Lessons from Tiananmen

NEW YORK – It is a chilling thought that exactly twenty years after the “Tiananmen Massacre” few young citizens of the People’s Republic of China have much idea of what happened on that occasion. Many unarmed Chinese citizens were killed by People’s Liberation Army troops on June 4, 1989, not only in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, but in cities all over China. Most were not students, who started the peaceful demonstrations against corruption and autocracy, but ordinary workers, the sort of people a Communist Party ought to be standing up for.

Young people don’t know, because most parents have shut up about it, lest they get themselves and their children in trouble, and because the subject is never mentioned in the official Chinese media; it is a taboo. Websites mentioning the events of 1989 are closed down. Emails are intercepted. People who still insist on talking about it in public are frequently arrested.

Zhao Ziyang was General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989. Although no democrat himself, his sympathies were with the student demonstrators. Because he opposed the hard-liners in his own government, he was put under house arrest until his death in 2005, and his memoirs had to be smuggled out of the country on cassettes, disguised as Peking Opera recordings. They have just been published in English and Chinese, but cannot be legally distributed in China.

Zhao’s book will doubtlessly inspire more debates on what lessons we should draw from “June Fourth.” These are necessary debates. If only they could take place in China. One strong school of thought that emerged almost as soon as the killing began in 1989, is that the more radical student leaders had been reckless. It should have been clear to them that a violent crackdown was inevitable. By provoking the regime, the students derailed any chance of slow political reform, which their more moderate elders had carefully set in train.