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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Tents, tanks and a torch in China

June 13, 2008

By Kent Ewing
Asia Times
June 12, 2008

HONG KONG -- Last week presented a puzzle of irreconcilable images
and memories in this city. With all the photos and television footage
of the devastating May 12 Sichuan earthquake still seared in
everyone's consciousness, along comes the annual June 4 commemoration
for those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, a
different kind of death and destruction still largely unacknowledged
by Beijing.

As the Olympic torch relay continues to wend its way toward the
capital for the August 8 opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer
Games, candles held by thousands of demonstrators lit up the night at
Hong Kong's Victoria Park in memory of the pro-democracy advocates
who lost their lives on that dark day in

Chinese history. The same People's Liberation Army that has been
pulling the dead, trapped and injured from the rubble in Sichuan for
nearly a month rolled over youthful demonstrators with tanks 19 years
ago. Which image should we concentrate on as we consider China's future?

The answer, of course, is both. The unprecedented openness and
transparency with which the central government has reacted to the
Sichuan quake has deservedly won admiration around the world. The
immediate response to the catastrophe was rapid, compassionate and
remarkably open to public scrutiny. In other words, it was everything
the international community has come not to expect from Beijing,
which has well-earned reputation for secrecy, repression and
truth-defying propaganda.

The shock of the magnitude-8 quake has many China watchers wondering
whether the Chinese leadership has undergone its own earth-shaking
shift, finally realizing the value of an unfettered media and an open
and transparent government in the wake of a disaster that, at last
count, had left 69,146 people dead, 17,516 missing and 374,072
injured. Jarring as those figures may be - and laudable as the
central government's response has been to date - don't count on any
big, long-term changes in governance from Beijing. There is, however,
cause enough for hope.

After all, dealing with a natural disaster is fundamentally different
from dealing with a political one - as different as Mother Nature and
Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China who in 1989 ordered the
Tiananmen crackdown. When it's Mother Nature against the people, of
course, the government must offer a magnanimous hand to the people.
But when the people turn against their government, Chinese leaders
have shown that, like Mother Nature, they also have a nasty, vengeful
side. Tiananmen is the most grotesque example of this in recent
history; but much smaller, less widely reported but still vicious
crackdowns have continued regularly over the past 19 years, including
during the current leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The victims could be protesting farmers upset that their land has
been stolen by corrupt local officials to fuel the country's
relentless commercial boom. They could be the grieving families of
miners who have died in China's notoriously unsafe collieries. They
could be AIDS activists like Hu Jia, who was jailed for telling the
truth about the disease in his country. They could be journalists
like Ching Cheong, released in February after spending nearly three
years in prison under the false charge of espionage. There has been
plenty of death, injury and false imprisonment in China since 1989,
and also plenty of silence in the official media about these myriad injustices.

Has the Sichuan quake changed all that? The pessimistic view is that
Beijing is using the humanitarian disaster as a symbol of its new
openness and will play that cheerful tune through the Olympics, after
which it will be back to business as usual. Optimists, admittedly
fewer, think that China has taken a big step towards an open, civil
society, and that the staging of the Olympics will be another giant
step: After that, there can be no turning back.

But, in this case, it might be better to adopt the pragmatist's
wait-and-see perspective, and there are some key stories to wait and
see about. First, there is Tibet, and the pessimists are definitely
winning on this one. Nearly three months after the first riots broke
out there, foreign journalists remain banned from the autonomous
region. Hong Kong and Taiwanese reporters were recently given a
four-day tour of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, however, and even that
officially monitored journalistic junket turned up stories that
clashed with the central government's one-sided portrayal of what happened.

Yes, it appears, the rioting was organized and brutal, as Beijing
claimed. But eyewitness accounts reported in Hong Kong's South China
Morning Post also point to an ensuing bloody crackdown, with one
eyewitness describing soldiers opening up on Tibetan rioters with machine guns.

Meanwhile, Beijing has agreed to meetings with envoys of the Dalai
Lama - who has repeatedly renounced violence, supported the Beijing
Olympics and stated that he does not seek an independent Tibet -
while continuing to vilify him and his "Dalai clique" in state media.
It may be too much to expect Beijing to reach an accommodation with
the Dalai Lama on the status of Tibet, but it would be nice to see
the vilification campaign stop.

The Dalai Lama is not responsible for the riots, and the relentless
attacks on him are not just unfair; they also further alienate the
very Tibetans whose hearts and minds Beijing is trying to win. If
more unrest in Tibet is to be avoided, greater openness and
accommodation are essential; otherwise, tensions in the region are
doomed to boil over again. But, while the path to peace in Tibet is
clearly marked, the leadership nevertheless appears blind to it.

Last week, for example, the official Xinhua News Agency once again
blamed the "Dalai clique" for acts of violence in Tibet. The agency
reported the arrests in April of 16 people, most of them Tibetan
Buddhist monks, accused of three bombings, saying the Dalai Lama and
his followers had incited the monks to carry out copycat bombings of
those that rocked Lhasa during the March 14 riots. The report offered
no proof of the involvement of the Dalai Lama. There was also no
explanation of why nearly a month had passed before the arrests were announced.

Besides Tibet, two other important stories to watch while gauging
Beijing's newly discovered bent for openness and transparency are
closely tied to the disaster in Sichuan. The Ministry of Housing and
Urban-Rural Development has launched a probe into the
disproportionately large number of schoolchildren who were killed
when their schools collapsed on them while other nearby buildings
withstood the shock of the quake. If shoddy construction was
involved, officials have vowed to punish those responsible.

Angry, grieving parents who have lost children are screaming for
justice, but an honest and full investigation could lead to high
places in Communist Party officialdom in the province. Its seems
likely that so-called "tofu" construction was commonplace in the
building of schools and that private contractors colluded with
government officials to skimp on essential materials such as steel
and concrete and pocket the savings. If these corrupt officials are
truly brought to book for their malfeasance, that would be a major
breakthrough in the country's battle against graft. But beware the
scapegoat: this investigation could turn out like a lot of others -
punishing a few for the widespread practice of many.

The same is true of the central government's pledge that all local
and foreign donations to quake victims, which have surpassed 40
billion yuan (US$5.8 billion), will be strictly accounted for. This
promise comes after numerous reports on the Internet of donated goods
intended for quake victims winding up on sale in shops or in the
possession of people not affected by the quake. Venal officials are
allegedly selling items such as tents and rice by the truckload. If
this is true, how many of these culprits, the latest symbols of
China's endemic corruption, will pay for their crimes?

Finally, of course, there are the Olympic Games and the 30,000
foreign reporters who will descend on the country to cover not just
the athletes but also anything else of interest they can find. They
will want to interview ordinary citizens and ask Chinese leaders
tough questions about corruption and democratic reform. They have
been promised great freedom. Let's see if Beijing can deliver on that promise.

In the end, however, it will not be until the grand Olympic stage is
packed away and the eyes of the world have turned elsewhere that any
clear sense of China's future as a budding civil society will become clear.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School.
He can be reached at
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