Armed police in Tiananmen Square


How refreshing to see so many young faces expressing their democratic right and concern for the environment at the anti pulp-mill rally organized by high-school students in Hobart. ( Students walk out against the mill )Yet a stern finger of the Tasmanian Government was wagged in warning that charges could be pressed, but are unlikely, as a result of the “illegal” march and rally.

This is democracy well exercised by the students . . . and good on them.  And how fortunate are Australians in being able to express those rights albeit with approval from the police for what might be called matters of safety. That democratic right of free speech is inalienable.

But this is not the case in mainland China, where the finger is wagged somewhat more strongly. In the past two weeks the Chinese Government has reiterated in the Press that it would not tolerate any “unlawful” demonstrations during next year’s Olympic Games. It fears in particular that foreign visitors will use the games to raise the profile of human rights, democracy, environmental issues and Tibetan independence.

Triggered by an event several weeks ago when four Americans unfolded a “free Tibet” banner at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall outside Beijing, followed by a protest by others in support of the banned Falun Gong movement (this movement is considered a sect and its followers are arrested), the government’s clarification of its law also stated that China’s Constitution granted its citizens the right of free speech and assembly . However, it said regulations controlled what could be exercised and police would grant permits for any demonstration only if the applicants satisfied laws and regulations. The country’s laws on “large-scale” demonstrations were reaffirmed last month.

Street marches and demonstrations in China are controlled by the Laws on Assemblies, Procession and Demonstrations which stipulate that organizers must get police approval five days before the event, state the reason for the event, when and where it will take place and its process, what banners will be carried and the meaning of those messages, and how many persons will participate. A “large-scale” demonstration is defined as a gathering of more than 1000 persons. 

Violation of the law would “harm the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state, instigate divisions among the people or endanger public security”. Such activity would also “violate the Constitution”, despite that document upholding those rights of free speech and assembly.

A breach of regulations, including by foreigners, the government said, would result in arrest, custody, fines or “criminal punishment”. Softening its stance, however, the government said it would approve events such as sports matches, exhibitions or concerts arranged by individuals or organizations, providing those events were of peaceful intent and respected the law and the “happy gathering”  of the Olympic Games.

In the months of April and May 1989 students from universities in Beijing gathered in their thousands in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the Democracy Movement, in protest at corruption in official circles and denial of equal opportunity among a list of grievances. They sought in a seven-point manifesto freedom of the press and the right to stage peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed in China’s Constitution.

The government’s response, after a protracted stand-off, was to declare the movement “turmoil”. The editor of the World Economic Herald in Shanghai defied an order by the city’s mayor, Jiang Zemin (later to become president of China), not to publish accurate reports on the unrest in Beijing. He was removed from his post and the Shanghai committee of the Communist Party imposed “strict discipline” on the newspaper.

On May 2 thousands of students in Shanghai marched in protest at the oppression of the newspaper and this was followed some days later by 1000 editors and reporters signing a petition to the National Union of Journalists seeking talks with the official responsible for monitoring the reporting by the newspaper.

The Democracy Movement, having galvanized support throughout the country, and with tens of thousands of students in Tiananmen Square and many on hunger strike, was now branded a “counter-revolutionary riot” and the government, through its Premier, Li Peng, declared martial law in parts of Beijing on May 20.

On May 21 seven senior officers of the Beijing military command sent a letter to the People’s Liberation Army’s central command, and also to Deng Xiaoping (chairman of the Central Military Commission) urging the government not to send soldiers into Beijing. Satellite links of foreign broadcasters were cut at 11am on that day but later restored.

What followed is well-known internationally as the massacre in Tiananmen Square: on orders from the government some 10 000 soldiers of the 27 th Army moved into the Tiananmen Square area on June 3 and the government then issued three warnings to the thousands in the square and nearby streets. They were warned that the military would take decisive action against anyone who defied martial law. Soldiers had by then surrounded the square.

The atmosphere in mid-evening of June 3 in the square and on nearby streets was tense but thousands of students, workers and other civilians defied the order. The third warning was issued at 10pm and called on people to depart and remain inside dwellings or risk danger. In the early hours of June 4 shooting began with soldiers firing into the air as they advanced towards the Great Hall of the People on the western side of the square.

About 4am on June 4, with the lights of Tiananmen Square flashing on and off, soldiers opened fire on the thousands in the square and surrounding streets. It will never be known how many died but estimates range from 2000 to 5000. Military action continued throughout June 4 against anyone deemed to be associated with the demonstrations. Leaders of the Democracy Movement, those who did not flee abroad, were arrested and imprisoned.

The Chinese Government about a year ago issued a warning to all editors of its state-owned Press and television networks that the government welcomed positive news. Any editor who published news considered “bad” and against the state’s interest would be removed from office, the edict declared.

At the 17th National People’s Congress recently concluded in Beijing, an important meeting of 2235 members of the Communist Party, the country’s charter for the next five-year plan was mapped out (China’s development is planned in five-year cycles). The delegates approved a State Council program of a “scientific outlook on development” in tandem with “development of democracy”.

In 2002 the State Council sought approval from the National People’s Congress to change the party’s constitution to allow entrepreneurs and others in private enterprise to join the Communist Party (previously only peasants, workers, officials and cadres were permitted to join). At the recent congress meeting the chief executive officer of one of China’s leading private-enterprise manufacturers was elected to a key post.

The congress outlined a plan for political reform “in line with guidelines” but stressed that any changes to China’s political system would be according to conditions in the country. Western models of democracy would not be copied but aspects of other systems would be drawn upon when necessary. In February this year the government said it did not envisage any major changes toward democracy within 100 years.

The one-party system prevails. A free vote as expressed in democracies takes place only at village level, to elect a village leader. Thereafter all delegates to the National People’s Congress are elected by members of the Communist Party at provincial level, whom in turn elect members of the State Council and Standing Committee at the respective congress.

Among the guests at the just-concluded 17th congress were now-retired former Premier Li Peng, who ordered the military action against the students in 1989, and former Mayor of Shanghai and retired President Jiang Zemin who imposed the crackdown on Press freedom in Shanghai in that year. They were lauded as distinguished guests and clapped by delegates with current leaders on the rostrum of the plenary hall of the Great Hall of the People.

On the campuses in China today there is indifference generally to any democracy movement which, in Beijing, is not to be seen. The Democracy Wall movement of 1979-81, expressed by posters and debate, sought political reform on the lines of that seen to be emerging in Eastern European countries where Soviet-bloc governments listened to ideas for reform, such as that put forward by the trade-union Solidarity movement in Poland, and instituted those reforms, seen today in Poland and elsewhere.

Teachers in China do not discuss politics. They consider there is no point in such discussion because, to use their words, “nothing can be changed”. They are more concerned about rising prices, environmental degradation, the high cost of housing in this “market economy with Chinese characteristics” and their job security in a tough market. There is cynicism and mistrust of government.

The students in the demonstrations of 1989 demanded that the government root out corruption, seen then in particular as financial advantage gained through position. China then had a two-tiered pricing system for grain, with one price set by the state and the other by the free market. Government officials, with privileges, bought grain at state cost and sold it on the free market at substantial profit. The students sought audit of the assets of government officials in their demands in 1989. This was denied.

Corruption still prevails. The government has taken steps to eliminate corrupt behaviour and there are sometimes high-profile examples of success in this quest in the jailing or execution of officials. The most recent this year was the chief executive of China’s pharmaceutical industry, himself a member of the Communist Party. He was executed for allowing the manufacture of bogus drugs in return for bribes. Cases are revealed frequently. People today generally believe that officials still secure unfair advantage through status or position (holidays abroad for senior officials and their families are not unknown but cause surprise to staff whose similar salaries are insufficient for such travel).

What is China’s future in such an inequitable environment? It is a colossal capitalist economy, of growth this year at 10.5 per cent, with an enormous reach abroad and those connections will have a profound effect on the economies of its trading partners and on the global environment. Out of a population of 1.3 billion there are some 230 million middle-class consumers, many owning cars (there are 3,000,000 in Beijing), and the Communist Party’s objective is to expand that materialism in a hurry to avoid further widening the wealth gap. It is not a totalitarian state but it lies somewhere between dictatorship and democracy, arguably masquerading as a democratic country.

Following the massacre in Tiananmen Square the government, urged by the pragmatist and retired Premier Deng Xiaoping, accelerated economic reform as a trade-off to political reform. People have risen to that call for economic development, are savoring the fruits of China’s trade bonanza and have a standard of living unthinkable 15 years ago. But those without political or business connections are disowned in the system and as such have no power to bring about minor or major change or arrest developments they consider improper or destructive to the environment or their socio-economic position. Decisions, good or bad, are made by the state and that’s where it rests.



From a correspondent in Beijing Tiananmen Square, the massacre and modern China

But this is not the case in mainland China, where the finger is wagged somewhat more strongly. In the past two weeks the Chinese Government has reiterated in the Press that it would not tolerate any “unlawful” demonstrations during next year’s Olympic Games. It fears in particular that foreign visitors will use the games to raise the profile of human rights, democracy, environmental issues and Tibetan independence.