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Twenty-Five Years After Tiananmen, China's Repression Is Worse Than Ever

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images News

It is unlikely that anyone outside of China who watched the massacre of peaceful protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on live TV 25 years ago will ever forget the events of that horrible day. 

The Chinese regime argues that the shooting of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators laid the groundwork for political stability and China’s miraculous economic growth. Yet the continuous intensification of repression since then tells another story. Most recently, in early May, the regime “disappeared” a dozen rights activists merely for meeting in a private apartment to commemorate June 4, 1989 and formally detained one of them, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

This was just the latest in a series of harsh repressions. Five years ago, Tiananmen activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was handed an eleven-year prison sentence for advocating civil rights and constitutionalism. Earlier this year, human rights activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison for opposing corruption and abuse of power. The National Endowment for Democracy, with which we are both affiliated, honored Liu and Xu on May 29 in the U.S. Congress in an effort to raise awareness of their cases in advance of the Tiananmen anniversary—and through their cases, to bring awareness to the estimated 4,800 political prisoners in Chinese jails and camps. 

The need to sustain and progressively intensify repression is a sign that the June 4 crackdown did not solve China’s problems; it exacerbated them. The ruling Chinese Communist Party faced a fork in the road in 1989. It could have dialogued with the students, as party leader Zhao Ziyang advocated, forming a common front against corruption. But the prime minister, Li Peng, argued that dialogue could end the Party’s monopoly on power. The top leader, Deng Xiaoping, sided with Li and the rest is history.

Refusal to dialogue with citizens has marked the regime’s modus operandi since then. This explains why citizens lack trust in government when it comes to land seizures, corruption, and pollution. Recent demonstrations against the building of a chemical plant in Maoming, Guizhou, and against an incinerator project in Hangzhou are signs of this corrosive mistrust.

Indeed, repressing the memory of June 4 has itself become a fresh motive for repression elsewhere. As Freud (and Nietzsche before him) argued, forgetting is not a natural process. It takes continuous effort. And there are multiple examples of repressed memory besides June 4: the cruelties of the land reform movement in the early 1950s, the anti-rightist movement of the late 1950s, the great famine during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Mao’s licentious private life, and many other subjects that people would otherwise want to discuss and debate.

Keeping mouths and minds shut is the task of a growing security apparatus. In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, a book one of us co-edited with Xu Youyu, one of the persons who disappeared on May 3, shows how the political police have a wide range of flexible measures that they can use to warn people to keep quiet. “Inviting to drink tea” (as police interrogations are known), round-the-clock surveillance, and disappearing people for a few weeks or months are just the first steps. These procedures cause less suffering than the beating and killing that took place under Mao, but they are still traumatic and suffice to warn most people to mind their own business. If these measures do not get the message across, the police can escalate to trumped-up criminal trials and jail terms as they did with Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong.

June 4 is connected not only to other historical memories that have been repressed and to other issues of injustice in the lives of ordinary Chinese people, but also to the way in which China handles the ethnic groups that it designates as “national minorities,” especially the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other provinces near Tibet. Beijing tries to force modernization, development, secularism, and assimilation on these populations without respecting their sense of identity. This has led—extremely gradually and reluctantly—to acts of resistance, to which Beijing responded again with intensified repression, since dialogue is deemed too risky. Not only does Beijing believe it could lose control over vast strategic areas, but it would also imply the need to talk openly with the residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong—and again, the domestic public in China proper.

With each new regime since Deng Xiaoping, the outside world and many Chinese like Liu and Xu have hoped for liberalizing “political reform.” Instead, repression has worsened under Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi Jinping. Will China democratize? Probably yes, eventually; the present way of rule is not sustainable. But with every passing year the risk of opening up is greater, because the social demands that have been repressed are growing.