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Freedom days

Remembering D-Day, World War I, the Polish elections, Tiananmen Square. What do they have in common? A love of freedom.

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A Beijing citizen stands in front of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in this June 5, 1989, photo during the crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Chinese army crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Arthur Tsang

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This month brims with remembrance of things past.

President Obama is traveling to Europe where he first stops in Poland, in part to recognize the 25th anniversary of elections that signaled that country’s escape from the orbit of the Soviet Union and the beginning of its road to independence and democracy. Today, as a member of NATO, democratic Poland is playing an increasingly important role as Russia chips away at the sovereignty of Poland's neighbor, Ukraine.

Mr. Obama then heads to the beaches of Normandy in France, where 70 years ago on June 6 Allied troops, including thousands of young Americans, many in their teens, somehow mustered the courage to land on and traverse a wide beach as enemy fire rained down. The liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression had begun. With the exception of the ethnic fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, Europe has been rewarded since with nearly seven decades of peace and democratic governments.

Later this month, June 28, marks a century since the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, today the capital of Bosnia but then part of the Austria-Hungary Empire. The hope of US President Wilson and many others that the resulting World War I would be “the war to end all wars” proved untrue. But that war did show the willingness of democracies (Britain, France, the United States, and others) to band together to halt aggression from a group of authoritarian states.

A fourth date this month, June 4, marks an anniversary whose legacy and outcome are still in doubt. Twenty-five years ago thousands of students and other Chinese citizens occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing calling for openness and democracy and an end to official corruption. After a tense and confusing standoff, troops (equipped for battle, not crowd control) shot into the mass of people, scattering it and killing an unknown number – perhaps thousands, by some estimates.

It would seem the sacrifice of the protesters has gone unrewarded. Government corruption continues unabated. Democracy, if anything, is even further from arriving. A weak court system provides no protection for civil rights. This year’s annual crackdown on dissidents – artists, environmental activists, lawyers, bloggers, writers, academics – as June 4 approached seemed harsher than ever. Any Chinese talking about Tiananmen are subject to harassment, illegal detention, or even prosecution for imaginary crimes. Internet censorship is tight as well.

With no voice with which to speak, some Chinese are choosing eloquent silence.

“Tonight, I will remain silent,” college professor Wang Dongcheng wrote on his blog, according to an Associated Press report. In May, he had attended a private seminar on Tiananmen Square, after which several attendees were detained by the government. “Tonight, I will listen in solitude,” he wrote. “Tonight, I will be sleepless.”

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At the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, artist Ai Weiwei had written, “Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.”

A “Great Wall of Silence” now envelops the subject of Tiananmen. As British poet James Fenton observed just after the massacre in a short poem:

Tiananmen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tiananmen.

Some Western analysts are perplexed that China’s economic liberalization and modernization in recent decades haven’t generated reforms to its political system as well. In the long view a quarter century may prove to have been far too short a time in which to have expected democratic reforms. 

Meanwhile, persistent historians and journalists outside China, and a few brave individuals within, continue to peck away at the story of Tiananmen from its many viewpoints, not only the protesters’ plight but the story of wary and confused peasant soldiers sent to end the protest, and the military and political leaders who sanctioned it.

The story is there to be found – and profited from. And eventually the Chinese people will find it for themselves.


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