(This column was published in DNA edition dated June 5, 2009, in the context of the 20th anniversary of the June 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.)
By Venky Vembu
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, the Communist Party of China bloodily crushed a largely peaceful nationwide uprising that very nearly toppled it from power. What began as a protest demonstration by students, centred around Beijing’s stately Tiananmen Square, to demand greater economic freedom and an end to corruption hit a sympathetic chord with millions of Chinese people in over 400 cities.
Over six weeks, and despite the intimidatory efforts of a hardline faction within the Communist Party, the protests grew bigger and attracted a wide cross-section of Chinese civil society — intellectuals, industrial workers, teachers, and even policemen and armymen. Beijing housewives who were incensed by runaway inflation too joined in, bringing homemade dumplings for the students protesting in Tiananmen Square.
What happened on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square was a defining moment in contemporary Chinese history and forever changed its future. It served as a wake-up call for the Communist Party; its paramount leader Deng Xiaoping realised that the uprising signalled that the party had lost its moral legitimacy to rule, and would be wiped out if it didn’t dramatically change its course. Taking on the conservative faction in the party, he embarked on a risky but eventually successful economic opening-up program that has, in many ways over these 20 years, transformed China’s destiny.
There’s a compelling case to claim — and the point has indeed been made — that China’s dramatic rise as an economic superpower-in-waiting would never have been possible if not for the opening-up, which in turn was forced on the Party by the bloody events of June 4, 1989. Connecting the dots, many commentators have argued that the “blood price” paid by the student protestors was perhaps worth it, because it set off a chain of events that led to China’s ascent.
Alternatively (the argument further runs), if the government had not crushed the movement, China would perhaps have been wracked by social chaos — and the economic miracle of the next 20 years would never have happened. Ergo, they conclude, it’s time to move on and stop talking of Tiananmen as an indelible stain on China’s bloody history; only that way will the scars of Tiananmen heal.
The history of the Tiananmen movement and its impact on the Chinese economy and civil society has interesting parallels in India. Although the precise details of the Indian parallel are admittedly different, what it has in common with the Tiananmen case-study is an emerging mindset that believes that the bloodstains of history can be wiped away by “making people rich”.
In 2002, India bore witness to a brutal pogrom in Gujarat, when Muslims were targeted for killings and attack following a terrorist burning of a train carriage bearing Hindutava-vadis returning from Ayodhya. The state government of the day, headed by the BJP’s Narendra Modi, was accused of complicity in the riots — or, at least, criminal negligence that facilitated it — and even seven years after the event, Modi faces judicial challenges over his responsibility.
But in the meantime, Modi is attempting to give himself a political makeover. He has come to realise that while a hardline Hindutva ideology may have helped him get re-elected in Gujarat, it has limited nationwide appeal. And since he nurses prime ministerial ambitions, he has begun in recent years to emphasise ‘industrial development’ as his mantra. And from many accounts, he has done a reasonably good job in Gujarat of providing investors an enabling environment for economic development, which has enriched the state.
The parallels between Modi and Tiananmen begin there: the Communist Party would like its bloody history in Tiananmen to be deleted from popular memory on the strength of its having economically transformed China since then. Modi – and, more importantly, his supporters – would rather see the focus shift away from his government’s role in the 2002 riots to his “development-friendly” avatar.
But the harder China’s Communist rulers try to erase the memory of Tiananmen, the more it becomes manifest that for all their claims that Chinese people have “moved on” from 1989 in their embrace of riches, China today continues to be haunted by the ghosts of that massacre. That’s because there has been no “closure” to the event: no judicial redress for the victims, no punishment of those who ordered the massacre, and no attempt at acknowledging that the student protestors weren’t “counter revolutionaries” (as the party claims) but patriotic Chinese citizens who meant well for China.
Likewise with Modi, the memory of 2002 cannot — and should not — be erased until some semblance of justice is seen to be done to the victims, and the perpetrators of the riots are punished. Only that will exorcise that persistent memory. In the absence of that, attempts to whitewash that tainted record count for nothing. Even all the riches of the world cannot remove the bloodstains of history.