When we think of China these days, what do we think of?
A giant nation, still very poor, but making incredible strides forward, and transforming itself into an economic juggernaut.
What comes to mind next is the less appealing image of an aggressively expansionist regime, determined to dominate others beyond its borders, and backing up its ambitions with an ever-growing military.
We are less likely to think of the China of the one-party state, an authoritarian entity that tolerates no dissent and metes out brutal treatment of anyone who dares to speak out against it.
The first image of China fills the news on a daily basis. The ups and downs of its burgeoning economy reverberate instantly around the world. The western powers who once vied with one another for economic concessions from China — which China had little say in — now tremble at bad news from Beijing. Even superpower America watches anxiously for China’s shaky economy to right itself, lest unpleasant repercussions be felt at home.
The second image shows itself only sporadically, as when two Chinese fighter jets made a menacingly close interception of a U.S. military aircraft over the South China Sea on May 19.
The third image is even less seen, but deserves more attention. The rulers of China take every precaution to make sure that the human rights abuses they visit on dissenters are kept away from the glare of the world media. Police stand guard at Tiananmen Square at all times to prevent any repetition of the democracy demonstrations, or any reminder of them, or any show of disrespect for the symbols of authority.
When, in 2010, a man hurled a bottle of ink at a huge portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower where Mao declared the communist experiment, he was immediately wrestled to the ground and carried off by police. They later identified the protester as a “Mr. Chen” from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang who had come to Beijing to “raise individual issues.”
The authorities are prepared for such eventualities. If any damage is done to the one and a half ton portrait, it can be quickly replaced with a spare that is always kept on hand.
However, there are times when even the notorious vigilance of the police apparatus cannot entirely keep the truth from the eyes of the world.
The 27th anniversary on June 4 of the Tiananmen Square massacre is such a time. Every year, there are Chinese citizens who brave the police state to remind the world of that brutal crackdown on the democracy movement in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed. And every year, the government reinforces its surveillance and restrictions on them.
The Tiananmen Mothers achieved a certain prominence this week as their letter of protest to the Chinese government over its refusal to acknowledge the deaths of their children made its way through the media blackout.
“For 27 years, we, victims’ families, have rationally maintained our three appeals: truth, accountability and compensation, in an effort to seek a just resolution to the miscarriage of justice of June Fourth. But the government has ignored us, pretending that the June Fourth Massacre that shocked the whole world never happened in China, and refusing to respond to our appeals, while our fellow countrymen gradually lose the memory of the event,” the letter reads, signed by the 131 members of the group.
It also holds the government accountable for the treatment of the bereaved families: “For us, family members of the victims’ families, it has been 27 years of [state] terror and suffocation,” the letter said.
“For 27 years, the police have been the ones who have dealt with us,” it said, listing a string of measures including electronic snooping and surveillance of family members, fabricated accusations and intimidation, according to an AP report.
The chilling nature of the police state tactics found vivid expression Wednesday during a journalist’s short phone conversation with Ding Zilin, 79, a founder of Tiananmen Mothers.
“I’m sorry, I cannot be interviewed,” she said, without explaining why.
But before hanging up she added, “There are people watching and checking at my door.”
Each year, guards are stationed at her home in Beijing, turning away journalists and other visitors, lest the protest receive wider coverage. Lest more details emerge to embarrass the regime and potentially undermine their authority.
Zhang Xianling, one of the Tiananmen Mothers, has not given up hope.
“Isn’t there a report that someone has lived to 105? I think I will live to the day when justice comes,” said Zhang, whose 19-year-old son Wang Nan was killed 27 years ago in the crackdown.
We hope she does.