Tiananmen massacre: Will Chinese communist regime ever admit what happened?

What would have to happen, can you imagine a scenario under which Chinese government will be willing to talk about Tiananmen massacre and address what happened 30 years ago? Read few comments.

Portrait of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Stephen Noakes, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland

I do not foresee such a public domain discussion of the 1989 demonstration in mainland Chinese media, or by public figures. There are several reasons for this. One is that the framing of the 1989 demonstration as “human rights abuse” or a “massacre” in non-Chinese media has enabled mainland sources to cast June 4 as an international smear campaign against China. Giving airtime to those international claims of abuse would be to lend them credence and equal voice–something the Chinese state is not willing to do. Indeed, a significant portion of Chinese society believes reporting of the incident to be an instance of “fake news” propagated by anti-China forces around the world.

A second reason pertains to the current framing of the 1989 demonstration in China as the “6-4 incident”, terminology which implies that the demonstration was actually quite small, and was dispersed easily, and is therefore a non-issue. There are also many in China who, while acknowledging that the crackdown took place, see it as a necessary and just act to prevent China from collapsing and splintering, as the USSR and other ex-Soviet satellites did in 1989-1991, or as a painful but essential deed for safeguard the gains for the revolution and the great task of China’s development. A third reason for the lack of talk might be that the government response to the Tiananmen demonstrations is something many Chinese feel deeply embarrassed by. While some may fear official reprisal for speaking to freely on the matter, I have often thought that the memory of June 1989 is too great a shame to be discussed publicly in China just yet.

Colin MackerrasEmeritus Professor, Griffith University

I think it most unlikely that, in the foreseeable future, the CCP or Chinese government will be reassessing, let alone apologizing for, their action on 4 June 1989.

I think there may be a few dissidents who will make their feelings known. But the police will certainly be keeping an eye open for any troubles, especially in Tiananmen Square.

As for any scenario under which the Chinese government will be willing to talk about this, I think it would require either the overthrow of the CCP or a change in the ruling group of the CCP so thorough as to be more or less indistinguishable from a CCP overthrow. I do not expect that to happen in the near or medium term. I certainly think that Xi Jinping is facing problems more serious than for a few years, especially due to the US-China trade and tech wars. However, I don’t think these problems are at all likely to lead to overthrow.

Lawrence C. ReardonAssociate Professor of Political Science, Coordinator, Asian Studies Minor, University of New Hampshire

In June 1981, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee passed the “Resolutions on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.” While praising the hard work of the Chinese Communist Party, it recognized that Mao Zedong had made mistakes…he was 70% correct and 30% incorrect. The Central Committee at the same time publicly criticized the Party Chairman Hua Guofeng for his “leftist” mistakes, and replaced Hua with Hu Yaobang. Never before had Mao Zedong been criticized in such a public fashion. But this was period when Deng Xiaoping was consolidating his power by attacking the legitimacy of the former leadership group.

Xi Jinping has already established himself as China’s new paramount leader, and has no need to criticize past actions of the party state. In fact, he is more motivated to ignore the problems of the past to achieve his “China Dream.”

The party state could speak about the true nature of the 6.4 Tiananmen Crisis if there was a true Confucian-style “rectification of names.” This occurred in 1981 because Deng realized that the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution had brought great harm to the Chinese people and delegitimized the Communist Party. The people were beginning to talk about the Fifth Modernization…democracy. By admitting historic faults of the party, Deng and the top elites pushed the blame onto history and began to rectify the party state in the early 1980s.

For a true rectification of names today, there would need to be a similar need in China …a feeling of despondency with the current political/economic situation. To begin anew, the party would need to admit to past errors. Unless there is a dramatic downturn in the economy and increased social disruption, I don’t see this happening in the near future. The party will continue to ignore the Tiananmen massacre as it is still in their interest to do so.

Harold TannerProfessor of Chinese History, Department of History, University of North Texas

In the long term (sometime in the future) it is possible that a future generation of Chinese might come to attach more significance to the events of 1989 than Chinese do today in 2009. For example if economic stress leads to another, more broadly based popular movement of protest against the Chinese Communist Party and its government, leaders of such a protest movement might very well bring up the memory of Tiananmen 1989 and use it as a symbol for their movement. Or if a future generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders, hoping to bring about significant change from within, decides to re-evaluate the events of 1989, they could themselves change the way Chinese look at those events and generate a situation in which the 1989 protests are seen as a symbol of hopes and ideals now pursued by a new generation of leaders.

Now, ten years later, you ask if I “can you imagine a scenario under which the Chinese government will be willing to talk about Tiananmen massacre and address what happened 30 years ago?” At the moment and for the immediate future, I cannot imagine any such scenario. The reasons have to do with both domestic and international events. Domestically, within China, thirty years of suppression of the truth combined with “patriotic education,” economic growth, and an increase in Chinese military power seem to have met with considerable success. Younger generations apparently know little about the events of 1989 and, to the extent that they do know, their knowledge is a knowledge of the government line. Even among members of the generations who witnessed and/or participated in the events of 1989, many find that China’s economic growth and the rise of Chinese power validate the Communist party leadership’s decision to suppress the student and worker movements of thirty years ago. In addition to these domestic factors, there is an international aspect. From the Obama through the Trump presidencies, tensions between China and the United States have been rising. The Obama administration announced a strategic “pivot to Asia” and began negotiating the Trans-Pacific partnership–in other words, using both military and economic means to encircle China and to limit the growth of Chinese power. The Trump administration has continued along the same path, albeit by different means (e.g. trade sanctions rather than the TPP). The fundamentals are the same: the United States is taking steps to contain China, which it sees as posing a strategic threat.

China, for its part, is not simply an innocent victim in this game. China’s leaders see the United States as a strategic threat and have been steadily working to build economic, then military power, expanding its presence in the South China Sea and further afield in order to create a presence of force geographically distributed in a way designed to limit and decrease American power while placing China in a more advantageous position in case hostilities should break out. This strategic competition is already leading to a “circling of the wagons” or “rally around the flag” effect in which the populations of both countries are developing a heightened sense of unity with their governments, rejection of the arguments and concerns of the other side, and suspicion of individuals identified with the other side. In this context, the likelihood that the Chinese government would be willing to talk about the student and workers movements of 1989 and the violent and deadly reassertion of control over Tiananmen Square is very slim indeed. Only a fundamental change in government would make reconsideration of 1989 possible. The only way this would happen would be through some catastrophic event such as a war and/or complete economic collapse–and even that is not guaranteed–a new government might be as committed to the suppression of the truth as the present one.

David Goodman, Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney

An interesting question to which I suppose the only answer is regime change. At the time things happened, or at least shortly thereafter I thought that there would be a revision of verdicts within a few years, as occurred in late 1978 after the disturbances of April 1976. Just goes to show one cannot trust the predictive powers of social science, or at least social scientists.

Ramon Pacheco PardoSenior Lecturer in International Relations, King’s College London, KF-VUB Korea Chair

In my view, it will take decades for the Communist Party to discuss the Tiananmen protests. I think that we would need to see an scenario in which the generation that protested in 1989 has passed away or is older, the Communist Party has a leader willing to open up politically, and a majority of the Chinese public want to discuss the protests. Right now, I don’t see any of these three conditions in place.

Also, China is not the only country unwilling to address its past. Several Western European countries continue to refuse to openly discuss their colonial past, Japan is yet to fully account for its colonisation of Korea and invasion of parts of China and Southeast Asia, etc.

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