China’s democratic dream was snuffed out as night fell on June 3, 1989. In mid-April, thousands of idealistic university students had gathered in the heart of Beijing to mourn the passing of an admired Communist Party official who had championed liberalizing reforms. In the weeks that followed, their vigil turned into a much larger protest for greater political freedoms. Students erected a statue of foam and papier-mâché dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” not far from the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong that hangs in the square. At their peak, the sit-ins and protests drew perhaps over a million people.
But they also drew the ire and terror of a Communist Party cabal in power that feared its grip slipping. Tanks rolled in. Dissenters were gunned down. By the end of June 4, the protests had been violently dispersed, the square was cleared, the statue destroyed. No one knows how many were killed by Chinese security forces, but estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.
“There was blood and brain matter all over the ground,” Dong Shengkun, a Beijing factory worker who spent 17 years in prison for participating in the protests, told my Washington Post colleague Anna Fifield. “There were dead people lying in the streets. Those who survived got up and helped the injured back indoors or into the alleys. . . . It was a massacre. No one could have imagined our army would do such a thing to their own people.”
Since the events at Tiananmen Square, the world has witnessed worse acts of state-sponsored violence, more brazen scenes of bloody regime-backed repression . But what happened 30 years ago in Beijing remains one of those seminal pivots in global history, the moment when the political fate of the world’s most populous nation turned in a sharp and brutal direction.
Part of what makes the memory of Tiananmen so important is the fragility of that memory itself. After a crackdown on a generation of reform-minded students and pro-democracy protesters, China’s political leadership tried to expunge the legacy of this dissent from public consciousness. They have been largely successful, ensuring references to the protests and massacres do not appear in local media, school textbooks or even Internet searches. Hundreds of millions of people in the country, to this day, have no knowledge of what happened.
To their people, the Communist Party leaders insisted that ambitious economic growth would be impossible were it not for the supreme authority of the one-party state. By the mid-1990s, the United States and its democratic allies had also accepted that Faustian bargain.
“The West’s engagement policy – based on the hope that trade and investment would bring about democratic changes in China – prevailed,” wrote Wang Dan, a Tiananmen-era student leader who now lives in exile in the United States. “But instead of instigating liberalization, Western capital fattened the pockets of the Communist Party leaders, giving them the power to prolong their rule by silencing dissent at home and expanding the country’s global clout.”
China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping, has dispelled any illusions that the ruling party would usher in any sort of democratic change. He ruthlessly purged rival party elites and extended his rule to that potentially of a lifetime presidency. The already narrow space for Chinese civil society has been squeezed; activists and nosy journalists get detained, disappeared or otherwise silenced. China’s new digital prowess means state repression is as sophisticated and robust as it has ever been, with artificial intelligence, facial recognition technologies and drones all harnessed in a 21st-century Orwellian surveillance state.
And old methods are still in vogue, too: As many as 3 million people in the restive far-western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority, were reportedly imprisoned in “reeducation camps” and jails in the past couple of years.
“How did we end up here? Does the world care that China is perfecting the police state?” lamented Wu’er Kaixi, another exiled Tiananmen activist who also happens to be an ethnic Uighur, in reminiscences compiled by The Washington Post. “Three decades ago, we enjoyed support from around the globe, and we expected such support to last, particularly from democratic countries. It didn’t.”
Xi’s dragnet is so vast that even Marxist student leaders are being disappeared by the Communist regime, which is now pushing a post-Communist nationalism anchored in a storybook history of China’s ancient civilization. Many young people in China admit to being politically apathetic, a position largely born out of pragmatic necessity.
But though it buys acquiescence abroad through its economic clout and enforces relative silence at home, China’s leadership is hardly comfortable. That, too, is a legacy of Tiananmen Square.
“For authoritarian regimes like China’s, history is power, because their political systems are legitimized through myths,” argued Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Beijing. “The problem for the government is that historical truth is hard to suppress. The authoritarian state can prevent it from becoming an immediate threat and can eliminate it from the lives of most citizens, but the truth stubbornly endures.”
And, slowly, some in China are waking up to it. “Though censorship has left many Chinese of my generation in the dark about Tiananmen Square and other political issues, rapid economic growth has at the same time brought previously unimaginable opportunities – many of us have grown up in material comfort and have traveled and studied abroad,” wrote Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch. “Through education, the Internet and our engagement with the outside world, we know that we are entitled to certain rights and freedoms.”
Some analysts see that fundamental tension only gaining traction. “The more China pursues power and prosperity through technological modernization and engagement with the global economy, the more unwilling are students, intellectuals, and the rising middle class to adhere to a 1950s-style ideological conformity,” suggested Andrew Nathan, a historian at Columbia University.
Despite government clampdowns and the threat of detention, some Chinese writers have compiled oral histories of what took place at Tiananmen Square. Leaked party documents, recently printed by dogged publishers in Hong Kong, revealed the internal disagreements within the Communist Party over how to handle the student demonstrations, as well as the ruthless methods used to sideline officials disturbed by the bloody crackdown. And Chinese academics abroad – and a few intrepid souls at home – continue to challenge the state’s narrative of what befell an ill-fated pro-democracy movement.
“To the departed, I write to you across oceans and oceans of time,” wrote Yangyang Cheng, a Chinese scientist at Cornell University in the United States, in a moving ode to those lost 30 years ago. “May my memory reach you where laws of physics fail.”