China wields iron fist to crush memory of Tiananmen: Teresa Poole in Peking watches police massing in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the students' historic protest

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The Independent Online
In a country where anniversaries are accorded an exaggerated significance, the Chinese government is still trying to reclaim the night of 3-4 June. Five years after the army launched the brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square anti-government protesters, toppling the 30-ft white plaster 'Goddess of Democracy' and shooting dead hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, China's leaders insist they suppressed the protest in 1989 to safeguard economic progress.

The 3-4 June anniversary remains a tense time for the government. The crackdown is almost a taboo subject. A massive security net has been thrown over the city to ensure this year's anniversary passes off without a gesture of commemoration. At Tiananmen Square, rolled-up copies of the People's Daily fail to conceal the aerials of the Public Security Bureau walkie-talkies carried by the hundreds of plainclothes policemen on the square.

President Jiang Zemin launched an ideological offensive last month when he said that 'without the resolute measures taken then, China would not have enjoyed today's stability'.

Economic reform and opening up had forged ahead more quickly as a result. And he added: 'A bad thing has been turned into a good thing . . . History shows that anything conducive to our national stability is good.'

Last week, one of the student leaders of 1989, Wang Dan, and six other dissidents offered a different interpretation. The 4 June incident represented an 'undeniable knot' in the Chinese people's hearts and the official verdict of it as 'a counter-revolutionary rebellion' should be reassessed, they wrote, in a public petition to the government. Hundreds of unidentified prisoners should be released, and the families of those killed and injured should be compensated, they said.

This week, Wang Dan, like many well-known dissidents, has absented himself from Peking. Other activists are under virtual house arrest, their homes cordoned off by security officials. The families of the June 1989 victims mourn in private. Meanwhile, most people make the best of the opportunities offered to those who do not challenge the system. Five years on, China claims to be the world's fastest growing economy.

It also remains the world's most efficient police state. This has not hindered China's return to the world stage. Last year Peking was nearly chosen to host the Olympics in the year 2000 and last week President Bill Clinton separated its Most Favoured Nation trading status from human rights considerations. The question is whether economic reform and totalitarianism will prove incompatible.

Since 1989, standards of living for many people have improved. 'The majority of people have seen some of the good that has come out of economic reform, and they have seen also that the central leadership is prepared to use massive force to remain in power,' a Western defence analyst said.

There are new freedoms, but not for those voicing dissent. Take one 27-year-old businessman I know. He was on the fringes of the Peking demonstrations five years ago but escaped serious punishment. In the past, he would have been assigned to a job at a 'work unit' that would have controlled almost every aspect of his life. These days he can work for a foreign company, earns a much higher wage than government workers, lives in privately-rented accommodation, and has been abroad. He shops in joint-venture department stories, has money in a foreign bank account, and prefers taxis to his bicycle. Nowadays he rarely thinks about June 1989.

Not all are so fortunate, and many people's expectations have risen faster than their pay-packets. The government learnt its own lessons from 1989 and is ready for pre-emptive action. The Communist Party controls at least 800,000 People's Armed Police (PAP), of whom 50,000 are stationed in Peking. The PAP was built up after 1989, has studied foreign methods of crowd control and is equipped with water cannon and stun guns. 'The government has changed tactics,' the defence analyst said. 'The aim is to nip anything in the bud.' The seeds of unrest have been sown by momentous changes under way in the shift from a centrally-planned economy to one ruled by market forces. Old safeguards and guarantees have gone. The government remembers that while students provided the leadership in 1989, most demonstrators were ordinary workers angry about inflation and corruption. The big unknown is what will happen after the death of 89- year-old Deng Xiaoping, the old man who masterminded China's reforms but who also sent in the troops in June 1989.

Although President Jiang claims that the Tiananmen Square crackdown laid the ground for economic development, it was mainly the consequence of a power struggle at the top. This struggle between hardliners and reformists was only temporarily resolved, and when the ailing Mr Deng dies, it will start again. 'Any sensible dissident will wait until then,' one Western diplomat said.

(Photograph omitted)