Twenty-two years ago today, several hundred students and civilians were killed by the People’s Liberation Army to suppress the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. They were shot and mowed down by tanks as Beijing’s leadership moved to end the seven-week “social chaos” that was challenging their autocratic rule.
Twenty-two years later, much has changed in China — but one thing remains the same: The callous and ruthless determination of the Chinese leadership to maintain its grip on power, to the detriment of the people in whose name they rule.
Beijing’s latest crackdown began after the “Jasmine Revolution” deposed the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and sparked revolts in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya. Chinese human-rights lawyers, Internet bloggers and others began disappearing. The crackdown has also had an impact in Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province after protests at the Kirti Monastery and in Inner Mongolia after the death of a herder.
It is rather ridiculous, actually, to speak of “the latest crackdown,” since it is almost impossible to tell when one crackdown ends and the next one begins: akin to the endless “anti-corruption” campaigns aimed at Chinese Communist Party members. Instead, it is an almost endless cycle of political repression, interspersed with the occasional pledge to address a few grievances — pledges kept on the most superficial levels — with a little money thrown in.
Zhongnanhai’s residents seem to think that money can buy them anything — a little like the Catholic Church’s old practice of selling indulgences and ignoring the fact that such indulgences were supposed to be granted only after the sinner confessed and sought absolution and punishment for their sins. What else can one think after hearing that Chinese security officials had approached the family of a Tiananmen Square Massacre victim earlier this year about paying compensation for the death, but without offering to provide an explanation for the death or any kind of apology?
In an open letter published this week, the Tiananmen Mothers group said its members would not be bought off, nor would they settle for anything less than a public acknowledgment of the killings, adding that “the souls of those killed during June Fourth shall not be defiled.”
How galling it must be for those in Zhongnanhai that while they have been able to expunge or block any mention of the massacre from the media in China, the iconic images of the Goddess of Democracy and a lone man standing against a tank continue to inspire democracy activists the world over. Replicas of the statue can now be found in several cities, while the moment that an Egyptian man faced off against an armored water cannon vehicle in Cairo on Jan. 25 was quickly seized by the protesters there as Egypt’s “Tiananmen moment.”
Throughout history, governments worldwide have done bad things. Many continue to do so today — such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which thought a 13-year-old boy was such a threat that he deserved to be shot, beaten, burned and mutilated. However, as Beijing’s leadership learned 22 years ago, and Assad’s government and others in that region are learning now, it is they who must now live in fear of their people, not the other way around. They may be able to crush, mutilate and incarcerate, but they will not be able to do so forever.