It was a very long time ago. Twenty years ago today. I won’t go on at length but it deserves to be remembered. Even more so because here it remains taboo.
We are supposed to think that things have moved on. And of course economically, they have. But how can the present party leadership pretend the massacre had nothing to do with them, if they still hold it so closely to their breast and cradle it, protecting it from the scrutiny of their own citizens?
It upsets me when, on occasion, I hear Chinese talk about the massacre of June 4th and make excuses for their government. True, the students were naive, true they didn’t entirely know what it was they wanted. Yes, they were blocking traffic. Yes, they were embarrassing their government. But honestly, none of those is an excuse for opening fire and killing hundreds and possibly thousands of unarmed demonstrators.
I was writing for The Times in 1989, a twenty-six year old very new to daily journalism. Ever since April I had been covering the student demonstrations. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Because of the time difference, I was often up all night writing for the latest edition of the newspaper. During the day, I would be moving around the town, speaking to demonstrators on Tiananmen Square or in the universities, or on the marches. It was a time when few of those involved were terribly objective. Not the marchers, not foreign journalists, not Chinese journalists, not Chinese police, and most importantly, not Chinese party officials – we later learned of the cavernous split that developed between those who were willing to listen to the students’ calls for more responsive government, and those who were terrified of them.
In all my time covering the demonstrations, I largely encountered huge cheerfulness and enthusiasm. Only once, on the day before the army was sent in, was there evidence that I saw of a fight, and blood drawn, outside the party compound at Zhongnanhai. Were protesters to blame? Were agent provocateurs involved? Outside of Beijing there were riots. But inBeijing itself, there was little violence.
When the party leadership ordered the army in to crush the demonstrations, I was on the balcony of a fourteenth floor room in the Beijing Hotel overlooking Chang’An Avenue. I remember being awed and appalled as an armoured personnel carrier raced down the avenue – I hadn’t realised something that looked like a tank could move so fast. I wouldn’t have believed that this lumbering creature could clamber over buses that had been left blocking the road, leaving them in pieces.
As the night drew on and the shooting began in earnest, I remember seeing red trails jumping into the sky opposite, not realising they were tracer bullets. There were deep explosions – I still don’t know what they were. Later we would learn that people inside apartments in the west of Beijing on the 14th and 15th floors had been killed by bullets sent high into the surrounding buildings. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was in any danger, until a bullet hit the balcony. After the authorities turned out the lights on Tiananmen Square I remember sitting curled up on that balcony waiting miserably for morning to come, because I thought it would all seem better then. It didn’t, not immediately. For days there was random shooting all over the city. I was terrified, not at all brave or heroic. I had too vivid an imagination to be a war correspondent. That memory of my own fear always returns to me now when I hear of civilians caught in war zones. I was lucky, it lasted a few days, and I was soon in the relative safety of my own flat. Then, not long afterwards, and entirely surreal, on holiday in Bali. But in Beijing the massacre was the start point of a hellish purge, and a hounding of dissidents, mass round ups and imprisonments that dragged on for months.
To say that things have changed twenty years on is of course an understatement. But perhaps not as much as you’d think. Capitalism has largely eaten up the failing state industries. China’s cities are bursting with entrepreneurial energy and skyscrapers. Dissent as we knew it- university based, fuelled by academics – is largely inactive. And yet… anti-government protest exists in new and equally energetic forms – where once there were student activists, now there are ‘Rights Defender’ lawyers who do most of their work outside the big cities. They use the law to defend clients, often poor and powerless, against corruption and abuse by the powerful. They are as brave as ever the students were, perhaps less naive, more focused. They are involved less in revolution than in evolution.
Where once the state had control of the press, now all manner of opinion populates the blogosphere. But the fist of the state is never far away, as many in jail can attest. They crossed the line.
Meanwhile, the corruption and the cruelty of power unchecked carries on. It wouldn’t matter at this point even if Beijing had enlightened, modern leaders at the top ( in fact there is scant evidence of any enlightenment – in the 21st century, party leaders are less adventurous and accessible than they were in the days of the early 80s), at the lowest level there is vast human suffering.
If British readers think of the dubious dealings of some of their own politicians, if they think of the ‘flipping’ that earned some MPs thousands of pounds every year, they must then multiply that betrayal by thousands to get any idea of the magnitude of the corruption in a party which has been unchecked by democratic competition or by a free press for sixty years.
Throughout the country, there are thuggish police forces and a brutal justice system that have been formed by sixty years of Communist rule and which the party still relies on. I suspect that this is where the new fractures will start to show.