A Spectre is Haunting China—the Spectre of June 4
How the Chinese government’s hidden past is torturing its present.
Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto begins with the line “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” When he wrote this the bearded German thinker probably didn’t dream that, 166 years later, a spectre would be haunting China. However, instead of communism, the ghost’s name is June 4. These days the ghost has scared Marx’s Chinese comrades so terribly, they’ve turned mad.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Every year, all over the world, people commemorate the tragedy of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese Communist Party ordered its army to suppress students and citizens who were peacefully demonstrating for democracy. Though the true number of deaths is unknown, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died under the government’s tanks and guns. Deng Xiaoping, the party leader and statesman who released the fatal order that summer, died in 1992. Today his successors dare not confess to the slaughter and this historical event is still taboo. The CCP knows it would lose legitimacy if it acknowledges the massacre that took place in Beijing 25 years ago. Consequently, the new party leader Xi Jinping insists upon the “correct” fait accompli of 1989; in official language the CCP remains the “glorious, great, correct” party of the people. Only, with a single flaw, the wrongfully killed souls linger in the perpetrators’ heads year after year, making them feel guilty and panicked, driving them to schizophrenic illusions. Accordingly, Beijing turns into a real forbidden city every June as the lamenting ghosts haunt the capital.
Butchers know the art of slaughter, dictators the craft of suppression. Weeks before this June 4, the Chinese government started to silence dissent, arresting critics and activists. According to Teng Biao, the law scholar from Beijing who’s now stranded in Hong Kong, over 60 people were taken into custody between April and May. Human rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, Liu Shihui, and Tang Jingling; democratic activists Hu Shigen, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying; monks Shenguan, Xie Wenfei, and Yang Chong; journalists Gao Yu, Wu Wei, Xiang Nanfu, and Xin Jian; scholars Xu Youyu and Wang Yi; artist Xu Guang; filmmaker Shen Yongping, and several dozen others have all disappeared behind bars. They’ve either been arrested without any reason, or simply vanished. Sometimes even their families don’t know their whereabouts. It seems that the security police have a list of “suspects” and whoever gives the authority “a feeling of uneasiness” could be on the list. If so, they’ll be warned or taken to the police station for investigation. Those who sense that they’re on the “wanted list” and are not yet arrested prepared themselves by keeping tooth brushes and necessary medicines in their pockets. The police could break into their homes at any time and take them away: A scene of horror and fury.
President Xi Jinping has inherited Deng Xiaoping’s legacy of reform and Mao Zedong’s one-party dictatorship. Reform must continue, but only in the economy, and the Chinese Communist Party must have absolute power. The nation’s living founders, aged communists who fought alongside Mao, Deng, and others in the 1930s and 40s until they took the Chinese mainland in 1949, know that holding power is everything. Therefore their power must be handed to their children, the princelings. Xi Jinping believes in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim on the crackdown in 1989: “Kill 200,000 to get 20 years stability.”
For Xi it’s clear: Maintaining stability is the priority, no matter the cost. That’s why China’s yearly budget for stability is even higher then the budget for military defense. In 2013 it reached an astounding sum of RMB 769 billion ($123 billion). Xi and his advisers know that the critical intellectual elite are the spiritual leaders of China’s prospective civil society. They’re the uncomfortable and irrepressible element in this changing time. Silencing, controlling, or even eliminating this stratum could give Xi unlimited possibilities to carry out his policy undisturbed and transfer power to the next generation of princelings.
Thus the suppression before June 4 was only a logical follow-up to the “strike hard” campaign from last year. In March 2013 four people were arrested because they held banners asking that records of the high cadres’ property be available to the public. Later, with the arrests of civil rights defender Guo Feixiong, lawyer Li Huaping, Uighur scholar Ilham Toti, businessman and Big V Wang Gongquan, and more, we can see that the assault isn’t against certain individuals. Rather, the sword of Damocles is hanging over activists in general. The government wants to wipe out these influential figures completely.
Yet, international pressure is strong, so the government applies a double-strategy and loosens its grip on famous personalities, such as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and his wife Liu Xia. In January Liu Xia was given a phone at home and can now receive calls from outside. Her brother Liu Hui, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for economic fraud, recently received medical parole. In prison Liu Xiaobo has even received special treatment: He can read, do sports, and even has a patch of garden to plant vegetables in prison. These gestures are a sign of leniency from the ruler.
There’s also a rumor that the artist Ai Weiwei will soon be allowed to leave the country. The question is whether he can return to China again, once he crosses the border. No matter the outcome, it’s another humane stance from the authoritarian regime, intended to distract international attention from the spate of arrests that preceded this June 4.
There is no doubt that Xi Jinping is a hard-liner, only he’s more sophisticated and cynical. Human rights and human dignity have no weight on his political scales. For him, politics is like playing chess; there’s only one goal—to win overwhelmingly, and leave the opponent with as bitter a loss as possible.