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  • Jervin Naidoo

Anniversaries of Tiananmen Square and a rethinking of China's global image

On the 4th of June, the world remembered an infamous day in Chinese history, known universally as the Tiananmen Square Protests. This day is also celebrated in China, yet is known as “internet maintenance day in China” when significant amounts of China’s internet are either suspended for “maintenance” or words such as “Tiananmen”, “4th June”, “tank man” on search engines return with the message “search does not comply with laws, regulations, and policies”, as well as numerous Western web services being shut down.

On the 4th of June 1989, the movement, mainly composed of student protestors concerned with the future of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were violently crushed by Chinese soldiers armed with rifles and tanks. The image of the “tank man” is still an enduring image, of a man standing resolute, unwavering and refusing to move when confronted by army tanks. The protests were as a result of various internal and external factors. The internal factors driving these demonstrations were firstly the death of pro-reform communist general secretary of the CCP, Hu Yaobeng in April 1989. Yaobeng is known for his influential push for reforms of the CCP and the Chinese state at the time. His reforms included political and economic reforms such as market liberalisation and greater accountability in the CCP. Yaboeng’s stance on these issues made him a threat to some leading members of the CCP. Even though he was ultimately removed from his position in 1987, his policies and politics were gaining traction within the CCP and amongst the people of China.

The 1986 student protests at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei were led by the vice-president of the university, Fang Lizhi and two other radical intellectuals, Wang Ruowang and Liu Binyan. The death of Yaboeng is said to be the catalysing agent for the Tiananmen Square protests in which students protested the growing corruption in the CCP, high rates of inflation, growing inequalities and limited political participation. Additionally, amidst the global backdrop of the fall of the USSR in 1989, there were growing fears and anxiety within the CCP that China may be next. This fear is best summarised by current Chinese President Xi Jinping who questioned “why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken.” This fear resulted in the CCP announcing martial law on the 20th of May and marching 300,000 Chinese soldiers into Beijing to quell protests. Official accounts note that 234 Chinese lost their lives that day, however, the unofficial number from independent sources list the casualties in the thousands, yet it’s doubtful we will ever learn the true amount. Subsequently, allies of Yaobeng and other pro-reformist CCP members were either expelled, exiled or imprisoned. The nightmare of Tiananmen still haunts the CCP, even though every year it may try to forget it.

At the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Square, China faces a recalibration of its global image. China’s global public image is an important tool to the CCP in its pursuit of greater economic development. This image has been impacted by two major issues, the Hong Kong (HK) matter and the fallout of the Coronavirus. China faces continued resistance from HK as Beijing begins to exert its power over HK with still over 20 years left before the official ending of the ‘one country two systems’ law. China is pushing ahead with the controversial laws such as the National Security bill which essentially reduces the autonomy and freedoms of HK. Besides this law, Beijing is also trying to reshape HK more in the image of mainland China, attempting to erode the unique Hong Kong-Anglo cultural and societal norms. The continued resistance of HK poses a major threat to how China will be viewed in the international communities with many states such as the US, UK and Germany condemning the moves made by Beijing. Furthermore, the US and UK are attempting to remove the special economic relations with HK as a result of Beijing’s actions, rattling China in the process. China does not want another Tiananmen Square and HK is that ticking time bomb.

The global outbreak of the Coronavirus has its origins in Wuhan, China, and has caused many states to question their relationship with the country. As has been reported and is now common knowledge, China initially hindered the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and was reluctant in releasing information regarding the pandemic. Over 100 states in the WHO have asked for an independent investigation into China's role in the outbreak. The pandemic is also impacting China’s economic relations and trustworthiness in the global arena. With Australia publicly implicating China in the outbreak, resulting in a brewing trade war between the two nations, other nations are considering similar approaches. Global public opinion of China is valued by the CCP, and is vital to China truly becoming a global superpower: thus memories of Tiananmen Square, the ongoing HK crisis and Coronavirus pose a huge challenge to its image and future growth. One could argue that China’s relationships and image with the world is arguably at its worst since 1989 and this leaves the CCP in a delicate position of mapping China’s future. Will we see a more open and progressive Chinese image? Or will we see an even more reclusive and opaque China?

Image - Unsplash

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