Singapore―China on Sunday defended the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on student protesters in a rare public acknowledgement of the event, days before its 30th anniversary, saying it was the “correct” policy.
After seven weeks of protests by students and workers demanding democratic change and the end of corruption, soldiers and tanks chased and killed demonstrators and onlookers in the streets leading to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4 1989.
Hundreds, or possibly more than 1,000, were killed, although the precise number of deaths remains unknown.
“That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence which is a correct policy,” Chinese defense minister General Wei Fenghe told a regional security forum in Singapore.
Wei asked why people still say that China “did not handle the incident properly”.
“The 30 years have proven that China has undergone major changes,” he said in response to a question from the audience, adding that because of the government’s action at that time “China has enjoyed stability and development”.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said she was surprised at the question on Tiananmen raised at an open forum after Wei’s speech, but the fact that the general answered it was “unusual”.
People may dispute Wei’s answer “but at least I can give him credit for taking the question”, Glaser added.
Inside China an army of online censors have scrubbed clean social media, removing articles, memes, hash-tags or photos alluding to the Tiananmen crackdown ahead of June 4.
Discussions of the 1989 pro-democracy protests and their brutal suppression are strictly taboo, and authorities have rounded up or warned activists, lawyers and journalists ahead of the anniversary each year.
Talking privately with family and friends about Tiananmen is possible, but any commemoration in public risks almost certain arrest.
Wei also responded to a question on China’s restive Xinjiang region, where Beijing has come under increasing global scrutiny over its treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities.
He said China’s policies in Xinjiang improved people’s lives and prevented terror attacks from happening for more than two years.
In a wide-ranging speech that came a day after acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan addressed the same forum, Wei vowed that China will not be bullied by the United States, issuing a combative defense of its policies, including on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
He rebutted US allegations of militarization of the South China Sea, saying facilities it built on reclaimed land there were “defensive” in nature.
Washington has been pushing back against Beijing’s aggressive moves in the sea, where China has staked “indisputable” ownership over almost the whole area and rejects partial claims by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Washington and Beijing have been vying for influence in the Asia Pacific region, which hosts potential flashpoints such as the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.
Wei also said China will not renounce the use of force in the reunification of self-ruled Taiwan, calling it “very dangerous” to underestimate Beijing’s will.
“We will strive for the process of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts but we make no promise to renounce the use of force,” he said.
The two sides have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949 but China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified one day.
“Any underestimation of the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) resolve and will is extremely dangerous,” he added, calling it the army’s “sacred duty” to defend Chinese territory.
In his speech on Saturday, Shanahan told the forum that Washington will continue to make military expertise and equipment available to Taiwan for its self-defence.
“This support empowers the people of Taiwan to determine their own future,” Shanahan said.
Any resolution of differences must not be done with coercion, he added.
Analyst Glaser said that while Washington and Beijing have established communication hot lines, “even today, there’s very low confidence that the Chinese would answer the phone in a crisis”.