Differing responses to political unrest


June 4th, 1989, was one of history’s critical fork-in-the-road days. In China and in Poland choices were made that set two autocratic, supposedly communist societies, on two profoundly divergent courses.

Poland’s first largely democratic elections saw a landslide vote for opposition Solidarity movement win almost all parliamentary seats and provided an inspiration and template for the democratic revolutions that would sweep central and eastern Europe and bring down the Berlin Wall barely four months later.

China’s leaders, on the other hand, drew the opposite lesson from the infectious enthusiasm with which hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets in Europe and Beijing to demand change. Their system and privileges were threatened, and their crackdown in Tiananmen Square that day would cost several thousand student lives.

The power of that democratic idea, of the heady sense of freedom and the sense that it was within their grasp, is still so potent that 25 years on it must still be suppressed. So, in the days before the Tiananmen anniversary we have again seen detentions, increased security in Beijing and tighter controls on the internet, including disruption of Google services. Just some of the detainess include: artist Guo Jian for a weekend Financial Times interview describing why he had joined the protests 25 years ago; and for attending a meeting to plana a commemoration, prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Beijing University lecturer Hu Shigen, Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, the researcher Xu Youyu and the writer Liu Di. Journalists too – Wu Wei, missing for weeks, presumably because for backing Pu Zhiqiang, Xiang Nanfu, Gao Yu ....

But the truth will out. Even 25 years on the picture of responsibility for that bloody day is becoming clearer. Over the weekend the New York Times published new evidence of suppressed army dissent at the time of the massacre. One senior officer’s testimony is particulalrly striking. Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian, leader of the mighty 38th Group Army, one of the key Beijing garrisons, is reported as saying the protests were a political problem and should be settled through negotiations, not force. He refused to lead his troops into the square and told a historian “I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history.” He was arrested, expelled from the party, and served four years in prison.