Commentary Magazine


Forgetting Tiananmen

Eighteen years ago today, elements of the vicious 27th Army were mopping up scattered resistance in the center of Beijing. Most of the fighting occurred in the streets west of Tiananmen Square, where Chinese citizens took on armored vehicles with rocks. By the time the People’s Liberation Army pushed its way to the symbolic heart of China, the death toll had reached hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Beijing’s leaders do not permit commemoration of the dead and rarely talk about “that 1989 affair,” as they now euphemistically call it. In Hong Kong, however, Tiananmen remains close to the center of public discourse. This year’s June 4 vigil—an annual event in Hong Kong—attracted 28,000 residents, according to police, and 55,000 in the estimation of organizers. The crowd was about 10,000 larger than it was last year.

The increased turnout was no surprise. Ma Lik, chairman of the main pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, recently stoked public debate on Tiananmen. “We should not say the Communist party massacred people on June 4,” Ma told a group of journalists last month. “A massacre would mean the Communist party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.” His larger point was that Hong Kong, now a special administrative region of China, should not have universal suffrage until its students have received “proper” national education. The fact that people still use terms like “massacre” show, in Ma’s opinion, the citizens’ lack of “heart-felt” patriotism.

But the thorniest problem for the Chinese government is not that China’s citizens will remember the incident—it is, paradoxically, that they will forget. The party stays in power through coercion and, on occasion, force. The Chinese people, however, stage demonstratations whenever they think they can get away with it. There is so much unrest in China today—there are, incredibly, about 150,000 protests in China each year—precisely because the Chinese people are forgetting about Tiananmen and losing their fear of the regime.

The reaction to all this unrest is that the nation’s fourth-generation leaders, especially President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have begun to paint themselves as ordinary citizens. They are increasingly giving up the imperial trappings so favored by their predecessors and spending public holidays in coal mines and isolated hamlets.

Currying favor with the people is the only possible course for this generation. It’s extremely unlikely that the party would survive another uprising of the kind so brutally put down eighteen years ago—it no longer has the ability to order mass slaughter. No current leader has the same kind of autocratic personal authority that Deng Xiaoping possessed, authority necessary to give such a command.

And it’s highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army, at this point, would obey an order of that sort. Even with his military credentials, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. The current civilian leadership does not have Deng’s stature; such an order might split the military and cause a revolt among the officer class. Finally, even if the top brass wanted to shoot, it’s unlikely that ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of most of its people.

So instead of condemning Ma Lik, now embroiled in the uproar he caused, let’s cheer him on. It might be best if the rest of the world remembers Tiananmen—and the Chinese people forget.