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Confronting the trauma

Interview: Gabriel DominguezJune 4, 2014

For decades, China's leaders have been trying to wipe out the memory of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Twenty-five years on, eyewitness and analysts suggest Beijing has little choice but to deal with its past.

Paramilitary policemen look back while patrolling on the Tiananmen Sqaure in front of the late communist leader Mao Zedong's portrait in Beijing, China,
Image: AP

In June 1989, several thousand Chinese college students and disgruntled citizens from all walks of life gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to publicly mourn the death of purged high-level official Hu Yaobang, as well as demand government accountability, freedom of the press, and a stop to the rampant corruption affecting in the country. As demonstrations escalated, the Chinese government deployed the military to crack down on the protesters, opening fire on unarmed civilians and killing unknown numbers.

China specialist Orville Schell witnessed the events leading up to June 3-4, 1989 firsthand. The Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City says in DW interview that although credit must be given to the communist authorities for the development and nation building exercise over the past two decades, the country has been in "reverse gear" in terms of political openness.

DW: Why were you in Beijing in the spring of 1989?

Orville Schell: I had been part of a meeting of Chinese intellectuals in California that April, and when the demonstrations began, we all sensed that something big was up, so as soon as our conference adjourned, I got on a plane and went to Beijing. I was writing for the New York Review of Books.

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society,
Schell: "There was a very public invitation out for Chinese to think far more openly than now coming directly from powerful elements among the highest leaders"Image: Asia Society

What are some of your most vivid memories of events on and around June 4, 1989?

It was doubtless one of the most tectonic and exciting historical moments that I have personally witnessed. Seeing Tiananmen Square filled with hundreds of thousands of dissident free thinkers openly criticizing the very party Mao had helped found and challenging the very notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was not something that I ever thought I would live to see in this country I had first visited in 1975 when the Cultural Revolution still raged.

Instead of marching in lock step from a single direction with resolute socialist smiles as they had done in past show parades on National Day and May Day, people converged chaotically like two turbulent rivers, with flying banners extolling bourgeois democracy; and in the confluence of the square became a roaring crowd that swirled and eddied in changing configurations.

Even in back alleys and surrounding neighborhoods of the city one could hear their clamor reverberating like the roar from a faraway cataract. The only place I had ever heard a sound like the one that rose from the vast square below me was in a crowded football stadium in America.

What do you think transformed the Chinese people during those days and gave them the courage to stand up to the authorities?

The truth was that reform was in the air throughout 1980s because, unlike now, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both General Secretaries of the Communist Party of China (CPC), were dabbling in economic and political reform. So, there was a very public invitation out for Chinese to think far more openly than now, and it was coming directly from powerful elements among the highest leaders.

Once things started, the sheer heady delirium of so many people in Tiananmen Square all filled with so many dreams of a more open, humane and democratic China, fed what turned out to be a wave of idealism and optimism that allowed people to float away from a realistic assessment of how far things could actually be pushed.

Demonstrators were inspired by the old May 4th Movement dream which called for "Mr. Confucius" to be replaced by "Mr. Democracy" and "Mr. Science," two watchwords of that earlier movement back in 1919 when China's first democracy push took to the streets.

Why do you think the crackdown on June 4, 1989 was so severe?

Because the leaders of the demonstrations ultimately lost control of the movement and were unable to convince all the new people pouring in from the provinces in late May to declare victory and leave the Square while they were ahead.

They had already pushed the Chinese Communist Party to the very brink and deeply humiliated the leadership. But they failed to understand that finally no Leninist Party will ever allow itself to be peacefully overthrown.

The Chinese government has repeatedly sought to stifle any memories of the crackdown and has detained those wanting to commemorate the anniversary. Many justify this by arguing that the country has changed a lot since 1989. What is your view on this?

As Sigmund Freud astutely pointed out and as, for instance, the Germans learned after World War II, countries are not so dissimilar from individual people: both must confront and deal with their respective pasts, or they are bound to suffer manifold consequence of unresolved pathologies going forward.

China, which has always had an abiding fascination with its history, is hardly now different. At some point China as a society will have to confront and deal with this very traumatic moment because such momentous events cannot simply be suppressed - Freud would have said "repressed" - and forgotten. If they are suppressed, they are still never really forgotten. Instead, they easily go underground, creating untold kinds of aberrations later on.

“Fight for Democracy” Beijing June 3, 1989 On the late evening of June 3rd a group of protestors cornered an armored personnel carrier at the gates of the Great Hall of The People. It had just crashed through barricades of street dividers which the crowds had put up to stop the advance of military vehicles. At the same time, soldiers were preparing to open fire on the protestors a short distance away. Copyright: Jeff Widener/Associated Press
Once leaders allow popular forces, especially street demonstrations, to get rolling, they are very hard to stop, says SchellImage: Jeff Widener/AP

China has indeed changed a lot since 1989. In many ways Deng Xiaoping proved to be an extraordinary leader and the progress he precipitated is remarkable. But June 4 was not his finest hour, and one would hate to see this past reemerge to threaten China's ongoing development.

There is a lot of talk about China's economic rise over the past decades, but how much has the country changed since the 1989 riots in terms of political freedom, and the tolerance of political dissent?

Enormous credit must be given to China's leaders, even the Chinese Communist Party, for the development and nation building exercise that has distinguished their rule since 1989. And, it may even be true that much of their counter-intuitive success in building infrastructure, wealth accumulation and a substantial middle class was facilitated by the form of autocratic leadership that came into greater play after 1989. In terms of political freedom, however, China has been in reverse gear over the past two decades.

What lessons can the CPC and the nation as a whole still learn from the events of the spring of 1989?

I think the most indelible lesson learned by the CPC from 1989 was that, once leaders allow "the people" to believe that political reform is on the agenda, they will actually want to see such reforms carried out. And, once leaders allow popular forces, especially street demonstrations, to get rolling, they are very hard to stop.

The negative lessons of 1989 are very strong: If you don't want trouble, don't naively dabble in political reform. Hold the line and focus on economic reform. Indeed, this was more or less the mantra of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (to a lesser degree), Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, that political reform can easily threaten economic reform.

People take part in a candlelight vigil on the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests during heavy rain on June 4, 2013 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Schell: "China as a society will have to confront and deal with this very traumatic moment because such momentous events cannot simply be suppressed"Image: Getty Images

A lesson that the CPC has resisted learning, however, is that historically speaking it has always been difficult for any ancien regime, which the CPC has now become in China, to to allow enough evolutionary flexibility to change and survive, while at the same time it maintains the power to crack down and control potentially insurrectionary tendencies. This is a knife edge on which the Party now finds itself still walking.

Orville Schell is the former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US–China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Dominguez.