Tiananmen Square 30 years on: 'The history has not been stilled'

June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The events that took place on this date — which are commonly known in China as the June Fourth Incident — followed several weeks of nationwide pro-democracy protests which saw demonstrators occupy Tiananman Square from early May. On June 4, the People's Liberation Army was ordered to crush the protest movement at Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the death toll vary from several hundred to several thousand. This pivotal event remains one of the most taboo subjects in the history of the People's Republic of China.

What is the relevance today of the events that took place at Tiananmen Square? We put the question to three China experts…

Jason Young, Director, New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre; Associate Professor, Political Science & International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington

The current relevance of June 4, 1989 is to understand the limits of China’s top-down reform process. The protests and demonstrations across China in early 1989 revealed a range of dissatisfactions amongst the Chinese population, from those suffering economic disenfranchisement and lawlessness to those frustrated with the political system. These voices had grown louder following a reform process that had started a decade earlier on the back of the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Reforms focussed primarily on new modes of economic organisation and increased engagement with the world and had a massive impact on people’s lives as economic opportunities opened up in a largely unregulated environment leading to corruption, loss of the traditional “iron rice bowl”, growth in inequality and the exploitation of workers, as well as kickstarting China’s rapid economic growth.

In response, reforms were introduced that tinkered with new political ideas and processes, such as increasing political dialogue with society and strengthening law and regulations. June 4, however, showed the limits of the reform process as China's political elites used force to silence and disperse the protests. This made clear the elites would not tolerate dissent and that the reform process was not designed to fundamentally change the central role of the Chinese Communist Party in China’s overall governance structure, a position the Party has held since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and continues to hold today. 

Stephen Noakes, Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations, University of Auckland

The short answer is I don’t know — I know that’s not satisfying, but it’s true. The relevance in China is that it is a security consideration for the central state. Typically with these sorts of anniversaries you see a ramping up of security measures to counteract any public gestures that might be made to commemorate them. But it’s not something that gets publicly discussed. On rare occasions when it is publicly discussed, it’s not referred to as anything other than the “6/4 incident”, which is a choice of language that is deliberately meant to downplay its significance. The word “incident” implies that it was a very tiny, one-off event, rather than a Chinese branch of a global democratisation movement.

We don’t talk about human rights in China the way we used to, especially in New Zealand. People still recognise that Tiananmen happened and there will be small events here to mark the anniversary, but the sense in New Zealand is that this is too small a country that is too dependent on other places for its economic vitality to be overly political in our outlook and speech. It’s quite often the case that we obfuscate, self-censor, and skirt these issues — the centrepiece of which is Tiananmen — for no better reason than we don’t want to annoy China.

We used to think that the reason that nobody in China used to talk about Tiananmen was they feared some sort of official reprisal. Maybe that’s true in isolated cases, but I think the reason is this event was and still is something that the Chinese people feel deeply ashamed of. There were sympathy strikes and demonstrations all over China in May and June 1989. The real focus that grabbed international attention was of course Tiananmen.

There has not been any form of public healing or even grieving process that would allow them to move past it. China is simply not ready for that national conversation with itself yet. If there is some role for the international community, it would be in choosing our moments and our words wisely but encouraging China, when it’s ready, to have the conversation that needs to be had. It’s part of a national psyche and its effects are reverberating all these years later.

Duncan Campbell, New Zealand Contemporary Chinese Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington

I was lecturing in the Department of Asian Languages & Literatures of the University of Auckland at the time. Along with a number of my colleagues and senior students, two resident poets Gu Cheng and Yang Lian, and a large group of mainland Chinese students at the university, we organised protests (both in Auckland and in Wellington, outside the PRC Embassy and at Parliament Buildings), street theatre of various kinds, a Festival of the Survivors, petitions, fundraising for the victims and so on. A stone commemorating the dead in Beijing and elsewhere because of the suppression was erected in the grounds of St Andrews Presbyterian Church, just across Symonds Street from the university later in the year. The plaque on this stone was vandalised recently but has been restored. The history of this particular moment in time needs to be written sometime.

Distressingly, the 30th anniversary of the violent suppression by the party-state of the student-led protests in Beijing and elsewhere in June 1989 occurs at a moment in history when the People’s Republic of China is more repressive of the rights and freedoms of ordinary Chinese people than any time since that year, and more powerfully so, because of the advanced technology of surveillance and increased state wealth. The incarceration of now over a million Uyghur people in Xinjiang, reportedly, is perhaps the most egregious example such repression, but many others, too, are suffering from the tyranny of a party-state that has placed itself above its own laws. Chinese voices of conscience continue to make themselves heard, however, and the aspirations of the protestors of 1989 are as relevant now as they were then. Of one thing I think we can be certain; some day in the future, the wrongs of 1989 will need to be faced in the People’s Republic of China, openly and honestly. That history has not been stilled.

 - Asia Media Centre