The greatest difficulty China has in revisiting the June 4, 1989 episode has a name attached to it: Deng Xiaoping.
The ‘architect’ of the “open door” policy, of the economic reforms, of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and of the “one country, two systems” formula which serves to accommodate Macau and Hong Kong’s historic legacies and ultimately aims at getting Taiwan back was the leader who gave the order for the brutal charge over the protesters in Tiananmen Square – Deng was the chairman of the Central Military Commission, where the power lies in Maoist China.
The Vox newspaper recalls two debates about China’s future which converged on June 2, and Deng won both of them: what to do about the student protesters and whether or not to continue his program of economic liberalization.
“We can’t handle chaos while we’re busy with contradiction. If today we have a big demonstration and tomorrow we have a great airing of views and a bunch of wall posts, we won’t have any energy left to get anything done. That’s why we have to insist on clearing the square.”
The next day martial law was imposed and the following morning the square was cleared.
Thirty years on, while China is steadily establishing its diplomatic influence and its economic dominance in the world it would be close to disastrous for Beijing to admit the very leader who launched and symbolizes an incomparable era of growth and abundance is responsible for the death of hundreds, if not thousands of citizens.
Hence, “to be rich is glorious” became easily the motto of this so-called socialism (or capitalism) with “Chinese characteristics,” and Beijing’s reading of the human rights chart was trimmed to the right to make a living and, possibly, save an extra buck. Independent thought and political openness suffered a deadly blow and the regime became increasingly paranoid with the mere scent of dissent.
Arts, activism and religion have been a target of continuous and increased persecution. Amnesty International report of 2017/18 on China describes a near-return to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution:
“Activists and human rights defenders were detained, prosecuted and sentenced on the basis of vague and overbroad charges such as ‘subverting state power’ and ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Police detained human rights defenders outside formal detention facilities, sometimes incommunicado, for long periods, which posed additional risk of torture and other ill-treatment to the detainees. Controls on the internet were strengthened. Repression of religious activities outside state-sanctioned churches increased.”
In the grand design of ‘architect’ Deng, two buffer zones were erected near Macau and Hong Kong to avoid the spread of the virus of liberal ideas and traditions enjoyed in the two sister cities of the Pearl River delta. Zhuhai and Shenzhen are paradigmatic examples of what China became in 30 years: places without memory and soul.
The ‘zoners’ have no particular identity, they came from all over very recently to be part of a social experiment of a magnitude of 15 million people.
The same is happening to a whole generation of Chinese brainwashed of memories of the sweet smell of the spring 1989, and of the tragic events that followed and ended on June 4.
Memory and atonement lie only beyond the buffer zones, namely in Macau and Hong Kong where every year, on this day, there are (still) candles in the wind.