Rebecca Grant: Why China’s not sorry for Tiananmen

It’s official. China is not one bit sorry for the deaths of hundreds of its citizens killed by its army in and around Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 30 years ago this week.

At the Shangri-La international forum in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe brushed off Tiananmen. “That incident was political turbulence,” Wei said. “The central government’s measures to stop that turbulence were correct. China has enjoyed stable development.”

How deep China is burying its past. Inside China, almost no one talks about the incident, aka massacre. Authoritarian, big business China doesn’t want any discussion of student protests.


The upheaval of Tiananmen Square started after the death in April 1989 of Hu Yaobang, secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party and a symbol of democratic reform. Public mourning turned into a hunger strike and then led to a demonstration by 1.2 million people at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 19, 1989. China imposed martial law and China’s leadership dropped out of sight. On June 2, a concert in support of student demonstrations drew over 1000,000 people to the square in violation of the curfew.

Military units surged in. Violence in and around Tiananmen Square peaked the night of June 3-4, as residents tried to block military forces. Declassified State Department cables recorded eyewitness accounts of a tank crushing 11 protesters and gunfire around the square. Bullets hit diplomatic compounds nearby. The Chinese Red Cross estimated 2,600 military and civilian deaths and as many as 7,000 wounded. China’s figure was 241 dead.

The next day, in one unforgettable image, a man in black trousers and a white shirt jumped in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The lead tank veered, and the man blocked it again, standing resolute and alone. The tank driver opened his hatch and stopped. Bystanders pulled the demonstrator away. Heroes, both.

In 1989, Tiananmen laid bare that the Communist Party will do anything to preserve itself, especially when challenged.

China’s official inability to acknowledge the events at Tiananmen 30 years on is deeply chilling. President Xi Jinping made himself leader for life in 2018. He could soften the reins. However, he isn’t ready for even a glossed-over apology.

Why isn’t China willing to commemorate or even talk about Tiananmen? Because China’s leaders believe the extraordinary growth of China’s economy required strong Central Party control and the crushing of political turmoil.  About all they’ve done is downgrade the protests from “counter-revolutionary” – the worst imaginable word in China – to “political turmoil.”

China’s deliberate silence on Tiananmen shows modern China still puts party rule above all else. China is out for China. No dissent. China has even been rounding up young Maoists, Oxford University Professor Rana Mitter told a Hudson Institute audience May 22.

Xi Jinping wasn’t in Beijing in 1989. He was a party bureaucrat working in the provinces. His wife, Peng Liyuan, was a singing star who reportedly performed concerts for the military forces occupying Tiananmen Square. But Xi and his leaders still fear the forces unleashed at Tiananmen.

Xi’s father was friends with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Although the Xi family went through a period of exile, this “born-red” princeling grew up with revolutionary credentials. To Xi, the party is all. But as Xi knows, China’s rising prosperity can open political dissent and dialogue at unpredictable moments. Xi doesn’t want to go the way of Gorbachev.

Aggressive foreign policies are helping Xi keep the lid on. The reactions to President Trump’s trade complaints over the past year have rocked China’s leadership. They recently declared “people’s war” on the U.S.

Military statements from the Shangri-La dialogue showed the gloves are off. A top Chinese general announced “China has indisputable sovereignty of the islands, reefs and nearby sea territory in the South China Sea….We have deployed necessary defense facilities in accordance with the security situation the islands and reefs are facing,” Lt. Gen. Shao Yuanming said.


That broke a promise made by Xi. In the fall of 2016, “President Xi Jinping promised President Obama that they would not militarize the islands,” pointed out Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford in a speech May 29.  “So what we see today are 10,000-foot runways, ammunition storage facilities, routine deployment of missile defense capabilities, aviation capabilities, and so forth.”

America has no choice but to push back, with allies, on every area of China’s selfish behavior. That includes holding fast on tariffs, enforcing freedom of navigation in the Pacific and not letting Huawei infiltrate our networks.