As we just passed the 20th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown on the TianAnMen Square protests (aka LiuSi to Chinese people), a common question is what do we really know about the events of that time?

A bombshell came out a month ago regarding the memoir of the depose leader Zhao ZiYang. For those who don’t know who he is, he was the most prominent voice for the student protestors in the Politburo at that time. He tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the rest of the Politburo Standing Commitee from sending in the troops against the students and was later sacked and spent the remaining years of his life under state supervision. I think of all the major players in the entire crackdown, he and Wang Dan are the only ones that I truly deeply respect.

For those who don’t know, most of the leaders from the student protests used their status to flow to Western countries instead of sharing the pains of other protestors. Now a lot of them live as political refugee in America, get paid to say bad things about the Chinese gov’t, but they never even try to go into China to fight for democracy. Wang Dan on the other hand did not use his status to flee to America, but rather served his part of his sentence in China. He continued to fight for the rights of workers and oridnary folks until he was kicked out of the country. And of course, much of the leadership at that time were a bunch of cowards. They would rather send soldiers against their own citizens rather than taking back statements they made, because they feared that looking weak would jeopardize their careers.

A while ago, a man in my College Christian fellowship shared with me what happened in those protests. In 1989, student protests were happening across the country. Many university students got involved and my friend was involved in the one in Wuhan. I think he was later arrested and went to jail for a couple of weeks before being released. Or as he called it “he learnt his lessons”. He was had a friend that was a leader in the protests from his university who later got arrested and jailed for 3 months. Anyhow, he mentioned some really interesting points:

1) The demonstration was probably at its highest point in mid May. I think he mentioned there was probably a million people gathered up to do the protests. A lot of them weren’t even students, they were just there because it was like a big party.

2) He also mentioned that a lot of students were idealistic back then and really wanted to do this, but a lot were also just in it for the adventurous. In fact, part of the reason he got involved was for the excitement. He did crazy things like tying himself to a railroad on one of the most frequented railway bridges to prevent trains from passing.

3) After the martial law was imposed in May 20th, the gov’t basically told the students that they were coming in and the military orders was to disperse the students and get inside to Tiananmen square by June 4th. And so starting in late May, the troops were moving in closer and closer everyday.

4) By June 3rd, a lot of people had actually left. And I think late that evening, they flickered the lights in Tiananmen square. Basically saying that this is your last chance to get out before the troops are coming in. By this time, a lot of students knew bad things were going to happen, so they left already. And a lot of people who were there were just ordinary citizens who really weren’t that well educated, so they might not have been even aware even up to this point what was going on.

5) So when the troops moved in, there were basically two groups. One is the circling group that was moving in from the outside. And the second is the group of soldiers came out from the Great hall of the people. A lot of protesters were stunned by this because they really weren’t prepared for this second group.

6) So according to my friend, the soldiers initially were firing up to try to scare away the crowd, because those who stayed behind really weren’t looking to just disperse and go away. But what happened was some of the shots ended up getting deflected and hit some people in the crowd. And then, the protestors thought the soldiers were just firing indiscriminately at them, so then they started to fight back. And the soldiers fought back (in previous days, some soldiers had been killed by students, because they still weren’t allowed to fire at students) by firing at the students. This is probably when most of the deaths happened.

So, looking back and to the present, there are a lot of questions we can ask:

Can something like this ever happen again if there are a lot of social problems as in 1989?
I really don’t think so. A lot of really extraordinary circumstances caused what happened. At that time, the police in China weren’t equipped to properly handle/disperse crowds, so they had to get soldiers to shoot at people. They now have modern equipments to break up a large protest if needed. They are so much better at containing the size of protests now (whether through harassment or bribing). The other part is that future protest leaders would know when the regime has reached the final straw and would withdraw the protesters before then. The protesters themselves would also know when they must leave.

Is China less free now than it was back in 1989?
The answer is no and anyone that suggests otherwise really have no clue what is going on in the country. I think over the past 20 years, you are starting to see ordinary citizens getting more freedom/rights from the gov’t. Once people get certain rights, it’s really impossible for the gov’t to take that rights away. All of the internet clamp downs in the recent times only indicates how much less control the gov’t has. 20 years ago, it wouldn’t even have to worry about people seeking those rights. A year ago, a Shanghai community successfully stopped a gov’t project to build a maglev line close to their neighbourhood by protesting as a group. Also in Sichuan, one family finally managed to defy the local gov’t for accepting what it deemed an unfair resettlement package. Even though there are still plenty of corruption/abuse of power in the country, the public is fighting for its rights and winning in many of those battles. Basically, as long as you don’t try to assemble a huge group of people to change the gov’t, they will leave you alone. If you look at the people that signed Charter 08, nothing happened to most of the them.

Do people know about what happened in 1989?
Speaking for my generation (those who were in elementary/middle school during that time), I think most of us would know something like this happened, but would not know how bad it was. We would know that there were large student protests around the country, that soldiers and students collided, but we wouldn’t know that soldiers killed a lot of students. For those younger than my generation (those born after 85), I would think most of them would have very little idea of what happened. For rest of the population (especially for those between 40 and 50), June 4th still likely remain as one of the landmark events of their lives. Most of the students/teachers in college at that time either participated or knew people that did participate.

What do those students feel about it now?
I think there is a huge divergent of opinions here. Those that were there the night the soldiers moved in are probably the ones that are still the most angry toward the regime. The students that participated in other cities or left before June 4th have generally accepted the events. There is a general feeling that a lot of them were caught up in the moment and were very naive about the world. The friend that I’m quoting here felt that he was going through an adventure, did a lot of foolish/non-pragmatic things that he would never do later. After he and some others got arrested and jailed for one or two months, they pretty much lost any ideals that they had after they came out. There are definitely still some students that have the ideals and want to fight on, but most of the students were never that ideal to begin with. They had certain grievances to air out and student protests were the fashionable thing to do during that 1 month. Most of that generation are also the people that have benefited the most from the economic growth of the past 20 years, so they have mostly accepted the regime and try to work within it.

What kind of regime is China really?
The simple answer to that is Authoritarianism, but I think that’s way too simple. It certainly is in no way socialist and communist. One of my best firend has called China the most successful facist regime in the history and that’s true in many ways if you look at how China is right now and what facism really means. If you look at its pro-business/pro-growth public policies, it is probably one of the most fiscally conservative, right wing gov’t out there. Recently, I feel like it’s more of a Utilitarianist gov’t. In many ways, there is almost an implicit hand shake between the majority or at least the most vocal/influential part of the population (lead by the intellectuals, job holding city-dwellers, wealthy elites, CCP members) and gov’t that “don’t cause any big trouble and we will all get rich and you will be left alone”. And looking at Chinese history, this huge group of people probably have never been more free and have more rights. Of course, there is also the minority that gets “shafted” and are quite bitter to the government. This group consists of mostly ethnic groups that fail to assimilate with Han majority, the migrant workers (although they have slowly come out here), the rural folks who are ripped of by land seizures, and the marginalized members of a society. Their lives most likely haven’t improved at all through this economic boom. That’s why even though there are a lot of protests around the country, the gov’t actually has very strong support amongst the majority of the population. And you see Chinese leaders acting more than ever like Western politicians to maintain support at home.

Will there be democracy in China?
This really is a hard question, because a lot of the reforms are dependent on the members of PSC. When Jiang Zemin was in power, he instituted some elementary forms of democracy. For the past few years, China has had village level elections, although there have been some accusations of rigged voting. But generally speaking, the village level elections have certainly elected some leaders who otherwise would never gotten to their position. A couple of years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao also talked about setting up municipal level elections across the country. Although, it’s not known how long that would take to set up and whether or not it will be nationwide. The next generation of leaders like Xi Jinping is likely to be more reform minded than Hu Jintao, because he was the party chief at more liberal areas like Zhejiang and Shanghai before being promoted to PSC. Hu Jintao turned out to be very stubborn to reforms, probably because he was the Party chief at more backward areas like Gansu and Tibet. So, there are some cause for optimism, although seeing Western style multi-party free election is unlikely to happen in the near future. It’s more likely to see voting between one faction of the communist party and another faction. And I think at immediate time, most people in China just wants to see less corruption in government and a stronger rule of law in their personal lives.

In the end, I feel that the tragedy of the entire event was how easily it could have been prevented. If the PSC members weren’t so out of touch with some of the people’s grievances at that time, they wouldn’t have angered the students more with their comment. If PSC members weren’t so concerned with looking strong in front of Deng, they could have stopped the martial law from declaring and the soldiers from moving in. If the student leaders at that time had realized the severity of the issue, they should’ve taken it upon themselves to persuade the protesters to disperse. Looking back now, it should have been clear to the student leaders that the army had a military order to disperse everyone from TianAnMen Square by June 4th using whatever method necessary. Would the students have resisted the soldiers in the beginning like they did had they realized that the soldiers were allowed to fire back this time. Remember that in the earlier days of martial law, soldiers weren’t allowed to fire, so several of them were burnt to death by student retaliation. And worst of all, if they only had riot police trained with how to disperse a crowd, they could have done with much less damage.

Since LiuSi, CCP has certainly learnt a lot on how to deal with possible troubles. It has essentially given itself quite the long life line by becoming very sophisticated at dealing with those who might form a protest. Democracy is certainly no where near on the top of wanted list for Chinese public. However, CCP will have to keep on raising living standards, improving the level of corruption, giving more rights to individuals by maintaining the rule of law and fighting other big issues like environment degradation and product safety in order to keep the population satisfied. Some people say that if CCP caved to the students in 1989, China would not only have achieved the economic success of the past 20 years but also progressed much further in terms of personal freedom and human rights. Others say that China would’ve been a more free country, but would not have achieved the same level of economic success. The truth is that nobody can know for sure, but CCP certainly has done a pretty good job in past 20 years. Will CCP eventually come out and apologize and own up for what it did in 1989? I certainly think it is possible in the future as the Chinese society becomes more free and the leadership becomes more liberal to changes. Maybe then, those who suffered in LiuSi would receive the anti-dote for their years of pain.