Why June 4 will be taboo in China for a long time
By Rebecca MacKinnon
June 3, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
BEIJING (CNN) -- Every year, families gather in Beijing to mourn, in secret and at night. They are forbidden to gather in public.
They hang pictures of dead loved ones on an apartment wall and remember how those loved ones died on the night of June 3 and the day of June 4, 1989. One by one, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers stand up to speak to the dead.
They promise that one day, they'll get justice.
Nobody knows how many people died in the Chinese government's violent crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago.
Some relatives, based on the number of bodies they saw in hospitals and morgues, believe it could have been thousands. The government denies that number but has never released an official death toll.
"It's very possible that some people may have been shot by stray bullets," Zhu Muzhi, secretary-general of the government-supported China Society for Human Rights Studies, told CNN recently.
"But I've seen some reports that say the number of people killed by stray bullets was very high. That's not the case."
Whatever the truth of what happened then, 10 years later it remains obscure.
Ding Zilin and her husband, Jiang Peikun, are compiling counts of their own, family by family. Their list totals 155 dead, 65 injured so far. The family's count started with their only child, Jiang Jielian, who was 17 when he was shot the night of June 3. They keep his ashes in a shrine at home, mourning his loss every day.
Every year, Ding and other family members petition China's top leaders demanding justice. This year they used the evidence they've been gathering during the past 10 years to file a lawsuit against the Chinese government. They are demanding an investigation into the June 4 crackdown and a public government apology.
They also are demanding legal action against government officials responsible for allowing People's Liberation Army troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators. They say that former Premier Li Peng -- now chairman of China's National People's Congress -- should be investigated as the primary suspect, because it was Li who announced martial law against the demonstrating students in 1989.
Bao Tong, a high-ranking Communist Party official until 1989, recently told CNN he has no doubt about who was responsible.
Bao, an ally of reformist party leader Zhao Ziyang who supported the student demonstrators in their demands for dialogue with the government, was arrested a week before the crackdown and spent the next seven years in jail. He now lives under heavy surveillance in a Beijing apartment. Police detained our CNN crew for several hours after we interviewed him.
Bao said that while others helped to carry out the crackdown, it was senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who died two years ago, who gave the green light for troops to fire on the demonstrators.
In our interview, Bao called on China's current leaders -- in particular President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji -- to apologize publicly for what Bao says was the greatest mistake of Deng's career. Unless they do this, Bao asserted, China's present leaders will be stuck, unable to regain the public trust they need to advance the economic reforms launched by Deng more than 20 years ago.
"Only when they acknowledge his mistakes and correct his mistakes can they stand taller than Deng Xiaoping," Bao said. "Otherwise they have no right to call themselves Deng Xiaoping's successors."
But Jiang Zemin has publicly insisted the crackdown was justified.
"The political disturbance that occurred at the turn of spring and summer in 1989 seriously disrupted social stability and jeopardized state security," he told reporters in Washington in 1997.
"Therefore the Chinese government had to take necessary measures according to law to quickly resolve the matter, to ensure that our country enjoy stability and that our reform and opening up proceed smoothly."
Zhu also believes the crackdown was necessary, but phrases it differently than Jiang. He indicates the students weren't wrong to demand democracy. They just went about it the wrong way.
"We want democracy. We also want rule of law," he said in a recent interview with CNN's Judy Woodruff. "The episode in 1989 happened because they wanted democracy but didn't want rule of law."
Analysts of Chinese politics both inside and outside of China credit Zhu for quietly softening the government's position on June 4. They say that by speaking a bit more sympathetically about the 1989 student demonstrators, he's been trying to keep public opinion from turning against the government ahead of the 10th anniversary of the crackdown.
But for now, at least, there appear to be limits to how far the government line on June 4 could be changed.
Both Chinese and Western observers say "reversing the verdict" could set off a dangerous power struggle within the top levels of government.
Faced with a choice between revising the official account of what happened 10 years ago and political stability, Jiang has not surprisingly chosen the latter.
According to Bao Tong, the main obstacle blocking the Chinese leadership from revising its position on June 4 is Li Peng, the former premier who remains No. 2 in the Communist Party hierarchy, in front of current Premier Zhu Rongji, who ranks No. 3.
"None of today's leaders held positions of authority within the central leadership at that time, with the exception of one person," Bao said.
Political insiders say that to acknowledge that the June 4 crackdown was a mistake would be considered inside the government, and by Li himself, to be an unacceptable blow to Li's political power, and to that of his allies.
As far as the wider Chinese public is concerned, the June 4 crackdown is a fading memory. The passage of time, tight government control of the media and a decade-long economic boom have seen to that.
Take Wang Yue, the 20-year-old lead singer of China's only all-female punk band.
"As long as we're left alone to play our music, we don't care about anything else," she said. Sitting in McDonald's, wearing a spiked dog collar and fuchsia-spiked hair, Wang said she didn't care what happened in 1989 because the government leaves her alone to follow her non-conformist passion. And she does so in ways the 20-year-olds of 1989 couldn't have dreamed of doing.
Others such as Victor Yuan, a former government official who joined the demonstrators in 1989, have moved on. After the crackdown, he quit his job and founded a private research and polling company.
"I don't want to see revolution," he said. "I'd prefer to see peaceful reform. We want to use our market research for the public good, to influence policy making." Reopening a public debate about events of 1989 at this point, he believes, serves no useful purpose.
Then there are the many workers, farmers and functionaries all over China who are focused on improving their lives today and getting a fair shot at the future.
When they feel cheated, many have taken to the streets in protest. Officials admit privately that every day, somewhere in China, there is a demonstration. But the issues are personal and local -- excessive taxes, medical malpractice, corruption by a local official.
Experts who study the reasons behind Chinese protests in the 1990s say protesters focus now on getting immediate results and solving immediate problems. What happened 10 years ago in Beijing does not appear to be among their pressing problems.
That's little consolation for parents like Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun. They say they will continue to demand a government apology and public trial as long as they are able.
What they want may be a long time coming.
CNN Interactive: Tiananmen Ten Years Later
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in U.S.
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