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Chinese Authorities Ensure Tiananmen Anniversary Passes Quietly


25 years ago today, these were some of the sounds from Tiananmen Square, as Chinese soldiers used rifles and tanks to end nearly two months of pro-democracy protests.


CORNISH: Hundreds are believed to have died. The White House released a statement today in honor of those who gave their lives, saying we call on Chinese authorities to account for those killed, detained or missing in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989.

This year, well ahead of the anniversary, Chinese authorities moved to detain dozens of pro-democracy activists in China. And so while tens of thousands turned out for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong, the anniversary passed quietly in Beijing. Earlier I spoke with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who described tighter than normal security around Tiananmen Square.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I didn't even make it on to the square myself. I was stopped at a police checkpoint. And the security was so tight, there were so many police and plain clothesman around, that the usual heavy flow of tourists was down to a trickle. And as far as I know, they were effective in stopping any sort of public protest or commemoration. There's been none reported that I've seen.

CORNISH: Did this year's anniversary feel different from past ones? Especially since the country is under different leadership?

KUHN: Yeah, Audie. I mean, I think there's a feeling that the current administration of President Xi Jinping is really trying to outdo his predecessors in projecting state power. Whether that's territorial claims in the South or East China Sea, whether it's busting corrupt officials, or silencing dissent at home. In ways that his predecessors didn't, he's trying to go on the offensive. He's sort of saying, yes, we made the decision to crack down in 1989 and it was the right one. He's trying hard to shape the message, which includes leaning harder on foreign media and he's trying to instill, I think, more confidence in Chinese people about the historical choices that the leadership China's made.

CORNISH: Anthony, the crackdown in 1989 was also, it had marked the end of a decade of experiments with political liberalization. And you were in Chinese in the eighties, what was it like?

KUHN: Yeah, I was a student in China in the 1980s. And it felt like China was heading in a different direction. The Tiananmen Square massacre didn't just mean the end of the protests, it meant, you know, a major shift in direction at the top of the leadership. They tabled political reforms that would have moved China in a much more liberal direction. The most important part of which would have been to separate the party from the government.

But after the Tiananmen Square massacre, those reforms were all shelved. At the same time, they moved to address some of the protesters' demands. For example, I remember professors griping in that day and age that they were making less money than store clerks. Well, they went to give them better housing and address that problem. A lot of the leftist revolutionaries of that date died off and political orthodoxy loosened. But most importantly, so much of the economy was privatized that people were able to live outside the state system and outside the state's control. Chinese in some ways are freer. That said, being a dissident today is not much easier than it was back in the eighties.

CORNISH: Anthony, given what you've described, can you imagine events like the events of 1989 being repeated in the future?

KUHN: You know, uprisings are a constant feature of Chinese history and I suppose you give it a few thousand years, there's bound to be some more. But at the moment, protests are very localized. They're not national, and they're about specific issues, not broad calls for democracy. But you know, to me, in a simple sense, 1989 was what China's rulers have been doing for thousands of years.

And that is to make the cost unacceptably high for anyone who wants to challenge or make organized demands on authority. I think the difference is that in 1989, for example, China did not have any riot police. They could not say no to demands without shooting people with rifles and tanks. And now, for example, they have water cannons. They have riot police. They have a lot more calibrated response to people's demands.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: You're welcome, Audie.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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