Tiananmen 30 years on: How far has China come?

Police officers on duty at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 3, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
An unidentified man, who later became known as Tank Man, blocking a column of tanks in Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace on June 5, 1989. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thirty years ago, in the early hours of June 4, the world watched in shock and horror as tanks rolled into Beijing's main Tiananmen Square and West Changan Avenue and fired on student protesters calling for democracy and freedom.

The Straits Times' China Bureau looks at how the country has moved on since that bloody, fateful day.

China breaks silence and defends Tiananmen action

Police officers keeping watch over Tiananmen Square in Beijing yesterday, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the crackdown. PHOTO: AFP

The Chinese Communist Party has broken its silence on what has been the most taboo topic in China since 1989.

In a rare move, the state-run nationalistic Global Times yesterday published an editorial defending the government's decision to send troops and tanks into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4 30 years ago to quash a student-led pro-democracy movement.

Headlined "June 4 immunised China against turmoil", the editorial, published only in its English-language edition, downplayed the incident and accused dissidents and Western politicians and media of stirring up public opinion and attacking China.


A China that's averse to political reforms - for now

Commenting on reforms, China's President Xi Jinping warned in 2013 against "committing paradigm-shifting mistakes" that would be "irreparable", apparently referring to Western-style democracy. PHOTO: AFP

Flirting with political reforms can be risky business.

Mr Zhao Ziyang was purged as Chinese Communist Party chief for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and put under house arrest for about 16 years until his death - the second reform-minded leader to be toppled after the 1949 communist revolution.

Since the 1989 clampdown, political reforms that would turn China into a liberal democracy have all but hit a brick wall. President Xi Jinping and his predecessors Jiang Zemin, who replaced Zhao, and Hu Jintao have frowned on Western-style democracy lest one man one vote should end communist rule.


Despite harassment, victims' families fight to find the truth

Members of the Tiananmen Mothers posing with photos of family members who were killed in the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen protest. This handout photograph was taken in March, during a secret meeting at an undisclosed location in China. PHOTO: AFP

Madam Zhang Xianling knows that every year, at this time, she will get a few "visitors" who will stand guard at her ninth-floor lift landing or at the stairway, or park themselves downstairs and insist on taking her wherever she wants to go.

After 30 years of having such uninvited company, she now just shrugs off this state-sponsored surveillance. At least they are open about keeping watch now, not like the early days of lurking in the shadows and hiding behind walls.

This year was a little different. The "visitors" - police officers - had clocked in at her home in the north of Beijing, near the Olympic Park, more times than usual.


Incident still taboo; young Chinese focus on path ahead

Police officers securing Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on June 3, 2019. Thirty years after the Tiananmen incident, the issue still remains taboo. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Tsinghua University student Megan Li (not her real name) was asked what her parents' political views were regarding the 1989 Tiananmen protests when she was applying to be a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member about five years ago.

Until then, she knew very little about the events leading up to the military crackdown on June 4.

"That's when I realised what a serious political issue it was for the party," said Ms Li, 26, who was eventually accepted as a CCP member.


China bounces back, 30 years after Tiananmen

A Chinese paramilitary policeman standing guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 8 this year. Thirty years after the crackdown on Tiananmen protesters, the tanks that lined Beijing's central avenue have been replaced by countless surveillance cameras perched like hawks on lamp posts to keep the population in check. PHOTO: AFP

After the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the Soviet Union fell apart on Dec 26, 1991.

Some communist legislators bear-hugged each other in tears at a closed-door meeting, fearing that China would be next, a non-communist retired parliamentarian recalled witnessing.

Fast forward 30 years. Doom and gloom have turned into hope and a swelling of national pride.


Chinese exiles help keep memory of June 4 alive

A demonstrator flashing the victory sign as workmen used a drape to cover a huge portrait of chairman Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square in 1989. PHOTO: REUTERS

For Mr Han Dongfang, nothing that happens in China today can be worse than what he witnessed 30 years ago in and outside Tiananmen Square - flares lighting up the dark sky, soldiers shooting people with machine guns, "crazy tanks" rumbling into the square, people with their bodies covered in blood.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government turned its guns on its own unarmed youth who had been camping in the square since April to demand democratic reforms.

Much of the carnage took place outside the square along West Changan Avenue. The dead or injured included student protesters who were shot at as they were leaving the square and civilians who had come out to support the demonstrators.


A bid to remember Tank Man - to fight 'collective amnesia'

An unidentified man, who later became known as Tank Man, blocking a column of tanks in Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace on June 5, 1989. PHOTO: REUTERS

A lone man, bags in both hands, standing his ground as a column of tanks bears down on him on June 5, 1989.

The image, which no doubt would have gone viral in the social media age, appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world after it was smuggled out of China.

Tank Man, as the unidentified man came to be known, is considered one of the most iconic photos of all time - except in China, where information about the Tiananmen crackdown remains suppressed.


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