Monday, June 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Redress for Tiananmen crackdown long overdue from Chinese leaders

Special to The Times

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It has already been 15 years since that tragic day of June 4, 1989, when the blood of unarmed students and residents in Beijing was spilled on the streets around Tiananmen Square in the brutal military crackdown of the Chinese government.

The subject is still under a gag — or mumble — order in China today. Asked by a reporter recently in Europe to comment on the event, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reaffirmed the resolute measures taken by his government and said the great achievement of China in the past 15 years had proven stability was of the utmost importance.

While continuing to maintain the correctness of the military crackdown, as Wen did, the Chinese government has, however, made subtle changes in tone over the years.

At the beginning of the demonstration in April 1989, the Chinese government called it a "political disturbance." By June, it had become a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," thus justifying tanks and machine guns. In recent years, Chinese leaders have come to mention it as "political wind and waves."

If the demonstration was not a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," then, as Zhao Ziyang, the reform leader sacked for sympathizing with the students, put it in a 1997 letter to the Party Congress, "the solution shouldn't be military crackdown." The Chinese government is living in a big contradiction today by continuing to justify the military crackdown (based on Tiananmen being a "counterrevolutionary rebellion"), while downgrading the event to "political wind and waves."

Whatever the intent of the downgrading, it is not enough. It is time that the Chinese government redressed the Tiananmen demonstration, owned up to the mistake of cracking down militarily, and restored the reputations of those killed, jailed, exiled and placed under house arrest — with full investigations and open hearings.

A redress is not only in the interests of the Tiananmen students, their families and China as a whole, it is also in the interests of those in power in China today. For the sake of survival, they already have been doing many of the things the students were demanding 15 years ago.

What were the demands? Consider some typical slogans of that time.

Down with official corruption: Corruption was bad in 1989. It has gotten worse since. The Chinese government could not but take severe measures in dealing with its corrupt officials, from jailing to execution.

Among high-profile cases were the execution of a vice chairman of the standing committee of China's parliament, the highest official ever executed for corruption; and the extradition from the U.S. of a Bank of China official, the biggest embezzler in China's history.

Down with dictatorship: Although China is still basically under one-party rule, there is no Mao- or Deng-type dictatorial figure today. The last transition of power was an orderly one. The new team of Hu Jintao, the president and party chief, and Wen, the premier, has tried hard to present itself as caring for the people, from AIDS patients to migrant workers.

Save China with the rule of law: China is still far from a society governed by the rule of law. Progress has been made, however. In the late 1980s, there were about 30,000 lawyers; today, there are about 102,000. Some 197,000 people took the bar exam last year alone.

More than 400 new laws and regulations have also been adopted over the past two decades, including one allowing citizens to sue officials. The number of civil cases in China reached a record of 5 million in 2001.

Democratic elections: It will probably be a long time before China holds direct elections for its national leaders. There has been one significant development, however, since the late 1980s: competitive elections in rural China.

Starting with a trial effort in 1987, the so-called Organic Law for Villagers' Committees became fully enforced in 1998. By 2001, almost all of China's 730,000 villages had elected heads of village committees.

The loudest slogans of 1989 were, of course, for free speech and a free press. Sadly, these two essential elements of democracy remain a tall order today.

One wonders if it has ever occurred to Chinese leaders that these two demands were not only demands of the Tiananmen students of 1989, they were also the demands of the May 4 students of 1919, the young communists of the 1930s and '40s, and are the demands in the hearts of all mainland Chinese today.

Redress by the Chinese government of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration is overdue.

The fully realized, constitutional rights of free speech and a free press for Chinese citizens are also overdue.

The world is waiting.

Wendy Liu is an independent China business consultant and translator living in Federal Way. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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