It was nearly midnight on June 3 when the sound of breaking glass bottles shattered the tension-filled silence at Beijing University. To the students, the act was unmistakable: a show of contempt for the Communist party’s 85-year-old leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose name in Chinese sounds like “little bottle.” And it sparked the most defiant protest since army tanks rolled through Beijing to crush pro-democracy demonstrations exactly one year earlier, massacring hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. “I never dreamed that anyone would dare protest,” recalled one incredulous graduate student. “But then the sound grew louder and louder.” Soon, hundreds of students poured out of their dormitories, while others waved flaming newspapers, a symbol of mourning, from their windows. Then, they broke into a rousing version of the Communist Internationale, the unofficial anthem of last year’s student-led protests: “Servile masses, arise, arise.”
Those demonstrations were repeated around the world. In Hong Kong, the British colony that will revert to Chinese rule in 1997, more than 100,000 protesters marched
through the city to honor those killed on the night of June 3-4 last year, and the hundreds of others who were executed or imprisoned after the crackdown. There were protests and vigils in London, Tokyo, Moscow and across Canada and the United States. In Washington, President George Bush, under pressure from congressional leaders who oppose the May 24 announcement of his decision to extend China’s preferential trade status, expressed “deep concern” over Beijing’s human rights record.
Two days later, in what Western diplomats said was an action designed both to appease domestic critics and to improve Beijing’s battered image abroad, the Chinese government announced the release of 97 prisoners who had been involved in last year’s democracy movement. But diplomats and spokesmen for human rights groups say that thousands of other political prisoners remain in jail. And a Chinese Communist party official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the ruling Politburo met in emergency session after the protest at Beijing University and decided that it will “deal severely” with those involved in the incident.
Chinese authorities had tried to prevent the
protest. Before the anniversary of the military crackdown, soldiers sealed off Tiananmen Square, the focus of last year’s unrest. And at checkpoints throughout the capital, police, armed with semiautomatic pistols, searched cars, drivers and passengers. Then, when the university students began breaking the bottles, police sealed campus gates in order to prevent the unrest from spreading. Police also beat several foreign journalists trying to report on the night’s events.
A foreign ministry spokesman later summoned the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China,
CTV reporter Jim Munson, to denounce reporters from abroad who he said were “collaborating” with protesters. The club later sent a letter to the foreign ministry to protest “unprovoked use of violence and physical abuse of foreign correspondents”—a charge that ministry spokesman Li Jinhua called “utterly unreasonable.”
One Western diplomat said that international media coverage of the protest at Beijing University deeply embarrassed the government. It also marked the failure of the government’s efforts to win the support of its students. Throughout the year, students across the country were forced to attend ideology classes where they were obliged to recite the official version of events—that last year’s unrest was a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” provoked by foreign imperialists.
Meanwhile, authorities had sent the university’s entire first-year class of 730 students to a bleak military camp south of the capital to endure more than seven months of cold showers, weapons-and-survival training and political indoctrination. In mid-May, they were allowed back onto the campus for the first time. Grim-faced and dressed in army fatigues, they marched around campus to harshly shouted commands: “Attention! Eyes right! Quick march!” Coinciding with the military display, state-run newspapers published an apparently grateful letter from the first-year students to China’s education minister. “Great changes have taken place in us ideologically,” it said. “We finally understand that the great flag of socialism i will never fall.”
Many workers were also obliged to spend at least four hours a week in political classes this past year. As well, last fall, officials revived a relic of
party Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s: on Sundays, workers are once again obliged to perform so-called voluntary good deeds for the glory of socialism. Those tasks commonly include babysitting and doing chores for the elderly.
Although the government crackdown and indoctrination sessions apparently prevented a full-scale recurrence of last year’s unrest, when millions of Chinese demonstrated in support of democratization and an end to government corruption, the actions have failed to erase widespread disillusionment with the Communist regime. Two students at one of Beijing’s 67 universities and colleges, who will graduate this year, told Maclean’s on condition of anonymity that they had manned student barricades around Tiananmen Square last year, flushed with the hope that Soviet-style political reforms were within China’s grasp. But they said that, after the massacre, they became afraid that some of their fellow students, in the hope of winning more coveted job assignments after graduation, would denounce them as politically unreliable.
The two students said that a teacher gave their class some pragmatic advice. “There will always be political movements in China,” the teacher told them. “The most important thing for you now is to bend and to take care of your own interests. Tell the authorities what they want to hear, write self-criticisms. You cannot win and you must protect yourselves.” They took her advice, suppressing their true feelings and behaving in a doctrinally orthodox fashion. Before last year’s crackdown, they said, they had hoped to study abroad. But, since then,
Chinese authorities have imposed strict restrictions on foreign study. Now, they face a bleak future as teachers in the countryside, earning less than the equivalent of $40 a month. They said that the most they can hope for is to eventually work their way back to Beijing, where they may find themselves telling another generation of students to bend in the political wind.
Cynicism of that sort is evident at almost all levels of Chinese society. A senior editor at a Communist party newspaper said privately that, even though “the country is in a complete shambles,” he obeys his orders and continues to publish government doctrine. Meanwhile, acquaintances of foreign residents in Beijing are besieging them with requests for help in obtaining exit visas, particularly for their children. “I have suffered all my life,” said one government official, who expressed the hope that his 25-year-old son could make a future for himself in Canada. “My wife and I had to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution, wasting a decade of our lives,” he added. “I do not want our son to be a victim of the same flipflops that ruined our lives.”
That disillusionment has increased, Western analysts say, because of a power struggle among senior Communist officials. The elderly Deng, who has relinquished all party posts but retains ultimate control, and his designated successor, party leader Jiang Zemin, advocate free-market reforms—but without any democratization. Sinologists say that the two leaders are struggling against hard-liners who advocate a return to a centrally planned Stalinist economy. Economic policies have fluctuated as
hard-liners and reformers alternately prevail. With no clear course, the economy is weakening rapidly.
Since last year, many private businesses have closed, and few people appear willing to open new ones in the uncertain political climate. Unemployment is high, with millions of people travelling the country looking for work. Foreign economic sanctions, imposed after last year’s massacre, are also taking a toll. And many Chinese, whose standard of living improved when Deng introduced economic reforms in 1979, have lost those gains in the past year.
Only a handful of dissidents have dared to speak out. Among them is Zhou Duo, an economist and a former lecturer at Beijing University. ; He was jailed for his participation in last year’s unrest g and, since his release last 5 month, he has openly called “■ the 1989 crackdown “a tragedy for China” and accused the country’s leaders of plunging the country into “an epic of terror.” Another former political prisoner, journalist Gao Xin, described the inhumane treatment he received in jail. Displaying his scarred wrists, he said that he had been handcuffed for 35 days and kept for more than 10 months in a tiny cell among rapists and murderers. And rock singer Hou Dejian, who left his native Taiwan to go to the mainland in 1983, began an outspoken crusade against the government early this year. All three dissidents disappeared in late May, just before they were to address a news conference for foreign reporters. It is unclear whether they have been arrested or have gone into hiding.
Meanwhile, the students who took part in the Beijing University protest are awaiting their fate. One night last week, Li Mingi, a third-year economics student, stood before a crowd of more than 1,000 fellow students to denounce the country’s elderly leaders as “wild and savage autocrats.” Police tried to take him away, but supporters intervened. Later, he said that he would stay in his dormitory, rather than flee. “The authorities are considering whether to expel me from the university or to deal with me in other ways,” Li said. “I do not know if they will arrest me.” In the fearful climate that is the legacy of last year’s military crackdown, Li’s isolated act of courage will not likely change the course of history. But it has shown China’s leaders that tanks and guns cannot forever erase their people’s desire for democracy.
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