Tiananmen Square anniversary

A tourist, right, wears a t-shirt displaying the logo of the Chinese Communist Party as he visits Tiananmen Square in Beijing last month. (Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press / May 27, 2014)

Hu Jia is under house arrest again in Bobo Freedom City, his Beijing apartment complex, as he often is come late spring.

Two plainclothes officers are just downstairs, Hu says, and four or five are at the front gate; the veteran activist is allowed to go out only to see a doctor (twice a month) or to visit his parents (once a week, on Saturday afternoons). But Hu, who took part in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, still has his phone and is making the most of it, talking a mile a minute to anyone who calls.

Mostly, that's foreigners. It certainly isn't anybody from China's domestic press. The government has long been determined to impose a collective amnesia about the weeks-long pro-democracy demonstrations that shook cities across China 25 years ago, and official media still can make no mention of the deadly crackdown that culminated at Tiananmen Square on June 4.

Even if the events could be discussed, it's not clear how much most people would care. Hu, though, was in the thick of the action that spring, and he and millions who watched from outside China still have vivid memories of the sudden, violent denouement: the tanks rolling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the students running for their lives, the Communist Party declaring the movement a "counterrevolutionary riot."

For Hu and a fair number of fellow protesters, 1989 remains unfinished business. Fundamentally, the problems they sought to address — official corruption, weak rule of law, the party's claim to a monopoly on truth and the concentration of power in the hands of a few — continue to vex China.

"I think we need another June 4," said Hu, who has called for people to mark the anniversary by going to the square and wearing black. "I don't mean we need another incident full of blood. I mean we need millions of people to go to the streets to demand change."

But his voice is a lonely one. Even as technology and globalization have helped fuel mass protest movements in other one-party states, in today's China there seems to be no will — and no way — for anything like a sequel to 1989.

Dramatic improvement in living standards has satisfied some people; others have moved abroad. The government, meanwhile, has done just about everything in its considerable power to tamp down dissent.

"The leaders of the country, they have never forgotten about this incident for one day," said Zheng Wang, who was a college student in China in 1989 and now directs the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "No matter what they do, their priority, their focus, is stability."


In China, engineering "stability" has entailed much more than keeping perceived rabble-rousers like Hu on a short leash, although the Communist Party has become extremely effective at that.

In early May, for example, authorities swooped down on a group of people who had attended a workshop to commemorate "6-4," as the Tiananmen crackdown is known here. Five people, including Pu Zhiqiang, a well known human rights lawyer, were detained on suspicion of "creating a disturbance in a public place," even though the workshop was in a private apartment. Under Chinese law, they can be held 37 days before charges are filed.

"The repressive apparatus in China is much more developed than it was in Egypt or Tunisia," said Perry Link, a China scholar at UC Riverside who had just moved to Beijing when the 1989 movement began to gather steam. "It's sophisticated, layered and huge, so it's hard for something like a 'Jasmine Revolution' to get going."

Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which have played a role in other protest movements, are banned in China, and the state's army of Internet censors works hard to quickly scrub the Chinese Web of postings on "sensitive" topics such as Tiananmen. Publishing a book in the mainland on the 1989 protests is unthinkable.

Protests can and do break out over local issues, such as environmental problems, labor disputes and land confiscations. Some academics say more than 200,000 demonstrations drawing more than 50 people occur annually in China, mostly outside Beijing. This spring, tens of thousands of shoe factory workers went on strike in the southern city of Dongguan, and thousands turned out to oppose an incinerator project in Hangzhou, near Shanghai.

"Twenty-five years ago, it was mainly students and intellectuals pursuing liberties or democratic rights. Now ordinary citizens have developed a very strong consciousness," said Feng Chaoyi, a researcher on China's activist movements at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

But when unrest does break out, local governments usually nip it in the bud, sometimes paying people to go home or bringing in police to disperse the crowd.

Gatherings are occasionally tolerated in Beijing, if the focus is on an external target, such as Japan. But no protests are allowed in high-profile public spaces like Tiananmen, which regularly teem with cameras, plainclothes police officers and uniformed guards.

Rowena Xiaoqing He, who took part in the 1989 protests and is the author of a new book, "Tiananmen Exiles," sees such cat-and-mouse policing as only a small part of why another mass movement has failed to materialize.

"In 1989, [the Communist Party] tried to lock the doors of major campuses and universities so students would not take to the streets, but they found a way out," she said. "Post '89, they found a way to lock their thinking, to lock their minds."