What if China’s rulers pay no price for the massacre that ended the Tiananmen protests?
Three decades after troops used murderous force to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square and central Beijing, covering up that crime has become a bit of a chore. China’s security machine is ready to censor, arrest and imprison those who speak too candidly about events in 1989. But 30 years on this work of repression is carried out with cold, bureaucratic efficiency—a far cry from the terrors of June 3rd and 4th when soldiers and tanks shot and smashed their way into the ceremonial heart of Beijing, as loudspeakers metallically intoned that the army “loves the people”. The most recent jailing linked to the Tiananmen protests occurred on April 4th this year. A court in the south-western city of Chengdu sentenced an activist, Chen Bing, to three-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His offence: labelling bottles of baijiu alcohol with the iconic image of the lone protester who stared down tanks near the square. That picture, and any other reference to Tiananmen in 1989, is politically taboo in China. Each year, as the anniversary approaches, the relatives of those killed by the army, including the mothers of school pupils gunned down in cold blood, are placed under surveillance or taken on enforced trips out of town. The cover-up is a headache for internet and social-media companies, which are obliged to employ armies of people to erase banned content. In order for these 20-somethings to be able to spot and delete references to Tiananmen, they must first be taught what happened there, the New York Times reported in January from one “content-reviewing factory”. China’s leaders want the outside world to believe that they rule in a majoritarian compact accepted by almost all their citizens. They would include in that social contract the grim dystopia that they have built in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where perhaps a million members of the Muslim Uighur minority have been sent to re-education camps and millions more endure unsleeping high-tech surveillance. Party leaders insist that most Chinese approve of this, believing it a price worth paying for eliminating radical Islam and the threat of terrorism. Communist bosses should be careful what they wish for. Nobody knows how stable their support is because China is so secretive, and because the broad contentment of a country enjoying economic growth is easy to mistake for informed consent. But if a Tiananmen anniversary ever does pass without a flicker of dissent, that would be a dangerous moment, setting up the Chinese nation, and not just its rulers, for a backlash across the democratic world. For the party’s swaggering, authoritarian ways are a challenge to the universal values which help to define the West. That is true even though President Donald Trump is a disturbing outlier. He has described the violence in Beijing 30 years ago as a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot”, albeit with horrible force.