In May 2015, a handful of Chinese students overseas wrote an open letter to fellow students in China, calling for accountability for the killings of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and around the country in 1989.
Global Times, a notoriously nationalistic state-run press outlet in China, swiftly retorted in an editorial that, “Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident.” This claim must have left readers puzzled: just how had that proclaimed consensus been reached? Even more telling was the piece’s fate—within a few days China’s censors tried furiously to delete the piece from multiple websites—showing that aversion to debate even trumped denouncing outspoken critics.
As the world marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, this week, the students’ letter and the reaction to it show that the remembrance of Tiananmen lives on, and that struggle for human rights in China endures. Those caught up in Tiananmen’s aftermath over the past quarter-century know that the claim of “Chinese society” reaching a “consensus” is a standard, profoundly distorted view of reality: in reality there is virtually no public discussion of Tiananmen because the Chinese Communist party has forbidden it.
But it’s not just the absence of public debate. Since 1989 there has been no opportunity for the victims’ family members to gain recognition or justice, no end in sight for government harassment of those who dare to organize private commemorations, and no hope of a Tiananmen truth commission— let alone prosecution of those responsible for the killings.
That Global Times claims to speak for “society” and insists that the student letter-writers are “financially aided and manipulated by overseas hostile forces to upset China” shows how little the state’s perspective has changed since 1989. It has its version of events, and it’s sticking to it.
Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.
The letter by the students, who may have not been born in 1989, shows that demands for accountability aren’t going away. It asks not only why troops opened fire, but why the government still refuses to publish the death toll. Citing harassment of the Tiananmen Mothers and others who have tried to commemorate the massacre or challenge the official version of events, the letter says, “The suppression has never stopped.”
It’s hard to know which aspect of the letter—or simply the fact of its existence—causes the most dismay in official circles. Perhaps it’s the claim that, “The gunfire on June 4 shot dead [the Communist party’s] legitimacy.”
It may be the play on current President Xi Jinping’s notion of a “China Dream”—one he uses to justify a mix of economic growth, state repression, and more than a dash of nationalism. These students have a different vision: one in which China becomes “a country free of fear where history is restored and justice realized.”
The students conclude they “know very well there are consequences in writing and signing this letter.” Only a dozen students have signed so far, but their very existence must unnerve censors and their bosses in China: it’s no longer just those the government knows—from imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang to Sichuan activist Chen Yunfei—who will find out and keep asking questions about the Tiananmen Massacre.
At the time of Tiananmen, China’s leaders were deeply focused on the project of economic reform, trying to mend badly frayed regional relations, and manage a world in which they were far less powerful than they wanted to be. Fast-forward to 2015: China is the world’s second-largest economy, it is asserting itself militarily in the region and beyond, and it is a force to be reckoned with in international forums.
And despite this global reach, the leadership remains threatened even by some of those born and raised in a time of relative prosperity and stability, who would have excelled at school and studied abroad, who grew up on a diet of propagandistic history with no mention of Tiananmen. Still they and many others inside China ask hard questions and demand accountability. The desire for debate—and hammering out a real consensus—is alive and well.
Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch.