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Opinion On one day in 1989, China and Poland were transformed. Their silence today sends a message to the world

Shortly after waking up on Tuesday, I went searching for any trace of the events that had transformed Europe and Asia 30 years ago. It took some looking.

In China, I found more than I expected.

Logging on to the enormous Chinese social-media platforms WeChat and Weibo, I knew I would not see the phrases “June 4” or “Tiananmen Square,” or any 30-year-old images of happy students protesting for a more open government in dozens of cities, or the tanks and corpses that followed.

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Beijing uses hundreds of censors and powerful software to block any mention of “June 4.” The Chinese characters for “six-four,” along with other numeric representations of the date, have long been automatically banned on those platforms. On Tuesday, it appeared to me that even the numeral 4 – an unlucky number associated with death, and also the infamous date – was banned in many contexts.

But after a few minutes of searching, I found cracks in the wall. Someone in Beijing had posted a completely black photographic image, alongside the math formula “2 + 2.” Below it she later posted a crying-face emoji. It was a reference that would be understood by millions of people in China – possibly a majority of people. And it would stay up for hours, along with similarly cryptic acts of small-d dissent.

People attend a candlelight vigil in front of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles on June 4, 2019, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of what has generally been known as the Tiananmen Square massacre.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

What is clear is that the Chinese Communist Party has only partly succeeded in its 30-year program to erase any memory of a moment when the country and its leaders very nearly embarked on a much more open, hopeful direction. The official line – that this was a trivial incident that has become a Western obsession designed to humiliate the Chinese – is hard for people to square with the fact that a wide range of topics are forbidden and sometimes physically banned. What has been more successfully erased is any material trace of that hopeful direction.

In Poland, I found less than I expected.

June 4, 1989, was an equally transformative day in Europe, but it didn’t end in violence. For the first time in history, a Communist Party government was defeated in an election, and by a near-total margin – in the culmination of months of negotiations and years of protests by Poland’s Solidarity movement. The totalitarian government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, bankrupt and deeply indebted to Western lenders and no longer protected by the Soviet Union’s tanks, had effectively agreed to hand over power without bloodshed. This triggered a cascade of democratic transitions across the continent, and into Asia.

On Tuesday, however, Poland’s government was silent on the subject. The leader of the country’s governing Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had been an activist in the 1989 democracy revolution, but this week he chose not to make any mention of the date and refused to attend any of the ceremonies or celebrations. The president and prime minister, both members of his party, followed suit. They deliberately turned their attention to another, predemocratic anniversary, the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland.

Former Polish presidents Bronislaw Komorowski and Aleksander Kwasniewski watch as former Polish president and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa, right, signs the Declaration of Freedom and Solidarity during celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the parliamentary elections of June 4, 1989, in Gdansk.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Kaczynski has built his party on a claim that Poland (and the rest of Central Europe) went in the wrong direction in 1989, a claim that appeals to a lot of rural Poles who feel that life was simpler, easier and more certain and religious before communism ended. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and their neighbours spent two decades after 1989 reversing the stifling isolation and repression of totalitarian rule by opening themselves up through trade, NATO membership and the European Union. Many of their leaders, especially in Poland and Hungary, are bent on reversing that course and reverting to something resembling a pre-1989 form of rule.

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We often think of the Polish anniversary and the Chinese one as distinct events on opposite sides of the world. At the time, they weren’t separate; nor were the great transformations that rocked Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany – they were part of a worldwide, highly connected conversation. The Chinese students had taken to the central squares of their cities that spring in large part because they had read and heard, in the explosion of media freedom that China enjoyed in the 1980s, about the dramatic events in Poland.

Knowing about Poland’s talks, Chinese students hoped for a similar set of peaceful negotiations – as had many top leaders of the Communist Party, whose names would be erased from official memory after the tanks had done their work. The Tiananmen activists, in turn, inspired the activists in Prague and Bucharest, and the young environmentalists in Leipzig who began the protests that would bring down the Berlin Wall several months later.

That connectedness, even more than the messages of those protesters, is what the current leaders of Poland, Hungary and China want to delete. Their message is that we live in a much less globalized world than we did in 1989, and they’d rather keep it that way.

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