Posts tagged: Tiananmen

Wang Nan’s Tian’anmen 26 Years Later

An early photo of Wang Nan, late 1980s

Wang Nan (pronounced Wong Nan) is a 45 year old Beijinger.  Born in 1970, he has seen his city radically change under China’s economic miracle.  In fact, as a photojournalist, he has documented China’s unfathomable rise and has been fortunate enough to partake in it.  Wang Nan and his wife live more than comfortably in their renovated, Western-style apartment, where his photos from around the world line the walls.  He knows he has been lucky, and he will tell you that immediately when you meet him; even with his world travels, he is still a fairly humble man.  His 11-year-old daughter worships him even when he sings off key on their Sunday morning car rides to visit his mother.  His 78-year-old mother, like all mothers, criticizes him as soon as he arrives – his hair is too long, he’s too skinny, he spoils his daughter – her granddaughter – too much.  But like all mothers, she is proud of her son.  And Sunday is her favorite day of the week.

But Wang Nan is not 45 years old.  He has not shared in China’s economic miracle.  He does not have a daughter.  And he never sees his mother.   For Wang Nan never made it past the age of 19.   Instead, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, on the corner of Nancheng Street and Chang’an Boulevard – the Boulevard of Eternal Peace – a People’s Liberation Army’s bullet ripped through this high school student’s head.

As Louisa Lim recounts in her powerful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Wang Nan’s heart was still faintly

June 4, 1989, the aftermath of the Tian’anmen Crackdown

beating when doctors found him unconscious, bleeding from the head.  They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the soldiers forbade it.  Frantically, the doctors used their last bandage to cover his wound and stayed with him until he died two hours later.  With the sun rising on that June 4 morning 26 years ago and desperate to hide the bodies, the soldiers dug a shallow grave in the lawn of the nearby school and dumped Wang Nan’s body  there along with two other civilians.  There it would lie until a few days later, when the stench was overwhelming  and the dirt was beginning to wash away, the health department came to collect the bodies.

Wang Nan’s mother, Zhang Xianling (pronounced Zhang See-ann Ling), one of the founders of the Tian’anmen Mothers, has never been allowed to visit the spot where her son took his last breath.  Every June 4, she is held under house arrest, with police standing guard at her apartment door, refusing to let her leave or for anyone else to come in.  In a symbol of tormented anguish, she will communicate with the outside world on the anniversary of her son’s death by holding a photo of him out of her apartment window.

Zhang Xianling with a picture of her son, Wang Nan, killed on June 4, 1989

Twenty-six years later, as Lim poignantly recounts in her book, it is this impediment to remembrance and the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) complete control of the history surrounding June 4th that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.  And as Lim points out, it is not just the parents who lost children that are not permitted to remember.  Bao Tong (pronounced Bow (rhymes with pow) Tongue), director of China’s Office of Political Reform in 1989 and right-hand man to his mentor Zhao Ziyang, believed that Deng’s economic reform must be coupled with political reform, otherwise corruption would prevail.  After the Tian’anmen crackdown, it was those thoughts that were blamed for the student protests and resulted in a seven year prison sentence for Bao.  In 2005, when Zhao Ziyang passed away, the police, which constantly stand guard at his apartment, refused to let Bao attend the funeral.  When his elderly wife attempted to go, the police pushed her to the ground, causing her to break a bone.

It is this recounting of the people’s history and the ghosts that still haunt them, that makes The People’s Republic of Amnesia one of the most important and moving books about the Tian’anmen crackdown.  Lim also does an excellent and unbiased job of describing the precise events that lead up to the crackdown making the book a must read for anyone who wants to understand China’s history and the current leadership’s obsession with “social stability” and complete control.

But Lim not only tells the stories of those who witnessed the crackdown, but also those for whom June 4, 1989 has no significance, namely the babies born after 1990.  In one study that Lim conducted, only 15 out of 100 Chinese college students were able to identify the infamous Tank Man photo, a photo that epitomizes the Tian’anmen crackdown and that is perhaps one of the world’s greatest symbols of courage.  She follows a college student who goes to Hong Kong to try to understand Tian’anmen, but when he returns to China, he just seems confused and deflated.  And then there is the Patriot, a Chinese car salesman who goes to Beijing to participate in the government-sponsored protests against the Japanese.  Their failure and inability to know about the Tian’anmen crackdown demonstrates the true effectiveness of the CCP’s re-writing of the Chinese people’s history.

Or does it?  Yes, there is a generation of Chinese who have not heard of the Tian’anmen massacre.  And then there are others who choose not to care.  But to assume that the CCP can so easily erase this dark moment in China’s history is to deny the Chinese people their conscience.  There is still a generation of Chinese – those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – who know about Tian’anmen because they were alive when it happened.  When this generation comes to power and can change the history, will they?  Yes they might be busy making money now, but they have yet to ascend to leadership roles that would enable them to disclose the truth and recognize the bravery of those who died on June 4, 1989.

Tens of thousands march in Hong Kong last year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre

There are the 11 Chinese college students, currently studying in various universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, who wrote an open letter to the Chinese people to communicate what happened on June 4, 1989.  The government-controlled Global Times responded with an op-ed condemning these students.  Like the students of 1989, these students have chosen to jeopardize their futures in China in an attempt to get the CCP to acknowledge June 4.

And then there are those – like the doctors who tried to help Wang Nan as he laid dying or the medical intern who, knowing the danger, gave Zhang Xianling her son’s last effects, or the individual who took out an ad in 2007 in a Chengdu newspaper stating “Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims” – who, when confronted with the choice, will do what is morally right, not what is politically expedient.

For these people, the world must continue to remember June 4, 1989, so that when the Chinese people themselves can commemorate this anniversary on their own terms, the memory will still be there.

Rating: ★★★★★

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
By Louisa Lim
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
211 pages

 

25 Years After Tiananmen – Same, Same But Different

The Goddess of Democracy - the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

The Goddess of Democracy – the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square.  That violent crackdown marked the end of seven weeks of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square itself, protests that were supported by much of the rest of Beijing, protests that would amass hundreds of thousands of people a day, protests that people wistfully thought would change China.

Twenty-five years later the students who participated in the protests are no longer fresh-faced, wide-eyed college kids, the workers who supported them are retired, and many of the bicycle rickshaw drivers who ferried dying students to hospitals on that bloody Sunday morning are long gone.  Along Chang’An Avenue, glitzy buildings have replaced the blood and bullet holes.  Starbucks stand near where students once went on hunger strikes. Tiananmen is different; China is different.  But yet there are some things that remain the same.

The government that ordered the crackdown 25 years ago – the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – is still in power and many of the gripes that initiated the student protests – corruption and nepotism among political elites, lack of personal freedoms, and government censorship – have only gotten worse and continue to be the impetuous for activists.  And, like the students in 1989, these activists are still willing to risk their lives to promote the values enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and guide China to become a better place for its people.

But make no mistake, while these factors might be the same, there are important aspects of China that have changed.  In

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents - students, workers, ordinary people - supported the protests.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents – students, workers, ordinary people – supported the protests.

particular, China’s rise as a global power.  Criticizing China for human rights violations and its failure to live up to its own laws is not as easy as it was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush cut off government ties, military relations, and the sale of U.S. government goods the day after the Chinese government’s crackdown.  Imagine denying U.S. businesses the opportunity to sell products to the world’s second largest economy?  That would never happen today.  And to severe relations with China – would the American public want to so easily give up its cheap Walmart goods or be denied the ability to obtain the newest iPhone?  Probably not.  The Chinese government understands the soothing and influential comforts of our material desires.

But perhaps the most troublesome change is how the CCP now deals with dissent.  If the last few months are any guide, excessive violence continues to be the modus operandi of the CCP.  Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shoon-lee), an activist who organized small, peaceful protests that called for citizen participation in China’s United Nations human rights review, was detained for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” was denied medical treatment for months, and died in police custody.  Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a disbarred-lawyer-now-activist that sought to assist Falun Gong practitioners, has recounted the physical torture he suffered while in police custody in March.  Since coming out of detention with 16 broken ribs, Tang has all but effectively been denied appropriate medical care for his tuberculosis which has gotten significantly worse.

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

But the CCP has learned from its mistakes.  No longer is its violence against dissent as public as it was the morning of June 4, 1989.  And no longer does the CCP come off as a lawless regime.  Instead, its cloaks its crackdowns with a veneer of legality.  Since April 2014, in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has detained – either criminally or through unofficial house arrest – over 84 individuals.  But these individuals are not detained under the guise of being counter revolutionaries like the students of the 1989 movement.  That would be too obvious.  Instead, the Chinese government has slapped the vague and overly broad crime of  “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”  After 20 years of Western rule of law programs, the CCP has come to realize that the easiest way to deflect global criticism is to follow legal procedure, no matter how abusive, vague or entrapping that legal procedure might be.

If the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen means anything, China’s new strategy – the use of law to suppress dissent – must be

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

examined and criticized.  China’s activists are being violently detained and imprisoned in record numbers “in accordance with the law.”  But that suppression of dissent is no different than what happened in 1989.  It is another method of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys – ensuring that the violence against a few “troublemakers” teaches the rest of society not to rock the boat.  This time though the rest of the world is increasingly complacent.

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, China will be the lone nation that will not.  Since 1989, its people have been forbidden to commemorate the event; they are not permitted to remember; they are not allowed to note those fateful days that changed their lives more than anything in China’s recent past.  And that is why the events that other nations hold in honor of the many brave Chinese people who lost their lives on that night are so important.  Because while the Chinese government has found new strategies to more effectively deal with international criticism of its treatment of its people, the one thing that the outside world still has is the truth.  But that truth must not be limited to just what happened 25 years ago; it must also be used to call on China today stop its suppression of dissent today.  To do otherwise is a disservice the victims of that night.

One of the most iconic photos of the 20th Century - one man stands up to a line of tanks

One of the most iconic photos of the 2oth Century – one man stands up to a line of tanks

Tipping Point in Censorship?

Have we hit a tipping point?

Last November I attended a fascinating talk by Rebecca MacKinnon, guru on all things censored and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. At the talk, MacKinnon’s focus was on the Chinese corporations that do China’s censorship bidding. MacKinnon noted that China’s internet regulations are not enforced by the government; rather the companies that manage China’s various and extremely active blogs and microblogs are responsible for enforcing China’s online censorship laws and regulations. Yes such censorship leaves these companies’ customers angry, but its worth it for what they get in exchange: an exclusive monopoly that keeps out more sophisticated players like Facebook and Twitter.

But MacKinnon hypothesized that at some point it won’t be economically worth it for these companies to continue to censor. MacKinnon highlighted the complete internet shutdown that occurred in Xinjiang province in 2009 for the entire year. That shut down harmed the local and regional economy. But even that wasn’t enough to cause these internet companies to push back against the government’s internet censorship and control. Instead, MacKinnon mused about the impact that such efforts would have in a more populous region or city, say like Shanghai.

And on Monday it looked like perhaps China reached that tipping point. Monday, June 4, marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a sensitive date for China’s Communist Party. On Monday, the Shanghai stock market closed 64.89 points down. But 64.89 is not just any number, it’s the numerical translation of June 4, 1989. As reported in the New York Times, searches for “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market” and “index” were censored in response to this coincidence.

But can you imagine a country that censors words that are important for commerce? These aren’t searches for “Chen Guangcheng” or other Chinese activists; those searches would pull results that are obviously about human rights. But searches for business terms? To censor that in a market relies on the speed and effectiveness of the internet is not just plain wacky but bad for business.

Obviously the Shanghai stock market censorship is not yet the tipping point as internet censorship is still alive and well. But it makes me wonder, are we getting closer? Is what MacKinnon speculated – that eventually the goals of the Chinese government and of the Chinese internet companies will diverge – inevitable? To the extent that you buy into the hypothesis that the Chinese people have “made a deal” with their government – that in exchange for economic security the Chinese will give up some of their political freedoms – is it inevitable that that deal will be broken? The Shanghai stock market debacle hints that maybe in the end its the Party’s own paranoid censorship that will be its death knell.

Imprisoned Chinese Dissident Wins Nobel Peace Prize

By , October 8, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

This morning, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winner of its 2010 Nobel Peace Prize: Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Leo See-ow Bwo).  But don’t expect Liu to be able to go to Norway to accept his prize; Liu is currently serving the first year of an 11-year prison term.

In all respects, Liu is perhaps the most famous of China’s human rights activists, at least internationally, and one of its longest serving.  Liu, an intellectual, literary critic, professor and writer, first emerged on the human rights scene in 1989 during the Tian’anmen student protests.  When the protests began in the Spring of 1989, Liu was at Columbia University in New York.  Immediately boarding a flight, Liu, a professor at Beijing Normal University, joined the students in hunger strikes on Tian’anmen Square.  But by June 3, sensing the danger of an impending crackdown, Liu encouraged the students to withdraw from the Square before the Chinese army was likely to violently suppress the student-led protests.  While many of the students did leave the Square, Liu’s pleas were for naught; on the streets surrounding the Square, an unknown number, likely reaching in the thousands, were killed.  After the suppression of the movement, Liu was tried for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement” and convicted although ultimately exempted from criminal punishment. 

During the 1990s, Liu’s commitment to greater human rights in China did not waiver.  In the long tradition of the Chinese dissident, Liu took up the pen and during the 1990s, wrote a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  With his essays receiving accolades from abroad and censure from those high up in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese government detained him and sent him to a labor camp through China’s “Re-education Through Labor” (RETL).  RETL is an administrative punishment, not a criminal one and has become an important tool of the Chinese government to suppress dissent.  Even if China amends its criminal laws to be more in line with international standards, as long as it keeps RETL, the CCP will always have a way to suppress those individuals it deems a threat to its rule.  Individuals like Liu Xiaobo. 

But Liu’s current trouble stems from a document he helped author in late 2008 known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  The morning that Charter 08 was to be posted to the internet, Liu was detained by police.  Liu was eventually arrested, tried and in December 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  In general, the average dissident sentence in China is between 3 and 5 years. 

Given Liu’s current imprisonment doe this Nobel Peace Prize even matter?  Most certainly.  First, it brings attention to the weakness of the current Chinese regime. While most news stories in the Western press discuss China’s growing economic might and its increased military muscle and portray a China that is sure to achieve global dominance, Liu represents the very real flip-side of that story – a communist party that is increasingly fearful of any threats to its authority and that in many ways is retaining one-party rule on a shoe-string.  Second, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu after vigorous protest and threats from the Chinese government.  In fact, the Chinese government’s response has been shockingly quick – issuing a statement that Liu is a criminal and awarding him the prize is in contravention to the mission of the Nobel Committee.  Given that many governments have shirked from confronting China on its recent suppression of rights activists for fear of upsetting trade ties, the Nobel Committee’s action reflects its commitment to human rights and acknowledges the importance of human rights in Western diplomacy. 

But most importantly, the Nobel Committee’s actions will bring greater attention to Liu within China.  Although famous internationally, with media and internet censorship domestically, many Chinese are unfamiliar with Liu and his quest for greater human rights.  While censorship of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Liu will surely exist in China, because this news is so huge, stories will slip through the Great Firewall, and those Chinese with access to the internet will learn more of Liu’s work and the push for human rights in China. 

But the award does not come lightly.  If history is a guide, the Chinese government will likely increase repression on other rights activists in China in the immediate aftermath and abuse of Liu in prison is a very real possibility. 

And from the White House and last Year’s Noble Peace Prize Winner:                                          

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                            October 8, 2010

Statement by the President on the Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo 

I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo.  Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I.  That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs.  By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

As I said last year in Oslo, even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal to all human beings.  Over the last 30 years, China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.  But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected.  We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.

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