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    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    6+4 20

    Beijing, May 20, 2009 – In today’s China, it’s often difficult to gauge how ordinary people feel about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago. As the anniversary approaches, are the gory details of that day – and the fact the government still suppresses them – relevant in a country that looks nothing like the China of 1989?

    Pro-democracy activists, all but a very brave few of them speaking from outside the country, insist that June 4, 1989 remains the blackest day in recent Chinese history. To them, the wound Chinese society suffered then won’t be anywhere near healed until the events of 1989 are brought before the public eye and those responsible for the bloodshed are made accountable.

    When I recently interviewed Bao Tong – the top aide to the ousted Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, and the only senior Communist official jailed for his role in 1989 (for standing with the students) – he certainly shared that point of view. He told me that Deng Xiaoping’s decision to use force to disperse the student protestors who had occupied Beijing’s central square to back their demands for change “caused all the [political] stagnation and backwardness in China over the past 20 years.” You can read the whole article here.

    Similarly, Ding Zilin of the Tiananmen Mothers committee has been waging a long and lonely fight to force the government to investigate what happened on June 4, the day that her 17-year-old son Jiang Jielian was shot in the back and killed near Tiananmen Square. Her group has meticulously collected a list of 195 names of those killed during the crackdown, and she believes many more than that actually died that day.

    But many other, often louder, voices say that Tiananmen Square no longer matters. They argue China’s astonishing economic progress in the past 20 years proves that Deng Xiaoping made the right decision in cracking down and preventing China from falling into the type of chaos that hit Eastern Europe and the former USSR after the collapse of Communism there. To them, it’s only Westerners with an “anti-Chinese” agenda who keep the Tiananmen issue alive.

    (The government’s own changing view is nicely documented by Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch The most recent assessment given by a government spokesperson is “the government has already reached the verdict on 'June Fourth,' and the stability of the country was the foremost priority.”)

    Rarely are ordinary Chinese voices heard on this topic. In large part, that’s because the government has made the topic taboo. It’s never mentioned in the state-controlled media, and Tiananmen-related websites on the Internet are routinely blocked by censors. People like Mr. Bao Tong and Ms. Ding are kept under heavy surveillance, with their phones monitored and their interaction with other Chinese strictly controlled. The events of that day are never discussed in polite conversation - it's almost as if they never happened.

    Which is why I was fascinated by a little phenomenon that the Chinese edition of Google,, (otherwise best known for happily helping build the Great Firewall of China) inadvertently recorded. Take a look at this link. It’s a snapshot, sent my way by a Chinese Twitter pal of the top 10 most-searched items on for Tuesday, May 19, 2009.

    The No. 2 most-searched term, and recent holder of the No. 1 spot, is the apocryphal string “6+4 20.” It looks like bad arithmetic, but it's in fact a reference to the sixth month, fourth day, and the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989.

    The Net Nannies would have to be at the top of their game to spot that one. Plug it into, and Google returns a load of sites that are normally blocked inside China, including (at the time I’m writing this, anyway) the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry on the massacre, which contains the famous photo of a man staring down a row of tanks and repeats assertions that thousands of people died on and around the square that day.

    Apparently, a whole lot of ordinary Chinese aren’t quite convinced that Tiananmen Square no longer matters.

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