Canadians fight 'obliteration of memory' 25 years after Tiananmen crackdown
Published Tuesday, June 3, 2014 8:47AM EDT
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Canadian organizations commemorating the solemn event are re-focusing their efforts on finding ways to keep the memory of massacre alive.
In China, where information related to Tiananmen Square is tightly controlled, there are no major public events recognizing the events of June 3 and 4, 1989, when government troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in the square. The protesters had been camped out in Tiananmen, demanding greater democracy and freedom, along with an end to government corruption.
After months of tension between the government and the protesters, troops moved in on the square, armed with assault rifles and accompanied by tanks. No official death toll has ever been released, but estimates range from hundreds to thousands.
Information about the massacre is heavily censored in China: it is prohibited to write about it, residents are not able to easily read about it on the Internet, and students generally do not learn about it in school.
Also at play, is a type of self-censorship among Chinese citizens, where parents hold back details of the day in order to protect their children, says Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.
"Among the (Chinese) middle class, people are certainly avoiding the topic and having a certain amnesia – not wanting to remember or not even wanting to know what happened" he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. "That to us is a very scary version of the obliteration of memory from one generation to the next."
Keep the memory alive
Kwan has been participating in events commemorating Tiananmen every year for the past 25 years.
He remembers the night the attack started. He happened to be working in Hong Kong at the time, and recalls being transfixed by the images coming from the square as the crackdown began.
He also recalls the immediate reaction outside of China, as protests condemned the actions of the Chinese government. In Hong Kong, a crowd of about 200,000 held a vigil for the slain protesters, and in Toronto 30,000 protesters marched to the Chinese consulate, later gathering at Nathan Phillips Square. A similar event took place in Vancouver, where approximately 5,000 protesters held a candlelight vigil.
Since then, Kwan has seen the annual events change as the crowds have grown smaller, and emotions have become less raw.
"Obviously, there's a time lag of 25 years, meaning a lot of the emotional impact and interest in the event has faded," he said, noting that younger generations of Chinese Canadians may not feel as attached to the day, in the same way their parents may have.
He added that China's economic gains have also likely generated goodwill toward the country. People may believe that China should be congratulated for its economic growth, and for successfully hosting high profile events like the 2008 Summer Olympics, he said.
He notes that the Chinese government has repeatedly stated that suppression of the 1989 protests was necessary for stability and progress, and in some ways the official line of reasoning began to seep into people's consciousness.
To mark the anniversary this year, Kwan will join individuals who witnessed the violence in Tiananmen Square on Parliament Hill, where they are scheduled to hold a press conference on Tuesday. The group will later be sharing their stories at the University of Ottawa.
He said that their combined efforts are an attempt to preserve the history of the event, something that residents in China have not been able to freely do.
"We have long gone from the days of vigils where we remembered the dead, now it's kind of evolved into how we can keep the memory alive," he said of TADC's work.
Issues haven't gone away
But many of the issues at the heart of the 1989 protests are still present in China, according to one legal expert who studies Chinese law and human rights.
Prof. Pitman Potter, from the University of British Columbia, was in Beijing during the 1989 protests.
Potter, who at the time was teaching at Peking University, recalls watching from his apartment as the government tanks and armored carriers rolled towards the square where the protesters had gathered. "When the night itself came, it was horrifying to see how this whole thing came apart," he said.
Yet, Potter argues that despite the "unremitting" efforts of the regime to repress all memory of the event, a number of civil society groups in China have taken up the very same issues that prompted the 1989 protests, mainly: corruption, abuse of power, inequality and the environment.
"There are civil society groups in China that are concerned about those issues and have tried (since Tiananmen) to work as much as they could within the system, and sometimes pushing the envelope a bit, to support more information and progressive changes," he said.
"In some ways the legacy of Tiananmen is not the event itself, but rather the issues that led to it. They're still there today and people are still trying to deal with them."
Potter acknowledges that Chinese citizens now have more personal and economic freedoms than they did 25 years ago, but believes that Chinese society can't properly heal until past injustices, such as Tiananmen, are addressed.
He suggests that the country would benefit from conducting something similar to a truth and reconciliation process.
"We know from many political philosophers and observers that we have to learn the lessons of history," he said.
"I hope that at some point China's leaders have the courage and strength and confidence to confront some of the tragedies of the past, and allow them to be discussed openly, and learn from them so that China can move forward in a way that is better and more fulfilling for all of its people."
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