May 35. One of my Chinese acquaintances in Beijing never forgets this “date.” It alludes to the day that the Tiananmen Square incident took place in the heart of Beijing on June 4, 1989, just a quarter century ago.
In China, it is taboo to say even a single word about the June 4 incident, the crackdown implemented by the government of the Chinese Communist Party through the military to clamp down on student-led protesters demanding democratic reforms.
To circumvent censorship, “May 35” was used at one time on the Internet.
On June 4 this year, my acquaintance plans to once again take a walk alone down the street leading to Tiananmen Square, where many people of his generation shed their blood that day in 1989. He had just entered the working world at the time of the clampdown.
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Public events commemorating the tragedy are forbidden, so almost every year he has observed his own version of a memorial service for those who passed away in the incident, unaccompanied by anybody else.
During the walk, he sometimes sees an elderly couple holding a memorial quietly off the street, apparently in prayer for the soul of their son or daughter who died in the 1989 event, he said.
“Every time I see their anguished faces, it’s brought home to me that the incident hasn’t been brought to an end yet, even after a lapse of 25 years,” he said quietly.
The Communist Party government has defined the Tiananmen incident as a “counterrevolutionary riot” and justified the government clampdown by saying the rapid economic growth in China that followed the incident should be taken as attesting to the righteousness of the crackdown.
This logic has been used to assert that China would have witnessed the crumbling of government authority, as in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and that a chaotic society would have become unavoidable if no strong government action had been taken at the time.
However, well-known former student leaders who fled abroad, such as Wang Dan, are not the only ones unconvinced by this argument. As my acquaintance’s words show, there remain plenty of divergent views even within China over the Tiananmen incident.
In China, however, the public has not been informed about the Tiananmen incident, not even about how the military crackdown on pro-democracy students and activists unfolded. Memories of the incident have steadily faded as dissenting opinions have been wiped out in China, now the world’s second-largest economic power, under the slogan of “the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
“I’ll dedicate the prize to victims of the incident,” a tearful Liu Xiaobo reportedly said in jail after the Chinese democracy activist won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Even after Liu was awarded the prize, China has continued to repress pro-democracy activists. Most intellectuals agree that no prospect has emerged for political reform even after the inauguration of the Xi Jinping administration last year, and the situation is even worse than before as China tightens controls on speech.
Xu Zhiyong, a founder of the New Citizens’ Movement that calls for solving social problems and protecting human rights on constitutional grounds, was recently convicted of “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” and sent to jail. Although it is moderate by any standard, his movement is seen as a challenge to the monolithic rule of the Communist Party.
“Corruption has been getting more rife in the over 60 years (since the establishment of the nation),” reads a passage from Xu’s book, published in Hong Kong on the day his ruling was finalized. “It is impossible to establish a clean government under absolute power, under which democratic elections, the freedom of the press and an independent judiciary do not exist.” To our eyes, his arguments are nothing unusual, but such a line of opinion is not tolerated in China.
After the Tiananmen incident, the Chinese government strengthened its patriotic education in a bid to prevent a further slide in the party’s leadership. Chants of “patriotism” and “party allegiance” have continuously been used to fan the nationalism of the “Chinese nation.”
But it is unacceptable to propagate the Chinese dream of developing national prosperity and military strength while covering up the crackdown on Tiananmen Square. China will become a genuine major power only when it faces the dark side of its history.