HONG KONG — On June 4, a quarter century will have passed since the defining moment of post-Mao China, when the People’s Liberation Army's bloody crackdown destroyed a peaceful citizens’ movement demanding political change in Beijing.
A perennial question as the anniversary approaches is whether the Chinese people will ever again attempt to force their one-party government to change.
But just as the tensions that culminated in blood 25 years ago had actually been building up for years, the Communist Party of China appears to be dealing with another widespread buildup of dissatisfied citizens.
This time around, things are much different. China is more open to the world than ever. Its internet, despite heavy censorship, is still a valuable platform for sharing ideas.
And a growing number of citizens are willing to go to prison for their beliefs.
GlobalPost spoke with three vocal critics of China’s political status quo: a Tiananmen survivor, a lawyer, and a writer. Despite diverse backgrounds, they agree that the party will not reform itself of its own free will, nor will outside pressure force it to do so.
Change is necessary, they say, and must come from the Chinese people.
The Communist Party’s standard defense for its actions in 1989 — when (at least) hundreds of civilian demonstrators and some soldiers died — is that the protesters wanted to plunge the country into chaos. By crushing the movement, the party preserved stability, paving the way for great improvement in the Chinese people’s lives. Indeed, in the ensuing quarter century China rose from poverty to become the world’s second-biggest economy.
Rose Tang, a former Tiananmen student activist who is now a Brooklyn-based writer and artist, agrees that things have gotten better in her homeland — with one important caveat.
“China has improved tremendously,” said Tang. “But only for the government and some others, most notably the 0.1 percent. Some people are actually worse off, including peasants, laid-off workers, the urban poor and senior citizens. Overall, the air, water, soil, food and healthcare have all worsened. China is on the way to becoming a living hell.”
Tang said the Chinese people are plagued by a “slave mentality” that prevents challenging authority. But this is changing, she noted, especially through the growing numbers of people attempting to change the country via the courts or the internet, neither of which were options in 1989.
“The brainwashed mentality remains strong, such as the loyalty to the nation, considering Tibet and Xinjiang as historical parts of China, and the false confidence that China is a superpower,” she said. “But awareness of the power of the individual in China has definitely risen.”
New movement brewing
The New Citizens’ Movement is one of many manifestations of this growing sense of individual power. Spearheaded by rights lawyers, journalists and other intellectuals, the grassroots group does not propose overthrowing the Communist Party. Rather, it advocates that everyone — including the party — act within the confines of China’s constitution and laws.
Hardly the rhetoric of revolution, but Beijing obviously feels threatened and is doing all it can to quash the movement, a decision which could backfire.
The Chinese government often accuses proponents of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” a crime which carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Non-hierarchical and without formal membership, the movement’s nebulous nature — anyone that agrees with its reasonable aims could be a "member" — likely adds to government fears.
On April 18 in Beijing, four movement activists were handed prison sentences ranging from two to three-and-a-half years. Their crime: demanding that party officials disclose their financial assets. Days earlier, lawyer and movement initiator Xu Zhiyong, sentenced to four years in prison in January, was denied an appeal. Xu had organized demonstrations pushing for financial transparency among officials, as well as equal education for China’s tens of millions of rural students.
Other participants in the New Citizens’ Movement are also in detention awaiting trial, but some are now outside of China. Teng Biao, a visiting scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong and a lawyer who has worked with Xu and others on high-profile civil rights cases since 2003, continues to advocate civil and political rights for all Chinese.
Teng notes that there is a “large gap” between political systems envisioned by the Chinese government and Chinese civil rights advocates. He says his main objective is to establish a constitutional democracy that respects civil and political rights.
“Constitutional democracy has a few basic requirements, such as separation of powers, an independent judiciary and universal suffrage,” Teng said, adding that democracy and rule of law, rather than rule of man, are also primary goals.
Maintaining an iron grip on power
China’s government targets anyone outside party control whose ideas could go viral, according to movement proponent Chen Min. Better known in China by his pen name, Xiao Shu, he was previously chief opinion columnist at the progressive Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend and is now a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
“The central government’s attitude is ‘grab the big, release the small,’” he said. “Small or fringe elements are not usually bothered with, nor are they able to be. But because anything receiving the sympathy and support of mainstream society is capable of merging with society and possibly growing in strength, regardless of whether it is mild or militant, legal or illegal, if it cannot be usurped and maintains its independence, it must be roundly smashed.”
The US and others still criticize China’s human rights record, but after years of rapidly growing economic and trade ties, the West’s approach to issues such as China’s intense censorship regime or crackdowns on Tibetans and Uighurs has little effect on decision-making in Beijing.
“China is economically very powerful now, it can ignore international pressure on human rights and minorities,” Teng said, adding that China’s cooperation on terrorism and North Korea also make the West fearful of offending Beijing.
Tang says that by prioritizing economic relations with China over human rights, many countries weakened their own diplomatic leverage.
“The US and Western governments' approach to China since ’89 has weakened. Now they allow themselves to be bullied by China, fearing they'll lose their trading partner, investment base, supplier or market.”
“Most of those who ordered the troops to clear Tiananmen have died, but the regime remains the same, and in a way, has become more thuggish because of the lack of outside pressure,” she adds. “I doubt there'll be another Tiananmen massacre with tanks and troops slaughtering people, but I do worry that things could turn violent because too many people have been suppressed for too long.”
When asked whether he thought peaceful political change in China was possible, Xiao said it didn’t matter.
“Even if it’s impossible, we must try hard,” he said. “We must explore every possible method to effect peaceful change.”