Every year on the 4th and 5th of June, a grim anniversary becomes the source of political theater. These dates are the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the central leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the senior leaders of the Beijing Municipal Government ordered the pro-reform protesters to be forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square.
For much of the world, the 1989 Tiananmen Protests have become almost myth. Every year during the anniversary of the crackdown, thousands take to social media platforms to talk about “the Tank Man”, the “Goddess of Democracy”, and the pro-democracy message of the protestors. It is unfortunate that much of what survived that spring in 1989 does so as image or slogan.
The reality is that these protests started as a tribute to the death of Hu Yoabang, a CCP leader with a reformist bent. The protest movement that emerged from this initial memorial was never about pushing for Chinese democracy. It was a reform movement that wanted greater government transparency.
The battle for reform continues today, but instead of protestors concentrating within a national symbol, activists and netizens use the anniversary to highlight the degree by which the Chinese state continues to control information and worries about opposition. Almost every year some bizarre action is taken in order to block discussion of the Tiananmen protests. In 2010, foursquare, a social networking website, did not allow people to check in at Tiananmen. This year, web searches regarding the Shanghai stock exchange are limited because it closed last year on June 6th with a loss of 64.89 (6/4/89). Also this year, Sino Weibo, the most popular Chinese blogging platform, refuses to allow people to use the candle graphic. The graphic is generally used in reference to death.
Most regimes around the globe lack the willingness and/or capacity to engage in information control to the same degree as the CCP in the People’s Republic. However, every regime facing opposition acts to protect its own power and discredit the opposition. When the opposition cannot be discredited, then isolate them as much as possible. Perhaps this is the reason Prime Minister Erdogan criticized social media recently – such tools allow the opposition to circumvent the state’s ability to repress.
The question, though, is this – how far must a regime go before realizing its efforts to repress are a waste of energy? Is it really worth taking the steps the Chinese state takes in order to limit discussions of Tiananmen Square? In the end, the population always figures out ways around them – as they did, at least temporarily, this year [link – using the giant inflatable duck from Hong Kong’s harbor in place of tanks].
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.