ITS BEEN 25 years since the Tiananmen massacre took place in Beijing the June 4th. On that day, Chinese troops stormed in Tiananmen Square, with tanks and armored cars, killing and arresting thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protesters. Some were arrested and are still imprisoned; however, every year the Chinese government continues to detain dissidents.
Millions of people had taken part in demonstrations, demanding an end to ‘official corruption’ and calling for political reforms. According to a 1998 report by Amnesty International, since the crackdown, the party has refused to release official death toll figures, public investigations on the murders or review the cases of those still imprisoned.
It is estimated that over 250 people are still imprisoned, although the number could be much higher than the cases identified. Many of those were convicted of “counter-revolutionary” offences which since 1997 are no longer crimes under Chinese law. However, the cases of people serving sentences for “counter-revolutionary” offences have not yet been reviewed.
Today, whilst commemorating the 25th anniversary of the seven-weeks protests — starting in mid-April — the authorities have already arrested Pu Zhiqiang. The human rights lawyer was accused of “creating a disturbance” while he was attending a seminar that called for an investigation into the crackdown. Four other activists – Xu Youyu, Liu Di, Hao Jian and Hu Shigen – that took part in the same event were also arrested on the same grounds.
The danger of words
Chinese authorities also announced the detainment of the prominent journalist Gao Yu, who leaked a confidential state document, as Xinhua — China‘s main state news agency — reported: “It’s unclear what document led to her detention,” said Maya Wang, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. “But the case highlights the dangerously vague Chinese state secrets law, in which the designation of state secrets is broad and ill-defined, and can’t be legally challenged in courts”.
Several other activists have been questioned by police, including Zhang Xianling and Ding Zilin whose sons were killed in the crackdown. Separately, a court in Shenzhen handed down a 10-year prison sentence to Hong Kong-based publisher, Yao Wentian, who was detained last year while preparing to publish a book by a dissident author.
The opposite path was granted to the activist Xu Wanping, who was released early from prison after serving nine years of a 12-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xu, who claimed not to have changed his political stance, has been deprived of his political rights for the next four years, as confirmed by the organization Human Rights in China.
To not forget
In the meantime, the world’s first Tiananmen massacre museum opened its doors in Hong Kong, on April 26th. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the new 800-square-foot museum features a collection of artifacts, written documents and nearly 1,000 archival photographs. Despite local opposition — two companies threatened legal action, citing violations of the property deed and anticipated disturbance caused by a high volume of visitors — the organizers managed to take advantage of the quasi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong which is expected to receive 45 million mainland tourists this year. “A lot of people have forgotten what has happened and mainlanders are not allowed to remember,” Cheuk-yan Lee -chairman of the Alliance- told Al Jazeera that it is still forbidden to discuss about the events of 1989.
After years of strict media censorship, seductive economic growth and endless imprisonments, Chinese authorities have managed to control the most personal space of all: memory. From blocking internet access to search terms related to the protests — to bypass internet censorship alternative names have sprung up such as May 35th, VIIV and “Eight Squared” — to using neutralised phrases while describing the events, the government has established a subtle and sophisticated system of control. Despite extensive coverage of the events from western media networks, in China itself collective memory is being suppressed through an artificial rewriting of history and reconstruction of the national identity, acknowledged Louisa Lim, NPR’s China correspondent. And this, according to Lim, was the first step towards lowering a blanket of state-sponsored amnesia.
“The Chinese people have a very strong historical consciousness but their historical memory is always selective”, wrote Zheng Wang, the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University, for Time.com. “In the past few years, I have given lectures and taught courses at several universities in China where, to my surprise, Chinese students from elite universities knew very little about this incident, even though most of them know a lot about the war between China and Japan that ended nearly 70 years ago. However, they cannot be blamed, as there is no access to open resources for them to learn the details of this event”, he added.
In the following years after the crackdown, China faced global condemnation and its economy suffered severe consequences. Foreign loans were suspended by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and foreign governments, tourism revenue decreased from US$2.2billion to US$1.8 billion and foreign direct investment commitments were cancelled.
In order to reshape its national image abroad, the government had to embrace market forces and an open door foreign policy. However, economic liberalism didn’t come with the necessary political reforms as none of the movement’s demands has been accomplished apart from the increase in education funding and the higher salaries for intellectuals. Despite the investor-friendly image abroad, the country is still marked by political conservatism, enormous expansions of power by privileged families and much stricter media censorship. The question is, will economic modernization tempt China into democratizing its political system?