Why does China censor the Tiananmen Square anniversary?

June 4, 2022, marks the 33rd anniversary of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. The developments of June 1989 were a natural result of the effects of the reform and opening up introduced by Deng Xiaoping. The increasing inequality in the Chinese society, corruption, income disparity and unemployment led the students to protest the policies introduced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The students called for democratic reforms, an idea which was not acceptable to the CCP. The CCP termed the protest unlawful, a challenge to its authority, called in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and imposed martial law. The military marched into Tiananmen Square to clear the protestors; the death toll is still debatable. However, the protests highlighted to the CCP that it needed to revisit its development strategy and how it should be managing the political reform, if any.

Before the fateful date arrives, the CCP goes to extra lengths to cover up any mention of the events in 1989. It is a known fact that the Chinese censor the numbers June 3, June 4 and Tiananmen Square. Any attempt to search the events generally results in blank pages on the Chinese internet. Even the giant internet providers follow the CCP directives, which is a prerequisite to tapping the vast Chinese market.

Also Read: Hong Kong drives Tiananmen memories underground on anniversary

Tiananmen Square is patrolled by plainclothes police and heavily guarded. The online chat rooms are monitored, and any discussion based on words like protests, Tiananmen, and June generally results in extra surveillance. Such actions also highlight that the CCP is still uncomfortable about openly accepting what happened in June 1989.

The one place where the anniversaries have been regularly organized was Hong Kong. The Pillar of Shame, which portrays twisted and torn bodies, embodies the CCP’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square incident. No surprise that before the anniversary of the incident, the Pillar of Shame was removed piece by piece by the police. However, one can only guess that since the passing of the National Security Law, the CCP will be undertaking extra efforts to control and ban any such incident from occurring. But according to reports, a similar statue will be unveiled in Taiwan on June 4, marking the anniversary.

In addition to the Chinese authorities taking precautions, many pro-democracy supporters have been detained or arrested. It has also been announced that the people have been forbidden to gather around in Victoria Park, and it was closed for public use on June 4. The vigil was declared unlawful for the last two years, citing the Covid19 restrictions. This year the restrictions have been easing, and one will have to see how far the CCP will go to curtail the vigil. Since the passing of the National Security Law, the censorship in Hong Kong has been on the increase, and the free space available for protests and discontent has been reducing.

The extension of the censorship and successfully managing to curtail the space for protests in Hong Kong can be perceived by Beijing as a success. Since coming to power in 1949, the CCP has been working toward controlling and monitoring the information that Chinese people receive and can access. The CCP has also been writing its own historical narrative, which shows the party as the savior of the people and China. The narrative argues that it is the CCP which has worked for the development and growth of the Chinese nation and Chinese people.

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Today, China is the second largest economy in the world. It also has one of the most advanced armies and domestic security apparatus. However, the CCP is not comfortable letting the Chinese people ‘think’ independently and ‘question’ the party even after this. It has consistently censored any attempt by the people to discuss and analyze the developments of June 1989. Interestingly, it would have been easier for the CCP to control the information in the pre-internet age. However, the challenge is how far the CCP will be successful today. In the past, we have witnessed several incidents where the internet has played a crucial role in overriding the controls put in place by the party. Today the number of internet users in China is over one billion, and the penetration rate is more than 70 per cent. With such a wide range, will the CCP manage to continue controlling information?

Pertinent here is that the issues which the protesting students raised on June 3-4, 1989 (unemployment, income inequality, development disparity, political reforms), are all very much relevant today. Even after 33 years, the CCP is still battling the same issues. Today the world knows that the significant challenge to the legitimacy of the CCP is its domestic environment. After almost four decades of reform and opening up, the party is looking for ways to address the ongoing challenges within China.

Rising income inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, and unemployment are significant issues and concerns that the CCP needs to address if it continues to be in power. To add to this, the ongoing Covid19 pandemic and the upcoming Party Congress further complicate the situation. One can conclude that the Tiananmen Square anniversary is a grim reminder to the party that there are several areas where it has failed to fulfill the promises made to the people of China. Thus it is no surprise that the censorship is in overdrive. Even when the party knows that it is almost impossible to control information in toto, it does not want to provide the people with more fuel for discontent.

(Gunjan Singh is Assistant Professor, O.P. Jindal University)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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