The 25th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square uprising and subsequent massacre won’t be officially observed by Beijing. This is not to say it won’t be marked. Every year, around this time, activists and those who lost loved ones in the crushing of the pro-democracy movement are rounded up, placed under house arrest, taken to prison or otherwise cowed into silence.
This state-imposed amnesia means an entire generation of young Chinese citizens know practically nothing of what happened, beyond the party line. China’s leaders continue to claim the government intervened to “restore calm.” School textbooks have been scrubbed of reality and references on the Internet blacked out.
The Chinese government’s paranoia in the immediate wake of Tiananmen Square, and its instinct to crack down, may have made sense from its point of view. But 25 years on, the regime should face the facts of its own history. In many ways, China has moved on. It has emerged as an economic powerhouse, boasts a young, educated population and has shown itself willing to confront some of the world’s most pressing problems – from air pollution to the poverty of its own people.
But China’s remarkable progress stops at political freedom. It remains a one-party state wholly opposed to reform. The regime relies on torture and imprisonment to stifle dissent. China’s strategy of liberalizing the economy while ignoring political freedom can only hold for so long. Young, educated Chinese may seem too preoccupied with their new wealth to question limits on their liberty, but through travel and engagement with the rest of the world, they are increasingly aware of it. If China wants to advance with the ambitions of its population, it needs to confront its past. None of that can happen until Chinese authorities are willing to cut through the fog of amnesia that descends every spring.