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Legacy of Tiananmen protests still haunts China 30 years on

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Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong recreate the famous 'Tank Man' protest

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Jessica Hromas/Getty Images

Trade-off between economic prosperity and political freedoms now coming under strain

One-Minute Read
Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 6:11am

Thirty years on from the start of protests that would culminate in the Tiananmen Square massacre, the resulting trade-off between economic prosperity and political freedom is finally coming under strain.

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While 4 June 1989 has gone down in history, in part thanks to the famous “tank man” photo, the origins of the protest date back earlier.

Thirty years ago on Monday, Beijing students gathered to mourn Hu Yaobang, a reformist official, kickstarting what CNN calls “the most important Chinese mass movement of the last half-century”.

Soon, massive crowds calling for change were converging on the central plazas of dozens of Chinese cities. On 20 May, the government imposed martial law in Beijing, and two weeks later, on 4 June, the movement ended after tanks were sent into Tiananmen Square and soldiers fired on unarmed civilians on the streets of the capital.

Estimates of the number of dead range from a few hundred to more than 2,000.

Remi Castets, an expert in Chinese affairs at Bordeaux University/Sciences Po told Euronews on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, the protesters’ demand could be divided into three main issues: the democratisation of the regime and the establishment of a multi-party system; a push to limit growing inequality; and a fight against corruption and nepotism in the party.

By brutally cracking down on protesters “the message from the Chinese Communist Party couldn’t have been clearer: Beijing would tolerate economic change, but not political change”, says Time magazine’s Michael Schuman.

The party has spent the intervening three decades trying to erase the protests from history, “and young people here have little knowledge or understanding of what happened that day” says the BBC.

All the while the attitude of China’s leadership has remained unchanged. While President Xi Jinping has moved to stamp out corruption and address inequality, he has also cracked down on political dissent, in the process assuming more personal power than any ruler since Mao Zedong.

Bonnie Girard in The Diplomat writes “the real and lasting legacy of Tiananmen Square is that, by not meaningfully confronting the Chinese government with palpable, long-term consequences for the murder of their unarmed citizens, extreme censorship and political repression have become institutionalised in China”.

“Today, those tools underpin the foundation of the state” she says.

Yet the trade-off between economic prosperity and political freedom which has sustained the relationship between the state and its citizens is now coming under strain.

As Castets says “as long as the Chinese government manages to maintain a growth rate above seven per cent, it can control social unrest. Because with a seven per cent growth rate, China remains able to integrate newcomers into the labour market”.

The problem is that growth has steadily fallen over the past decade, and now sits at around 6%, posing an existential threat to the regime.

Shuman says “if China is to lift itself into the ranks of the most advanced economies and rejuvenate its competitiveness, its people require the freedoms Tiananmen’s protesters fought for”.

“The Communist Party has to wake to the fact that Tiananmen’s legacy is holding the nation back” he concludes.

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Tiananmen Square Massacre

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