Class of '97 put careers before politics

Hong Kong handover
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The Independent Online
Eight years since the tanks rolled in and crushed the pro-democracy protests on 4 June 1989, groups of students can again be seen in Tiananmen Square - only this time they are part of a wave of patriotism which is sweeping China in the run-up to the return of Hong Kong. Under the watchful eye of the police, classes of students and schoolchildren line up to have their photographs taken in front of the electronic countdown clock at the side of the square, before going into this month's Hong Kong exhibition at the adjacent Museum of the Revolution: "Wash away 100 years of humiliation, happily celebrate the return of Hong Kong", reads the banner over the entrance.

The surge of Chinese nationalism is almost tangible as 30 June approaches, yet the government has nevertheless left nothing to chance for today's unmentionable anniversary. By yesterday morning, more than a dozen public security vehicles were parked along one side of Tiananmen Square and others in the centre, while pick-up trucks and a fire engine stood by just in case. Despite unseasonally rainy weather, security was much higher around the square than last year. This is the first anniversary of the brutal crackdown since the death of Deng Xiaoping in February and, with just 27 days to go before the Hong Kong handover, the government wants no unpleasant surprises.

The question, as ever, is who is the Chinese government so scared of? Not China's best-known dissidents, all of whom are in jail. Not the hundreds of ordinary people - Amnesty International has a list of more than 300 - who remain in prison for their activities in 1989; their relatives have learned that it is prudent to keep quiet. Not the families of some of those killed in 1989, who once again this year have petitioned the National People's Congress for an inquiry into the shootings; they will be ignored once again. And probably not today's students, for whom burgeoning career and overseas study opportunities now take priority over any doomed attempt at political agitation. The younger generation in China are precisely those who will benefit most from the country's rapid economic development over the past eight years, provided they keep their heads down.

The biggest worry for the Chinese government in the late Nineties comes from two very different sources: Uighur Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province, and millions of state-owned enterprise workers who are now surplus to requirements. Bus bombs in Xinjiang and Peking this year have been blamed on the Uighurs, and the government is terrified of similar attacks in the run-up to the Hong Kong handover. China has little experience of dealing with such terrorism.

The people most likely to stage any sort of public demonstration nowadays are the urban unemployed, a phenomenon which did not really exist back in 1989. A vice prime minister, Wu Bangguo, said this week that by the end of March there were more than 9 million unemployed urban workers in China, and nearly 11 million more who had not been paid or only partly paid. Nearly half of China's state-owned enterprises are losing money.

Social stability is thus the Chinese government's priority, and Amnesty International's call this week for a reassessment of the 1989 crackdown as something other than a "counter-revolutionary" protest looks overly optimistic. The only isolated example of jail sentences being reviewed has been in the north-east province of Jilin, where a court last week quashed the conviction of four dissidents for organising a "counter- revolutionary" clique in 1989. Other charges against three of the men were upheld. The two men still in jail will be released next week after serving eight years.

Amnesty would like to see a far more wide-ranging reassessment. "Following the death of Deng Xiaoping, the new leadership should take the opportunity to re-evaluate the events of 1989 and end the distorted and inaccurate propaganda of the last eight years. The victims and their families deserve the truth at long last, rather than the harassment, surveillance and attempts to silence their brave struggle for truth and justice," Amnesty said in a statement yesterday.

In reality, Mr Deng's heirs need his legacy in order to boost the chances of their own political survival. President Jiang Zemin is positioning himself carefully before this autumn's full Communist Party Congress, and the top leadership will have convinced themselves that now is an inappropriate time for anyone to start rewriting history.