Tiananmen, revisited

Thirty years later, the legacy of the Tiananmen protests is more complex than ever

Three "Goddesses of Democracy", a statue that symbolise the Tiananmen protests, over a red yellow gradient. Artwork by Ludmilla Nunnell

3 June, 1989. Tiananmen Square. Months of student protest in China’s political heart culminate in a brutal, bloody crackdown. As tanks and soldiers march into the square, protesters are shot. By daybreak, hundreds, if not thousands, are dead.

* * *

3 June, 1989. Beijing. My aunt is in middle school. Despite state-run news urging people to stay inside, she nonetheless ventures out to see what’s happening, more out of curiosity than any democratic fervour. Before she can leave Beijing’s ancient, winding back alleyways, she hears a sudden roar of bullets in the distance. Terrified, she runs back home.

More than 20 years later, she recounts that night to me. We are in the safety of home, but still, she talks about it in hushed tones and a voice so low it’s almost a whisper. My cousin sits impassively beside me on the couch, more interested in his iPad than he is in his mother’s story. Maybe he’s heard it already. Maybe he hasn’t, but thinks it happened too long ago for him to care. Everyone in Beijing that night seems to know exactly what they did when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen, but my aunt notes that the young people of today know nothing about it. Not even my cousin, she scowls.

But, just as she’s about to get carried away into explaining what she thought of the loss of innocent life, she abruptly stops, and her tone changes.

“Those poor students were exploited by people in the shadows. They died fighting for someone else’s cause,” she says, before adding that many soldiers were killed that night as well.

The conversation ends there, and she proceeds to talk about other, more mundane topics. Tiananmen hangs in the mouths of people from her generation like Chinese medicine — bitter and repugnant. You want to spit it out, but you know you must swallow it for your own good.

* * *  

5 June, 1989. Guangzhou. Thousands of kilometres from Beijing, my parents are fresh out of university and slowly finding their place in China’s emerging middle class, and like most people, they are outraged at what they see on television. But unlike most, they are not watching state-run channels; Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong means they can receive broadcasts from the then-British Colony. They see shocking details the rest of China have no idea of. Indignant, my father, a member of the ruling Communist Party, decides to wear a black armband to work in solidarity. Some people they know are even trying to make their way to Beijing to join the protests. A close friend begs my father to lend him a nice shirt he owns — one does want to look their best at an anti-government uprising, of course. My father refuses — “if they shoot you it’ll ruin my shirt,” he retorts.  

But it’s all for nought. The whole country is in lockdown. The trains have stopped running, roads are closing, and social disorder is beginning to spill out into streets all over China.  In the days leading up to “June the 4th,” my parents recall having already seen massive protests in their own city, forcing life to a chaotic standstill.

At work, my father realises that he is the only one wearing a black armband. Feeling rather out of place, he takes it off, unwittingly ensuring that he will eventually come to Australia as an immigrant, not a refugee. Others are not so lucky. A few years later, my parents offer to hide a student-protester-turned-dissident in their apartment as he waits for political asylum overseas.

Looking back on it now, my father wryly notes that had the protests held out for just a few more weeks, they would have then ridden the wave of revolution that had swept across Europe, and that the China we know today would probably not exist. He does not say this with regret about what could have been, but more with relief about what actually happened.

Thirty years after Tiananmen, “the China we know today” is deeply shaping how people like my parents and my aunt view the protests. Their initial outrage and shock has dissipated, and from it has emerged a belief that the crackdown was tragic but necessary. This change cannot simply be attributed to a collective amnesia brought about by government propaganda — it is hard to retell a narrative if you do not speak of it at all. Instead, their pragmatism stems from how the Chinese state addressed the original concerns of the protest in the wake of the bloodshed.

While Western tellings of Tiananmen focus on how it was a fight for democracy, for many Chinese people, the protests were a response to economic anxieties as much as they were to political frustrations. Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping reforms in the 1980s had dragged a society still mired in Communism into capitalist modernity, but while millions were lifted out of poverty as a result, the nascent market economy itself presented many problems. Workers in state-owned enterprises like many in my family, suddenly found themselves unemployed as their workplaces were privatised in order to compete in the new economy. Job security and subsidised living became increasingly uncertain, and in a society that was at least nominally equal, signs of economic inequality began to creep in, delegitimising the government’s official Communist rhetoric. Ironically, university students, who formed the bulk of the protesters, were the worst affected by the liberalisation — capitalism needed workers in light industry and agriculture, not more intellectuals. Further burdening the people was the lifting of price controls, which caused inflation and the cost of living to skyrocket. Consequently, many saw democracy as a better way to deal with the economic challenges presented by marketisation, especially when compared to the current system which was prone to corruption, and controlled by men whose minds were stuck in a bygone era.

But since Tiananmen, the Chinese state has shown a remarkable capacity to manage the economy without the help of democracy. It has learnt that the social stability imperative to its survival comes from maintaining economic prosperity, and so has pursued it at a lightning pace, with an almost inspired diligence. Its grip on power seems stronger now than ever before, not only because of its growing authoritarianism, but also because the Chinese people are genuinely content with it. And why shouldn’t they be? When my parents compare China now to what it was thirty years ago, they don’t see human rights abuses and censorship, but a country more confident, more wealthy, and more powerful than ever before. Meanwhile, when they see the bitter experience of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, many of which endured years of war, social unrest, and economic downturn after Communism collapsed and democracy was established, they cannot help but feel somewhat grateful that it never happened in China. In their minds, history has shown that the government crackdown on Tiananmen was the right decision. Indeed, with the dysfunctional state of political systems in the West, many Chinese have come to the understanding that democracy is deeply undesirable for their country. Tiananmen, then, has become a symbol of misguided idealism.

* * *

4 June, Tiananmen. Had I been a student in Beijing then, faced with a dismal job market and unflinching political conservatism, I too probably would have marched. And, upon seeing the meteoric rise of China that happened in many ways not in spite but because of the failure of the protests — like my parents, I too may have come to view Tiananmen with pragmatic indifference.