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1989-2009: The Great Wall of silence

world Updated: Jun 05, 2009 23:54 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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The world still does not know the exact number of students and workers killed when bullets and military tanks crushed a pro-democracy protest in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

But millions of Chinese still don’t even know that lives were lost that night on Tiananmen Square — the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Twenty years after 1989, China is the world’s third-largest economy and the US government’s top creditor.

One of the talking points inside China this week is not June 4, but a little-known Chinese company’s acquisition of the Hummer brand from General Motors.

When HT recently chatted with two university students in a KFC opposite Beijing’s tallest (and nearly empty) new five-star hotel, they were interested in discussing job prospects, not government reform.

One of them, a media student, got a firsthand account of June 4, 1989, only last year, when she was 21 years old.

Her mother vaguely told her to stay home on June 4 because there had been a protest that day in 1989. Her friend, a 22-year-old English major, first discussed the event when she was 21 years old too, and an Olympics volunteer.

A Communist Party member casually mentioned that students had protested over ‘income inequality,’ the Party had controlled the ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ and some shots were fired ‘for the sake of stability’.

Nobody told them that there was a death toll and they don’t care to know the details. Some students refused to discuss the officially forbidden subject with HT.

Talking about it with a foreign newspaper, they said, would be anti-national. Many treat the event like China's chaotic Cultural Revolution, (1966-76), a dark patch of history they want to forget.

The Communist Party had feared the sensitive anniversary could spark a ‘mass incident’ or protest among this year’s seven million graduates seeking vanishing jobs and a salary to spend completely every month, unlike their thrifty parents. These graduates face even bleaker prospects than the 20-30 million unemployed factory migrants who can at least avail of emergency government schemes.

But China’s Great Wall of silence ensured that the 20th anniversary was incident-free. Access to foreign channels is limited to neighbourhoods with well-off expats, and related newscasts were blacked-out anyway. The State-run media ignored the event and censors blocked major websites.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called upon China to ‘examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained, or missing.’’ But a public accounting of the spring of 1989 from China's leadership is as unlikely as another Tiananmen Square student protest in the near future.