Chinese authorities carried out aggressive detentions ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Sqauare massacre, with New Tang Dynasty news agency reporting 70 journalists, dissidents and rights defenders arrested over the past month. Blogger and journalist Gao Yu went missing at the end of April, and Beijing activist Hu Jia has been under house arrest for more than three months, after announcing his intention to hold a vigil in the square on the June 4 anniversary, in defiance of authorities. The Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog notes that tens of thousands attended a vigil in Hong Kong, but the New York Times' Sinosphere blog reports that Tiananmen Square itself was so thick with security patrols and checkpoints that even the usual throng of tourists was down to a mere trickle. A tantalyzing report in the Globe & Mail says that a small group of black-clad citizens did manage to walk through the square in a silent, symbolic protest.
The absurd security measures speak to the ultimate futility of trying to supress the truth this way. The virtual shutting down of the square was itself a perverse and paradoxical commemoration of the massacre on the part of the authorities. Presumably, it caused some children to ask their parents what all the police patrols were about, ironically facilitating the passage of historical memory on to the next generation—even if those children received only veiled and guarded answers. If they were hushed by their parents, this would only serve to heighten their curiosity, and plant seeds of doubt about the morality of the system.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay protested the pre-emptive arrests, urging China to relax the anniversary-related media restrictions and instead "facilitate dialogue and discussion as a means of overcoming the legacy of the past." She also called for an independent investigation into the massacre. Framing this taboo demand in terms flattering to the Beijing regime, she stated that "learning from events of the past will not diminish the gains of the past 25 years, but will show how far China has come in ensuring that human rights are respected and protected." (Jurist)
If China has advanced towards less grandiose methods of social control than army massacre, it is due to the development of the more measured repression of police riot squads—seen most recently in the anti-pollution protests in Zhejiang. Can this really be considered a "gain" for human rights?
More problematically, the White House also weighed in, saying in a rare statement on the massacre: "The United States will always speak out in support of the basic freedoms the protesters at Tiananmen Square sought, including the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press, and the freedoms of association and assembly. These freedoms—which are enshrined in the US Constitution, the Chinese Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are values the United States champions around the world." There's a certain irony to these words when Wall Street has been locked down by police nearly as thoroughly as Tiananmen Square in response to the Occupy movement and perceived terrorist threats. Tellingly, the statement also applauded "China's extraordinary social and economic progress over the past three decades." (Reuters) Of course that "economic progress" has meant a great leap forward for China's new bourgeoisie at the expense of the poor.
The US is exploiting the dead of June 4, 1989 to score propaganda points in the New Cold War—but also reaps rewards from the immiseration of China's poor in the form of cheap consumer products. Rare events out of the ordinary at Tiananmen Square in the years since 1989 are disturbingly telling. In 2000, Falun Gong followers filled the square for their meditation rituals before meeting their own wave of harsh repression—although popular dissension being exploited by an obscurantist and cultish sect rather than a conscious pro-democracy movement was itself a kind of grim victory for the regime. More ominously, Tiananmen Square last October saw its first act of terrorism, as apparent Uighur militants carried out a suicide attack. More such attacks have followed elsewhere in China—and some apparently by ethnic Han upset over official corruption, not separatist Uighurs.
The hyper-security in Tiananmen Square speaks to well-grounded fear of a social explosion on the part of China's rulers. If this occurs, progressives in the West will have to decide whether they stand with the oppressors or the oppressed in China. We hope that few will be confused by the inevitable opportunistic rhetoric from Washington.