Cyclists passing by slogans which read "Mobilize all citizens to crush martial law, protect Beijing," under a bridge where tanks are positioned on Changan Blvd in 1989. Pic: AP.

Since Tiananmen, China has changed dramatically. What does the anniversary mean now? writes Asia Sentinel’s Richard Rigby

On the night of June 3-4, 1989, units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Beijing, killing some hundreds of ordinary citizens as they made their way to Tiananmen Square — the focal point of massive protests that had begun in late April following the death of former party secretary Hu Yaobang.

The square was cleared of protesters, but further killings and arrests ensued over the following days. A small number of soldiers were also killed. Protests in many other Chinese cities were simultaneously brought to an end, with varying degrees of violence. Significant protests in Shanghai were settled, largely peacefully. Beijing was the worst. This much is known, although a final, credible death toll has not been published to this day.

After the event, Deng Xiaoping famously said, “This storm was bound to happen.” Not necessarily. The country-wide protests — against corruption, rising prices, an array of contradictions between what opening and reform seemed to promise and the realities of daily life, as well as demands for greater freedom and democracy — were almost certainly inevitable. But the bloody denouement in the nation’s capital was not. The crucial element was a serious power struggle at the center of China’s leadership, a struggle that was exacerbated by the popular protests, which the contending parties sought to use.

There were of course other elements: the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the Asian Development Bank meeting and, in particular, the historic visit of Mikhail Gorbachev; and there were divisions among the student leaders and their supporters, between those favoring a degree of accommodation with the authorities and others more intransigent. But in the end it was the hardliners in the government who won the power struggle. It is these hardliners who, backed by Deng, must take responsibility for the tragic way in which the protests were suppressed.

And it was this same Deng who also ensured that, against the clear inclinations of a number of those on the winning side, the crackdown did not mean turning back from the policies of opening and reform that he had himself initiated at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in late 1978. He understood that these processes, and the resultant economic growth, must be progressed above all else if stability were to remain. The domestic and international shocks resulting from the events of June 1989 notwithstanding, Deng’s Southern Tour of 1992 unleashed another wave of opening and reform that has resulted in the China we see today — with unprecedented levels of prosperity, openness to the world, international standing and influence.

For one who lived through and closely followed the events of 1989 in Beijing, it is hard to realize that a quarter of a century has now past and that “June 4” means little to many adult Chinese today who were only children, or not even born, when those events took place.

At the same time, China has changed beyond recognition and, in terms of people’s lives, in many ways for the better. Millions of Chinese travel overseas on holidays every year and return home with no greater reluctance than tourists of any other country. Many take pride in China’s global standing.

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