In April and May of 1989, people around the world were inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square, then horrified when the June 4 massacre turned Beijing streets into urban killing fields. China has changed enormously in the twenty years since then, but the Communist Party’s attitude toward 1989 has remained constant. It insists there were no peaceful protests and no “massacre,” just “counterrevolutionary riots” that were pacified by soldiers who showed great restraint. It refuses to acknowledge the losses to relatives of the hundreds of victims, tries to keep young Chinese ignorant of what happened and encourages specialists in the West to stop dwelling on 1989.
This approach is part of a larger effort to change the image of the party, so that mention of its name does not bring to mind visions of the Red Guard of the 1960s, anti-Confucian rallies of the ’70s or the iconic picture of the lone man confronting a line of tanks. Instead, party leaders would like it to be associated with skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples. These pictures fit in better with the party’s view of itself as a pragmatic organization that has moved China forward while honoring traditions, transformed cities into showplaces of modernity and raised the nation’s international status and living standards. The 2008 Olympics, seen in this light, was the most expensive rebranding campaign in world history.