A poem, a painting and even some seemingly innocuous words were all dangerous stuff for China’s leaders earlier this week. They feared the annual poem that Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, writes to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square tragedy. They were afraid of the paintings of Ai Weiwei, one of the country’s best-known contemporary artists. So his name was deleted from the texts of two art exhibitions on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. Human rights activists such as Hu Jia found the surveillance around their homes tightened. A pathological fear grips China’s rulers every year as the anniversary of the tragedy approaches. Things became even more bizarre this year because it was the 25th anniversary of the historic event. Any reference to the “25th” or to “25 years ago” was erased from social media sites. Such attempts by any ruler to manipulate national memory would be simply ludicrous. But the scale of the Tiananmen catastrophe makes a world of difference between remembering and forgetting. Not forgetting the tragedy is critically linked to the future of freedoms in China.
Beijing’s anxiety over the remembrance of the Tiananmen tragedy is as much about controlling the past as about shaping the country’s present and its future. It shows how post-1989 Chinese leaders have been the same, despite their differences, when it comes to political reform. The country’s economy has improved vastly since 1989. Far more people now have better living conditions than ever before in Chinese history. China’s rise as an economic power is not disputed even by its worst critics. But some of the issues that prompted students and other sections of people to rise in revolt in May-June of 1989 continue to rock Chinese society. Corruption in high places, rising cost of living and social inequities have actually become much worse than what they were in 1989. And, the moral authority of the ruling Communist Party of China is far more shaken today than it was at that historic moment. It is anyone’s guess as to how long the CPC can manage the contradiction between an open economy and a repressive political system. No matter how strong its economy is, China will never earn the free world’s trust unless it learns to respect individual and political freedoms. But the restrictions imposed over the past week suggest that Xi Jinping is even less of a political reformer than his predecessors.