China Silent Again on Tiananmen Anniversary

In mainland China, public discussion of the Chinese army's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989 remains banned. As always, official media made no mention of the June 4 anniversary this year. Memories of the massacre in and near Tiananmen Square and the drive to push China toward multi-party democracy remain very much alive among those who witnessed the incident.

Many of the student leaders of the pro-democracy movement, which shook the Chinese government enough to use tanks and guns against demonstrators, went into exile after June 4, 1989.

But some stayed and have continued to speak out, often at great risk. Each year they demand redress for victims and a reassessment of the crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mostly young people were killed.

Zhao Xin is one of the student leaders of the 1989 movement who stayed and continued his work promoting human rights and democracy. His work has landed him in prison where he has suffered severe beatings and other torture.

Sitting at a university café in Beijing, he reflects on how conditions in China today compare to those leading up to the events of 1989. He notes how rural residents angry over land confiscations, unfair taxes, and dangerous pollution have in recent years turned to violent protests.

"That was a non-violent, peaceful demonstration. But at present, since China has become full of so many corrupt officials, farmers have no place to vent their grievances. There are some similarities [to 1989]. Because there is strong suppression, so many people are fighting back using violent means. That is why there are so many incidents where people fight for their rights using violence," he said.

Zhao says China's explosive economic growth and the opportunities it provides for young people are keeping a lid on unrest at the universities, as are the Communist leadership's repression of dissidents and its control of the media. But he says his conversations with students today make him believe that repression alone may not be enough to contain unrest if and when there is an economic downturn.

"Our generation is not as smart as the young generation, to be honest. We had a lot of hope in them [the communist leaders] in the past. We did not truly know them and did not get rid of our hope in them until June 4, until their inhuman suppression of unarmed students and residents," said Zhao. "But today's students are very different. They are very clear on the realities in their heart, but they keep it to themselves because they are waiting for a spark in the future."

The government labeled the 1989 demonstrations a counterrevolutionary riot and justifies the crackdown as necessary to guarantee the stability that has since brought prosperity to China.

There are moderate voices who want to discuss the June 4 crackdown, including those of victims' relatives, but who do not call for regime change in China. They merely demand an explanation of what happened to the missing and for the right to openly commemorate the dead.