The Guardian view on Tiananmen, 30 years on: hope and terror | Editorial

It’s inevitable that we view the past through the lens of the present. It’s odder that we tend to regard our current picture as the only possible one, and to believe that we can see the future with equal certainty. Revulsion at the bloody crackdown on pro-reform demonstrations in Beijing, on the night of 3-4 June 1989, has obscured memories of the protests themselves. But in China, some still grieve for lost hopes as well as lost friends and children.

The weeks of demonstrations in Beijing and other cities proved the people’s desire for change. Millions – including police, judges and naval officers – were drawn in, prompted by anger at corruption and inflation, but also the hunger for reform and greater liberty. China was negotiating a period of social, political and artistic ferment, deeply questioning itself as it recovered from the traumas of Maoism and reopened to the world. The protests crystallised the possibility of China taking another path after 40 years of tight control by the Communist party. Instead, the killing of hundreds of students, workers and other residents confirmed its course. Many of the students simply could not believe their leaders would turn guns upon them. Even when the shooting started, they assumed the bullets were rubber. But China had a choice, and the authorities picked terror.

Even then, many observers assumed a reckoning was only a matter of time – their confidence bolstered by the revolutions in eastern Europe that same year. Others believed the country’s embrace of capitalism would inexorably lead to greater political freedom, even if it came slowly. But in the years that followed, the leadership would substitute economic wellbeing and nationalism for their original mission. The prosperity enjoyed by so many in China, increased personal freedoms in many regards, and years of censorship and propaganda, mean that the Communist party enjoys a degree of support that many elected governments would envy. Some of those who marched in 1989 now insist that the leaders’ actions were necessary. A younger generation are largely unaware that these events ever took place. This willed amnesia has added to the pain of those most deeply affected.

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The international backlash in 1989 was stark – both the US and EU imposed arms embargoes, which endure – but for the most part relatively short-lived. China then was economically puny. As it prospered, business people overseas quickly seized the opportunity it offered. Now many countries have concluded that China will not change and that there is no point risking their own economic interests by badgering it. Not just big corporations but academic presses have begun to censor themselves.

The silence which began at home is spreading, as shown by the muted reaction to another crime against human rights unfolding in China today. An estimated 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims are incarcerated in detention camps in Xinjiang and forced to undergo political indoctrination, perhaps because they have relatives abroad or have engaged in normal religious practices.

Meanwhile, the rise of authoritarian governments around the world has made China appear less an outlier than a norm-setter. It is hard for those who care about human rights to find hope in the international realm, and still harder to discern it in China’s domestic trajectory. If anyone in the leadership secretly sympathises with demands for political liberalisation, they cannot let anyone know. The buildup of the mammoth domestic security apparatus makes a mass movement in the manner of 1989 impossible.

In recent years, as political repression has grown, even a private commemoration of the massacre has led to charges. The faltering of the party’s economic legitimacy could well mean more aggressive nationalism abroad rather than more liberty at home.

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What we cannot know is how forces will play out in the longer term. As the Tiananmen Square protests showed, the unexpected and implausible does happen. We will not see a repeat of those events; but nor should we fool ourselves we’ve seen the future. It is not preordained.



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