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Remembering 4 June 1989

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Thirty years ago today, iconic protests against authoritarian regimes took place in both Poland and China. Their different trajectories have led to very different stories–and different silences. Here are some resources to track how both are being remembered in 2019.

In Poland, years of organizing by Solidarność–the shipyard workers’ union started in Gdansk in 1980–not only ushered in free-ish legislative elections on 4 June 1989, but also brought the movement a resounding victory. Poland marked the first of the “Velvet Revolutions” that brought down Soviet-aligned regimes: Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania would follow by the end of the year. The Polish experience is often held up as the easiest and most peaceful transition away from single-party communist rule (especially compared to Ceausescu‘s rapid and violent fall on 25 December ).

But Polish politics have hardly been so velvet of late. Memories are more complicated than myth-making. Most coverage of this year’s anniversary focuses on political divisions and the diverging narratives about 1989 (WaPo, NYT, Reuters). The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) was founded in part on Jarosław–and his twin Lech–Kaczyński’s conviction that Solidarity was far too cozy with the country’s remaining communists and that the June 4 elections were imperfect if not corrupt (coverage of the 2009 anniversary also highlighted these tensions). In other words, the incrementalism once lauded as the key to a smoother transition is now criticized as a fundamental weakness to be purged from the Polish system.

PiS’s current crusade against the country’s court system rests on this idea. PM Mateusz Morawiecki went so far as to compare these judicial “reforms” to France after Vichy (showing his ignorance of just how persistent much of the Vichy machinery was). In many ways, Kaczyński’s government seems to be following the illiberal tendencies of neighboring Hungary, especially in the gutting of judicial oversight–though PiS remains much more strongly anti-Russian.

Historical memory is a PiS battlefront. A 2018 law restricted discussions of Holocaust history (though the outcry in response forced the government to back down on the criminal penalties). Last year, the government also cut significant funding to the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk and has pressured them to give more prominence in their exhibits to Lech Kaczyński (who died in a plane crash in 2010) and less to Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity’s founder and former President of Poland. I’ll hand it to Wałęsa however, for the best one-liner in the debate:

Don’t take [Jarosław] Kaczynski seriously…He was such a terrible activist he was never even thrown into prison.

*****

Headlines in June 1989, however, were overwhelmed not by Polish elections, but by the showdown on Tiananmen Square.

Peaceful, student-led protests had been gathering during the spring calling for political and social reform. The regime (under Deng Xiaoping) mobilized in late-May. June 4 brought tanks rolling into Tiananmen, massacring hundreds of demonstrators.

The politics of memory are, of course, quite different when the opposition fails. The government crackdown included heavy censorship of the events from the very start. Blocking mention of Tiananmen is a guiding principle for the Great Firewall, which has proved quite adept at capturing new catchphrases and code words (May 35 being one of the better known of these). The success of the silencing campaign means that most young people in China have no knowledge of Tiananmen–ironically, it is those employed by the tech companies that maintain online censorship who are taught the most. The past month has brought additional monitoring of activists and regime critics, including a new group of student labor protestors. The Square itself is under heavy surveillance and journalists have been kept away by police.

Hong Kong’s Victoria Park hosts annual vigils, one of the rare sites of public commemoration of the protests and their repression. The South China Morning Post has a good collection of reporting and commentary on this year’s anniversary events (and renewed silences). NYT and BBC also have fairly extensive coverage (none accessible from the mainland, obviously).

The US has angered the Chinese government by asking for a release of political prisoners to mark the anniversary. Statements from the current US administration are less credible than usual, given the ongoing trade war and an unwillingness to speak about human rights abuses anywhere but in countries marked as enemies or aggressive competitors. Indeed, the Chinese have already discounted US criticism as a mere “diplomatic tool” and not a genuine concern.

Backsliding on the promotion of rights at home and abroad leaves the US with even less moral authority to speak on massive violations–with the treatment of the Uighurs currently topping the list of atrocities (though some activists seem to be making headway in requesting protection for Uighur students currently in the US, in line with post-Tiananmen policies).

China’s regime published a rare acknowledgement of the June 4 protests this year, praising the massacres as a successful “immunization” against further unrest.

Dropping the incident thereafter has been aimed at helping the country leave the shadow behind, avoid disputes, and help all Chinese people face the future.

Despite assertions that

Today’s China obviously has no political conditions to suddenly reproduce the riot of 30 years ago.

there are signs that opposition and resistance networks are growing. Xi Jinping, if faced with a similar open protest movement, is likely to follow in Deng’s footsteps. After all, thirty years ago, his pop star wife hosted concerts to celebrate the regime’s “victory” over the counter-revolution, with no concern for the violent means.

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