BEIJING – The Chinese society has changed radically in the last 30 years and the yearning for freedom that people carried to Tiananmen protests has lost its steam, got diluted in an impressive economic growth and consumerism amid unending curbs on dissenting voices.
China’s GDP since the 1989 Tiananmen protests that led to a massacre has increased thirty-fold. The economic prosperity has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But political freedoms are now more restricted than before. Technology has only reinforced the authoritarianism.
Despite inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the coexistence of immense fortunes with very low incomes, surveys show the Chinese have high-level of confidence in their government, with ratings that are double than the countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
If in other contexts it is considered that the emergence of the middle-class with high purchasing power is linked to a greater desire for democracy, in China such axiom is not visible.
An average citizen apparently is more worried about where they will spend their vacations or which new mobile phone model will they buy rather than caring about what is happening in the country or in the world.
The history of Tiananmen events is either unknown or is too far back in time for the majority of the population, especially for those born after the massacre. The reason is because the regime bans the commemoration of the events every year before June 4.
And those who know or try to remember what happened 30 years ago face persecution, exile or jail as did Chen Bing, a young activist who was sentenced to three years last month for naming a liquor brand “June 4th” to commemorate the pro-democracy demonstrations.
When the protests began in 1989, there were nearly a million prisoners in China. Now, there are nearly 10,000, according the estimates of organizations like the Amnesty International.
In the western Muslim majority province of Xinjiang, nearly a million people suspected of extremism – according to human rights organizations – are placed in internment camps called “political re-education camps.”
The families of Tiananmen casualties – the exact number of those dead still remains unknown even after 30 years and continues to oscillate between hundreds and thousands – are monitored and detained when the anniversary nears or are forced to spend vacations far from Beijing.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, persecution of dissidents has intensified and social control has been reinforced including on the internet and the media.
Forced exile is one of the preferred methods of the government to tackle dissidents and they prefer to send them far away from the country than to have them detained and run the risk of turning them into heroes.
Chinese leaders seem to have been successful in injecting the people with the idea that social stability brings prosperity and is a key for economic growth while as democracy on the other hand means instability and crisis.
The mantra of stability, along with nationalism and the notion of the “Chinese dream” brought in by Xi works as glue for social cohesion.
The infrastructural changes in these 30 years have been marvelous: giant cities have come up from nowhere along with massive infrastructures to the point that China now has the largest highway network, longest high speed railway lines and most cutting-edge subway systems on the planet.
However, the Gini index, which measure inequality in the distribution of wealth, has worsened 15 points since 1989.
The embracing of capitalism has created immense wealth, grounded in the work of millions of poorly paid workers which has made it possible for China to become a factory for the world in the last 20 years.
Even if the remunerations in the professional positions of the bigger firms have increased in the last few years, many workers are not able to maintain high living costs in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
However, the slowdown of economic growth in China in the last year could present a problem for the ruling classes if it brings stagnation in the welfare indicators.
At Tiananmen in 1989, after the hardliners won under the Communist Party, the protests were suppressed violently.
Political repression and economic opening have gone hand in hand since then.
The welfare provided by one would compensate for the troubles from the other. The issue is whether an economic slowdown will still be able to maintain this duality.