On eve of Tiananmen anniversary, early optimism pushed aside by press, speech crackdown

Chinese police officers, paramilitary policemen and plainclothes security personnel prepare to clear Tiananmen Square ahead of an official ceremony in Beijing, China, on May 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Two years ago in China, during the run-up to the Communist Party’s ritual changing of the guard, there was a heady mood of expectation that the country’s new top leaders might revive long-stalled political reform and maybe, just maybe, reopen the history books on one topic considered taboo: the June 4, 1989 massacre of hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy students in the streets around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The reasons for the early optimism were sound enough.

Xi Jinping, the incoming president, and Li Keqiang, who would become prime minister, were new generation leaders. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero, was widely believed to have opposed the Tiananmen crackdown. Li Keqiang was a student leader at Peking University during the 1989 protests, and he is known to have kept up ties to some of the old student activists. And besides, the events known as the “6/4 incident” were already more than two decades in the rearview mirror, and China had grown rich and powerful under the Communist Party’s continued tutelage.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of that brutal crackdown, those early hopes have given way to a harsher reality. The government under Xi and Li is cracking down on any Tiananmen Square commemorations with an intensity unseen in recent years — and journalists and bloggers have been especially targeted.

This year, even people holding small private commemorations away from public view have been rounded up and jailed. That was what happened to Beijing Film Academy Professor Hao Jian and others after Hao hosted a small group at his home in early May to discuss, in privacy, the 1989 crackdown.  The group had held a similar private event five years earlier for the 20th anniversary and suffered no consequences for it.

The arrest of Hao and several others was detailed in a moving New York Times op-ed by the novelist and blogger Murong Xuecun, who in the essay pledged to return to China from Australia to be arrested too, as his “contribution to resisting government efforts to erase the nation’s memory.”

The same thing happened to the performance artist Chen Guang — formerly one of the martial law soldiers sent to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to suppress the student movement. Last April, Chen invited a dozen friends to an empty building outside of Beijing to watch a set piece that included him wearing a mask over his mouth, and a wall whitewashed of dates like “1989.”  He was arrested May 7.

“The seminar in Beijing was in Hao Jian’s own flat,” said Louisa Lim, an NPR correspondent who was based in Beijing and Shanghai, and is the author of the new book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia; Tiananmen Revisited,” about the Communist Party’s efforts to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square. In an interview, she said Cheng Guang’s performance art, like Hao’s gathering, “was in a private space.”

“The crackdown is more intense,” Lim said in an interview. “This year it started very early.  There are a lot more measures being taken.”

At least 50 people have been detained in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, according to a recent roundup of arrests compiled by the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Those arrested include blogger Liu Wei, who was picked up May 17 in Beijing, forcibly sent back to his home of Chongqing and charged with “creating a disturbance” for a seemingly innocuous act: posing for photos with fingers in a “V” sign and a stiff-armed salute at Tiananmen Square.

Human rights lawyers, academics and journalists have all been detained, including veteran reporter Gao Yu, 70, who was one of the first people arrested at the start of the 1989 crackdown. And in another ominous development for foreign reporters working in China, the Japanese financial newspaper Nihon Keizai reported that its Chinese news assistant in Chongqing was taken away from her home and detained on May 13.

The arrests have been accompanied by the requisite Internet clampdown, as the authorities try to block out searches and postings related to the anniversary. Searches for terms like “Tiananmen Square massacre” and “6/4 incident” have routinely been blocked in China. But this year the number of banned phrases has expanded, and now includes variations of “25,” plus words “square,” “mourn” and the phrase “when spring becomes summer.”

And on May 27, China’s state media reported of a new month-long clampdown on the widely popular mobile messaging application WeChat — which allows users to send text and voice messages to small closed circles and which has become an alternative news source as the government has increasingly targeted Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

But the massive effort at online suppression has been hard-pressed to keep up with China’s growing army of Netizens — now some 600 million strong — and their clever ways of bypassing the censorship with word-plays, double-entendres and phrases with hidden meanings. And that leads to the larger question: can China’s Communist rulers successfully suppress all memory and mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the rapid-fire information age of social media?

“The answer is, yes, they have been successful — but they can’t stop it all,” said Dan Southerland, who was the Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post from 1985-1990 and is now the executive editor of Radio Free Asia based in Washington.

Louisa Lim agreed. “The crackdown is clearly much worse than in any previous year,” she said.  “But there is a lot more happening on social media.”  She added, “The question is if they see social media slipping beyond their grip.”

Lim added that, like the title of her book makes clear, “The government has been remarkably successful at enforcing amnesia.” But she added, “It’s something the people have colluded in, because the cost of remembering is too high.”

The current Tiananmen-related crackdown is the clearest sign yet, if any more were needed, that China’s new leadership is making political stability and control its top priority.  And that marks a near-complete reversal from just two years ago, when many foreign journalists, including myself — as the Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post — were reporting on the cautiously optimistic mood of many Chinese that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang might begin to usher in a tiny bit more openness.

Li Datong, a veteran journalist who was fired as editor of a China Youth Daily supplement for daring to push against official censorship, told me in a 2012 meeting just before the new leaders took over that he had high expectations.  “I feel both Xi and Li realize there’s no way to solve the problems if they don’t start reforms,” he told me. The two men, he said, were China’s “Third Generation” leaders. “They represent the 1980s, when China reopened its doors to the world. They lived through the enlightenment of the 1980s.”

“I hope they bring us some surprises,” he said.

That view was widespread. Yang Baikui, who knew Li at Peking University and who later spent 11 months in jail and was expelled from the Communist Party for his part in the 1989 student protests, met me over coffee in the hutongs near the Forbidden City. He told me he was confident that the new leaders would not only revive political reforms, but would also reopen the long-closed book on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“I feel it will happen,” Yang said then. “I’m very confident in Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. I believe the problem of June 4 will start to be reviewed in one or two years.”

That optimism soon came to naught. With Xi in full control, China has launched a widespread clampdown on the Internet, which had emerged in recent years as a free-wheeling public speech platform.

Southerland, the former Post correspondent, said the optimism before Xi and Li’s elevation was similar to the high hopes for reforms when Hu Jintao took power in late 2002 — hopes that were dashed by 2004. “I think we sometimes focus too much on individual leaders and not enough on the system that limits what they can do even if they want to make major changes,” Southerland said.

Lim agreed. “There was, I don’t know if you’d call it an expectation, but perhaps kind of groundless optimism,” she said. “I think Xi Jinping turned out to be a different kind of leader than people hoped for — especially those people who were looking for a reevaluation of Tiananmen Square.”

Lim said she took extreme measures to write her book on the Tiananmen Square massacre while still working in Beijing as an NPR correspondent, including writing on a brand new “clean” laptop that she locked in a safe at night.

“I was sweating the whole time I was there,” she said. “I was concerned I would be detained or arrested. It made me realize what a taboo Tiananmen still is.”

Keith Richburg is finishing a semester as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He was The Washington Post’s China correspondent from late 2009 until 2013, and previously was the Post’s bureau chief in Paris, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Nairobi and Manila as well as New York City. He has won numerous awards, including two George Polk Awards, and he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is the author of “Out Of America; A Black Man Confronts Africa,” and is now working on his next book idea.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.