Every June 4th, a collective amnesia grips the leaders of China.
On that day in 1989, thousands of soldiers smashed a pro-democracy demonstration of almost a million students and their sympathizers in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. In the carnage that ensued, thousands of demonstrators were believed to have died.
The days that followed saw a massive wave of repression spread across China. Hundreds were arrested to quell the dissent the “counter-revolutionary riot” at Tienanmen had spawned.
The carnage in the square was strongly condemned by the international community, but the Chinese government was in no mood to listen, bent as it was in stemming what it saw was a dangerous challenge to its supreme authority.
But it was never the intention of the small group of students that had initially marched to Tiananmen several days before the bloodbath to defy authority. They were there to mourn the death days earlier of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Hu’s reformist leanings had earned him the admiration of the students and the suspicion of party hardliners.
The students had come to the square to eulogize Hu and hold open discussions on the reforms he espoused. But the gathering quickly grew from several hundred to the thousands. Within days, workers, intellectuals, artists caught the whiff of freedom from Tiananmen, and soon multitudes filled the square. The mood also changed, with the tributes to Hu drowned out by demands for sweeping reforms in government.
The authorities at first tolerated the demonstrators and even held dialogues with them. Flushed with a new sense of people power, the protesters pressed their demands, which ranged from publishing the income of state leaders and their family members to an end to press censorship and more funds for education.
On June 2, party elders led by Deng Xiaoping prevailed on their more liberal colleagues in the politburo to order the army to clear the square of protesters, by force if necessary.
On the night of June 3, a juggernaut of Army troops in full battle gear supported by tanks moved into Tiananmen, mowing down protesters with rifle and machine gun fire. The carnage had begun. Gunshots and cannon bursts would reverberate across much of central Beijing until the following morning.
In the months that followed, security forces all over China carried out hundreds of arrests, as they hunted down the remainder of the protesters and their leaders. It was a methodical, surgical stifling of dissent.
Several countries, including the United States, raged at the bloody crackdown. Some nations clamped a boycott on Chinese goods. Foreign lending agencies suspended loans to China, foreign tourists skipped Chinese destinations. In the midst of it all, Beijing was unremorseful.
It still is to this day, preferring instead to blot out any official memory of what happened in Tiananmen in the spring of 1989.
Mike Chinoy, who was CNN’s bureau chief that year, sees a paradox in Beijing’s denial of Tiananmen. Mr. Chinoy writes: “A quarter of a century later, the Communist Party still feels compelled to use all the powers of the state to convince people inside China that nothing worth remembering happened on a date that, outside the country, will be an occasion for reflection and analysis of what remains the gravest crisis the Party has faced since the revolution of 1949.”
It is this same approach that Beijing is taking in justifying its territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea and East China Sea with Japan. It is using the huge political machinery to brainwash its people into believing that it has the almost divine right to assert its sovereignty on the reefs, islets and shoals that, in fact, belong to its neighbors.
It is a dangerous approach, one that has created potential flashpoints that raise deepening concerns in the Asia-Pacific region.