Egypt is the first Arab Spring country that has brought its former ruler to justice, imprisoning former president Hosni Mubarak for life for the killing of protesters last year. Neither Mubarak nor the crowds listening to the sentencing were happy with the verdict: The former was displeased over the severity of the sentence and the latter thought he got off too lightly. Even if you could say this is delayed justice, it is justice nevertheless. This, at least, has been welcomed by many people in the country.
It has been 23 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, but it is still very much a contentious issue. Every year, on the anniversary of the event, the Chinese government gets jittery. What is Beijing going to do about a problem like June 4?
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has the will to address the situation and resistance to revisiting the incident has waned following the Bo Xilai (薄熙來) controversy. However, while many of the main players in the massacre, such as then-Chinese premier Li Peng (李鵬), are still alive, it will be very difficult for China to view the matter with any objectivity.
During those 23 years, China has come a long way and it now has a stronger economy and a more well-equipped military. However, China is still not regarded internationally as a mainstream advanced country, as it lags far behind global standards in terms of politics and human rights. The Tiananmen Massacre is an important benchmark for the development of human rights in China. Until the events of that fateful day are addressed, and while the government restricts the Internet and suppresses its people on the eve of the anniversary of the event, China will always be a backward country.
Taiwan experienced something similar. During the 1980s, the economy was soaring and political reform was under way, but this was all under the shadow of the 228 Massacre and the period of White Terror. Social divisions only started to heal after then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) ordered an investigation into the suppression of political dissidents, offered an apology and legislated compensation for the victims. Nevertheless, the authorities have not managed to put the 228 Massacre completely behind us, as the investigation was not complete and a consensus on what exactly happened has yet to be reached.
It was thus possible for former premier Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) to express doubts over the actual number of people who died and for some academics to produce historical documents purporting to show the government had actually compensated the victims soon after the incident. These people reject the documented historical situation and are using non-impartial evidence to support their biased ideas.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself has been responsible for reinterpreting its past, to which China’s implementation of market reforms, the Cultural Revolution and the role of the Gang of Four can attest. Surely the reinterpretation of angry protests in Guangdong Province’s Wukan village is yet another example, with the reported “imported mob” later revealed to have been a group of enraged villagers.
As power is transferred to a new generation of leaders, the political situation and the resolve of Beijing’s leaders will be crucial for political reform.
The Tiananmen Massacre remains taboo in China. However, economic and military success in the intervening years mean that China is standing on the verge of social and political reform, which could spell the beginning of the thaw. The first step to this end must be an investigation into the truth. This is the joint responsibility of officials and the public alike and such an investigation must be unbiased and objective if it is to have any hope of laying the foundations for understanding and forgiveness between the victims and the protagonists. If this does not happen, the enmity and fear will become protracted and China will sink into a state of internal conflict from which it will be difficult to return.