I sometimes wonder for how much longer the Chinese government can continue to repress the desires of its people for political change. The cynical—and that includes me—will answer “forever.” But when I consider the whole exhausting machinery of repression—the legions of internet censors, sleeplessly trawling the internet for mentions of Tibet or Tiananmen, or the city management thugs beating up yet more septuagenarian hawkers, or the secret police outnumbering tourists in Tiananmen—then it sometimes appears that things cannot always be so. The forces that animate any system will eventually expend themselves, and in its response to today, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist Party shows that it is, indeed, overworked and fatigued.
It doesn’t appear so ostensibly. It requires plenty of energy to detain dissidents, flood the streets with spies, and seal off Tiananmen—the supposed heart of the nation. There is a kind of frazzled, hyper-vigilance about a regime that bans university students from wearing white (the traditional color of mourning), shuts down individual weblogs, blocks websites like Twitter and Facebook, and publishes embarrassingly shrill diatribes in the Global Times. But this is nervous energy. And the problem with nervous energy is that it cannot last.
In this respect, the events of June 4, 1989 may have already started the long, slow endgame of the Communist Party. Its efforts to repress the story of Tiananmen verge on the hysterical, but are unsuccessful: too much is known and too much is being shared. Too many mainland Chinese are traveling or studying abroad, where their access to the facts is not fettered. The party will never fully shake off the stigma of Tiananmen. It may operate the machinery of repression for decades to come, but in its frantic whirring is the sound of an organization that knows it has lost.