China freedoms backslide 20 years after Tiananmen


POSTED: Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tens of thousands of people were expected to participate in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong today in memory of the hundreds who died in the Tiananmen massacre on this date 20 years ago. No such commemoration was allowed in the rest of China, still deprived of the democratic freedoms sought by a million people who had gathered in the Beijing square. Their dream remains but is no closer to coming true.

The protests continue — registered not in a city square or park but through blogs on the Internet, where 300 million people in China are online. As the Tiananmen anniversary neared, the government blocked all Chinese users from viewing all videos on YouTube and in recent days began to block access to Twitter, Flickr, Hotmail and Microsoft's live.com. The censorship operation is referred to as China's “;Great Firewall.”;

Away from the computer, television viewers in China noticed that BBC World News reports on the Tiananmen anniversary were blacked out. An inside page with an article on Tibet's Dalai Lama was missing from last weekend's edition of The International Herald Tribune distributed in China.

“;China is not as open politically today as in 1989,”; Tibetan poet Woeser told The New York Times. “;The atmosphere in the 1980s felt freer — it was suffused with an enthusiasm for culture and ideas, with people craving and absorbing new thoughts.”;

China's huge economic gains have widened the gap between rich and poor. A rising middle class may seem largely content with what they see as the rewards of authoritarianism, including the hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games.

While freedoms in Hong Kong appear to be safe under the “;one country, two systems”; arrangement, the economic prosperity could gradually lead to closer ties.

“;If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out right away,”; said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong's Democratic Party. “;But if you put the frog into warm water and cook it slowly, it doesn't jump. We are being slowly cooked in Hong Kong, but hardly anyone is noticing.”;

At some point, the quest for freedom is bound to reemerge, but not in the near future, and the United States is in no position to exert leverage on its lender. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner completed his first visit to Beijing on Tuesday, making nice about a number of issues, including global finance and climate change, but certainly not human rights.