RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The Chinese government’s use of lethal force against student protesters in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago so damaged the image of the regime that China’s political leaders continue to repress any public observance or discussion of the incident.
“The June 4, 1989, massacre of student protesters in Beijing was a turning point in the economic, social, and spiritual life of all of China and, despite the government’s efforts to erase its memory, remains very important today,” says Perry Link, one of the world’s leading sinologists and Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching at the University of California, Riverside.
Link was a co-editor and translator of “The Tiananmen Papers,” a compilation of secret, official documents that describe battles between regime hard-liners and reformers on how to handle the student protests. Estimates of the number of people killed when Chinese troops fired on protesters with tanks and machine guns range from several hundred to several thousand.
In a March 2014 article in the New York Review of Books, Link wrote that the unusual use of force in Beijing was a calculated choice that the government still believes was correct.
“We know from ‘The Tiananmen Papers’ that people at the top of the Communist Party of China felt that they were facing an existential threat in Spring 1989,” he wrote. “Major protests in the streets not only of Beijing but of nearly every provincial capital in China led Vice President Wang Zhen, Prime Minister Li Peng, and others in the ruling circle to conclude that the survival of their regime was at stake. … The reason the regime opted for tanks and machine guns in 1989 was that a fearsome display of force could radiate well beyond the time and the place of the immediate repression. Democracy demonstrators in thirty provincial cities around the country could be frightened into retreat. This worked. The Chinese people could be put on notice for years to come that ‘you had better stay within our bounds, or else!’ This, too, worked. The fundamental goal was to preserve and extend the rule of the Communist Party of China. This was achieved.”
Link, who joined the UCR faculty in 2008, is available to discuss the continuing impact of the Tiananmen Square massacre on the Chinese government and society. He is conducting research in Taiwan and can be reached via email at email@example.com.