During the night of June 3-4, 1989, the People's Liberation Army viciously cleared Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where more than a million people had gathered, talked, sung, and celebrated. During the night thousands died. Blood marked pavements, corpses littered streets and alleys. Pictured: A military parade in Tiananmen Square on September 3, 2015. (Photo by Jason Lee - Pool/Getty Images)
As June 3 passed into June 4 in Beijing in 1989, enraged citizens defended streets and neighborhoods as soldiers and armored vehicles of the murderous 27th Army, along with the 38th, moved from the western approaches of the Chinese capital to the heart of the city. It was China's longest night.
By the morning of the 4th, the self-styled army of the Chinese people, the People's Liberation Army, had viciously cleared Tiananmen Square, where more than a million people had gathered, talked, sung, and celebrated since the middle of April. The papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy, a monument to freedom that dominated the square, was smashed.
During the night thousands died. Blood marked pavements, corpses littered streets and alleys. Protests in the Chinese capital and about 370 other cities were put down. The ensuing political crackdown lasted years, and there was an immediate end to efforts to liberalize the economy.
For many, it was the end of hope. Dissidents surreptitiously fled China for Hong Kong and points beyond. Not all were so fortunate as to make it out of the country.
Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of the time, wanted to make a point: the Communist Party was prepared to kill in great numbers to keep power.
His three successors have taken a different approach. They released a low — 241 — official death toll. Most estimates put the dead in the thousands. Moreover, officials avoid mentioning the event that had almost turned into an uprising. Chinese high school students have been given only one line in a textbook.
As a result, many grew up in China not hearing of "that 1989 affair" as officials have called it. "The only thing I can remember about June 4 is watching television and hearing that riot police had died," Lu Jing, a high school student in 1999 told AFP. "I don't believe any students died. China in this respect is democratic as China wouldn't hurt its own people."
To maintain rule in the face of such a horrific event, Chinese leaders have whitewashed the Beijing Spring and diverted the attention of the Chinese people by, among other things, promoting "Han nationalism," a racist, xenophobic ideology. Due in part to its victim narrative — Beijing says it is now entitled to right wrongs from the 19th century — the Chinese state has become a dangerous actor. It has, among other things, been dismembering neighbors, closing off the global commons, systematically violating international rules, supporting rogue regimes, proliferating weapons technologies, attacking democracy.
Any attempt to stop such conduct is met with Beijing angrily claiming a violation of its sovereignty. For instance, in response to American tariffs imposed as a remedy for the annual theft of hundreds of billions of dollars of intellectual property, the Communist Party in the middle of last month declared a "people's war" against the United States, effectively branding Washington an enemy of China.
Beijing these days is increasingly turning disputes into national and international crises, a symptom of an insecure ruling group. At the heart of that insecurity is the Communist Party's continual need to justify dictatorial rule to an increasingly sophisticated populace. The wound of Tiananmen makes its leaders even less sure of themselves.
China's despots should be concerned as they have clearly lost hearts and minds, something evident even among those living close to their leadership compound in the center of the Chinese capital. The Party rolls out one "patriotic" campaign after another, but people in Beijing and elsewhere have tuned them out. The authorities can ban Peppa Pig, for instance, as they did last year because the adorable cartoon character became a slacker and "gangsta" symbol, but the Chinese people happily ignored the prohibition and officials had to relent, rehabilitating her this year.
In this situation, the Party has resorted to intimidation and coercion to keep people in line. The world's most sophisticated surveillance state is adept at oppression, especially as it adopts and perfects mechanisms of control. For instance, within months it plans to amalgamate local "social credit systems" into a national one, to give every Chinese person a constantly updated score based upon factors such as political obedience. Xi Jinping, the Communist Party's general secretary, is creating what the Economist termed "the world's first digital totalitarian state."
Xi, with his social credit scoring and other mechanisms, has been attempting to reverse the trend toward openness, and this has accompanied his effort to return the economy to a state-dominated model. Both initiatives are an all-out assault on modernity.
For decades — the Party celebrates 70 years of rule on October 1 — Mao and his successors have kept themselves ensconced, but as Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania recently wrote, "These guys are placeholders."
Yes, they are merely temporary. They rule because they coerce, not because they lead.
The hope that China can liberalize itself starts with the Chinese people. And the conversation about liberalization begins, as a practical matter, in the only place on Chinese soil where Tiananmen is publicly discussed and mourned, where that coercion is least felt.
That place is Hong Kong, where tens of thousands gather each anniversary in a park to mark the event with candlelight.
That must be galling to General Secretary Xi, and he is taking steps to rein in Hong Kong and end the annual vigils. To bring Hong Kong to heel, he has forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to push what is called the "extradition bill," amendments to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminals Matters Ordinances.
If China can "extradite" Tiananmen dissidents and others, there will be no more Tiananmen vigils, and Hong Kong will no longer be a refuge. It is in Hong Kong — and only Hong Kong — where there is some semblance of liberty in the People's Republic of China.
There was a semblance of liberty in the months before Tiananmen, and many saw Deng's refusal to accept change as the final stand of communism in China. But on June 3 and June 4, he made it clear the Communist Party would stop at nothing.
China's longest night, unfortunately, continues.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and a Gatestone Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow.