Silence, suppression in China on 30th Tiananmen anniversary

Silence, suppression in China on 30th Tiananmen anniversary

Tiananmen Square
Thousands had gathered for weeks in Tiananmen Square to call for democratic change and an end to corruption (picture from Jun 2, 1989). (AFP/CATHERINE HENRIETTE)

BEIJING: China is set to mark 30 years since the deadly Tiananmen incident with a wall of silence on Tuesday (Jun 4) after arresting activists and tightening internet censorship ahead of the politically sensitive anniversary.

It has become a grim, annual tradition for authorities to round up activists ahead of the June 4 anniversary as they seek to suppress reminders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations - a strictly taboo topic.

A number of activists have been detained or "disappeared" again this year, and many popular livestreaming services are scheduled to be down around the anniversary for "technical" reasons.

READ: Tourists throng Tiananmen Square amid tight security

China's ruling Communist Party has suppressed any discussion of the Tiananmen incident over the years. Its "Great Firewall of China" army of online censors regularly erases any articles, memes, hashtags or photos alluding to the protest.

But there have been two, rare public acknowledgements in the lead-up to Jun 4 this year.

First, China's defence minister on Sunday defended the incident, describing it as the "correct" policy and even suggesting it helped the country's economic rise over the last 30 years.

Tiananmen Square
China's current defence minister said the crackdown on the protestors in Tiananmen Square (pictured on May 14, 1989) was the 'correct' policy to 'stop the turbulence'. (AFP/CATHERINE HENRIETTE)

"That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence," General Wei Fenghe said at a regional security forum in Singapore.

The nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times hailed the Chinese government's handling of Tiananmen and its aftermath as "a political success".

"As a vaccination for ... Chinese society, the Tiananmen incident will greatly increase China's immunity against any major political turmoil in the future," it said in an editorial published on Monday in its English-language edition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply disagreed on how China has evolved as he hailed the "heroic protest movement" in a statement for the anniversary.

"Over the decades that followed, the United States hoped that China's integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. Those hopes have been dashed," Pompeo said amid a tense US-China showdown on trade.

Pompeo denounced the "new wave of abuses" by China, including the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims, and urged a full account of what happened 30 years ago.

A statement from China's embassy in US said Pompeo's comments on the anniversary were made "out of prejudice and arrogance" and grossly interfered with China's internal affairs.

"China's human rights are in the best period ever," it said.


Tight security was already in force on Monday, with authorities preventing journalists from filming, taking photographs, or even entering the square in the centre of Beijing.

One AFP journalist was stopped and told to delete images from a camera, and warned not to do it again without permission from authorities.

In spring 1989, students and workers gathered at Tiananmen Square - the symbolic heart of Chinese power - demanding democratic change and an end to corruption, inspiring protests across the country.

Tiananmen 1989
Timeline of events leading up to the deadly crackdown in China against protesters in Beijing in 1989. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the event. (AFP Photo)

After seven weeks of demonstrations, the government deployed tanks and soldiers who chased and killed demonstrators and onlookers in the streets leading to the square on Jun 4.

PLA tanks and troops guard Chang'an Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square
PLA tanks and troops guard Chang'an Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square in this picture from Jun 6, 1989, two days after the crackdown. (AFP/Manny CENETA)

Hundreds - possibly more than 1,000 - were killed.

Authorities have still not said what really happened or how many were killed that day.

Talking privately with family and friends about Tiananmen is still possible, but any commemoration in public risks almost certain arrest.

In the run-up to the 30th anniversary, popular livestreaming sites Huya and YY announced they would temporarily shut down livestreams for "technical updates" until Jun 6 and 7 respectively.

Nasdaq-listed Bilibili, a video-streaming platform popular among young anime, comic and gaming fans in China, has blocked live commentary on its videos from May 29 until Jun 6.

Virtual private networks (VPN) - software allowing users to jump the Great Firewall - have been disrupted.

All language versions of Wikipedia - whose pages include details about the Tiananmen incident - were blocked from the Chinese internet weeks ago.


Among the string of activists detained or "disappeared" are six artists who had put up a painting and performance art exhibition titled "A Conscience Movement" in the eastern city of Nanjing.

Separately, folk singer Li Zhi, who had written and performed songs about the Tiananmen incident, was reportedly missing, with his songs and accounts on Chinese social media no longer available.

The complete purge of the Tiananmen Square incident has been crucial to the Chinese government's bid to curb dissent over the years.

The deadly repression of 1989 contradicts propaganda that portrays the military as a "benevolent force" - another reason to hide it from the public, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine.

"It's very hard to explain away those tanks and the soldiers turning against the people," he said. "1989 was a clear moment when there was a divide" between the army and the people.

Source: AFP/de