The short-lived student democracy movement of 1989 had one prominent supporter among the Communist Party leaders: Zhao Ziyang. Fearing a loss of power as the protests grew and ordinary citizens joined the demonstrations, Deng Xioping, then head of the Party, wrote an editorial for the People’s Daily accusing the students of creating “turmoil”. This was really a signal that the hard-liners were in control because it alluded to the “ten years of turmoil” that were the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, the students of 1989 were too young. They hadn’t seen how the government could turn on the people in an instant as they did in the 1960’s during the Cultural Revolution. So they didn’t appreciate the significance of Deng’s message. Moreover, they were not aware that behind the scenes Zhao Ziyang had been ousted. They began a hunger strike, announcing that they would not leave Tiananmen Square until the editorial was recanted. As a result, any opportunity for defusing the situation disappeared. And as we know, on June 4, tragically, hundreds, perhaps thousands were shot dead.
Almost 20 later, with the June 4th anniversary looming, Bao Tong, a former senior aide to Zhao Ziyang and himself purged from the Party, is urging the National Parliament to overturn the Steering Committee’s official condemnation of the 1989 pro-democracy protests. In his letter to the National People's Congress which was received this week by Reuters, Bao stated that "the past 20 years of history prove that if the June 4 issue is not resolved, there is no way for the country to... become harmonious or have lasting order and tranquility."
Last week, a group of mothers’ whose children had been killed at Tiananmen advocated for an official inquiry into the killings, urging the government to name the dead and end the silence over the anniversary once and for all.
In December, 2008 over 300 dissidents signed Charter ’08, a petition demanding the end to one Party rule.
The Congress which opened this week is closely controlled by that ruling Party, so the probability of its addressing the turmoil of 1989 any time soon is unlikely. The letters from Bao and the Tiananmen mothers and the Charter ’08 petition come during a year marking several potentially volatile anniversaries besides the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen (the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile from Tibet, and the 10th anniversary of the banning of the Falun Gong) as well as a time of economic downturn with rising unemployment.
Bao's former boss, Zhao Ziyang, died in 2005 after more than 15 years under house arrest. Bao himself remains under close surveillance by security officers around his Beijing home.
*read Rabbit in the Moon by Deborah & Joel Shlian for more background on the pro-democracy movement of 1989
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