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On 15th Anniversary, China Still Trying To Ignore Tiananmen

by Antoaneta Bezlova

Ten Years After, China's Tiananmen Wounds Fester (1999)

(IPS) BEIJING -- The early days of June every year recall for many here the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown when Chinese troops attacked students and others demonstrating for democracy, possibly killing hundreds.

The reprisals continue. Mothers who lost sons in Tiananmen have been harassed and legal reform campaigners detained. Journalists and online petitioners, too, have come under harsh treatment.

The Chinese government has never issued a death toll in the clashes, but activists who had tried to assemble their own figures and compile lists of the dead have been harassed and imprisoned.

Many soldiers were also killed when fighting with armed demonstrators spread to neighboring streets.

Elderly Communist leaders like former president Deng Xiaoping or ex-prime minister Li Peng who ordered the tanks into action are now either dead or retired.

But a younger generation of communist technocrats continue to uphold the party line that the protests were a counterrevolutionary movement aided by foreign powers like the United States and Taiwan. Some Western journalists like Ted Koppel of ABC give a measure of credence to this theory.

Even 15 years after the crackdown, Tiananmen still remains such a sensitive topic for communist China that no effort is spared by its leaders to make the nation forget what happened.

The ones haunted most by the memories of that 1989 turbulent summer are in fact, the ruling elite who meticulously launch yearly round-ups of dissidents and victims' relatives to prevent any public commemoration.

"It is because they feel extremely unsafe! Anything may trigger the explosion," said Dean Peng, an activist who has been campaigning for a greater rule of law and found himself under house arrest in the run-up to the anniversary.

"An authoritarian regime is doomed to fail, but its nature makes it struggle for itself in a crazier and crazier way," he told IPS.

No public commemorations are allowed.

Clusters of unfomed and plain-clothes police ring the Square, where once the demonstrators camped, to make sure not a single wreath or gesture of grief finds public display.

Filters set up by the authorities systematically block any messages in internet chat rooms and Chinese websites referring to "Liu Si," or June 4.

Away from the public eye, mothers of students who died are held under tight house arrest to prevent them staging vigils.

Some of the most stubborn Tiananmen mothers -- the group of Ding Zilin, Zhang Xianling and Yin Min -- are regularly detained in the run-up to the anniversary.

When Hong Kong -- now a part of China that retains a degree of autonomy, staged a vigil and massive march last weekend to commemorate the date, no mainland Chinese media was allowed to report it.

Foreign broadcasts, which now are accessible in wealthy urban settings throughout China, were censored and signed off the air whenever the damaging images of June flashed across the screens or the mere date was mentioned.

Over the years, Chinese leaders have tried to bury June 4 in the nation's rush towards prosperity. They have once again defended the crackdown as necessary to preserve China's stability and prosperity.

Asked about the events of June 4 at a press conference in March, Premier Wen Jiabao cited China's economic progress as evidence that the crackdown on the tumultuous demonstrations was justified.

"Fifteen years have passed. During this time tremendous achievements have been made in China's reform and opening up. These achievements are self-evident to all," he told reporters.

Yet many disagree with putting national stability above everything else.

Jiang Yanyong, the retired military physician who last year helped expose China's initial cover-up of the SARS outbreak, said communist leaders should confront their past and acknowledge it was wrong to end the pro-democracy protests.

"Errors committed by our party should be resolved by the party. The sooner this is done, the better," he wrote in a March letter urging Chinese leaders to apologise for the crackdown.

Added Jiang: "The vast majority of people I know in every quarter of society are all clear in their hearts that the June 4 crackdown was absolutely wrong. But because of the pressure from above, they haven't dared to speak their mind."

Yet the taboo surrounding the event is so over-riding that Jiang who was pronounced a national hero last year for exposing the severity of the SARS epidemic in Beijing, was exiled to China's far-flung province of Xinjiang shortly after publicising his appeal on June 4.

The government's attitude has largely succeeded in obliterating June 4 for many ordinary Chinese.

A whole new generation is growing up unaware of the event because of the ban on public discussions and the gaps in history books.

Even for those who witnessed the crackdown, the last twenty years of Chinese economic boom have provided such a windfall that many think it no longer matters.

"Should we always look back and moan when life now is so much better than before?" asked Petal Xiao, a fitness club manager in Beijing.

But against the apparatus of state repression, historians argue, there is little mainland Chinese could do to mourn their dead sons.

"I believe that the greater the potential for democracy in China, the more people will look back to the demonstration that preceded June 4 as a milestone on China's road to democracy," said Merle Goldman, a history professor and an expert on Chinese dissidents at U.S.-based Boston University.

"In a country with no freedom of expression or association, it is difficult, if not dangerous, to talk about the events of 1989," he warned.

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Albion Monitor June 2, 2004 (

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