Tiananmen Wounds ‘Need To Heal’

The 20th anniversary of China's deadly 1989 crackdown brings tight security and quiet calls for an official reckoning with the past.

2009.06.04
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Tiananmen-Reporter-2-305.jpg Screenshot from a video shows a CNN reporter being hassled by plainclothes policemen near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, June 3, 2009.
CNN

HONG KONG—The 20th anniversary of the bloody military suppression of the student-led pro-democracy movement has sparked growing calls for a public reckoning with the event, which has been blotted out of history books and media reports inside China.

The day was marked in Beijing with a strong security presence in and around Tiananmen Square, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used machine guns and tanks 20 years ago to wrest control of the city back from thousands of protesters encamped there.

Last Tuesday, foreign media faced intense pressure in reporting from Tiananmen Square. A CNN reporter appeared at one point trying to file through a sea of umbrellas carried by plainclothes police and other members of a security dragnet in the area.

The relatives of those who died in the crackdown were prevented from leaving home or carrying out any memorial rites.

...My right to go out has been taken away from me."

Ding Zilin, Tiananmen mother

“I am currently under house arrest at my home,” retired university professor Ding Zilin said.

“The state security police arrived at dawn and sealed off the main courtyard of our apartment building and stopped me from leaving the house.”

“I wanted to devote these two days to my son and to buy some offerings for him, but my right to go out has been taken away from me,” said Ding, whose son was killed two days after his 17th birthday.

Public discussion or memorial events have been banned since the crackdown by the ruling Communist Party, which has resisted mounting pressure to change its official verdict on the movement, which it says was a planned attempt at rebellion.

List of victims

A group of victims’ relatives known as the Tiananmen Mothers posted a listed of dozens of names garnered from eyewitness accounts and hospital records of those known to have died in the days after June 3 on a Web site dedicated to the anniversary.

A detailed map pinpointed the exact spots in central Beijing where the victims, many of them of college age, died or were picked up and taken to hospital.

Another Tiananmen mother, Zhang Xianling, said: “I am feeling very sad today and very angry. It has been 20 years now.”

“I want to tell my son something from the bottom of my heart, to take a flower to his grave. What is wrong with that? It would ease my mood, but they have no humanity whatsoever, and they won’t let me go,” Zhang said.

I want to tell my son something from the bottom of my heart, to take a flower to his grave. What is wrong with that?"

Zhang Xianling

Beijing-based AIDS activist Wan Yanhai was also an eyewitness to the crackdown, and called on China’s leaders to “find another way.”

“It is pretty stupid to use state coercion to suppress any voices among the people who wish to commemorate June 4,” Wan said. “It isn’t constructive for the country.”

Internet blockade

In the run-up to the anniversary, China blocked key social networking sites, although the overseas-based update service Twitter was still abuzz with comments on the anniversary, and its significance.

“Just now I heard that a few friends were called in to 'drink tea' [with police] because they were caught lighting candles in Shenzhen as a memorial on the night of June 3,” wrote prominent blogger Isaac Mao.

“They were released after they said they were remembering the soldiers who were killed during the suppression of the 'rebellion,’”  he said on Twitter.

“Last year, there weren’t that many people on Twitter who cared about Tiananmen. This year, there are really a lot,” Tweeted fellow blogger Guo Daxia.

“I am changing my Twitter icon to a black and white [mourning] background,” he wrote, adding: “I am hunger-striking today to commemorate the June 4, 1989 massacre.”

According to a Tweet sent by another blogger, Shizhao, “My colleagues are enthusiastically discussing what happened 20 years ago.”

Hundreds of people were killed after then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping gave the order to send in the troops.

Former student leaders have said they were expecting the army to use water cannon and rubber bullets, but no one thought they would use live ammunition and tanks until it was too late.

Call to remember

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China and the rest of the world to pay attention to the anniversary.

“Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets for weeks, in Beijing and around the country, first to honor the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang and then to demand basic rights denied to them,” Clinton said in a statement.

“A China that has made enormous progress economically, and that is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership, should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal,” Clinton said.

She called on Beijing to release from prison all those still serving sentences in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989 and to begin dialogue with the family members of victims, including the Tiananmen Mothers.

Entry barred

'Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong refused entry to former Tiananmen student activist Xiang Xiaoji, who had planned to attend the traditional candlelit vigil in Victoria Park in the former British colony.

Hong Kong Democratic Party legislator Cheung Man Kwong said the Hong Kong government appeared to have a “phobia” of anything related to June 4, 1989.

“They don’t want anyone sensitive like a former student leader from the pro-democracy movement of 20 years ago coming to Hong Kong to take part in activities, including tomorrow’s candlelit vigil,” Cheung said.

“So Xiang Xiaoji hasn’t been allowed to enter Hong Kong.”

The number of people killed in the night of June 3-4 remains a mystery. China’s official death toll is 241, including 36 students.

The crackdown set off a wave of condemnation across the globe, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah, as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and Xin Yu, and in Cantonese by Lee Yuk-ching. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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