In April and May of 1989, people around the world were inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square, then horrified when the June 4 massacre turned Beijing streets into urban killing fields. China has changed enormously in the twenty years since then, but the Communist Party’s attitude toward 1989 has remained constant. It insists there were no peaceful protests and no “massacre,” just “counterrevolutionary riots” that were pacified by soldiers who showed great restraint. It refuses to acknowledge the losses to relatives of the hundreds of victims, tries to keep young Chinese ignorant of what happened and encourages specialists in the West to stop dwelling on 1989.
This approach is part of a larger effort to change the image of the party, so that mention of its name does not bring to mind visions of the Red Guard of the 1960s, anti-Confucian rallies of the ’70s or the iconic picture of the lone man confronting a line of tanks. Instead, party leaders would like it to be associated with skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples. These pictures fit in better with the party’s view of itself as a pragmatic organization that has moved China forward while honoring traditions, transformed cities into showplaces of modernity and raised the nation’s international status and living standards. The 2008 Olympics, seen in this light, was the most expensive rebranding campaign in world history.
The regime’s approach to 1989 is open to criticism on moral grounds. It is wrong to claim that the only martyrs of June 4 were a handful of soldiers attacked by crowds. And it is cruel to keep parents of victims from publicly mourning.
The party’s version of post-1989 history can also be challenged. Consider, for example, how Perry Link, a leading China specialist, ends his May 17 Washington Post review of Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, the newly released posthumous memoir of the former party leader who was placed under house arrest for opposing the use of force in 1989. China’s rulers “claim they have lifted millions from poverty,” Link writes, “but in truth the millions have lifted themselves, through hard work and long hours, and in the process have catapulted the elite to unprecedented levels of opulence and economic power.” Rejecting the notion that today’s leaders are popular and firmly in control, he closes with this metaphor: “The seal continues to straddle the ball–insecure as ever, but still definitely on top.”
These sentences are beautifully wrought. And though I think Link’s circus analogy is misleading, I agree with his oft-stated insistence that China specialists need to resist the temptation to put 1989 behind us.
One reason to keep dwelling on 1989 is that common misunderstandings about that year persist, in China and in the West. For example, many Americans still think protesting students were the main victims of the massacre, even though the majority of the dead were workers who had turned out to support the educated youths. Many Americans also misremember those students as people who wanted to bring Western-style democracy to China. The reality was much more complex.