The current political climate has drowned out dissenting voices, but a small group of campaigners say the events from June 4, 1989 are as relevant today as they have ever been
Veteran campaigners say the Covid-19 outbreak and other problems highlight the need for reform and free speech
Byron Chen Chun is better informed than most people in China, but he admits that this year that 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown nearly slipped his mind.
“June 4? The date might have passed me by if you hadn’t brought it,” he admitted.
“It’s just there have been too many competing agendas these days that hardly leave any room for one to reflect upon June 4,” Chen said.
Last year the Shenzhen-based political scientist and author fell foul of online nationalists after observing a protest across the border in Hong Kong and posting two pictures on mainland social media.
Even though they were only for private viewing, screen shots started circulating more widely – becoming a repeat trending topic on Weibo.
He found himself widely denounced as a supporter of Hong Kong independence and interrogated by police, while his personal information was shared across multiple platforms.
A piece he wrote based on his experience that analysed nationalism among young Chinese landed him a Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award, but the fervour unleashed on the Chinese mainland by the protests – as well as events such as the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the escalating tensions between China and the US – have left Chen and other intellectuals feeling overwhelmed.
“Political views are so polarised that there is no room for rational discussions or reasonable judgement. You will be labelled a supporter of independence if you show any liberal-leaning ideas about Hong Kong,” Chen said.
“I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like in the past months during the pandemic. It’s not just my daily life that was affected but my mental capacity too, constantly occupied by thoughts such as ‘what if the US and China go to war? Will there be a global recession? Will liberalism eventually come to an end in China?’
“[This] has kept any discussions about the June 4 anniversary exceptionally quiet this year.”
Nowadays, a detailed knowledge of the events of June 4 1989 is limited to a select few, with the majority of the population, especially those who were born after 1989, remaining oblivious to one of the key events in modern Chinese history.
Thirty one years ago, a student-led protest movement staged mass demonstrations and weeks-long sit-ins in the heart of Beijing to protest against corruption and call for reform, transparency and democracy.
But on June 4 it ended with the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, and 31 years later the Chinese authorities are far away from acknowledging any mistakes or admitting it was wrong to use the army to quell the protests.
Today, June 4 remains a political taboo. Any public discussions or commemorations are strictly prohibited and even coded references are subject to heavy censorship online.
This year Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil
– the authorities said it was to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – and a photographic exhibition held every year in Macau was banned.
China’s current leadership has shown no inclination to yield to any of the demands made in 1989 for greater transparency and democracy, even if some observers warn this approach may not prove beneficial for the country.
Last week, the biggest political event of the year ended with senior Communist Party leaders stressing that they would persist with the current political system because they felt it suited the country’s needs and conditions.
Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a body set up to advise the legislature, described it as “democratic, united, pragmatic and progressive”.
But Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said the CPPCC was moving away from its original purpose of providing independent advice to the Communist Party and becoming an echo chamber for the leadership.
Tsang said the Covid-19 outbreak should have highlighted the importance of allowing internal debates, even if open disagreements are not permitted.
But added: “[President] Xi Jinping insisted on the opposite as the lesson to be drawn and by so doing he is not enhancing the party’s capacity to deliver good governance for the country.”
His view was shared by Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, who said “dissenting voices have been silenced” and warned that this meant the body was not able to play any role in resolving crises such as the pandemic, the Hong Kong protests or increasing tensions with the US.
But Zhou Fengsuo, a US-based activist and former Tiananmen student leader, said he saw a silver lining following the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What makes this year encouraging is that we saw an unprecedented number of young Chinese students showing an interest in learning more about June 4 on Telegram channels,” Zhou said, referring to an encrypted messaging app favoured by protesters and dissidents because of its freedom from government control.
Zhou said that previously mainlanders had shown little interest in talking to activists such as Wang Dan, another student leader in 1989, but the pandemic had driven more people to get over the “Great Firewall” to seek information from outside China.
“Large-scale commemorations linking mainlanders with the activists were not possible in the past but such events can now happen thanks to the pandemic,” he said.
He said incidents such as the death of Li Wenliang – the Wuhan doctor who tried to warn colleagues about the coronavirus – had also woken people up to the importance of free speech.
“This is why the June 4 movement of 1989 is still of relevance to China today,” he continued.
Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran Hong Kong-based activist, is focussing his efforts to keep the flame of the Tiananmen protests alive by running a global online commemoration.
He said the theme for this year would be truth, life, freedom and resistance using the hashtag #6431Truth.
Lee also sai the lessons of the pandemic and the death of Li have reminded more Chinese of the importance of free speech and government transparency.
“These calls are still very much alive on social media despite stringent censorship being enforced [by Beijing], but these are exactly the same aspiration pursued by the June 4 student movement,” Lee said.
“As we move the discussion online, we can see a lot of interest and passion [among the participants]. It’s not that the people have already forgotten, it’s just that they weren’t given adequate channels to express themselves.
“People might appear to be suffering from amnesia because of crackdown and some may have to live in lies in order to survive. But the memory is still alive and the defiance is still in their bones,” Lee said.