Again They Are Scared
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, May 1988. Photograph by Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia Commons (cc).
When Chinese law professor Xu Zhangrun began publishing articles last year criticizing the government’s turn toward a harsher variety of authoritarianism, it seemed inevitable that he would be swiftly silenced. Sure enough, Xu was suspended from his teaching duties at Tsinghua University and placed under investigation. But then, remarkably, dozens of prominent citizens began speaking up. Some signed a petition, others wrote essays and poems in Xu’s support, and one wrote a song:
And, so this spring
Again they are scared.
To anyone familiar with Chinese politics, the reference was clear: the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. The Communist Party’s use of violence to end those peaceful demonstrations left hundreds dead and remains one of the ugliest events in the history of the People’s Republic.
The thirtieth Tiananmen anniversary is complemented by several other important dates, making 2019 the most sensitive year in a generation. It is also the one hundredth anniversary of the May 4 Movement, a defining moment in Chinese history when traditions were cast aside in favor of a sometimes romantic pursuit of “science” and “democracy.” And it is the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic as well as the twentieth of the crackdown on one of modern China’s most popular religious movements, Falun Gong, in which scores of people were killed in police custody and thousands sent to labor camps. Anyone with any political sense knows that this convergence of dates makes 2019 the year to keep quiet. And yet people continue to speak up. Why?