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Tiananmen Protesters Seek Mainland Support Amid Turmoil

Tiananmen Protesters Seek Mainland Support Amid Party’s Turmoil
Pedestrians are reflected in a pool of water in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Organizers of Hong Kong protests over the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown appealed to mainland Chinese to join the event, as a scandal in the Communist Party exposes rifts before China’s once-a-decade leadership handover.

Organizers are calling for 150,000 to attend the June 4 vigil, Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said by phone. This year’s anniversary is drawing more scrutiny after incidents including the suspension of Politburo member Bo Xilai, legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s flight to the U.S. and the suicide last month of a man whose son was killed at Tiananmen Square.

China doesn’t allow mainland events to commemorate the crackdown, in which hundreds of protesters were killed by government troops, and is trying to ensure a smooth leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party Congress later this year. The party wants to maintain stability after Bo was ousted amid murder allegations surrounding his wife, analyst Jean-Pierre Cabestan said.

“There is a crisis in the legitimacy of China now because of the Bo Xilai incident,” Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said in a phone interview. “They are nervous as they head toward the 18th Party Congress.”

Economy Slowing

After China’s economy grew at the slowest pace in almost three years last quarter, the government’s anxiety may extend beyond the Bo scandal. Premier Wen Jiabao said in a March speech that the regime could come to an end if it doesn’t address corruption.

Days before Wen spoke, Bo himself warned that China’s Gini coefficient, an index of the income gap, had exceeded the 0.4 mark that is used as a predictor by analysts for social disturbances.

Bo, once considered a candidate for the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee, was stripped of his post as party secretary of the municipality of Chongqing later in March. A month after that, following accusations that his wife was involved in the murder of a British businessman, Bo was suspended from the Politburo.

“The party has control over millions of police, the secret police, the web police, the informers, so in a material sense its grip is very solid,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of politics and government at Claremont, California-based Claremont McKenna College. “In a psychological sense, the party’s grip is very tenuous. People say, ‘Wow, its own leaders are both corrupt and insecure, they have no confidence in the long-term survival of the regime itself.’”

Protest March

In the crackdown 23 years ago, Chinese troops fired on demonstrators who had been massing in the square in Beijing for weeks. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing estimated a death toll exceeding 1,000, and in Hong Kong, which would return to China in 1997, about 1 million people marched in protest.

The Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for prisoners in China, estimates that the government is still holding less than a dozen of the thousands of people detained as part of the crackdown, according to a statement released yesterday.

The group said it had not received a response from the government about what it calls June Fourth prisoners since September 2009. Its statement listed the names of seven people it believes are still being held.

New Museum

Organizers of this year’s Hong Kong protests say that a new museum honoring the victims attracted about 6,000 visitors in the month since it opened, a quarter of them from China, Lee said. He said he hopes more mainland Chinese will attend and they are becoming more aware of human rights issues.

About 77,000 people joined last year’s vigil in Hong Kong, according to police estimates, while thousands more rallied on the July 1 anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Public discontent earlier this year was credited with derailing a leadership bid by the city’s former top civil servant, while demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in 2003 and 2004 were credited with leading to the eventual resignation of Tung Chee-hwa as chief executive.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang apologized today for “disappointing” the public, after accepting private jet and yacht trips offered by tycoon friends. He said the city government will impose rules to require officials to disclose conflicts of interest.

‘Avoidable Event’

In a new book released today, Chen Xitong, mayor of Beijing during the Tiananmen crackdown, called it “an avoidable event, a tragedy that could have been avoided but wasn’t avoided,” according to a copy provided by the publisher. Chen, who was promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member after the crackdown, was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 1998 on corruption charges.

Advocates for families of the Tiananmen victims have demanded the government give a formal accounting of what happened to all those who died. On May 28, a support group called the Tiananmen Mothers said that Ya Weilin, the 73-year-old father of one victim, hanged himself last week to protest the government’s refusal to explain his son’s death.

China has already reached a “clear conclusion” on the events at Tiananmen Square, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular briefing when asked about Ya’s case, without elaborating. In the past, China has said the crackdown was necessary to maintain stability.

In a statement released yesterday, the Tiananmen Mothers group said that while China has seen rapid economic growth in the 10 years since President Hu Jintao and Wen came to power, the country’s “ossified bureaucrats” have missed the chance for a peaceful political transition.

“Tiananmen is now really shorthand for democratic transition,” Pei said. “It will be impossible for any future leaders to change the official verdict on Tiananmen without at the same time starting China’s own political liberalization. The stakes are very high in how the Chinese government deals with Tiananmen Square.”

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