EDITORIAL: The world has changed, but has China?

Jun. 04, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The 25th anniversary of the infamous events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is upon us, and watching China’s reaction to the occasion tells us that, in some ways, things haven’t changed in the Middle Kingdom.

Many of us remember the military assault on protesters in China’s capital city the first week of June 1989. The events, some of which were televised, temporarily put China in the awkward position of diplomatic isolation and crippled, for a time, its economic position in the world. And while the rest of the world learned (or had reinforced) visually — who can forget the image of the lone protester confronting a column of tanks, making it come to a stop, before he was pulled away — how bad things could be in China, Chinese officials learned something as well: citizens in the Communist nation should forget Tiananmen Square ever happened, not remember it, nor mark its anniversary. A repeat of the events of 1989 must never occur.

It helps us to remember how they came about. It all began following peaceful student protests and marches in the wake of the death of a Communist Party chief. The students were demanding more democracy and more personal freedoms, but eventually, as the number of participants grew, the message became more pointed: they began asking for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s removal.

Some 100,000 protesters eventually occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a scheduled visit to Beijing a few weeks later, the world’s press descended. China tried to hide the protesting students from the media, but it didn’t work — and as marches and protests continued, involving some one million people, martial law was declared. Two weeks later, armed troops began beating protesters after failing to disburse them. No one knows for sure how many died, but there were at least a few hundred, and maybe more than 1,000.

This was in the days before Twitter and social media, so it’s hard to imagine how Tiananmen Square would play out today. But in censorship-heavy China, the government still is using what the Wall Street Journal calls “a well-honed, layered strategy to nip opposition in the bud” by tracking the activities, postings and movements of citizens known to be talking about the anniversary and the government.

One researcher with Human Rights Watch says, “These are strategies that have been used over and over again. Tiananmen also started small. The government has to be on the lookout for sparks … They’ve been working on this for 25 years.”

Some in China don’t even know about Tiananmen Square because the government has been so successful in suppressing news about it. The Community Party there is trying to leave very little to chance. Stories surrounding the anniversary in other media quote some Chinese as saying they don’t even believe that the heroic protests ever happened. With the government’s tight controls on Internet access (many websites are mostly blocked, including Google and major news sites), and oversight of social media (China’s own forms of Twitter and Facebook are tightly controlled and monitored), that’s not surprising.

The world has changed greatly since 1989. Things in the Middle Kingdom haven’t, and in some ways — corruption, arrests, crackdowns — things have gotten worse. It’s a lesson worth noting.