Twenty-five years after the pro-democracy protests in China, which ended in a bloody crackdown in Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square, it seems that the struggle for freedom and human rights in China has been put on ice. At least that is what the Chinese government wants us to believe. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) struggles with the fact that the public memory is stronger than the repressive measures that government officials apply every year before the 4th of June. In order to maintain control and ‘state security’ the Party does a good job in covering up the tragedy of what happened in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. Yet the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilian protesters who demanded human rights and democracy in 1989 cannot be covered up that easily. Chinese citizens may be intimidated by the state’s authoritarian tactics but they won’t forget the ’35th of May 1989′.

It leaves us wondering what has happened to the pro-democracy movement in China and whether there can be another wave of mass protests in the name of freedom. In order to keep Tiananmen Square calm and quiet Chinese authorities have worked hard to silence any possible voice of discontent prior to the massacre’s anniversary day this year. Many suspects have been detained or put under house arrest, amongst them activists and journalists. The measures that have been taken to avoid unrest at this year’s anniversary were harsher than those in previous years. China’s new generation is not granted the right to have their parents’ history recorded appropriately. They are not supposed to question the Party’s authoritarian tactics in preventing any form of peaceful protest. Instead, official Chinese statements are adamant in stating that the country is taking efficient steps in working towards greater democracy and human rights.

The last noticeable wave of pro-democracy protests occurred in 2011 and is said to have been inspired by the Jasmine Revolution and demonstrations in Tunisia. Three years earlier, around 300 intellectuals and activists have signed a manifesto called ‘Charter 08’ demanding more political and civil human rights in China. One of its drafters was Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has been in prison since 2008, due to his involvement in the creation of the Charter. Liu was one of the leading intellectuals asking for freedom during the initial protests in Tiananmen Square in the late 80s. It was because of his ambitions that the protesters in Tiananmen Square shouted pro-democracy slogans: democracy had not even been part of the initial agenda. Liu’s fate can perhaps be understood as a prime example for the struggle that many Chinese people go through in their demand for more freedom.

It is unclear how far specific ideas have evolved as to what exactly more democracy in China should look like. Must the old system be abolished completely, or is it enough to have more rights within the current communist model? Yet one thing is certain: what the Chinese pro-democracy movement wants and needs is a state which is not totalitarian and in which peaceful protests are not punished by arrests, torture or any other form of violence and aggression. The fact that the movement consists of various loose factions does, however, make it a lot more difficult.

Other questions that arise are, for instance, the fate of China’s occupied territories such as Xinjiang or Tibet. Would a democratic China include these areas or would the idea of Uyghur and Tibetan independence become more accessible? Questions such as these seem almost implausible given that 25 years after Tiananmen it appears that the democracy movement in China has slowed down considerably. Tight internet controls in the country don’t allow for a healthy flow of communication and the chance to spread ideas throughout the whole state. The intimidating measures that state officials apply in order to keep its citizens quiet have surely had an impact on many people’s willingness to take on risks in the name of political freedom. Nevertheless, many dissidents and protestors who have experienced Tiananmen 89’ don’t give up hope and try their best in fighting against the CCP’s enforced silence.

Writers and activists such as Wu Renhua, who has spoken about his experience at an Amnesty International event in London on June 3rd this year, have every intention to keep the memory alive. Since the controlled media within China makes it almost impossible for younger people to build a mostly non-biased opinion about the human rights situation, proper historical documentation is crucial. Finding the truth is only possible by listening to eyewitnesses and their stories. No Chinese newspaper or history book would ever admit, for example, that the killings of innocent protesters continued after the 4th of June 89’. The massacre was, in fact, a lot more complex and lasted longer than one day.

China fears nothing more than for its people to discover the truth. Another activist who spoke at the Amnesty event was Ti-anna Wang who spoke on behalf of her father who has been imprisoned for life in 2002. Her father, Wang Bingzhang, is a Chinese political activist who was kidnapped during a stay in Vietnam and got taken to China where he was arrested immediately. Like Liu Xiaobo or Wu Renhua, Wang’s dream was that of a democratic China ruled by law, not by the Party. A state as  powerful and economically appreciated by many countries is not afraid however to take away the voice of its dissidents – even if that means arresting people beyond Chinese borders.

The democracy movement in China today is limited and state control is keeping the upper hand. However, the ghost of Tiananmen is still haunting Chinese policy makers. Totalitarianism can be kept alive with guns and prison cells. But as long as there are people who have not given up hope yet, the chances of a possible revival of 1989 persist.

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