Twenty-eight years ago tonight, troops, armored personnel carriers and tanks began moving toward the center of Beijing after the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided that the weeks-old protest in Tiananmen Square had to be ended.
While the date of Sunday, June 4, 1989, is forever tied to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the first deaths occurred on late June 3 as Beijing residents set up barricades to try to stop the troops from reaching the square.
Twenty-eight years before the phrase “fake news” became a mainstay of Western political debate, the CCP leadership was resorting to its decades-old practice of rewriting history, trying to convince its people that what took place had not happened.
However, what was once a simple matter of cutting Lin Biao (林彪), or other “enemies of the people” out of photographs and newsreel footage had become much harder by 1989, when fax machines — which the Tiananmen students used to communicate — were everywhere, and foreign news agencies and television channels had reporters in Beijing.
It is a fight that has become more difficult with each technological advance since then, costing Beijing countless millions of dollars in personnel and equipment costs to maintain an army of media and Internet scrubbers, forever on alert for any mention of Tiananmen, protests, or 6489, the numbers marking the date.
Its army tanks might have crushed the protesters in the square, but Beijing is losing the fight to make people forget, to scrub the knowledge of the protesters, the killings, the tank man’s act of defiance.
It is losing because there are just too many people inside and outside China who remember, too many who are willing to organize and attend vigils — in Taiwan, Hong Kong and many other places around the world — each year to commemorate the 1989 protesters, too many who fight back in ways big and small to ensure that the memories — and lessons — of Tiananmen live on.
These people are fighting for more than just to be able to report the truth. They are fighting to show that political positions outside the CCP exist.
Beijing has tried hard to crush pro-democracy activism ever since Tiananmen, but all it has achieved is to add to the list of courageous people detained and tortured, imprisoned or even killed, who were trying to make a difference — people such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) and Wang Yu (王宇), and the hundreds of other human rights lawyers detained over the past two years.
Yet one does not even have to have achieved the level of activism or prominence of Liu to be caught up in one of the CCP leadership’s dragnets or crackdowns: a willingness to think outside the box is enough of a crime in Beijing eyes.
A vigil is to be held tomorrow in Taipei to remember Tiananmen, a tradition that goes back to the rallies that were held in support of the protesters in 1989.
The event at Liberty Plaza will also call attention to the plight of Lee Ming-che (李明哲), a Taiwanese who has been detained in China since March 19.
It was not until Friday last week that Beijing deigned to announce why Lee was picked up and what charge he faces — subversion of state power. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan (安峰山) said Lee had frequently traveled to China since 2012 and had worked with Chinese to establish an illegal ring aimed at subverting Beijing.
The absurdity of the charge does not diminish the danger that Lee faces. The truth is that Lee could be anyone — and everyone — who has traveled to China and does not believe in the CCP’s omnipotence.
So today — and tomorrow and the days after that — we will remember Tiananmen and we will stand with Lee.
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