26 years on, we still live in the shadow of June 4, 1989

The legacies of ’89 are multiple and wide-ranging, affecting China, its imperial peripheries, and the wider world.


If you were in Hong Kong last September, you saw how powerful the legacy of June 4 still is, viscerally, palpably so.

On the night of September 28, 2014, a rumor circulated that the HK police would escalate their use of violence from tear gas to live ammunition, most probably rubber bullets, but who knew?

“Scary green men” were seen prowling the streets of Admiralty, where the police had first attacked the people with an hours-long barrage of tear gas canisters. The scary green men were HK police, but we’d never seen their kind before. They looked more like soldiers in their green uniforms, gas masks and boots. They carried rifles, which they pointed in all directions.

In the face of the rumor the police would escalate use of violence, Hong Kong Federation of Students and Occupy Central, two of the groups who suddenly found themselves leaders of a sort after tens of thousands of people had spontaneously turned out on the streets earlier that day, called on people to go home.

When I first heard the call, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding. Here are all these people out on the streets, and you want them to go home!” I tried to contact HKFS and OC to tell them they were overreacting, but I wasn’t able to reach them. Once they had made the appeal, they weren’t communicating.

Luckily, the people didn’t listen to them, and rather than going home, they not only occupied Admiralty but also Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, initiating occupations that would last longer (seventy-nine days, from September 28 to December 15) than the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (fifty days, from April 15 to June 4).

The situation was confusing that night. HKFS and OC decided it was best to err on the side of caution. They feared the police would open fire, causing massive injuries, even deaths, and they felt responsible; they wanted people to be safe.

Of course, lurking in the back of their minds, hovering over them like a long shadow cast across twenty-five years, was the Tiananmen massacre. They wanted to avoid a second Tiananmen.

Earlier that summer of 2014, in the lead-up to what would become the entirely unplanned occupations, there were regular rumors of People’s Suppression Army (after June 4, I cannot stomach using the name they call themselves, the very opposite of what they have shown themselves to be; calling soldiers who kill their own people the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ is a grotesque abuse of language and truth, a desecration of the memory of their victims) troop movements in Hong Kong and night sightings of PSA vehicles. One of many questions swirling in the air for weeks was, Would the PSA intervene to defend the HK government?

As it turned out, the HK police did not escalate- those scary green men with rifles disappeared from the streets that night never to return throughout the remaining seventy-nine days of occupation, as if they had been just some mirage, and PSA troops stayed in their barracks. But the rumors showed the extent to which June 4 still permeates the HK psyche, submerged, repressed much of the time but brought to the surface by events such as last year’s.

And it’s not just a matter of psychology: For all of the Communist Party’s attempts to erase June 4 from history, from memory, the historical period in which we live is still the June 4 era.


China is a schizophrenic place. On the one hand, it is one of the fastest changing societies in the world. Whole cityscapes are transformed in a matter of years. The economy has grown massively since 1989. The society and culture of today would be largely unrecognizable to someone time-travelling from ’89. Just the way people looked and dressed in photos from the ’89 demonstrations shows the temporal distance.

And yet, politically, China is frozen in time; politically, the date today is the same as it has been for twenty-six years: June 4, 1989.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been political changes or developments since 1989 but that the general mode of governance is in the same paradigm as that of 26 years ago; there has been no substantial political reform or change of any kind. We still live under the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (however corrupt and wealthy they may be).

The level of the Communist Party’s tolerance for open public political discussion (very low) is a good litmus test of change. Sometimes I wake up and look around and think, I must be dreaming: Pu Zhiqiang, Gao Yu, Chen Yunfei, Liu Xiaobo, others are all in prison. They were all participants in the events of April to June 1989. They were young then, or younger. And now, twenty-six years later, they’re in prison, all on trumped up if not downright ridiculous charges, this in a country supposedly moving toward rule of law. Pu and Gao were arrested last year around the time of twenty-fifth anniversary of the ’89 demonstrations, Pu after attending a private meeting about events of ‘89, Gao on her way to one. This is a clear sign of being frozen in time: 26 years on, the Communist Party still feels threatened by the most moderate of opinions, the most moderate of efforts to move society in a more rights-respecting, less corrupt direction.

As Chinese students studying abroad put it recently in their wonderful open letter on Tiananmen (a must-read for all on this 26th anniversary):

“A classmate of this writer believes that the events from twenty-six years ago are too far back, today’s China is getting better and better, and he lives a very happy life. As I walked on the Avenue of Eternal Peace two years ago, I saw no trace of blood or bullets but skyscrapers and the bustling of people and cars. We live in prosperity, but what kind of prosperity it is — our imagination is constantly challenged by the astonishing scale of high and low ranking officials, the marriage of power and money that the students opposed twenty-six years ago has become the prevalent model of the state economy. Xi Jinping’s regime waves the banner of anti-corruption, but ordinary people are thrown in jail as trouble makers for holding signs asking officials to disclose their assets. The clans of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, whose hands were stained with the blood of students, have become filthy rich. We are shocked to discover that we are governed by officials whose family members live abroad. In other words, we are ruled by a bunch of foreigners, and China is merely the goose that lays golden eggs for them.

“Twenty-six years ago, students wanted freedom of the press; and twenty-six years later, all media are still controlled by the Party’s Propaganda Department, and journalists and lawyers are being put in jail for invented crimes. Gao Yu’s crime was leaking state secrets, or the ruling party’s latest ideological guidelines. Some of my friends are of the opinion that those who draw the Party’s ire do so because they are famous and conspicuous. We, on the other hand, are mere ordinary people who don’t care about politics. But are ordinary people safe from harm? Think about Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), Xu Chunhe (徐纯合), and the daughter of Tang Hui (唐慧). No one is safe in a dictatorial system.”

While the political situation has hardly changed, views on the chances of the Communist Party continuing to rule have. The conventional wisdom used to be, This cannot last, an economy and society so rapidly changing, a political system so stuck in the past. But in recent years, much international coverage and punditry has focused on the Communist Party’s ability to adapt, its management of the economy, its fine-tuning of the mechanisms of control, propaganda, censorship. This has leading to very different questions: Is the Communist Party’s brand of neo-authoritarianism sustainable? Does it even offer a new model, especially to developing countries, that competes with democracy?

After Tiananmen, the Communist Party made a coerced and implicit pact with the Chinese people: No political reform, no political freedom, but we will allow you greater economic freedom than you have ever had under our regime. You allow us to stay in power and we allow you to get rich.

In order for this deal to work, China had to have sustained and rapid economic growth. This was a matter that was outside the control of the Communist Party for it entailed integration into the global trading system: China had to sell a lot to the rest of the world. It would have been difficult to impossible for the Communist Party to continue to rule without the neo-liberal globalization that flourished in the nineties; the coincidence was a godsend to the Party.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the number one aiders and abetters of dictatorship in China after Tiananmen have been Western governments’ trade policies, Western corporations and Western consumers. That was not their intention — their intentions, respectively, were to improve their economies and/or do the bidding of their corporations (governments), make a lot of money (corporations), and buy a lot of cheap stuff (consumers) — but that was their effect.

That history leads to another important sense in which we are still living in the June 4 era, and not just here in China, in Hong Kong, but globally: we experience a deep confusion about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, or perhaps a deep ambivalence about which we prefer.


In the early nineties, democracy was seen to be in the ascendancy worldwide. The Soviet empire had just collapsed. The number of countries that were, at least on paper, democracies was increasing rapidly. OK, China was an anomaly, but it was only a matter of time, right?

The nineties was also the time of the ascendancy of the “Washington consensus”, neo-liberal economics, and globalization. The WTO and free-trade agreements deliberately segregated issues of environmental protection and labor rights from trade issues, prioritizing the latter. They pushed free trade; they didn’t push protection of labor and the environment.

There was a lazy and self-serving argument on the part of government leaders in Western countries and their business and finance lobbies that democracy and capitalism of the neo-liberal variety went hand in hand. This lead to policies of “engagement” with China; basically, do business with them and they’ll eventually become democratic. Unsurprisingly, these Western leaders and their business and finance allies were far more interested in business than democracy.

And the Communist Party hit the jackpot: China, with its lack of labor rights, relatively well-educated, healthy and disciplined workforce (the Communist Party did get a few things right in contrast with its democratic counterpart in India), long coast with many ports, improving infrastructure and huge economy of scale, was well placed to take advantage of neo-liberal globalization. China went from being politically isolated post-Tiananmen to the center of the global economy in a matter of incredibly few years.

Western capitalist countries threw the Communists a lifeline, and not only did the Communists survive, but the Communist Party is the biggest, most powerful, wealthiest dictatorship in the world, with almost unlimited resources, the number one owner of US Treasury securities (neck and neck with Japan these days, leaving the rest of the competition in the dust).

When push came to shove, seemingly almost by default, as if they hadn’t even really considered the matter carefully, Western countries were more interested in capitalism than democracy. This wasn’t really a hard sell to Western electorates: as long as they benefitted as consumers- a plethora of goods at cheap prices made by workers who hadn’t the rights Western workers had in their own countries even as those countries were hemorrhaging good blue collar jobs-, they were easily satisfied.

Then, once it got rich from selling the West cheap stuff, the Communist Party had the ingenious stratagem of dangling a “market of one billion people” in front of the eyes of salivating multinational corporations; they and their governments from that point forward became little more than supplicants at the throne of the dragon emperor: We want in, we want in, we’ll do anything to get in. The genius of the Communist Party has been, for the most part, not to let them in while at the same time continuing to hold the promise before them. Having to a large extent saturated Western markets and reached their “growth potential”, these corporations are desperate for new markets.

PEN American Center recently released an excellent report, Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship, to coincide with Book Expo America’s annual conference at which a delegation of over 500 publishing industry bigwigs from China lead by Communist Party officials was Guest of Honor. Why? Because the US book industry sees China as the future, and the road to China leads through the Communist Party. One Barnes and Noble’s bookstore in New York where the conference took place was seen (by Xinhua) to have an extensive display by the Chinese delegation in its shop window with Xi Jinping’s little red book (well, it’s actually beige) taking pride of place. World, how low can you go!?

Last year, the Norwegian government became one amongst many to scurry as far as it could from the Dalai Lama. In 1989, the very year of Tiananmen, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-five years later, upon invitation, he returned to Norway to commemorate the occasion, but not a single Norwegian government official would meet him. The Norwegian government argued it had to repair the damage to its relationship with China caused by the Nobel Committee having awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010 (it was actually caused by the Communist Party’s response to the award). Denmark, which later did the same, hiding from the Dalai Lama, couldn’t have the same excuse.

These are amongst the most democratic countries in the world, and yet they find themselves genuflecting to the will of the world’s biggest dictatorship. World, how low can you go?!

The brazen cynicism and lack of courage of the governments of democratic countries have been deeply disheartening- whether they know it or not, they live in the shadow of June 4, their actions and decisions trapped in the dialectic events that day set in motion. The original logic of “engagement” has been turned on its head: From, We have the economic power to influence their political change, to, “They have the economic power to influence us to display copies of Xi Jinping’s book in our shopwindows and fear encountering a Tibetan monk.” Small prices to pay, of course, for rich (hoped-for) economic rewards. How many small prices to pay before they become one big price?

After the 1990s, the Communist Party got lucky in another way. 9/11 lead to a US fixation on fighting Islamist terrorism. The world, it could be said, took its eye off the ball. In the long term, neo-authoritarianism of the sort seen in China and Russia today is a greater threat to democracy, freedom and rights than Islamist political groups. And yet no Western power has seriously focused on that threat. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese Communist dictatorship falls even further down Western powers’ list of imminent threats (with the exception of the Party’s stronger assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea).

And then the financial crisis hit in 2007, largely caused by the business and finance interests having gained the upper hand in the formulation of Western government policies over the previous fifteen years — again, capitalism triumphing over democracy — , especially in the US, the UK and a few other countries.

Apart from economic difficulties, large democratic deficits within Western countries went unaddressed, in the US caused by the huge influence of money in politics and greatly increasing income inequality, in the European Union by the great power of the Commission and the European Central Bank and their distance from and lack of accountability to ordinary citizens as well as the imbalance of power among member states.

In contrast to the nineties democracy boom, over the past decade, indices such as Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index state unequivocally that democracy is “in decline”, “in retreat”. And we wonder how it came to this.

Around the world, it’s still June 4. June 4 stands for the world’s unfinished business. We got to the edge of global democracy and weren’t able to turn the corner. Due to consumer capitalism and globalization gaining the upper hand over democracy. Due to lack of vision and commitment to democracy on the part of Western countries and many in the supposedly newly emerging democracies (ie, Russia).

Does China offer a viable model of governance to developing countries? That the question is even asked (and that the authoritarian development model is supported in countries like Ethiopia largely by Western aid) shows how much the world’s changed.

Maybe, instead, we should ask, What would the world look like today if the Chinese empire, like the Soviet empire, had turned that democratic corner in ’89? Or if the West had considered it more important to turn that global democratic corner than to turn China into the world’s workshop? Much of Western punditry, driven by realist thinking in the foreign policy establishment and business and finance thinking in influential publications like The Economist and Financial Times, will guffaw at such naïve thinking: China is richer, the world is richer, history is inexorable and there’s no sense hypothesizing about it. But history is made of decisions. Where we are now is the result of decisions made: the decision to murder people in cold blood on June 4, 1989; the decisions that resulted in neo-liberal globalization; the decisions to “engage” the Communist Party on largely an economic basis (and largely excluding politics). Is there really no way to make the world both richer and more democratic? Is our political imagination really so impoverished as to deal in little more than “the way things are”?


Another legacy of June 4 is the Communist Party’s continuing adamant refusal to recognize the will of the people. How else to interpret the massacre? This might seem obvious, but the refusal to so much as listen (never a great skill of the Party) has essentially caused the Communist Party to lose the peripheries of its empire. Of course, it hasn’t lost them in the formal sense, but the only way it can keep them is through threat and military occupation, for it’s so thoroughly lost “hearts and minds.”

Hong Kong’s not the only periphery of the Chinese empire that must deal with the long shadow of June 4. Under the current governance paradigm, the situations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and East Turkestan cannot be resolved except by force (which is a “negative peace”, a fake resolution).

To Tibet and East Turkestan the Communist Party tried to apply the post-Tiananmen lesson learned in its heartland: Give people economic growth and prosperity and they won’t care about politics or rights. But the situations in Tibet and East Turkestan today are in many ways more fraught than they ever have been, with constant strife over the past half-decade and more.

After Taiwan saw how intent the Communist Party was on denying Hong Kong the right to genuine universal suffrage, the chance of any rapprochement between it and the mainland is gone for a good long time. Taiwan most definitely does not want to become Hong Kong. In Taiwan too, the Communist Party’s strategy was to undermine Taiwan politically with its economic influence, and the response has been political, the Sunflower Movement. China’s treatment of Hong Kong and the Guomindang pushing closer economic cooperation with the mainland look to be two key factors that will likely bring the DPP to power in the next elections, a party the Communists have never got along with.

The Communist Party appears constantly taken aback that in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkestan politics trump economics and people care about other things than money. Quite simply, it’s really made a mess of things in all of these places, even in the narrow terms of its own objective of attaining firm and complete control. It refuses to listen, or even acknowledge an interlocutor and believes the only approach is to take a hardline. Its response to eruptions of discontent in Tibet and East Turkestan has been brutal, basically a combination of military occupation, police state and isolating those areas as much from the rest of the world as possible. With Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it can’t just impose its will by brute force, it simply doesn’t know what to do; it’s at a loss.

Could it be that one enduring lesson of June 4 is more than idealistic cliché; namely, that the people want the power, and until they get it, political problems cannot be solved through mere force and refusal to so much as engage the other side? The Tiananmen Massacre meant the Communist Party did not have to listen to anyone, and its refusal to even acknowledge issues raised by political adversaries as legitimate must constitute a serious governance limitation of some sort, even in terms of the calculations of realpolitik.


One last way in which we are still living in the shadow of June 4:

A keystone of the Communist Party’s approach to the demonstrations and massacre is to remove it from history. Accurate accounts are not allowed to appear in published books, school textbooks, the media or on the internet. It’s simply whitewashed.

Enforcement of historical amnesia is a longstanding policy of the Communist Party’s rule: the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, the Great Leap Forwards and anti-rightist campaign, the genocides of landlords and Tibetans — you name it, it’s off limits.

Of course, many countries have difficulties facing their histories honestly — Japan, the US and Turkey are three that immediately come to mind; Germany is one of the few that does so remarkably well. But the Communist Party is in a class of its own when it comes to the resources it dedicates to enforcing its version of history.

In China, a frequent experience of mine is disorientation of a sort verging on vertigo. This is partly caused by the fact that my perception of the country differs so enormously from that of its ruler. It also has to do with what I mentioned at the start of this essay: the schizophrenia of being, on the one hand, one of the fastest-changing societies in the world and, on the other, frozen in time. But it’s also because so many people have such a deep misunderstanding or ignorance of their own country’s history, are so deeply influenced by the official version propagated by the Party. It has often seemed to me that there is something dangerous in this situation: a society whose attention is so often directed to the horrific atrocities committed by Japan but not to those committed by its Communist rulers which in order of magnitude (number of lives lost) and current impact on society dwarf those committed by any other oppressor.

In this sense, the Party’s approach to June 4 is a touchstone indicating the extent to which it will go to perpetuate lies, the extent to which it perceives truth as its enemy.


If you say the ’89 demonstrations and massacre are discrete events that occurred in Beijing and other Chinese cities, then perhaps they look less relevant today.

But if you look at the ways the regime, the people, and the rest of the world responded to those events, their contemporary significance is great: We are still in the June 4 era.

Arguably, the greatest legacy of June 4 is that we have all contributed to creating a monster: the most powerful dictatorship and one of the largest armies in the world; domestically, a huge “stability maintenance budget” (the Communist Party perceives its own people as one of the greatest, if not the greatest threat to its power) coupled with extensive mechanisms of propaganda and censorship, systematic torture, 95% conviction rates, independent trade unions forbidden; internationally, territorial disputes with many of its neighbors (in particular, in the South China Sea with Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and the borders of occupied Tibet with India).

This is not a pretty picture. This is not where we should be in 2015.

June 4 is not just about justice and rights and freedom, not just about democracy and accountable government, not just about facing history honestly, but also about peace, about how we keep the peace, about the difference between negative and positive peace, and about the future, the sort of society we wish to see and the chances of bringing that about.

In China, in Hong Kong, in Tibet and East Turkestan and Taiwan and the world, how much longer must we continue to live in June 4’s shadow?

It’s time to make a concerted effort to disassemble the monster we have played a part in creating. Not only that, it’s time we clearly realize that decisions made over the past twenty-six years in China and the rest of the world have lead to democracy hanging in the balance worldwide. Do we really value democracy, or do we not? And if we do, how do we apply that value, how do we foster, promote, defend, encourage, support democracy around the world?

In the spirit of June 4, and applying its lessons, constructive responses would include:

As a matter of priority and urgency, consequentially fighting dictatorship and the denial of the people’s right to choose their own government wherever they occur, recognizing that this is not only a moral and legal imperative but in the long-term self-interest of the vast majority of people and countries

…and concomitantly fostering and supporting democracy, including democratic institutions and cultures consistently in China and elsewhere, recognizing that democracy is not only a basic right but also the best way of ensuring political equality and justice as well as positive peace

Subordinating capitalism to democracy, ensuring that the economic growth capitalism seems to be quite good at producing is channeled toward the benefit of all of society, and addressing income inequality as a matter of justice and a threat to national and global security

Fighting the imposition and/or promotion of historical amnesia wherever it may occur, including fighting against censorship and propaganda, key tools of the dictator in enforcing historical amnesia

Expanding our global consciousness so that it embraces all who fight for democracy, human rights and freedom around the world, in order that we may always work in solidarity with them as we learn lessons from them about defending democracy at home

Only if we do these things as part of our responsibility as global citizens can we say that we have honored the memory of the demonstrators of 1989, especially those who were killed by the dictatorship and its private army.

It’s become abundantly clear that governments won’t do this unless they are pushed to do so by their citizens. And perhaps that’s the way it should be: democracy is nothing if it is not a people’s movement.

I realize this will sound pie-in-the-sky to many. Idealism is not fashionable these days. (Cynicism, arguably, is another powerful legacy of June 4, in China and elsewhere — make money and shut up.) But in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere, we must have a vision of that better society we wish to see. We must fix our eyes on that prize while at the same time seeing where we’re at, strategizing with savvy how to get from here to there. Of course, the struggle to get there will entail failure again and again and again. But there will also be victories along the way, and perhaps, occasionally, the big victory that sets the course of history in another direction, that helps us to emerge from the June 4 era, from the long shadow events of that day twenty-six years ago have cast.

Thank you to the people of China in 1989 (and people in many other countries around the world time and time again) for reminding us of that.


29 May 2015

Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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