China's Tiananmen Paranoia/By LIU XIAOBO
(June 04, 2006)By LIU XIAOBO
June 2, 2006
Asian Wall Street Journal
BEIJING -- In the run up to Sunday's 17th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Chinese authorities have been experimenting with a new strategy to try to quell continuing public anger over the bloody events of June 4: appeasement.
The relatives of Zhou Guocong, a 15-year-old protester beaten to death by police in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu in the nationwide crackdown that followed the massacre, recently became the first relatives of a Tiananmen victim to be compensated for their loss. Given the extreme sensitivity of the issue, it's inconceivable that this 70,000 yuan ($8,720) payout, officially described as a "hardship" allowance, wasn't authorized at the highest levels of the Chinese government.
If this attempt to buy off the family of one victim -- his mother had to renounce any right to take legal action over Zhou's death in return for the payment -- works, we can expect the government to extend the same strategy to families of other June 4 victims. Paltry payments, in exchange for silence. That's consistent with what the Chinese leadership officially describes as its policy of building a "harmonious society," but which in reality simply means using a combination of force and economic benefits to suppress any sign of dissent.
Ever since the Tiananmen massacre, successive Chinese leaders have lived in a permanent state of paranoia and continue to treat even peaceful political groups as serious threats to their rule. This paranoia is worst at times such as this, in the immediate lead up to the anniversary of the massacre, when relatives of the victims are forbidden openly to pay tribute to the dead, dissidents are put under house arrest, and the Chinese media and Web sites are warned against making any mention of June 4.
As a former university teacher who sat side by side with hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square before tanks rolled in, I have personally experienced this paranoia. Since the massacre, I have been detained three times by Chinese authorities -- for a total of six years -- for supporting the protesters and speaking out against human-rights abuses. After my release, I still have to endure a different kind of prison. In 2005, I spent half the year under house arrest. Even today, my activities in Beijing are closely monitored by police, along with my phone calls and emails. Even my wife is followed every time she leaves our home.
Meanwhile, the government continues to follow a lopsided strategy of pursuing economic growth without making any movement toward political reform, hoping that providing more material comfort to its citizens will be enough to buy their silent acquiescence in its continuing repression. However, growing economic prosperity has only enhanced the desire of ordinary Chinese to be given political freedom, as well. Although China has not experienced any more protests on the same scale as Tiananmen, there have been scattered grassroots protests against the government's refusal to reverse its official verdict that the 1989 demonstrations constituted a "counter revolutionary rebellion." June 4-related activist groups such as the Tiananmen Mothers, a high-profile group of those who lost their loved ones during the crackdown, have become a thorn in the Chinese leadership's side. And pro-democracy activists inside China continually cite public dissatisfaction with the massacre in their campaign against Communist rule.
June 4 remains a lightning rod for all manner of grievances in China, and the leadership seems to realize it is an issue they cannot avoid for much longer. That's why they have begun experimenting with ways of settling the issue that have a minimum of political repercussions. Zhou's case shows every sign of being a trial balloon in this respect. It offers the advantage of being a low-profile incident, far from Beijing, and not representative of the majority of the Tiananmen-related deaths, which occurred at the hands of soldiers, rather than the police. Although his mother, Tang Deying, has spent the past 17 years fighting for justice, she is not affiliated with the Tiananmen Mothers.
Such paltry payouts will not satisfy most of the Chinese public, let alone other victims' families. Truth cannot be bought with money, nor compensation substituted for justice. There's no way the Zhou family can be said to have received justice when the government has not publicized the truth surrounding their son's death, or offered any kind of apology.
Any genuine attempt to resolve the June 4 issue will have to go much further. A good first step would be for the government to engage in a dialogue on equal terms with representatives of the victims' families, and launch an independent investigation to reveal the truth regarding June 4. In addition, the government needs to openly acknowledge its mistakes, redress its official verdict on the 1989 protests, apologize to the victims and the people of China, pay proper compensation to the victims and their families, and bring criminal charges against the perpetrators.
That's far more than the Chinese government can be expected to do on its own initiative anytime soon. However I still hope it can be slowly forced in this direction by China's growing civil society. The outcry over the beating to death of university student Sun Zhigang in a Guangzhou detention center in 2003 offers an encouraging example of what public pressure in China can now sometimes achieve. Sun was detained by Chinese police under a widely abused system that formerly allowed government officials to detain almost anyone for any reason. Once reports of his death leaked out and spread around the country on the Internet, pressure from angry citizens forced the government to finally scrap this system.
That's an example of a new and increasingly powerful grassroots phenomenon in China, online activists using the Internet as a force for exposing human-rights abuses. I have personal experience of this since, despite the constant threat of persecution and being watched over by police, I can use email and the Internet to have articles such as this published overseas.
Hopefully the Internet can play a similar role in publicizing the payout to Zhou's family and putting pressure on the government to finally resolve the June 4 issue. Now would be an opportune moment to do so. Most of the senior leaders who orchestrated the killings have either died or are out of power. None of the current senior leaders has any connections with the massacre. Even former Premier Li Peng, one of the perpetrators of Tiananmen massacre, has been repeatedly reported to be writing a book, in an attempt to clear his name.
That offers cause for encouragement that it is only a matter of time before today's leaders realize that reversing the official verdict on the 1989 protests, and dealing with the perpetrators of the June 4 massacre, is the best way for the country to move forward.
Mr. Liu is a Chinese dissident and literary critic living in Beijing.
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