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'The Chinese people don't dare to remember us'

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

One is in Iraq serving as a U.S. Army chaplain. Another is a California-based financial analyst. Still another is a real-estate agent.

Several are high-level academic achievers, a few teaching and others looking for work. At the Sorbonne, one just finished a doctoral dissertation called Chinese Medical Cosmology According to the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon.

In 1989, the world's eyes were trained on them as they organized protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, took part in hunger strikes, demanded dialogue with China's leaders and led protests in other parts of the country. But after 15 years of struggle with little result, they've had to get on with their lives and find ways to support themselves.

As were previous "counterrevolutionary rebellions," the Tiananmen movement for a more pluralist political system was crushed violently. The most prominent pro-democracy protesters were jailed or sent to labour camps, and then after their release fled China or were exiled. Most of those live in the United States.

"The Chinese people don't dare to remember us," said Wang Dan, No..1 on Beijing's most-wanted list after the crackdown. "It's still dangerous to talk about politics publicly. How can you imagine that Chinese people tell police that they miss Wang Dan?"

Mr. Wang, a Harvard University doctoral student in history, edits the monthly magazine Beijing Spring and is chairman of the Chinese Association of Constitutionalism. He was commenting by e-mail from Taiwan.

High-profile protesters who remained in China were treated harshly and blacklisted by the government, schools and employers. The dissident movement largely has been sidelined and any questioning of the official verdict of the June 4 military assault is dispatched with authoritarian swiftness.

Jiang Yanyong, a retired military surgeon who became a national folk hero last year after he helped expose the government's initial cover-up of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Beijing, was arrested and held for several days around the time of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. He had written a letter calling for the government to reassess the actions leading up to the military crackdown, in which hundreds of people were killed and thousands wounded.

Dr. Jiang's case received only scattered attention abroad, prompting cynicism from a Chinese dissident in exile.

"Currently, Western countries are interested in making money in China, so economics is a priority. Human rights is second, even third," said Fang Lizhi, who teaches physics at the University of Arizona.

The same view is held by the New York-based World Policy Institute, a research and education policy centre that discussed the issue in a 2003 article called The Dragon Still Has Teeth: How the West Winks at Chinese Repression.

"As China becomes an increasingly important market and a more powerful force in global organizations, they [the media, non-governmental organizations and governments in the West] seem more and more willing to buy Beijing's rosy portrayal of its human-rights record," says the article, published in the institute's World Policy Journal.

A few days after June 4, 1989, Mr. Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, sought haven at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where they remained for a year until they could leave China.

Mr. Fang, whose campaign for intellectual and academic freedom predates the Tiananmen movement, said the Beijing regime has modern ways of effectively stifling non-sanctioned information by blocking key words, such as his name, in Internet searches.

Liu Qing lives and works in New York, where he heads Human Rights in China. He is one of the few exiles who remain engaged in promoting recognized human rights and advancing the institutional protection of these rights in China.

His pro-democracy activities began in the early 1980s, when he co-edited a magazine called April Fifth Forum. It gained prominence for its reporting of the trail of dissident Wei Jingsheng.

Mr. Liu was arrested and sent to a labour camp after the magazine posted transcripts of Mr. Wei's testimony on a Beijing wall near the Communist Party leadership compound.

He spent two stints in prison, where he was beaten, before he was allowed to leave China in 1992 amid intense international pressure.

According to Mr. Liu, China's growing global economic and political influence has had a severe dampening effect on the West's purported interest in furthering democracy.

"The knowledge that China's civil and political rights have generally deteriorated over the past 15 years is inconvenient to people who want to believe that China is improving so they don't have to suffer a guilty conscience from dealing with the Chinese government," Mr. Liu said in an interview conducted by e-mail.

Over the years, Mr. Liu said, Beijing has become even more efficient at controlling and suppressing dissent. Even the so-called Tiananmen Mothers, relatives of those killed or injured during the crackdown, suffer persistent intimidation and persecution.

The World Policy Institute agrees. "Beijing is once again instituting repressive measures that equal or surpass in severity and scope those supported by the old guard in the early 1990s. Indeed, Beijing seems to want it both ways: to appear to be more tolerant even while relentlessly suppressing dissent," it says in the 2003 article.

Mr. Liu is saddened that although he and many other Chinese dissidents found safe haven in the United States, Washington puts trade interests first and does not back up its stirring words about the need for democratic change in China.

"The U.S. government voices a lot of criticism of the Chinese system but does comparatively little to influence or work toward positive change."

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