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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


It has changed Beijing's approach to economic, political and social policy

By Sangwon Suh and David Hsieh/Beijing

A NEW UPHEAVAL?: Despite growing tensions, changes since 1989 have diminished the chances of another mass uprising

WHERE ARE THE RADICALS?: Not at Peking University, that's for certain

OF HEROES AND VILLAINS: Three student leaders and three officials who played key roles at Tiananmen

'MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER': Lulu Fang was there and wished she wasn't

TEN YEARS ON, the after-effects of the Tiananmen protests and crackdown are still being felt. One, of course, is the ban on discussions of the subject itself. In the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of what Chinese simply call liu si - "six-four," or June 4 - the lid has been screwed on tightly in Beijing, especially at the former hotbed of Peking University. More security guards patrol the campus, while plainclothes men keep an eye on the famous Triangle Area, traditionally a center of political agitations (see WHERE ARE THE RADICALS). School authorities monitor popular Internet chat sites for any hint of anti-government sentiments.

Whether due to this increased vigilance or not, there is little sign of any plans to mark the occasion. Outwardly, it even appears that government propaganda efforts have been successful. A Communist Youth League leader declares that some things are more important than the ideals spouted by youthful protesters a decade ago. "Without stability and social order, everything else is just talk," he asserts.

Yet behind the wall of government-imposed silence, people are privately discussing the legacy of the crackdown. Li Zhanghan, an old rightist, insists that the students were right in protesting against corruption and advocating free criticism. "They held great hopes for cleaning up the government," he says. "They held to the ideals of democracy and the rule of law. But the movement spread nationwide, causing fear among the authorities. So it was suppressed harshly."

A graduate student at Peking University's prestigious Guanghua School of Management says that the killings still cast a dark shadow over the Chinese people. "Ten years on, even though the economy has developed significantly, many problems remain unresolved," he says. "Graft and corruption are more entrenched than ever. But people are afraid to stand up; they're afraid to express their anger. They fear government reprisals and the sacrifices they have to make."

Contrary to popular perceptions abroad, even military men lament the violence and bloodshed that accompanied the events of 1989. A ranking colonel in the Beijing Military Region testifies that many of the officers who took part in the crackdown feel varying degrees of remorse at the use of live ammunition against unarmed students as well as innocent bystanders. While many of them accept the official line on "black-hand" instigators, they still regret the bloodletting. "They feel that under no circumstances should the People's Liberation Army have been deployed," says the colonel. "The army is the defender of the country in times of aggression by foreign enemies. Logically and morally, [the use of PLA troops to suppress the protests] cannot be justified."

Others feel that the students then were too na've and idealistic. An external liaison officer of the Beijing municipal government says that June 4 has taught him a couple of lessons: "First, never take social occurrences too optimistically. You must not be muddle-headed. It's always better to think of the worst-case scenario. Second, some happenings shouldn't be allowed to escalate. In 1989, the students should never have been allowed to protest for so long." The subsequent bloodletting prompts Li to say "we recognized we cannot win simply with slogans and hopes. After June 4, most people became more realistic. They became more apolitical, concerned mostly about their next meal. Now people just want to live a quiet life."

That ordinary Chinese have become more pragmatic is confirmed by a senior at Peking University's School of International Studies. "Students are now more rational, weighing benefits against sacrifice," he says. "Individuals cannot predict the future; they can only pursue their own interests." Yet he suggests that at some point, the heavy baggage of June 4 will have to be unloaded by the authorities. The legacy of Tiananmen, he feels, needs to be discussed openly at an appropriate time in the future and the unjust verdict - that the protest was a "counter-revolutionary riot" - overturned.

Plainly, June 4 still looms large in people's minds. For Chinese citizens young and old, the ideals that the students advocated ten years ago still resonate. At the same time, they will think twice about behaving impulsively because, having experienced a decade of economic progress, they have much more to lose now than in 1989.

Ordinary Chinese are not the only ones standing in the shadow of Tiananmen; the same is true of the government. The affair has had a profound impact on the Chinese leadership's thinking, as shown by the nature and pace of the country's subsequent reform process. Having become sensitive, even paranoid, where matters of social stability are concerned, the authorities have dealt with dissent with a heavy hand. Yet, they have also come to realize that changes are necessary to avoid a repeat of June 4.

One change has been in the military. After Tiananmen, the Central Military Commission shrewdly cut away a big chunk of the PLA to form the People's Armed Police. The PAP is charged with restoring order in times of domestic crises, so that the army would not need to intervene and risk inflaming public anger. Other efforts to rehabilitate the military in the eyes of the people have included the recent propaganda campaign over the PLA's strenuous efforts to fight last summer's devastating Yangzi River floods.

More substantive changes have been in the economic and political spheres. Immediately after the crackdown, China was at a crossroads. It was subjected to severe Western economic sanctions and political isolation. At the same time, many Chinese harbored deep contempt for the authorities, particularly Li Peng, the fall guy for the old guard. The sense of crisis was magnified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Amid that backdrop, Beijing faced the question of how to maintain political control and whether to persist with economic reform.

Then, in early 1992, Deng Xiaoping made his landmark tour of southern China. During the trip, the paramount leader gave his blessing to continued economic reform. If not for the sake of the revolution, he said, it was essential for the sheer survival of the party. Cadres and citizens alike got the message, unleashing explosive growth in 1993-94 and with it double-digit inflation.



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