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China stock index offers strange reminder of Tiananmen Square

On the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre in China, the Shanghai composite index closes down 64.89 points.

June 05, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — The stock market played a strange trick on the Chinese Communist Party.

Whether a cosmic joke or coincidence — or, as some wags suggested, an act of God — the Shanghai stock market index fell exactly 64.89 points Monday. No sequence of numbers is more sensitive in China: On June 4, 1989, the government cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

This darkest moment in recent Chinese history is customarily referred to as 6/4, the unembellished number conveying the same stark tragedy as 9/11 does for Americans.

In the numerology of censorship, a ritualized cat-and-mouse game occurs every year on this date between the censors and those who want to commemorate the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands. Three years ago, on the 20th anniversary, an advertisement slipped into a newspaper showing two groups of people, six on one side and four on the other, gazing philosophically toward the sky.

Nowadays, the game is largely played out on the Internet. The number 6/4 is banned by censors, as is 5/35, an attempt to get around the bans by referring to the date as the 35th of May. Other words that were scrubbed Monday were "candle," "commemorate," "massacre," "tank" and "never forget."

After the stock market's bizarre closing Monday, censors added "Shanghai stock exchange" and "index" to the banned list.

The 64.89-point drop wasn't the only odd occurrence. The composite index had opened at 2,346.98, which with a little creativity and number juggling could be seen as a reference to the 23rd anniversary of June 4, 1989.

Even people who don't follow the markets were delighted. "I want to thank all the stock traders!" wrote one microblogger. "Maybe God does exist? God's will cannot be altered," wrote another. Others wondered whether the Shanghai stock exchange might be shut down.

The Communist Party is famously resistant to reflecting on its shortcomings. Only recently has it been possible to discuss openly the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung's campaign of terror between 1966 and 1976, and many were shocked when Premier Wen Jiabao referred to it during a news conference in March.

But Tiananmen Square remains verboten, because of the brutality of the crackdown, of course, but also because of the rifts it opened in the Communist Party that remain unhealed to this day. Zhao Ziyang, the party's general secretary at the time, was purged for refusing to support military action and lived under house arrest until his death in 2005. Many student activists from the period are in exile, unable to return to China.

Last week in Hong Kong, former Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, now 81 and suffering from cancer, released a book of interviews in which he said he was pressured by the party to support the crackdown. He called it "a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided."

The book has been banned on the mainland.

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