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A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace, in Beijing, on June 5, 1989.

STRINGER/Reuters

Charles Foran is the author of 11 books, including House on Fire and Join the Revolution, Comrade. He lived in Beijing from 1988 to 1990.

In the 30 years since the Chinese army killed hundreds of students and protesters in the streets of Beijing, commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre have lost some of their resonance. This isn’t surprising. It was, after all, a different millennium.

It was, specifically, 1989. The Berlin Wall was about to come down, the Soviet Union was heading toward collapse, apartheid was on the verge of being dismantled in South Africa. Things were looking up for supporters of liberal democracy around the world, and there were hints things might change in China, too – the country was emerging from the disasters of Maoism, figuring a way forward. And so, in the months after the massacre, the West slapped the government’s wrist and moved on, afraid any stronger response would undo the modest progress being made.

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But three decades later, there is growing international concern with how that same one-party state is exercising control over its citizens, most notably the massive Gulag for ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in central Asia, and the building of a colossal digital-surveillance network. There is also queasiness over the aggression and agenda of the recently anointed leader for life, Xi Jinping.

If Canada is feeling a little of the aggression, in the form of arresting Canadians living in China in an extradition dispute, dozens of developing countries are experiencing the agenda in full. That is the Belt and Road initiative, a state-fuelled development campaign in more than 60 countries that is fast forging a potent Chinese empire, with many strings attached for the vassal states.

If we are in a collective quandary over how to respond to China in spring 2019, it might be worth looking back to spring 1989. What happened then, and what might have happened had things gone differently, could help us understand what is unfolding now.


Early in the morning of June 4, tanks rolled past the college in east Beijing where my wife and I were teaching. Our living-room floor trembled, and for 20 minutes, it was impossible to speak or think or see much through the dust clouds enveloping the street lamps.

Although we worried part of the battalion might veer onto our campus, students and surrounding residents actually tried slowing the tanks down. They pitched bricks and rocks and requisitioned public buses as barriers. Soldiers fired back with bullets and mortars, lighting the sky. Two students from the school next door died.

As Beijingers suspected, the battalion was headed for the centre of the city, 10 kilometres west, with orders to clear out Tiananmen Square using all necessary force. The sprawling asphalt square had been host to a peaceful seven-week-long occupation by university students and citizens.

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In this May 28, 1989, photo, students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square as their strike for government reform enters its third week.

Jeff Widener

The democracy movement had peaked a sunny afternoon a couple of weeks earlier, when more than a million people marched around Tiananmen, or sat in groups chatting about their country and the future they hoped for it. Thousands slept in tents. Hundreds staged hunger strikes, including Chai Ling, the highest-profile of the female student leaders.

By early June, there were ominous signs the occupation should wind down. Martial law had been declared. General-secretary Zhao Ziyang, the reform-minded Communist Party chief, had visited the hunger strikers on the square, where he had wept and said: “Students, we come too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary.” Mr. Zhao had now disappeared from public view.

As well, a group of art students had sculpted the Goddess of Democracy, a 10-metre-high riff on the Statue of Liberty. They assembled it on Tiananmen on May 30, facing the portrait of Mao Zedong. Their intent was to energize fellow protesters. The effect was to embarrass and enrage conservative Party elders, who saw a direct plea to the United States.

Student activists work on the Goddess of Democracy at a campus near Tiananmen Square, on May 29, 1989.

STRINGER/Reuters

What followed was bloody and shocking, especially once the massacre of several hundred people was disappeared from the official record: The killings never happened; only a handful of troublemakers died. The democracy movement itself became a failed counterrevolution by reactionary elements – its status inside China to this day.

June 4 marked the end of a brief period when China looked to the thought systems of the West for insights. It also gave thrust to the models of economic liberalization matched by political and social oppression of the 1990s and 2000s. Mr. Xi’s current iron rule is a continuation of a party policy around dissent that found its defining expression on Tiananmen Square.

But could things have gone any differently in 1989? Mr. Zhao, the highest-ranking official in the land, was a smart and sympathetic leader. Among his proposed reforms was a greater separation of the Communist Party from the Chinese state. All these years later, that remains a heretical notion, and less likely than ever to occur. Question the divine right of the party to rule, and bad things happen to you.

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In the end, Mr. Zhao was purged for supporting the students. He spent the remaining years of his life under house arrest, a ghost of what might have been. As importantly, hardliners who now controlled the party ceased wanting even modest reform thinkers such as Mr. Zhao to occupy leadership roles. A wave of technocrats, bloodless and efficient, swept into key positions. They have no lines of thought, except the usual hard ones.

A handcuffed man is led by Chinese soldiers through a Beijing street on June 14, 1989, as police and soldiers continued searching people involved in the pro-democracy protests.

AFP / Getty Images

The student leader Chai Ling is another type of individual the government apparently wishes to never obtain real power – a woman. Ms. Chai, a psychology major at the country’s top university, came under unbearable strain as the spokeswoman for the hunger strikers. Even so, her charisma and intelligence were evident.

Hunted by authorities after June 4 – all the student leaders were dubbed criminals, and arrested and imprisoned, if they didn’t flee the country – Ms. Chai was smuggled out of China. She ended up at Princeton University, became a psychologist and now lives in a suburb of Boston.

Two generations of young leaders have been coerced, driven into exile or simply smothered at birth by the rough lesson in absolute power of June 4. But for women, Chinese politics since 1989 has truly been a black hole. Of the 25 members of the current Politburo, 24 are men wearing black suits.

While it may be a generalization that rule by men ensures the triumph of aggression and violence over other approaches to governance, it is also usually the case. China in 2019 is absolute male rule.

Finally, the quarter-century anniversary of Tiananmen occasioned some hopeful commentary around whether the propaganda campaign waged by the government to erase what it had done on June 4, and what the democracy movement had achieved, would have been possible in the digital era.

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Suppose, these commentators suggested, protesters in 1989 had been carrying smartphones and taking photos, making videos, of all that unfolded, and then broadcasting them out instantaneously to everyone, everywhere, both inside China and around the world. Could the government have told and sold those lies so easily afterward?

This spring, Human Rights Watch issued the report, China: How Mass Surveillance Works in Xinjiang. The report confirms every worst fear about the acceleration of an algorithmic surveillance system now capable of accessing the data of all citizens, and monitoring their public and even private behaviours.

Westerners may be familiar with China’s “citizen score” to incentivize compliant habits. This social-credit system aggregates demerit points against individuals for crimes such as tweeting unfavourable comments about China or complaining about corrupt officials. Those citizens are then denied jobs and apartments as punishment.

The HRW report focuses on a mobile app that shares among police and security forces in Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest, everything about individuals that deviates from the norm, information lifted from servers and apps and individual cellphones, including ones that are offline. “Micro-clues” of suspect behaviour include gasoline purchases, whether a person uses the back door of their home, if they buy a new phone with foreign numbers on it. “Xinjiang police,” the report says, “are using illegally gathered information about people’s entirely lawful behaviour – and using it against them.”

The result, for Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, according to HRW, is a nightmare of “mass arbitrary detention, forced political indoctrination, restrictions on movement and religious oppression.” These latest digital-surveillance techniques will shortly spread across the rest of China, and be employed against the Han majority as well.

Had the students in 1989 been carrying phones, the crackdown would surely have been far worse – for them, their families and friends, and their colleagues. The roundup of dissidents would have been swift and sweeping, and no one would have slipped away, including Ms. Ling. Her prison sentence would have been long and devastating.

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Likewise, should there ever be another attempt at a democracy movement in China, those involved will come under immediate surveillance, likely before any free thoughts leave their computers, or even their mouths. They won’t stand a chance.

That is the Communist Party-ruled China the West is grappling with in 2019. Reformers never get near power; men rule by fear and intimidation; technology aids and abets unlawful social monitoring and coercion. Had the 1989 democracy movement triumphed, even to the extent of triggering an examination of the fair limits of political expression in a nation with no history of democratic institutions, some of this might look different. But it didn’t, and the moment for such outrageous and courageous public gestures of citizenship has come and gone.

In a way, the rest of the world should do on each anniversary of June 4 what Chinese inside their own country cannot. Remember the dead by name. Honour the brave aloud. Declare that those astonishing weeks before the massacre did happen, and were not erased by the violence. Affirm that the feelings, thoughts and hopes behind the democracy movement were real, and authentic to many Chinese hearts and minds.

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