Tiananmen Square 25 Years

June 3, 2014 by  

Tiananmen Square 25 Years, Today marks a quarter of a century since China’s government ordered its army to massacre students protesting peacefully in the centre of Beijing. It is too early for history to reach its verdict on the June 3, 1989, mass murder in Tiananmen Square. But we can draw three preliminary conclusions.

First, the Chinese Communist Party broke all the prevailing international norms to use force, but it did so regardless and achieved its objective. Second, it has successfully censored and repressed the Chinese people’s memory. The 500 million people born since the massacre in Tiananmen Square do not know about it. The older generation has stopped trying to publicly commemorate its anniversary.

Third, it got away with it. The party remains in power, the most successful dictatorship on earth. In order to carry out the repression, in which hundreds and perhaps thousands of students were killed, China’s premier had to be sidelined. Zhao Ziyang was put under house arrest for the rest of his life for the crime of resisting an act of mass murder. He died in 2005.

Zhao didn’t think the Communist Party could endure. The “Western parliamentary system is the one that has demonstrated the most vitality”, he wrote in his memoir. He thought China’s repressive system would vanish into history. He was wrong.

After an initial burst of indignation, the great nations of the West quietly let lapse their sanctions against Beijing. Instead of shunning China, countries everywhere got on with the business of selling to it. Bill Clinton denounced China’s leaders as “the butchers of Beijing” in the 1992 election campaign. A year later, the US president visited Beijing and shook hands with them. China proved too big, too powerful, too profitable to shut out.

“In just a single generation, the party elite has been transformed from a mirthless band of Mao-suited, ideological thugs to a wealthy, besuited and business-friendly ruling class,” says Australian journalist Richard McGregor in his book The Party. The party’s success is so overwhelming that, in the West, today it’s considered poor form to even mention the Tiananmen Square massacre in any mainstream business conference.

So it’s no real surprise that the party is confident it can pull off another brazen use of force to get its way. Week by week, push by shove, China is muscling its neighbours aside to assert ownership of large tracts of ocean. What other nations regard as disputed seas, China’s propagandists call “our blue national soil”. By ignoring international norms and laws in intimidating one country after another, China is asserting itself according to the precept set out by its former foreign affairs minister, Yang Jiechi, in 2010.

“China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” he told his counterpart from Asia’s smallest country, Singapore.

In 2009, China lodged with the United Nations a new claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. The claim is marked by the much-contested “nine-dash line” on the map. It’s in the shape of a giant scoop, dipping southwards from China to collect territories also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. China also has overlapping claims to islets and rocks administered by Japan in the East China Sea.

When China towed a massive oil rig into the middle of waters claimed by Vietnam last month, the Vietnamese sent 20 to 30 ships to try to interfere. But Beijing sent 80. It put a protective ring around the rig.

China’s coast guard vessels used water cannon on the Vietnamese and rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat.

“We cannot accept the coercion,” complained Vietnam’s foreign affairs minister, Nuguyen Quoc Cuong. But the rig is now in place.

China is rewriting history. The leaders of two of the nations in dispute with China, Benigno Aquino of the Philippines and Shinzo Abe of Japan, have likened China’s assertiveness to that of Germany under Hitler and warned against appeasing a bully. Senior political figures from the US and Japan spoke the obvious at a big defence conference on the weekend, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Abe said that China was destabilising the region.

But the most senior Chinese military officer at the conference reacted angrily. China’s deputy chief of the general staff, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, rejected the speeches by Hagel and Abe as “unacceptable”. Hagel’s speech, he said, was “full of words of threat and intimidation” and part of “a provocative challenge against China”. But Wang knows that China is safe from any imminent challenge from the US. That’s one of the reasons China is pressing its case for territorial aggrandisement so insistently now – it assesses the US to be weak-willed.

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