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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's Secret Grief

August 2, 2008

Ma Jian
The New Statesman (UK)
July 31, 2008

Mourning the victims of the May earthquake has reminded a nation of
the deaths it is forbidden to recall - the students of Tiananmen and
the tens of millions who lost their lives under Mao

For three days in May, China's national flag flew at half-mast in
Tiananmen Square to honour the victims of the devastating earthquake
in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China had publicly
commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.

Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for
their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has been estimated at
80,000, the earthquake shook the nation back to life. The Chinese
people rushed to donate blood and money and to join the rescue
efforts. They rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.

Their grief, shock and confused solidarity recalled the hours that
followed the Tiananmen massacre 19 years ago, when the Communist
Party sent army tanks into Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement
organised by unarmed, peaceful students.

The protests had been set off by the death of the reform-minded
Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. College students had camped out in
the square - the symbolic heart of the nation - to demand freedom,
democracy and an end to government corruption. There they fell in
love, danced to Bob Dylan tapes and discussed Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

The city had come out to support the pro testers: workers,
entrepreneurs, writers, petty thieves. After the tanks drove the
students from the square in the early hours of 4 June 1989, nearby
shop owners turned up with baskets of trainers to hand out to
protesters who'd lost their shoes in the confrontation. As soldiers
opened fire in the streets, civilians rushed to the wounded to carry
them to the hospital.

But even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee, the
party was rewriting his tory. It branded the peaceful democracy
movement a "coun ter-revolutionary riot" and maintained that the
brutal crackdown was the only way of restoring order. As leaders of
the movement were rounded up and jailed, people who had donated food
and drink to the students during their six-week occupation of the
square began reporting them to the police.

Realising that their much-vaunted mandate to rule had been nullified
by the massacre, the party focused on economic growth to quell
demands for political change. Thanks to its cheap, industrious and
non-unionised labour force, China has since become a world economic
power, while the Communist Party has become the world's best friend.

Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen
massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest
in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of
totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in
the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their
children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have
succumbed to a collective amnesia.

Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is
still recovering from a recent disaster. The western news media
turned their attention away from political repression in China and
Tibet, out of respect for the dead. When invited to speak at a London
human rights event recently, I was asked not to say anything negative
about my country.

But grief refuses to be channelled. It spills over. In Sichuan, it
turned to anger as parents demanded to know why 6,898 school
buildings collapsed during the quake while government buildings
remained standing. As the nation continues to mourn, it will begin to
remember the deaths it has been forbidden to recall: not only the
thousands who were slaughtered in 1989, but the tens of millions who
died under Mao Zedong's rule during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the
Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The government leaders know that, despite their efforts to erase
history, the wounds inflicted by past repression are festering. With
each anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre it becomes clearer that
behind the bravado, the party is as fearful as a deer caught in the headlights.

This year, Tiananmen Square was patrolled once again by plain-clothes
policemen, ready to quash any attempts to remember the vic tims of
the massacre. People in volv ed in the de mo cracy move ment were
removed from the city or placed under house arrest. Last year,
editors of a news pap er in Cheng du that carried a tiny
advertisement saluting the "Mothers of 4 June" were fired from their
jobs. It turns out that the young clerk who had approved the ad
hadn't grasped the significance of the date. She, like the rest of
her generation, had been robbed of her own history.

Still, a few brave individuals continue to speak out and remind the
world what happened. In 2004, the poet Shi Tao sent to a western
democracy website a government document banning the news media from
mentioning the 4 June anniversary. He was arrested and is now serving
a ten-year prison sentence.

Two months ago, Ding Zilin, the head of the Tiananmen Mothers group,
who lost her 17-year-old son in the massacre, opened a website - - containing detailed evidence of the massacre.
Only three hours after its launch, the Chinese authorities blocked it.

There is an expression in Chinese that says: "One can only stand up
from the place where one fell." If China is truly to stand up and
deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must
return to the place where it fell. The regime must reveal the truth
about past crackdowns and apologise to the victims and their
families; release the hundred or so people still jailed for their
connection to the Tiananmen movement, and the tens of thousands of
other political prisoners. And it must introduce democratic reforms.

The Chinese people were reminded by the Sichuan earthquake that lives
are not expendable and that deaths cannot go unmourned. Now they have
to extend that understanding to the victims of Tiananmen.

This essay was translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The pro-democracy writer Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953
and now lives in London. Decried as "bourgeois liberalism", all his
works are banned in China. His latest novel, "Beijing Coma" (Chatto &
Windus), is the story of a student injured in the Tiananmen massacre
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