Today marks the 20th anniversary of the culmination of the Chinese government's savage crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and while, on the surface, China appears to be almost an entirely different country, the ugly methods by which the country's oppressive government retains power remain the same.
Once an isolated and murderous Communist enclave which kept its shutters tightly bolted, China has become the world's workshop, an exemplar of freewheeling capitalism with seemingly endless supplies of cheap labour harnessed to fuel global demand for consumer goods. China is now an economic heavyweight with leaders who receive deferential hearings at the most prestigious summits.Last sum-mer, China even garnered the ultimate laurel of international respectability when it played host to the 2008 Olympics. This is quite a sea change for a nation which, only two decades past, was slaughtering its own citizens for the crime of demanding a voice in their own governance.
On closer inspection, however, the changes at the political level are only skin deep. The Communist Party still reigns supreme and brooks no opposition. Human rights abuses against dissidents and vulnerable members of society such as prisoners, the Falun Gong, Christians and the poor are still widespread and often unchecked. Reports of naysayers being silenced via the harvesting of their vital organs still surface.
The party often claims that it is clamping down in the name of stability and social harmony, but more and more this looks like naked aggression designed to nip potential challengers in the bud. Protesters of all stripes, not just democracy activists, are still routinely detained. For instance, nearly 20,000 schoolchildren died in last year's earthquake in the province of Sichuan, victims of shoddy school construction and China's culture of endemic corruption and low accountability. Bereaved parents trying to raise awareness of the issue and secure punishment for those responsible have been threatened, detained and silenced by a government anxious to cover its tracks and avoid any sign that it is susceptible to popular opinion.
When foreigners protest, China's stock response is to claim that the complaints constituteunwarrantedinterference in its sovereign affairs. Sadly, many countries and businesses seem willing to go along with this out of self-interest.
Were the Tiananmen Square protests to happen today, there is little doubt that the party's response would be the same --a massive crackdown and killing of those involved. The only difference would be the world's reaction.There would be token condemnations but little or nothing in the way of sanctions. China is such a vital cog in the economy that few outside parties would turn their backs on the regime or do more than wish for the whole mess to go away.
The legacy of the Tiananmen protests is one of failure because China has changed the world more than the world has changed China.