Twenty years after the pro-democracy uprising in China's Tiananmen Square the Communist Party remains haunted by its reaction

As anniversaries go, there’s little but loathing when it comes to marking the 20 years since hundreds, possibly thousands of people were mowed down by tanks on the order of the Chinese Communist Party. It is 20 years since Tiananmen Square, and the only positive is the knowledge that the Chinese administration is haunted by it and scared.

It may well have fooled the world into allowing it to host the last Olympics, but its dirty little secret of just how many died, on whose orders and why, won’t be dispensed with as easily as those brave citizens who were fighting for democracy.

China may thumb its nose at the world when it comes to human rights, but it would never have taken the measures it has to try and squash any commemorative events of Tiananmen had it really managed to move on from the issue. It began blocking internet sites weeks ago, has now barred foreign reporters, and troops again saturate the once bloodied square.

Much can happen in two decades, unless you are one of the possibly hundreds of political prisoners rotting away in a Chinese prison for daring to question communism and official corruption.

Twenty years ago David Lange resigned, Sir Arnold Nordmeyer died, TV3 launched, and so too did Paul Holmes. Margaret Urlich had the top album with ‘Safety in Numbers’. Not so safe if you happened to be occupying Beijing’s people’s square the night of June 4, 1989.

Then, as now, the almighty CCP had no idea how to deal with any challenge to its authority. It mowed down its own citizens under the cover of darkness. Now it just pulls the cyber-space plug, denies visas, chucks in prison any dissenter, dusts itself off and gets on with the business of being the biggest economic threat to the US. Or does it?

It is easy to forgive the young in China who did not live through the Tiananmen massacre. Who didn’t have brothers or sisters, friends or other relatives who flocked to the tent city to call for democracy and vowed to stay put. Any reference to that six week nightmare for the CCP, and graveyard for a still unknown number, is wiped from official records within China. Trying to find much about it on the net is also impossible as within China, Tiananmen does not subject itself to a search. To this day the actual number killed is not known.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief to know the US Congress has called on China to launch an inquiry into the whole affair and, come to think of it, would they be so good as to release all the political prisoners while they are preparing to hand over the necessary dossiers to the United Nations?

Forgive me but wasn’t the US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi actually IN China last week, and try as I might I can’t find a peep from her on Tiananmen. To be fair she did unfurl a banner there not long after the massacre, but my how things have changed for Madam Speaker in 18 years.

It does however go to the heart of why politics is always so easily labeled a dirty business. It is dirty because it is so damned complicated, particularly when diplomacy, human rights and the pursuit of the mighty dollar are involved. The United States is all but owned by China and needs China desperately if there is to be any hope of sorting out its nuclear trigger-happy neighbour. But the muck doesn’t stick to the US alone. New Zealand has a Free Trade Agreement with China, and it is still pretty difficult to avoid products made in China anywhere in the world. No country boycotted the 2008 Summer Games.

China made it on to the world stage with Nixon’s visit in the early 1970s, but the real steam between the Yen and the Greenback began around the time of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which was also the time of the build up to, and execution of Tiananmen Square.

The unraveling of communism with all the potential social upheaval that could spread to China terrified Deng Xiaoping, almost as much as missing the economic train he had so trumpeted. The flesh and blood of a few troublesome students was no match for the fear of social unrest, let alone a lacklustre yuan (corrected).

And now, twenty years later, China has kept unity of the party, still controls the police and displays a masterful, albeit blunt, control over the propaganda machine – be it blogs or Twitter or Flickr or other terrifyingly macho named enemies of the ‘people’, they are no match.

The trouble for China is it again, 20 years on, faces the prospect of social unrest. Not one triggered by collapsing regimes in Europe, but by the world economic crisis and the massive unemployment and factory closures that is causing will be very much behind the 2009 ‘virtual’ crackdown. The troops are also back and radio reporters who have managed to file have been referring to the Square being littered with plain clothes police as well. During the Olympics such ‘undercovers’ even fronted with handbags so as to blend into the tourist population, until of course they pounced to drag away anyone who might have had a subversive banner.

To those who are still in jail, or to those families who still mourn their dead, or to the young man in the iconic photo that came to define the will of the protesters, they should know they are remembered this week.

Who knows how it all would have turned out had the military defied Deng as armies in other parts of the world have defied autocratic regimes in times of such civil unrest. In China they didn’t and that’s that. But this week’s actions by the government of this most populous nation show the 1989 revolution is not a forgotten one. In fact the Chinese Communist Party is still acting like a scared bully. It is clearly haunted and long may it remain so.

Comments (3)

by Gordon Harcourt on June 04, 2009
Gordon Harcourt

The eradication of memory and awareness of the massacre is deeply disturbing.   I don't really buy into the argument about NZ's Free Trade agreement though.  It was probably the major economic and diplomatic achievement of the Clark govt.   What are we going to do? Say we won't trade with China?  Yeah right.   Sure it's deeply distasteful to bow down at the altar of Chinese commerce, and pander to the disgusting state oppression of the  Chinese, but economically we don't have a great deal of leeway.   

by the way Jane, do you mean Yen or Yuan?

cheers, Gordon Harcourt

by Rosa on June 04, 2009
Rosa

Did NZ have a diplomatic presence in Beijing at that time? Or a trade representative? Someone I worked with in 1990 told me how he was stationed there at the time of the Tiananmen Square incident, and he and his coworkers were trapped inside their office building. Looking out the window down into a dead-end alley at the side, they could see people being herded into the alley by the authorities.

by Graeme Edgeler on June 06, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I must say I was very surprised, watching some of the documentaries which have looked back at the protests at the scale of the thing. I'd never really looked into it, but the length, and the organisation of it all is interesting.

The violence of the protests is something that is also not given much airing - pulling surrendering soldiers (I suspect teenagers or early 20s) from burning tanks/APCs and then killing them with clubs and hatchets...

And the other side too. The parents of protesters turning up to the barricades to try to see what's happening to their kids, being told by the commander that he his going to count to five then order his soldiers(?) to fire, the parents fleeing when warned, and some being shot in the back running away. Then those who'd gotten away returning for a repeat, more being shot each time for maybe half a dozen rounds.

Not just a bunch of protests with a state over-reaction...

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