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Telling the Truth about Tiananmen 20 Years Later

Kristin Butler | Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer | Thursday, June 4, 2009

Telling the Truth about Tiananmen 20 Years Later

June 4, 2009

It was twenty years ago on June 4 that tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and troops opened fire on thousands of peaceful protestors, the vast majority of which were students. The world was shocked as the violence replayed on televisions around the world - scores of young students meeting a brutal death as bullets rained on the sea of protestors who had peacefully assembled for democracy's sake. The tanks and military in Tiananmen Square killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and sparked the turbulent initiation of China's democracy movement.

Yet in today's China, many students have no idea of what transpired at Tiananmen Square that fateful day. School textbooks simply ignore the event. Many school teachers act as though it never happened, offering only vague, limited references to a "counterrevolutionary" chapter in Chinese history. A young Chinese professional interviewed by CNN for an article on Tiananmen Square says that learning about the incident as a child proved difficult, if not impossible. After asking her parents about the incident to no avail, she turned to her teachers. "One of my teachers said something about it -- but just one sentence, that's all," she recalled.

The silence about Tiananmen Square seems strange, almost eerie. In a world where information rules, the Chinese government is intent on keeping this dark chapter a secret from its own people. One Chinese government official at a foreign ministry conference recently referenced the day as a "political incident that took place in the late 1980s." It is routinely downplayed, intentionally ignored.

Breaking the Silence

As the Internet continues to grow in China, however, the government's decades-long silence about Tiananmen Square has become more difficult to maintain.

Xiao Qiang of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, studies the impact of the Internet on China's politics and media. "You want to see where the freedom of expression movements are in China?" he told CNN recently, "Twenty years ago, it was on Tiananmen Square. Today it is on the Internet."

Which might explain why the Chinese government employs thousands to monitor as well as block certain websites. The government tracks key words as "Tiananmen," checking up on the curious and counterrevolutionary.

Today, June 4, China is especially busy cracking down on vast swaths of the Internet. After all, today is the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen. Blocking everything from Twitter to online blogging software, the Chinese government seems desperate to quash any relived memories of the event, and any commentary on its relevance today.

So just how hard is it for a Chinese citizen to uncover the truth about Tiananmen? Reporters Without Borders recently released a report illustrating the difficulties of finding uncensored information on Tiananmen Square on the internet in China.

The report says that "When Chinese Internet users search for "4 June" in the photos section of Baidu, the country's most popular search engine, they get this message: ‘The search does not comply with laws, regulations and policies.' The same search in the video section elicits this message: ‘Sorry, no video corresponds to your search.' If you do an ordinary Internet search for "4 June" with Baidu, you just get official Chinese statements about the "events of 4 June."

"Censorship at Any Price"

"The Chinese government stops at nothing to silence what happened 20 years ago in Tiananmen Square," reads a statement issued by Reporters Without Borders, "By blocking access to a dozen websites used daily by millions of Chinese citizens, the authorities have opted for censorship at any price rather than accept a debate about this event."

But Chinese dissident Wang Dan, who emerged as a top leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, is optimistic that the truth is possible to find, though users have to work harder to get past the censorship. He says that China's "savvy surfers" can work around Chinese censorship and find what they're looking for.

For Wang personally, "The Internet has changed the meaning of exile," he says. He now resides in Los Angeles, far from Tiananmen Square and years of suffering under the Chinese government. But Wang feels more connected than ever to his fellow dissidents "I don't think we're really in exile," he says, "because I use the Internet, MSN, Skype, Twitter, Facebook … so I have a lot of contact with mainlanders."

China at a Crossroad

American and Chinese Christians are gathering tonight in Washington, D.C., at a "solemn assembly" this evening to commemorate the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. "At this unprecedented gathering, 20 years after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Chinese and American Christians will stand together in prayer to usher in a new day of true hope and justice for China," a press release issued by the China Aid Association reads.

Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid Association, believes that China is at a crossroad. "We pray in unity that the international community will choose to stand in true solidarity with China's freedom pursuers," he says, "so that a God-fearing, human rights and dignity-respecting new China will emerge as a blessing to the whole world in the 21st century."

The even also presents an opportunity for church leaders to re-affirm a written manifesto signed by 226 Chinese Christian leaders. The statement doesn't fail to mention the Chinese government's attempts to rewrite and ignore Tiananmen: "Until now, the truth of this tragedy is still covered up by design of the government. Many victims continue to suffer from repression. For the past 20 years, Chinese people continue to live in lies constructed by an authoritarian structure, and the result is that this part of Chinese history is distorted or even completely forgotten by young Chinese people."

But the statement is as much a call to the Church as it is a plea for China to break its silence. "We cannot go on like this! We cannot remain silent any longer!" reads the statement, "We must speak out as God commands Christians to do—as the voice crying out for justice."

Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout South Asia and the Middle East. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com and covers religious freedom and human rights issues at BreakPoint.org. For further articles, visit her blog at kristinbutler.wordpress.com, or email [email protected].