Kor Kian Beng – Straits Times
Beijing. The 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen incident, China’s most politically sensitive event, came and went almost unnoticed on Monday as a result of efforts by the Chinese government.
Like a well-rehearsed army drill, Beijing tightened security online and offline to suppress any talk or event marking the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, which ended on June 4 in a crackdown that killed possibly thousands of people.
Police on Sunday reportedly beat up and detained activists commemorating the June 4 incident in southeastern Fujian province while protesters from eastern Zhejiang province were detained at a Beijing railway station last Saturday and forced to return home.
China’s censors went into overdrive on Monday, blocking access to pages containing terms related to the anniversary, such as “six four,” “23,” “candle” and “never forget.”
Hong Kong, which enjoys special freedoms, was the only Chinese territory allowed to hold anniversary events. About 150,000 people held a candlelight vigil on Monday night to mark the incident.
The clampdown quashes speculation that Beijing was going to reassess its verdict on the Tiananmen incident as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” and a “political storm,” said Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam.
Talk that China might do so this year started swirling after Premier Wen Jiabao in March stressed the need for political reforms and warned against another Cultural Revolution.
A protest in southwestern Guizhou province last week — allowed by local police to go on for several hours though the protesters were detained the following day — had also given the impression that China was taking a different approach.
But Lam said change was unlikely to take place so soon, as stability is key in the next few months before the leadership transition, which is set to see Vice President Xi Jinping take over from President Hu Jintao.
“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] won’t want anything to rock the boat,” he added.
China also wants to prevent further potential social unrest amid a slowing economy, rising inflation and a widening income gap, said Singapore’s East Asian Institute research fellow Chen Gang.
The government is also extra careful after having to deal with the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal and Chen Guangcheng saga in recent months, added Chen.
Bo, the former Chongqing party chief, was sacked in March over corruption charges, among others, while Chen, a blind activist, escaped from house arrest in April and sought refuge at the American Embassy in Beijing.
“Bo Xilai represents the conservative left and Chen Guangcheng represents the liberal right,” said Chen the research fellow. “Both events were widely reported, which could reflect strong competition between the two factions. It also shows that the political development in China is at a very unstable stage.”
The June 4 crackdown remains a taboo subject and its occurrence never officially recorded, as it is the only instance when the People’s Liberation Army aimed its guns on the people. The student-led protest lasted six weeks before the army moved in and crushed it.
Since then, China has refused to admit any wrongdoing or consider compensation for those killed. It also bans the mention of Tiananmen in state media and still keeps some participants in jail.
Rights groups are refusing to let the CCP get away so easily.
Tiananmen Mothers, a group of relatives of victims of the 1989 crackdown, has called for the end of communist rule and for the government to reassess its official verdict on the protests. “So long as the Tiananmen Mothers exist, our struggle for justice will not cease,” said the group in an open letter to the government, signed by 121 members.
Dui Hua, a nonprofit human rights advocacy group, says there are fewer than 12 Tiananmen participants still in jail — down from a total of 1,602 individuals convicted and sentenced to prison after the 1989 protests.
The United States on Sunday urged China to free the jailed Tiananmen participants and to stop harassing protesters and their relatives. This prompted Beijing to express “strong dissatisfaction” with Washington on Monday.
But the younger communist leadership under Xi might be open to reassessing the Tiananmen incident, given the possible benefit in boosting China’s international image, said Lam.
It could also make the United States and the European Union consider lifting the embargo on sale of arms to China, he added.
But change is possible only at least two years after the new leadership has taken over and consolidated power against the old guards, Lam said. “The new leaders also don’t want to send the wrong signals that they are willing to start real political reforms before they are ready to do so,” he added.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times