Xi Jinping’s Bad Dream

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China is writing a new legacy of repression.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine is in overdrive. Extolling the virtues of President Xi Jinping’s "Chinese Dream," which the government plans to enact through a deepening of "reform and opening," the government media has touted Xi’s vision for a rejuvenated China based on values like "equity and fairness," and "high morals." Even the untrained observer, however, can see that this "dream" is far from reality. For while officials preach fairness, the public security bureau has been busily rounding up activists and government critics ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary on June 4.

Disturbingly, the latest wave of persecution — which has seen dozens of activists detained, questioned, or placed under house arrest in recent weeks — goes further than in previous years. A clampdown on activists at such a politically sensitive time is sadly predictable. The authorities’ campaign to prevent people from commemorating the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed civilians who were killed or injured in the 1989 crackdown is an annual event. But this year, the drive to quiet dissent has been more severe than in years past — including on the 20th anniversary — with harsher methods being deployed and more people facing criminal detention.

The Tiananmen anniversary is a critical test for Xi’s claims to be delivering greater openness. It is a test he has so far failed, opting for repression over true reform. Just like his predecessors, Xi seems unable to look history in the face. He has persisted in playing politics with the past, trying to wipe out the truth of what happened in 1989. His government has barred mothers and fathers from publicly grieving for children they lost in the bloody crackdown. Parents’ calls for truth, compensation, and accountability fall on deaf ears.

Xi has also failed to move away from the stability-above-all-else mindset that leads to a vicious cycle of injustice.

Take the trumped-up charges against prominent journalist Gao Yu. The 70-year-old, who has been an outspoken campaigner for victims of the 1989 crackdown, was detained ahead of a Tiananmen memorial event last month, accused of disclosing state secrets by allegedly leaking an ideological Communist Party paper called Document No. 9 to a foreign website last August. She was last seen on April 24 before appearing on Chinese television on May 8 to "confess." And Gao is just one of the many activists whom the government has targeted under China’s vaguely worded and arbitrary state-secret laws.

Document No. 9, an internal memo, can by no reasonable measure be considered a state secret. And it exposes the current leadership’s disdain for human rights: The document is scathingly hostile towards universal values, the rule of law, civil society, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Xi’s claims to be deepening reform are increasingly being exposed as empty rhetoric, as China’s leaders are more and more hostile to any discourse on human rights. Anyone who attempts to raise such issues is perceived as challenging the Communist Party’s authority and is severely dealt with.

The death of another activist in March, Cao Shunli, who for months was denied medical care while in detention, shows how far the authorities are prepared to go. Cao had led attempts to allow activists to contribute to China’s national human rights report, as part of a U.N. review.

Yet Xi still claims China is a country operating under the rule of law. The fallacy of this assertion is seen in the sentences handed down to those linked with the New Citizens’ Movement, a loosely knit grassroots network of activists who discuss issues like government transparency and children’s education rights. The most notable sentence was the four years given to the movement’s leader, Xu Zhiyong, who was accused of organizing protests. His appeal was denied in April.

On the surface, the calls by the New Citizens’ Movement for greater transparency and an end to corruption align with many of those made by Xi. Their so-called crime appears to be urging the party to heed the legitimate demands of Chinese citizens.

There is a direct link from the calls made by protesters in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago to those being made today. Most want to see incremental change within the current political system based on rights enshrined in China’s constitution.

If we are to judge Xi on the response to the Tiananmen 25th anniversary, he has failed to seize this historic opportunity to demonstrate that he is a genuine reformer. Instead, he has taken a repressive path, captive to the practices and attitudes of the past. Dealing with history honestly and genuinely promoting human rights will build the foundation for a stable future, a government with legitimacy both at home and abroad. Without that, China’s dream will end up as a continuing nightmare.

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