Shi Jiangtao, Ng Tze-wei and Priscilla Jiao
6 June 2012
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Yet another anniversary of the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown passed off rather peacefully, without a major hitch or signs of much headway having been made in the quest for a review of the official verdict on one of modern China's most tragic events.
Even though mounting public appeals for vindication of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement went largely unheard, some mainland scholars remain hopeful, saying they have seen growing signs that the once-monolithic Communist Party has begun to loosen its formidable grip, whether intentionally or not, on the politically sensitive issue.
Citing a slew of recent rumours and reports regarding liberal-leaning remarks by senior party officials, including state leaders, the scholars argue that calls for a reassessment of the June 4 incident appear to be growing within the ruling party as the country prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this autumn. The party's official verdict labelled the events counter-revolutionary turmoil.
While Premier Wen Jiabao is rumoured to have voiced support in the past for a reassessment, there has been recent on overseas websites that Vice-President Xi Jinping , who is expected to be the next president, may be inclined to revisit Beijing's stance on the military crackdown once he consolidates his grip on power.
In the run-up to this year's anniversary, both liberal economist Mao Yushi and Wang Juntao , a former leader of the pro-democracy movement who is in exile in the United States, said that the hardline opposition to a vindication of the movement, until now dominant, appeared to have been diluted by rumoured dissent in the top party leadership.
Rumours aside, Dai Qing , a veteran journalist and writer, noted that a growing number of retired leaders had tried to vindicate their roles in the deadly crushing of the student-led protests 23 years ago.
Dai said this was telling proof that authorities were being put on the defensive morally amid rising public pressure over the government's stance on the crackdown.
Following the 2009 publication of a secret memoir by deposed party chief Zhao Ziyang , ex-premier Li Peng and former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong also tried to give their versions of the event, in 2010 and last month respectively. Both were viewed as key party hardliners who supported the decision by Deng Xiaoping to crush the peaceful demonstrators with troops.
The publication of Li's book was cancelled at the last minute under pressure from Beijing. Chen said in an interview that he was simply following orders and wasn't involved in making key decisions in the crackdown.
"Following the death of Deng and other party elders who should have been held accountable for the crackdown, cadres who played key roles have appeared quite keen to set the record straight and tell their sides of the story. Fewer and fewer people [in the government] believe it was right to use the military against its own people," Dai said. "I believe there is some sort of consensus within the leadership that it was a tragedy that occurred at a historical juncture; sooner or later it will have to be reopened and reassessed."
Few other analysts share that optimism, despite sporadic signs of inconsistency in the authorities' handling of the sensitive issue.
Several commemorations of those killed on June 4, 1989, were reportedly allowed to proceed this year in Jinan , Guiyang and Fujian province, as they had been in previous years.
Additionally, more people went to the former Beijing home of Zhao Ziyang on the seven-year anniversary of his death this year, compared with previous years.
Zhao was removed from office for expressing sympathies for the student demonstrators, and was placed under house arrest for 15 years, until his death. Internet users also paid tribute to him ahead of the tomb-sweeping festival in April without apparent harassment by authorities.
A ban on searches on internet portal Baidu for sensitive phrases or names, including "Zhao Ziyang" and "June 4", was briefly lifted in February, fuelling speculation about a possible shift in official attitudes, perhaps as a result of a power struggle within in the party.
Yao Jianfu , a retired official whose interviews with Chen, conducted since January 2011, were published last week in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post that it was wishful thinking to expect the party to overturn its stance on the crackdown any time soon.
"The legitimacy of subsequent generations of the party leadership, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao , has been tied to the June 4 event," said Yao, 80, who was previously with the State Council's Research Centre for Rural Development.
Yao said he had come under pressure from mainland authorities over his involvement in the interviews with Chen. "I just wanted to present different views about the crackdown, but they are apparently not allowed. How can it be possible to expect a complete reassessment of the student-led protests?"
Professor Yuan Weishi , a historian at Guangzhou's Sun Yat-sen University, also expressed doubts that the government would rethink its stance.
"Until China is transformed into a free, democratic and modern country, I don't see the possibility of a reassessment," he said.
While strict controls on online information might be relaxed from time to time on particular words or phrases, that was "vastly different from a formal reassessment and apology by the government, because it would mean a drastic change in the political system", Yuan said.
Wang Yannan, daughter of the deposed Zhao, also said that the prospects for government redress appeared dim, citing the fact that authorities had refused to grant hospital treatment for Zhao's widow, Liang Yongqi, 94, and no officials were allowed to visit her, according to a statement on Monday by the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
Twice-jailed rights activist Huang Qi , who founded a website that helps petitioners obtain compensation, questioned how sincerely the government was heeding public calls for redress.
"If the leaders really were determined, like they were to take down Bo [Xilai], why can't they deal with individual cases?" Huang said. Change would occur only when citizens could negotiate on the same level with authorities, he said. "I believe that will probably take another two to three years."
Well-known human rights blogger Mo Zhixu also said the key to vindicating the actions of the June 4 protesters didn't rest with the authorities, but the people.
"Civil power is growing and pressure on authorities is growing," Mo said. "Only when people dare to stand up and say what they know can we give our history fair treatment."
South China Morning Post Publishers Limited