Tiananmen Square: China 30 years on
The FT's global China editor James Kynge was a reporter in Beijing when the government sent in troops and tanks to quash student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. Talking to dissidents and political activists, he looks back at how shots fired then still reverberate today
Filmed and produced by Tom Griggs. Original footage by Terril Jones.
Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, is a date etched in history.
The Chinese Communist party's massacre of its own people on the streets of Beijing shocked the world. And the repercussions are still being felt 30 years on.
In 1989 I was a young reporter who, along with hundreds of other foreign journalists in Beijing, covered the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. My mobile phone at that time was the size of a brick. And my job was to interview the student leaders and then phone their quotations back to our news bureau.
It was like a festival in the square. The mood was infused with the young and, as it turned out, naive hope that China could become a more democratic country. For a while the wider world also bought into those hopes.
Few in the square imagined that the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, backed by tanks, would shoot their way into central Beijing and, in doing so, change the course of history.
Three decades later I've been talking to people who were involved to try to put the legacy of Tiananmen into context.
Han Dongfang escaped from the square on June the 4th and found himself at the top of China's most wanted list. After a spell in prison he left China and now campaigns for workers' rights.
30 years ago when I started my first speech in the crowd in Tiananmen Square I tried to illustrate what is democracy with my very limited knowledge. And the only thing I could say is democracy, to me, is who decides our salary, whether we have a chance to participate.
And at that time, when I talk about that... and I feel kind of ashamed, compared to many other students. They quote blogs and the famous writers. And ironically, today I'm still working on that.
The last 25 years I have been travelling nearly on every continent. And one thing I have learned from different trade unions - democracy should start from workplace. If you don't have workplace democracy, if workers don't have rights to bargain. And I doubt that democracy is real or fake.
Bao Tong was one of the most senior Chinese officials to be imprisoned because of his support for the student demonstrators. Now 86-years-old, he remains under daily 24-hours surveillance. His son, Bao Pu, says the enduring legacy of Tiananmen is a fundamental deficit of trust.
That Tiananmen event divides the PRC history into before and after. And what's before, its people still trusted the Communist party. There were a million people on the streets just enjoying freedom of speech. They thought the party and the Chinese government would not send the tanks and shoot them. And this is before.
But after that event that trust has been broken. And that hurts.
I asked him whether he thought China's stellar economic record over the past three decades in some way justifies the crackdown.
I don't think so. It's like you cut off you know somebody's limb, and he's still surviving. And you cannot say that: oh, he's surviving because you cut off his limb. The person is actually crippled. And that's what China is.
China's growing clout in the world has taken its toll on Tiananmen dissidents living overseas.
In the initial years after 1989 there were a lot of media reports a lot of donations in the support.
But this media attention as well as financial support has been in sharp decline in the past two decades. Western governments tend to avoid antagonising China in the first place. And they probably correctly believe that the reform forces are in mainland China, not outside mainland China.
Another expression of China's growing influence is the erosion of people's freedom in Hong Kong, in spite of Beijing's pledges to safeguard the territory's democracy at least until 2047.
Hong Kong now understands that the economy is much more dependent on debt in mainland China, rather than the other way around. So therefore China's demands are, in general, accepted by the business community, by the powerful business community who are in no position to alienate and antagonise Beijing.
As the Tiananmen massacre fades into memory, the world is facing a very new type of China challenge. Having shut down dissent at home, Beijing is now projecting its authoritarian influence abroad. The events of 1989 should stand as a reminder of how uncompromising the Communist party can be.