06 June 2019
The Tiananmen Playbook
China, Sudan, Algeria.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last Monday, of course, was the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The authorities in China marked the day by ensuring that it would not be commemorated. Access to the square itself was denied to foreign journalists and to relatives of the victims (most of whom were put under police surveillance or even ordered to leave Beijing altogether) and strictly controlled for everyone else. Underground trains did not stop at Muxidi station, where more protesters were killed than anywhere else on that day three decades ago. The internet was monitored to make sure that no reference to Tiananmen Square or what happened there could appear on anyone’s screens. Such censorship, of course, is routine – the obliteration of the demonstrators and their ideals wasn’t a one-day event but a thirty-year campaign which has lasted from that day to this and no doubt will continue into the future.
All very predictable. But one thing happened which was far from predictable – the authorities actually admitted that the event had indeed occurred. The admission was made somewhat indirectly and only to defend the authorities’ actions, but it was surprising nevertheless. An editorial in the on-line state-backed Global Times praised the suppression of the peaceful pro-democracy students’ demonstrations “as a vaccination for Chinese society” against political and social chaos. “The Tiananmen incident will greatly increase China’s immunity against any major political turmoil in the future” it said. “We feel fortunate that Deng Xiaoping managed to keep the situation under control and prevented China from falling apart.” The subsequent censorship of the demonstrators’ ideals “has been aimed at helping the country leave the shadow behind, avoid disputes, and help all Chinese face the future”.
This more sophisticated and disingenuous version of Stalin’s “Get rid of the man and you get rid of the problem” was published only in the English-language edition of the Global Times. It didn’t appear in the Chinese language version.
A plausible excuse for sending the army in to clear a massive (and growing), high profile, seven-week-old pro-democracy demonstration from a public place? For killing hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of peaceful protesters? Perhaps at least one other regime elsewhere in the world thinks so; was it just a coincidence that on the very same day – last Monday – security forces in Sudan reportedly attacked the pro-democracy protesters camping out in Khartoum’s main square, fired live rounds and tear gas into the crowds, cleared the square, burned down the tents and shelters and left at least thirty-five demonstrators dead and hundreds seriously wounded?
Thousands of demonstrators had been occupying the public spaces outside the government complex in Sudan’s capital for months. What had begun as protests in the poorer parts of the country against rising food and fuel prices earlier in the year spread to Khartoum and to the middle classes and became a mass demonstration against President Bashir’s repressive regime. In April, the army heeded the call for a peaceful transfer of power and ousted Bashir, replacing him with a military council. Negotiations about the timing of democratic elections began between the protesters and the junta, and the demonstrations remained in place. After weeks of talks, however, it seems that the junta has become just as intolerant of opposition as Bashir (“the Butcher of Daifur”) was, and has reached for the Tiananmen Square playbook. The demonstrations have been dispersed by force and their encampments destroyed. There were further reports later in the week of the security forces attacking civilians in the streets and raiding mosques, hospitals and clinics where wounded protesters are being treated. The death-toll is thought to be in the hundreds. Particularly disturbing are the reports that the rampaging militias are using rape as a weapon of repression and retribution – the demonstrations were notable for the participation and even the leadership of women.
Germany and Britain called a meeting of the UN Security Council but attempts to condemn the killing of civilians and to demand an end to the violence were blocked by China (backed by Russia).
Meanwhile, in Algeria, there is a similar face-off between pro-democracy demonstrators and the authorities. Two months of mass protests brought down the aged and unwell President Bouteflika (who had been in power for twenty years) in April. As in Sudan, however, the protests continue, with the demonstrators calling for the removal of all remnants of the old regime, including members of the president’s circle and the military authorities who have always wielded the power behind the scenes.
With one eye on Beijing and another on Khartoum, the demonstrators must be holding their breaths and praying that the authorities in their country aren’t about to be the next ones to reach for the Tiananmen Square playbook. The signs aren’t good. A number of activists were arrested last week and a human rights campaigner died in police custody. Will future years feature repressive silences in June to mark the anniversary of tragic deaths in Algeria as well as in Khartoum and Beijing?