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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Remember Tiananmen

May 21, 2009

The Ottawa Citizen
May 20, 2009

Any Canadian, even one born after 1989, would be
likely to recognize the famous photograph of a
protester staring down a column of tanks near
Tiananmen Square. It's less likely that a young
Chinese person would recognize it.

The Chinese government is denying its citizens
not only their freedom, but their own history.

The cultural significance of the Tiananmen
protest has not dimmed in most of the world. In
China, though, the protest and the crackdown have
been all but expunged from official memory.

June 4, the day the protest culminated in a
massacre, is still a very important date to
dissidents within China -- and this year's 20th
anniversary is unlikely to pass without some
attempt to honour it. Individuals will always be
able to outsmart governments and spread information among like-minded people.

But influencing mass culture is a little more
difficult. To the average Chinese teenager with
little interest in politics, the events of 1989
might well be a blank. Foreign journalists who
have shown the picture of "tank man" to
university students in Beijing in recent years
have found that very few are able (or willing) to
venture a guess as to where and when such a photo
might have been taken. It was students at the
same university, 20 years ago, who began
demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in April 1989.
For seven weeks, increasing numbers of
demonstrators from all walks of life poured into
the square. On June 4, the tanks cleared the
square. The most credible initial reports put the
deaths at around 3,000, but no one really knows
how many died, how many were gravely wounded, how
many arrested and executed, how many arrested and thrown into prison for years.

Strangely enough, the influence of "tank man"
might have been strongest outside China. The
power of the individual was asserting itself
around the world. For young Canadians growing up
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed the
world truly was changing. The Berlin wall came
down; the Soviet Union collapsed; Nelson Mandela
was released. And democracy, it seemed, was coming to China.

Twenty years later, some measure of prosperity
and even capitalism has come to China, but not
democracy. Many of the survivors of the 1989
protests spent years in prison. Today's
dissidents pay the same price. Liu Xiaobo, who
spent two years in prison for supporting the
Tiananmen protests, is now in prison again, this
time on suspicion of helping to organize Charter
'08, a petition calling for democracy and the
rule of law that has achieved a remarkable level of public support.

One of the remarkable things about that spring of
1989 was that even the domestic media reported
freely, and people throughout China knew what was
going on. That makes the subsequent success of
the Chinese government in covering up and
euphemizing especially tragic. That effort in
1989 to show the world what was going on -- an
effort which required courage and quick thinking
on the part of domestic and foreign journalists
-- still inspires today, as journalists smuggle
out footage from places like Burma and Tibet.

The protests in 1989 began as a way to mark the
death of Hu Yaobang, a reformer who was forced to
resign from the communist leadership. The 20th
anniversary of the June 4 massacre will be
coloured by the legacy of another ostracized
internal reformer, Zhao Ziyang, whose memoirs
have just been released. In them, Zhao condemned
the brutality of 1989 and called for democratic changes.

It is very unlikely the memoirs will be legally available in China.
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