Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tiananmen, 17 Years On

How much is the life of a victim of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre worth? 70,000 yuan (US$8,750), apparently, if we use the compensation that the Chinese government recently gave to a mother whose 15-year-old was killed there as a guide.

Tomorrow will mark the 17th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crushing of the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. While some could interpret the abovementioned compensation as a sign that the freedoms and rights of individuals in China have improved since, the background to that story reveals instead that the picture is still pretty much what it was 17 years ago.

It turns out that, in the past month alone, Huang Qi (黃琦), an Internet activist who revealed that first case of government compensation in his writings, has twice been forced to move as a result of pressure from the Chinese authorities. For the optimists among us, the forced relocation might be seen as an improvement in tactics, as Mr. Huang had recently completed a five-year imprisonment round for criticizing government corruption and accusing Beijing of suppressing human rights. If repression were quantifiable, surely forced relocation would be lower down the rung than jail for half a decade. One wonders, however, what the Chinese authorities hope to achieve by forcing a man and his wife to move from place to place. True, this might make it slightly more problematical for Mr. Huang to sit down and write his criticisms, but the beauty of the Internet is that people can now write from almost anywhere, anytime, and the space and equipment required to do so—and to reach millions—really aren’t that much anymore.

Also intriguing is the fact that the Chinese government refuses to make the story about victim compensation public. After all, isn’t this good publicity? Does this not send a signal, both at home and abroad, that Beijing is finally owning up to its past deeds and is ready to engage its population in a dialogue over what went wrong? I’m convinced that if a company like Enron had begun making reparations for the thousands of people whose lives it had affected, its managers would have made sure that the world knew about it. The P.R. value is just too good. But Beijing sees things differently, obviously. Perhaps it fears that the compensation would be interpreted as an admission of guilt, something that 17 years later remains, haplessly, unimaginable. Whatever the reason is, more than a decade and a half later, Tiananmen still claims its victims.

Rumors also have it that the famous “unknown rebel” whose standing up to a column of tanks entering Tiananmen Square has become iconic, sought refuge in Taiwan in 1993. Imperfect though it is, the system in which this man now finds himself would certainly countenance protest of the kind that was seen in Tiananmen. And if a protester were as much as injured during the demonstration (let’s say, as a result of police action), there is no doubt that the compensation would be pithier than that which was disbursed by Beijing, and that whoever was making that compensation would ensure that all of Taiwan’s sensationalistic media are reporting it. Therein lies the beauty (and at times uncontrollability) of democracy.

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