Exactly 25 years ago, it was becoming pretty clear that the six-week-old, student-led demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were going to end in bloodshed.
“The troops will overcome the difficulties confronting them,'' wrote Chinese premier Li Peng in a letter to members of the People's Liberation Army who had encircled the capital. Li said he hoped those troops would, ''successfully impose martial law.''
But at various points during the build-up of those protests, people who were there had been convinced that things would turn out very differently.
“It is a revolution,” one student protestor told the BBC's James Miles in Beijing, who reported that China appeared to be on the verge of fundamental political change. (Listen to his two-part radio series about the events of 1989 that aired five years ago, on the 20th anniversary.)
“It was an amazing uprising. Everything changed in China for six weeks,” Jonathan Mirsky told me in a phone interview. He was at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 reporting for the Times of London. Mirsky said the signs of a pending violent crackdown came later. But at certain key moments, it looked like the students and their supporters would be victorious.
“When the staff of the party newspapers, notably the People's Daily, walked into Tiananmen Square with an enormous sign ... that said 'We don't want to lie anymore', I mean, that was the party's newspaper. It was amazing,” Mirsky said.
The demonstrations called for a variety of political reforms, including more freedom of expression, more freedom to assemble, and a freer press. They spread beyond Beijing to other Chinese cities. The leadership branded the movement a “counterrevolutionary riot,” and the violent suppression of the protests began on the night of June 3.
Forgetting the events leading up to the crackdown 25 years ago is official government policy now. That has been on display this year, with the detention of people like Pu Zhiqiang. He's a civil rights lawyer who was detained with several others in early May, after they attended a private gathering to discuss the Tiananmen crackdown ahead of the anniversary.
Pu, who was charged with “provoking trouble,” wrote about his views of June 4 in a 2006 essay in the New York Review of Books.
Others have been detained as well in the run up to the anniversary. Gao Yu is a 70-year-old liberal journalist. Chen Guang is an artist who was detained after doing a performance piece that referenced 1989. Then, there is the case of Ding Zilin, who is with a group called the Tiananmen Mothers.
In a recent op-ed, Murong Xuecun said he was invited to attend the June 4 gathering with Pu Zhiqiang and that he intends to turn himself over the police when he returns to China from Australia this summer.
It is difficult to imagine 1989-style demonstrations suddenly erupting in China today. Government officials have a point when they say China is more prosperous than it was 25 years ago, more modern and that people enjoy more personal freedoms. So, why is Beijing so nervous about this “sensitive anniversary?”
“It's a very dangerous black mark on the Chinese Communist Party,” Mirsky said. “This involved huge demonstrations all over China, in all the major cities."
“It went on for a long time and it was put down with enormous violence,” Mirsky added.
Less than one year after the “June 4 massacre,” as it's come to be known both in Chinese and in English, Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin sat for an interview with Barbara Walters. She asked Jiang about the killings and Jiang said the best way to understand them was “much ado about nothing.”
Writing about that exchange in his testimony for Congress this month, China expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California at Irvine said “Jiang’s phrasing was deeply objectionable on many levels.”
“It belittled the bravery of all those who gathered at Tiananmen Square and urban plazas across China in 1989 to call for an end to corruption and increased personal and political freedoms. It also belittled their patriotism — a crucial point as key themes of the protests were that a beloved country deserved to be run by better people and that the Communist Party should do more to live up to its own professed ideals. And his statement belittled the suffering of the many protesters and bystanders slain in Beijing and Chengdu — and that of the family members of these victims.”
But 25 years on, the Chinese leadership shows no inclination that it would be willing to go back and re-examine the significance of those events.