Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Beijing in lockdown on 25th Tiananmen anniversary

In a country that buries uncomfortable parts of its history it was hardly surprising that China stamped down hard to prevent any mention of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and the massacre that followed.

Across the capital Beijing there was high security. Armed police, SWAT teams, army patrols and checkpoints could be seen all across the city and media were prevented from reporting anywhere near Tiananmen Square itself.

Speaking in Poland on the 25th anniversary of the country's move to democracy and the fall of communism, US President Obama spoke of the need to stand together with those who seek freedom. Indeed he specifically mentioned those who were "crushed by tanks" half way round the world in China as they sought to bring about greater reform.

25 years on

Quarter of a century on, China has certainly come a long way. There is much greater economic freedom and for many people life is much better than it was 25 years ago.

Few people would have dreamed of owning cars, let alone houses. In 1989 no ordinary Chinese citizen would have had a mobile phone or access to the Internet. Today, there is hardly a citizen without a cellphone and technology saturates people's homes from smart TVs to Internet connections.

There are still problems of course. There is widespread corruption in both central and local government. The rich poor divide increases daily. And pollution and food safety has become an almost daily topic of discussion.


While the events in and around Tiananmen 25 years ago are an important part of history, for most people in China they are irrelevant to their current lives.

There is much debate as to how much people really know about the Tiananmen protests. On the surface there appears to be a "collective amnesia", though in private many do admit they have some understanding as to what happened.

In fact it is a kind of "enforced amnesia" with all references blocked on the Internet and official accounts referring to reactionaries and foreign interference. The government does acknowledge that the People's Liberation Army intervened after seven weeks of demonstrations and that people were killed. But the official line is that, rather than crushing a peaceful protest, the military simply defended itself, and the country, against violent counter revolutionary elements.

Not willing to allow open debate Wikipedia pages about the events are blocked, news websites are inaccessible and any discussion could result in arrest.

Beijing today

Expats in Beijing can't fail to notice the increased crackdown. One man who spoke only on the condition of anonymity told tvnewswatch that there was definitely a tense atmosphere across the capital. "There are armed police and military everywhere, helicopters in the sky and military vehicles patrolling the streets," he said.

He said it was difficult to gauge how much people really knew about the events of 25 years ago, but the authorities had done a "good job" in keeping the truth from people. "It's not good here right now. There's a rise in nationalism. There's the Uyghur separatist issues, the economy is slowing and of course the pollution and food safety issues."

With such problems, it is perhaps understandable that the Chinese government would want to hide the truth about pro-democracy and reformist movements.

Media reporting

Every year discussions and reporting in western media is significant. But this year there was a great deal more than usual. CNN's David Mckenzie filed several reports in which he spoke to university students, many of which claimed to have no knowledge of the massacre.

Of the few that did know, they said most people would rather "focus on the future" rather than dwelling in the past. Indeed digging up old wounds is seen by some as something which serves no purpose.

But there's nothing western news organisations love better than an anniversary. And an anniversary like Tiananmen is a made for TV event. Sky's Mark Stone's bizarre reporting from a car as it drove continuously around Tiananmen Square or his being moved on as he stood on Chang'an Avenue where the Tank Man once stood, was compelling viewing.

Blocking the news

Inside China such reports are blocked. Even where people can get CNN or other foreign news channels, screens go black upon any mention of Tiananmen or other sensitive news.

Internet sites are also censored. LinkedIn say they have been forced to censor pages and all of Google's services have been blocked.

Indeed the only Chinese territory where discussions and protests are allowed is Hong Kong. Thousands have marked the events with protests calling for an end to one party rule and greater reform.

This year was also marked by the opening of a museum on a Hong Kong back street. While mostly visited by Hong Kong citizens the museum has already attracted some mainlanders who have come to discover the truth about an event almost deleted from Chinese history.

In the light of recent news that Google and other search engines have been forced by the EU to act should individuals or organisations want links removed, we should perhaps all take a moment of reflection about how history is recorded and the freedom associated with being able to discuss things freely.