certainly not in China, but which he had described in a published interview about his memories of 1989. Another target is the Songzhuang artists’ colony on Beijing’s eastern outskirts, where more than ten households are under house arrest, far more than usual, according to resident artist Zhui Hun.
Of the estimated 60 people, at China Human Rights Defenders’ count, who have been detained this year for “creating a disturbance” around the anniversary, several well-known figures including rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, blogger Liu Di, academics Xu Youyu and Hao Jian, and house-church activist Hu Shigen, are facing not just short-term detention or a compulsory “holiday”, but formal charges under state-security laws, after attending a private event in Beijing in late April talking about June 4th. Police told them the unacceptable aspect was that a photograph of the meeting had been posted online – if no-one but the participants had been aware of it, they would not now be facing the possibility of serious jail time. During the Cultural Revolution, you could get a better college education in prison than out in society because that’s where the professors were, and it’s going that way for organizers of Tiananmen seminars.
The scale of Chinese government spending on domestic repression, exceeding the annual defence budget, has been noted before in these pages, and for this year around June 4, there was literally no upper budget limit for charging a Nikkei News Agency staffer with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, or bringing factory worker Liu Wei to from Chongqing to Beijing to be criminally detained for the act of posting online a photograph of himself in Tiananmen Square. It seems to represent particularly poor value for money, though, as the world’s media has been full of participants’ and observers’ reminiscences, while in Hong Kong, record numbers attended the only public commemoration that is possible within the PRC. Perhaps the Chinese authorities should try applying to Google for the right to be forgotten – every time someone looks them up, they find all this stuff from 25 years ago that makes them look bad.
Harder to control, though, is the passing on of direct personal experience. One of Nottingham’s own undergraduates surveyed Chinese students about ten years ago and found that, in a group who were young children in 1989, nearly half had a fairly clear idea of what really happened, having heard it from parents and teachers who were there. Those tens or even hundreds of millions of voices from across China, the ones who in the heady days of April and May 1989 felt such safety in their numbers as they marched in every major city, will never be silenced while 1989 remains within living memory.
Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork.