Jun 3, 2011 | 08:52 GMT

5 mins read

China Political Memo: Reinterpreting Tiananmen Square

June 4 will be the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, and reports are emerging that Chinese security officials have quietly contacted victims' family members with possible offers of financial compensation. According to a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group formed by mothers of students killed or missing during the June 1989 military crackdown, police visited one member three times between February and April to discuss compensation for the families. The Tiananmen Mothers was formed to press for an official reclassification of the incident and the rehabilitation of their children's names, though the groups says there has been no talk of an official apology or change in the government's account of the protests. More than two decades later, the incident remains one of the most knotty issues in the Communist Party of China's (CPC) 90-year history. Unlike the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960 or the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 (among other movements), which have been officially "re-interpreted," the official verdict on Tiananmen remains vague. The incident has evolved from being termed a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" to being classified as "political turmoil between spring and summer of 1989." In recent years, party leaders have been under growing pressure to rehabilitate the reputations of Tiananmen victims, and doing so — even in a limited way — could be publicly advantageous for CPC leaders leading the process who had no direct involvement in the incident. However, obstacles loom large, most notably from Chinese leaders who did not object to the Tiananmen crackdown at the time and remain active in the political arena. These include former Premier Li Peng, who was blamed for making the decision to crack down on the Tiananmen protesters when he was only following Deng Xiaoping's orders. Then there are the descendants of deceased leaders like influential Politburo member and former Deputy Prime Minister Bo Yibo, whose son is considered a strong candidate for the next generation of CPC leadership. Even before Tiananmen, the opening of China's political sphere had resulted in wide-ranging discussions among students and intellectuals regarding the economic and political paths best suited for China. These discussions, in turn, led to demands for more liberal and democratic reforms. Factions that favored a more liberal approach were represented by then-Premier Hu Yaobang and Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Still, the conservative factions remained dominant, allowing limited liberalization while anchoring CPC authority in the fear of social unrest. These conservative groups were better coordinated along with those liberals, with factions delineated only by slight ideological differences. Then in 1986, the student movement erupted, forcing the resignation of Hu Yaobang for mishandling the issue, which had come to be known as "bourgeois liberalism." Nevertheless, the movement did not significantly shift the party's gradual liberalization efforts — that is, not until Tiananmen Square three years later. Today, while some key decision-makers involved in the crackdown have passed on (such as Deng Xiaoping), many others remain in power. Still others are rising "princelings" who occupy high-level political or economic positions and have personal connections to the Tiananmen decision-makers. Another obstacle is the need for the CPC to maintain the country's social stability as well as the party's central authority. The more China develops the less stable it becomes, and preventing social unrest is Beijing's top priority. Institutions are wired to pre-empt any potentially unstable elements, contain them locally or redirect their focus to specific local issues. Still, security crackdowns such as the Tiananmen Square incident remain an option (though not necessarily at that level), which presents yet another hurdle to reclassifying the event: Such a move would indirectly deny the legitimacy of the 1989 crackdown, which would limit the CPC's options in maintaining stability. It could also lend legitimacy to larger and decidedly non-local protest movements like this year's Jasmine gatherings following widespread unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. While the Jasmine movement has been largely contained, calls to protest are still being posted online , posing a challenge to Beijing not unlike the one it faced in the spring and summer of 1989. Perhaps the most critical challenge to officially reinterpreting Tiananmen Square is the CPC's role on the country's path to reform. Among other formative periods in modern China's evolution, the Cultural Revolution was largely the result of a CPC power play at the top level, with an ultimate goal of strengthening the party or a leader's power base. In the past, the reclassification of such movements has represented no more than a shift in political direction or ambition, admitting wrongdoing in order to increase power, with the party maintaining tight control. Unlike other events, however, the 1989 student protests represented an alternative future for China, a vision of a more Western-style polity that came from below, not above. For the CPC today, such political reform is not possible. Any reform must be under CPC guidance and must not undermine its hold on power. Therefore, the path to reform is a narrow one, and the CPC must balance the growing need for political change and economic development with its single-party rule. Thus, Beijing's tentative effort to console the families of Tiananmen victims is likely an attempt to dampen any lingering historic grievance and prevent it from fueling current unrest. Given the sensitivity of the issue, any serious revisionist treatment of Tiananmen will have to wait for the next administration in power.

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