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China's June 4 Remains Sensitive, 20 Years Later


Thursday is the 20th anniversary of the Chinese government's violent crackdown on protesters who had been demonstrating in Tiananmen Square for greater political freedom and against official corruption. June Fourth has become an especially sensitive date on the modern Chinese calendar.

The Chinese government does not like to talk about the military crackdown on June 4, 1989. However, foreign journalists keep asking questions about it.

The latest official comment came from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, who told reporters Beijing is not planning to change its verdict that the protests were a counter-revolutionary rebellion.

Qin referred to the 1989 events only as a "political incident" and said the ruling Communist Party and the government have already drawn a conclusion.


Information blackout

At the same time, the Chinese government appears to be less confident that its message is being portrayed the way it want it to be. In recent days, Chinese censors regularly cut off TV signals when international news channels report stories about the protests 20 years ago. It is as if the broadcasts have been redacted.

Foreign residents in China also report pages missing from international newspapers in recent days. The pages that have been cut contain sensitive stories, on the 1989 crackdown or on Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Twenty years ago, this Beijing resident, who asked that his name not be used, was just seven years old. His father took him to the square to see the demonstrations. He remembers there were so many flags and banners.

He says nobody talks about it now. He says information about the 1989 protests is blocked on the Internet and that people are only able to spread news he describes as "unofficial."

There is still some small-scale activism, though. He says, recently, someone on a bus secretly gave one of his friends a DVD of the 1989 events.

Propanganda campaign

Veteran VOA correspondent Al Pessin was VOA's Beijing bureau chief, 20 years ago.

"In the hours and days following the massacre, the Chinese government engaged in an unbelievable propaganda campaign to try to convince the Chinese people that no one had died on Tiananmen Square and that there had been very little violence and that much of the violence had been perpetrated by the students," he said.

He says this propaganda campaign involved criticism of foreign media, with the VOA singled out by name because its reporting was heard back in China.

"Then one evening, as I was sitting with my interpreter watching the evening news on television, the phone rang and I picked it up," said Pessin. "And, what I heard on the phone was the audio from the TV broadcast that I was watching. And, within a minute, the broadcaster came to the item criticizing VOA. And, as soon as that item was finished, another voice came on the phone and said, "did you hear that? Did you hear that?" And then, click, hung up the phone."

Pessin says on the 14th of June, authorities summoned him to tell him he was being kicked out of the country.

Actual death toll in question

There are disagreements as to how many people were actually killed that night - whether in the hundreds or thousands. And, there were protests around the country, to show solidarity with the Beijing demonstrations.

Pessin stresses that the significance of the event goes beyond the numbers - especially in a tightly politically-controlled country like China.

"We were all very surprised when the Chinese students in very large numbers turned their interests to politics in May of 1989," he said. "It was a big surprise. And, what was even a bigger surprise was that people from other walks of life joined them."

Pessin says he has not kept up with developments in China since he left in 1989. But he says, 20 years ago, he and his colleagues thought Chinese people were apathetic, but the events of 1989 proved them wrong.

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