Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Human Rights and Dignity": Lessons From Tiananmen Square, 25 Years Later

The same week I graduated from high school, the Tiananmen Square massacre was unfolding on TV. Part of me wondered what kind of a world I was stepping out into, when young people half a world away were being beaten and killed in hopes of winning some basic freedoms from an oppressive Communist government.

But at the same time, I felt a sense of hope when I saw the iconic image of Tank Man -- the still unknown brave soul who stood in front of a line of tanks and refused to let them pass. That image, to me, has remained one of the most powerful of my lifetime, as it symbolizes the eternal struggles that everyday people encounter to remain free in the face of bigger, stronger powers that threaten to beat them down.

No one knows how many people died in Beijing in June of 1989. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands. We don't know because the Chinese government has always been tight-lipped about the event. And the government wants to make sure no one else speaks of it, either. A quarter-century later, discussion of Tiananmen Square is not allowed in China, as the Communist Party does all it can to make the Chinese people forget that the event ever happened. As The Telegraph reports:
On the Internet, blogs or social media posts about "Tiananmen Square" and "June 4" are quickly censored – as are all the various sleights of hand that the Chinese might use to indicate the forbidden date.
For example, 6-4, 64, 63+1, and 65-1 are all blocked. So too are "May 35th" and "April 65th". Even the Roman numerals for 6 and 4 (VIIV) are banned, as are mixing numbers and letters such as "8q b 4" for "89.6.4".
In the past, censors have removed posts containing the words "tomorrow" and "today" on the eve and day of the anniversary, as well "in memory of", pictures of candles, and even "sensitive word".
The names of the leaders at the time, especially of Zhao Ziyang, who was purged as general secretary of the Communist party for supporting the students, are all wiped.
Those who continue to speak out -- both about the 1989 event and the ongoing abuses of the government -- are harassed, detained, placed under house arrest, jailed on trumped-up charges, ejected from the places they live, or simply "disappeared." Families of dissidents undergo the same treatment.

As the AP's Christopher Bodeen reports, the government blends this type of harassment with cosmetic reforms that they hope will mollify the public. People can practice the religion of their choice, so long as the state approves of the religious practice -- and the fact that many churches have recently been demolished shows just how closely the churches are being monitored and how much "freedom" worshippers truly have. Labor unions can form, but they remain under strict government control, and labor activists are routinely targeted with intimidation. Non-governmental organizations can form and hold lectures and meetings, but they're prohibited from taking on political causes.

And if any large-scale protests do begin to take shape, Beijing is quick to crack down before they escalate into a Tiananmen-sized showing.

In short, people's lives are scrutinized and micromanaged. Known activists have had their passports rescinded to restrict their travel, preventing them from spreading their messages -- and if they still manage to slip away, the police track them down and return them home. Trying to spread those messages online is virtually impossible, as the government employs people to monitor the Web and censor anything politically provocative.  

China's economic reforms are well known, and they, too, have come about in part as an attempt to distract the people from demanding political freedoms. But as Human Rights Watch reports, the reforms have led to rampant corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.

So while China has changed in some ways since 1989, one thing that has not changed is that its people are still not free.

On this day -- a day people died for democracy, and a day China wants the world to forget -- I would therefore encourage all of us to think about the system we uphold when we buy a product stamped "Made in China." If you're not in the habit of looking at those stamps and labels, take some time to do so the next time you're out shopping. You'll be astounded at how many of the things we consume were made by people who essentially have no political rights.

Think, too, about why this is happening. From 2001 to 2012, the United States lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs to China. The average Chinese laborer works a 12-hour day and, as of 2012, earned $1.36 an hour. It's all about the bottom line. U.S. corporations have offshored their labor, putting Americans out of work, so they can exploit a massive labor pool that has virtually no political power to ask for anything better. That's why, as Steve Jobs once infamously said, "those jobs aren't coming back." And that's also why China's economic reforms will not bring about political reforms, as some observers contend. The corporations that moved their manufacturing jobs to China don't want a politically free workforce that could demand greater pay, benefits, and working conditions. That would work against their interests.

China has ostensibly closed its forced-labor camps, where work conditions were naturally horrible -- but that still doesn't mean laborers' lots are improving. Speaking of Steve Jobs -- who told his biographer that he loved China's business practices and hated U.S. regulations and labor rights -- we can't forget about Foxconn, the infamous iPhone factory where conditions were so deplorable that workers were committing suicide. The only "reforms" the workers got? Nets outside the factory windows, preventing any further workers from jumping to their deaths.

Getty Images, via
If you still have any doubts about what things are like in China, ask someone who suffered for his part in the Tiananmen protests. Liao Yiwu wrote a poem titled "Massacre" in reaction to the violence he saw at Tiananmen Square, and for doing so he spent four years in prison, subjected to humiliating and painful punishments. He escaped from China after his release and wrote about his experiences in a memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs. A recent article in Buddhist magazine Tricycle says that Liao describes how inmates "would be forced to pick a 'dish' from the [prison's] 'menu,' which included such delicacies as 'Stewed Ox Nose: The enforcer rams two fingers up the inmate's nose until it bleeds,' among 108 dishes."

In 2011, Liao recounted some of his prison experiences to Spiegel:
"The (prisoners appointed as guards) examined the clothing they'd torn from my body. ... I clutched both my empty fists at my sides, then moved instinctively to pull up the pants that weren't there, when their leader ordered me to stick out my bottom -- and, with the utmost care, inserted a bamboo stick into my anus. ... The exhibition lasted about seven minutes, but it was longer than an entire lifetime."
... The guards beat him with electric batons, one time delivering 100 blows in a single interrogation, another time for 20 minutes without pause. They cuffed his hands behind his back, once for 23 days straight.
All this was for writing a poem.

In the Spiegel article, Liao also has some words for those in the West who try to soft-pedal the ongoing political climate in China:
Anyone who talks that way is afraid of jeopardizing trade with China, he said, but such people bring "bad thoughts into the world." If trade is more important than human rights and dignity, "then the end of the world has arrived." And no one should deceive themselves about the Communist Party, he said. "It has a golden body and two faces. It shows the Chinese people its fierce face, and the West its pleasant one."
We don't hear about these things in the Western media, and not just because China shows us a "pleasant face." We are beholden to China. China holds the largest share of our debt, at well over a trillion dollars. And the corporate reliance on China's cheap labor pool speaks for itself. When you strike deals with the devil, you lose the ability to call the devil out. This is what we've done to ourselves, in the name of reckless government spending and naked corporate greed.

So today, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, I'm flying my Tibetan flag as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom in China. Why the Tibetan flag? Because it's illegal to possess the Tibetan flag in China. Those who attempt to fly one are often imprisoned, and sometimes beaten to the point of permanent injury. It's also illegal to possess a picture of the Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from his native Tibet for most of his life.

Tibet has suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese, ever since China invaded the country in 1949. Today, you won't find Tibet on a world map. The country is now considered part of China, and China has gone to great lengths to undermine Tibetans' distinct way of life. Thousands of monasteries have been destroyed, the numbers of people who can become clergy is strictly regulated, and all religious practices must be state-approved. China also appears to be encouraging the migration of Chinese to Tibet, in what is most certainly an attempt to dilute Tibetan culture. Political prisoners abound, including the 11th Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped at age 6, shortly after the Dalai Lama recognized the boy as the heir to the title, and has not been seen since. And the landscape is being drained of its natural resources. To top it all off, just last year, all Tibetans were ordered to fly the Chinese flag over their homes. When some Tibetans resisted, some 18,000 Chinese troops poured in to enforce the edict. Two people were sentenced to 10 years in prison for refusing to comply with the order.

Those who have openly demonstrated for a free Tibet have suffered brutal torture. A group of Buddhist nuns was taken from a demonstration, and once in prison, the nuns were stripped naked, beaten with nightsticks, subjected to dog bites, and anally and vaginally raped with electric cattle prods. Reports of similarly monstrous behavior against Falun Gong practitioners, political prisoners, and other prisoners of conscience have been reported over the years.

One of the Tibetan nuns was told by her torturer, "You will not get freedom, you will not get independence, not even in your dreams." To date, that remains true. China still rules over Tibet.

Therefore, what Tibetans are not allowed to do, I will do in their honor -- fly their nation's flag.

I also look at today as a reminder that we must always be on guard to defend our own freedoms. That I can fly a Tibetan flag and talk about Tiananmen Square on my blog is evidence that Americans still enjoy greater freedoms than many others around the world, but that doesn't mean those freedoms are forever safe, or that we should take them for granted. We now have a law on the books that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without charge or trial. Our government has determined that it can assassinate American citizens without due process -- and has done so. A massive surveillance system tracks our lives far beyond any reasonable limits. Whistleblowers are being prosecuted at an unprecedented rate. Freedom of the press is under assault. So are peaceful protests. We have the largest prison population of any nation on Earth, and people are ending up in those prisons -- many for petty crimes that wouldn't merit a sentence in other nations -- at the hands of overzealous police forces that have become more militarized and aggressive in their enforcement actions.     

If we want to hang on to the freedoms that our Founding Fathers guaranteed for us, we have to guard them and fight for them. If we don't want our nation to become more like China, we can't sit passively back and expect that it won't happen.

Because what happened here in 1989 ...

Is not all that different from what happened here in 2012.

May that serve as a cautionary reminder to us all.

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