Asia Politics

It would be 'very hard' for anything like Tiananmen protests to happen again, says former US diplomat

Key Points
  • On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military opened fire to end student-led protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing a still-undetermined number of people and shocking the world with images of the crackdown.
  • The U.S. and others are commemorating the 30th anniversary of that massacre and calling on China to recognize the event.
  • But the Chinese embassy in the U.S. says others shouldn't interfere in its domestic situation and that "China's human rights are in the best period ever."
A Chinese soldier stands guard in front of Tiananmen Gate outside the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Getty Images

It would be "very hard" for anything like the pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 to happen again, a former diplomat to China said on the 30th anniversary of the event's final day.

On June 4 of that year, the Chinese military opened fire to end the student-led protests, killing a still-undetermined number of people and shocking the world with images of the crackdown — including that of the famous "tank man."

"Prior to June 4, 1989 and the whole spring of Tiananmen, you had a period of relative openness in China in which people were free to read, to discuss ideas, to interact with foreigners; it was a highly idealistic period as Chinese people got to know the rest of the world and recover from the Maoist period," said Robert Daly, a former U.S. diplomat to China.

Thirty years since the day of the bloody crackdown, China has grown steady into the world's second-largest economy, and its people have been accorded more freedom to travel and to choose their line of work. Still, that doesn't mean the spirit of 1989 is poised to again take hold.

"It's a consumerist society, so you don't have the same kind of idealism," said Daly, who is now the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Other experts echoed the notion that China's economic gains have contributed to less interest in activism.

"Since '89, China has decided that politically they will clamp down on all dissent. They will concentrate all the resources on developing the economy, and they have done it exceptionally well," added Francis Lun, CEO at GEO Securities in Hong Kong.

"This has been the policy of Chinese government since '89: develop the economy, let people enjoy economic success so they will not ask for political reforms — and so far, they have succeeded," Lun told CNBC.

Discussing the events is still taboo in China

This is an especially sensitive year for the Chinese leadership, with the Tiananmen anniversary on Tuesday and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October.

The Tiananmen crackdown remains a taboo subject in China and Beijing has never released a death toll. Estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to the thousands.

Financial information provider Refinitiv, under pressure from China's government, has removed from its Eikon information terminal several Reuters news stories related to the sensitive anniversary. Refinitiv has a license to provide financial information in China.

Refinitiv took the action to block the stories last week after the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which controls online speech, threatened to suspend the company's service in China if it did not comply, three people with knowledge of the decision told Reuters.

Censorship of the internet in China has been intensifying under President Xi Jinping, and businesses have come under growing pressure to block content that Beijing sees as sensitive.

Technology has played a key role in consolidating the control of the Chinese Communist Party, said GEO Securities' Lun.

"They can control the thoughts of everybody, including dissenters, in China ... At any slightest hint of dissent, they will snuff it out," Lun said.

Tiananmen Square concerns us directly: Hong Kong activist

Nationalist Chinese newspaper The Global Times, which is run by the Communist Party-owned People's Daily, calls the events of June 4 at Tiananmen Square a "faded historical event" and deemed the country's "dropping the incident" a "political success."

"As a vaccination for the Chinese society, the Tiananmen incident will greatly increase China's immunity against any major political turmoil in the future," the newspaper said in an opinion piece published on Monday.

Meanwhile, China's embassy in the U.S. expressed "strong dissatisfaction" on Tuesday towards the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's remarks commemorating the anniversary of the massacre.

Pompeo called on Beijing on Monday to mark the June 4 anniversary by releasing all prisoners jailed for fighting human rights abuses in China.

"Such a step would begin to demonstrate the Communist Party's willingness to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms," Pompeo said.

A statement from the embassy charged that Pompeo's comments on the anniversary were made "out of prejudice and arrogance" and grossly interfered with China's internal affairs. "China's human rights are in the best period ever," it said.

Concerns in Hong Kong and Taiwan

The Chinese Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong is holding a candle light vigil to remember the events of June 4 at Tiananmen Square, but little will change for political freedoms in the financial hub, said Lun.

"As far as the call for political reform, for more freedom in Hong Kong, (Chinese officials) just ignore it," Lun said. "And what can Hong Kong do? Nothing."

Beijing's control of information over the events of 1989 is not lost on Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its territory.

"The Chinese government not only did not plan to repent for the past mistake, but it also continued to cover up the truth," Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen wrote in a Chinese-language Facebook post on Tuesday.

"Please be reassured — Taiwan will definitely defend democracy and freedom. Regardless of threats and infiltration, as long as I'm the president, Taiwan would not bow to pressure," Tsai added.

The post, which was accompanied by a cartoon of Tsai holding a candle, also expressed concern for China's "erosion of freedom" in Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula.

Despite concerns about Beijing's tightening grip on Hong Kong, the city's economic success will mean that the status quo is unlikely to change much — because money talks, said GEO Securities' Lun.

"Hong Kong remains the only free city in China. All the rich people, all the financial institutions want to have a foothold in Hong Kong so that they can trade freely with the rest of the world," said Lun.

"If you live and work in Hong Kong, you are used to (the) presence of Chinese government in all ways of life — you just cannot escape it. So you have less press freedom, dissenters failing to get entry into Hong Kong," Lun added. "But still, compared with China, Hong Kong is a free place and people enjoy economic success here, so Hong Kong is still doing fine."

—Reuters contributed to this report.