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Tiananmen, and China's change

The heroes of the democracy movement were crushed in 1989. That taught Chinese people an indelible lesson, says the pioneering democracy campaigner, Wei Jingsheng.

Wei Jingsheng
4 June 2014

Today, 4 June 2014, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre in Beijing. Many people alive today are too young to know what happened or have never had an opportunity to find out. But those who were more than small children at the time will remember.  The Chinese Communist Party has not forgotten either. Every year around this time, the CCP regime is scared, as if it faces a major enemy. In the last month, reflecting this fear, the regime has increased repression against dissidents and religious believers.

In May-June 1989, the Chinese people were vigorously pursuing a democracy movement. Tens of thousands of Beijing residents gathered in Tiananmen Square and on the streets around the square, trying to protect the students who were demanding democracy and an end to corruption. In response, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng mobilised the army to prepare to massacre those involved. Many students and other people at the time were naive; they really believed that the People's Liberation Army would not shoot at Chinese people.

In the early morning of 4 June, the army moved towards the centre of Beijing. Tanks and machine-guns shot into the crowd on the streets and the square, resulting in thousands of casualties. Enraged citizens threw stones and bottles at the tanks in heroic yet hopeless resistance. Rivers of blood ran on the streets and in the square. People all over China fell into grief and depression.

Who, looking at these events, could say that the Chinese people lack courage? The lone young man who stood in front of a row of tanks to stop them moving forward has become an iconic image of the world's media, and rightly so; those who threw stones and bottles againsr tanks and guns, with no concern for their own safety, leave fewer images behind. But recalling both, no one can say that the Chinese are spineless.

Some argue that these young people, unconcerned with their own safety, were acting on impulse and making a silly mistake. This claim has the flavour of a rumour spread by China's rulers to soften people's spirit of resistance; after all, they always want people to resemble lambs ready to be slaughtered.

Unfortunately, this effort has been partially successful. For example, in 1989 many parents supported democracy and anti-corruption, yet prevented their own children from participating in this movement - even locking them up for fear they would be massacred. It is easy to understand the hearts of these parents. Yet their very mentality, an unwillingness to bear their own social responsibility, reflects this attempt at softening.

A false defence

Why do I think the lives of those who fell in 1989 were not wasted? First, their heroic spirit will always be an example to later generations. Second, they awakened everyone to the true nature of this totalitarian regime. After decades of brainwashing and indoctrination by the communists, most people did not know how sinister the regime was. They really thought that the regime loved the people, and that the army really was the people's army.

The massacre of 1989 exploded these myths and aroused the most insensible. It liberated most of those in China who were still immersed in false security. People learned - not theoretically, but from lived experience - that the Communist Party is not the party of the people. They understood that it is an authoritarian party that belongs to a privileged bureaucratic elite; and that the army is a force manipulated by a handful of corrupt officials.

The communist regime has defended itself with two claims. First, if they had not crushed the protests, China would fall into chaos and people into destitution. This argument is a fairytale. How can demands for democracy and anti-corruption lead to chaos? There are many democratic countries in this world; none has become chaotic because of democracy.

On the contrary, democracy is the way to curb corruption. Any disruption it brings is to corrupt officials, thwarting their ability to exploit and oppress the people. This kind of chaos an expression of people's hope to end injustice.

Second, the 4 June massacre made possible the substantial economic development of the next twenty years. Some of China's rich elite also promote this shameless notion. Shameless, because the primary credit for this achievement belongs to the hard work of workers, peasants and businesspeople - followed by the opening of international trade, and even more importantly, the economic rules at work. A backward country catching up with advanced countries is bound to have faster growth than the pioneers.

A deep change

The people in 1989 may not have been very clear about their precise goals, nor able to give their democracy movement the power it needed. Today, the goals of democracy and freedom are much more clearly understood, and the rulers' propaganda has increasingly lost its capacity to deceive. Even those with breadth of vision inside the Communist Party are demanding political reform.

Like every people who have been cheated for years, the Chinese have ceased to believe the lies of those govern them. The massacre of 1989 is the main reason behind the Chinese people's change of thinking over the past twenty-five years - a change much deeper than could be reached by any kind of propaganda.

Against this big background, the major issues today concern how the Communist Party will step down, and who should lead China after that happens. What is without doubt is that the Chinese people - standing on the shoulders of the heroes of 1989 - will find their way to democracy. 

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