A quarter century after Tiananmen Square, China has made huge economic – not political – progress

On the anniversary of June 1989, the Communist Party is still silencing debate

“Tank Man” who placed his shopping bags down to face down the tanks.   in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5th, 1989, at the height of the pro-democracy protests. Photograph: Jeff Widener/AP

“Tank Man” who placed his shopping bags down to face down the tanks. in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5th, 1989, at the height of the pro-democracy protests. Photograph: Jeff Widener/AP

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

The anniversary of the June 4th, 1989, crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, a nationwide protest centred on Tiananmen Square at Beijing’s heart, is always a fraught time in China.

This year marks 25 years since the attack on demonstrators, and the Communist Party is more determined than ever to block discussion of what happened on that day and silence its critics with a wide-ranging round-up of dissenting voices.

Yesterday, on Chang’an Avenue, or the Avenue of Heavenly Peace, which leads to the vast square, there were armoured vehicles, soldiers and People’s Armed Police.

Journalists have been warned off going to the square on the anniversary.

This is due in part to increased terror activity by Xinjiang separatists, which has led to a spate of dreadful attacks around China, but the deployment is aimed at ensuring Tiananmen Square does not become a focus for dissent on the 25th anniversary.

On the night of June 3rd, 1989, there was heavy armour on the streets too, as tanks rumbled on to Tiananmen Square to confront the skinny students with loudhailers scattered around the vast concourse overlooked by Mao Zedong’s portrait before the Forbidden City.

Attack on protesters

People’s Liberation Army troops attacked protesters there and at other points around the city over that night and the following day.

Hundreds, possibly thousands were killed. Early casualty figures from the Chinese Red Cross put the dead at 2,600, but the Chinese government says 241 died.

Working out how many people perished has not been made any easier by the fact the government has always banned investigation into what happened.

The Communist Party insists the crackdown was necessary to ensure stability and lay a solid foundation for the political and economic future of China.

The intervening years have seen China undergo a great period of social change, with millions lifted out of poverty and the country emerging as a world power.

President Xi Jinping has embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms but they are all economic, and there are no signs whatsoever of political reform, of greater democratisation, taking place. Politically, nothing has really changed in a quarter century – the same party is in power and the same rules apply.

The dreadful events of early June 1989 mean there is uneasiness overseas at one-party rule by the Communist Party, and have made it difficult to truly celebrate the country’s remarkable economic achievements.

As the respected legal scholar Jerome A Cohen wrote in the South China Morning Post: “In recent years, despite China’s impressive economic development, the situation for civil and political rights has significantly deteriorated, and prospects for the immediate future appear grim.”

These days, there is little awareness of what happened among young people, but this is a carefully cultivated reality, as the party forbids public discussion – 1989 is banned from school textbooks and Chinese websites.

The run-up to the anniversary has been marked by a stifling clampdown on press freedom, and the detention of human rights defenders and activists, including lawyer Pu Zhijiang, Beijing University lecturer Hu Shigen, Beijing Film Academy professor Hao Jian, researcher Xu Youyu and writer Liu Di.

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