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attempting to erase history

Producer Antony Thomas showed the iconic 'Tank Man' photo to a group of undergraduates at Beijing University - in 1989 the university had been the nerve center of the student movement that inspired the nationwide uprising. None of the students knew what the photo was. Here, journalists and China specialists discuss the government's efforts to keep certain ideas and history from the Chinese people, including the picture and story of 'tank man.'

Timothy Brook
Professor of Chinese history, University of British Columbia.

…The media silence imposed on Tiananmen was huge. Chinese in China don't know this image. They don't see this image. This is not part of their visual repertoire. [The government] made a couple of propaganda videos in the summer of 1989, to sell [the Tiananmen] events in a certain way to the Chinese people, and those videos have clips showing very carefully selected events. But the visual record that we have living outside China is a very different one than Chinese people have. …

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

…It is stunning that university students at Beida [Beijing University] would not know this picture [of the tank man]. … On the other hand, China has so many secrets, and people understand that it's dangerous to share information. I went back to Beijing University, where I had studied, to talk to my old teachers … and we didn't talk about Tiananmen either at first. Of course I wanted to talk about Tiananmen, so I sort of waited and then eventually I slid in sideways to the subject, but that's the only reason they talked about it. It's not something that people would readily talk about because you just get into trouble. There is no upside to talking about it at this point.

… I don't know what it tells you about a country when you could have such a cataclysmic event as Tiananmen Square and then suddenly you lop off the reality for all the people coming after. … But the great thing about China is that history is valued so that it will come out one day. People will keep records, people will eventually write about this. It's not that it's disappeared forever. You know, in Chinese history, each dynasty has secrets that it suppresses, and then it's up to the next dynasty to write the true history of the previous dynasty. Each dynasty writes its own propaganda, the next dynasty writes the true history, so I assume this will happen in China, too. …

Nicholas Bequelin
a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

... China has succeeded in controlling information in a capitalist system, and they have succeeded in censoring the Internet. It doesn't mean that you can't find dissenting postings or articles on the Web; it means that at large, the Internet is censored. ...

The keystone of the system in China is that ownership is censorship. When you operate a Web site, when you operate a newspaper, when you operate a radio program, when you're a foreign company operating in China, you are responsible for whatever is put outside, and if something goes wrong you will be punished, penalized. They've managed to do that as well as build an architecture of control that goes from very sophisticated imported technology from the West. ... Software equipment, hardware, routers -- everything that they have imported from the Western companies have helped them censor the Internet, but this is the hard way of controlling information.

This is real censorship: You block access to Web sites. The BBC in Chinese, for instance, is blocked. You block or you jam the broadcast of CNN when there is a mention of Tiananmen, etc. There is also a lot of middle-ground censorship which is done by the Internet operators; which is done by the Internet police, the tens of thousands of policemen who are scouring the Web and trying to identify whoever is posting what they call subversive material.

But really the most efficient weapon -- and the Chinese government has understood this -- is self-censorship, so responsibilize the operators, draw vague lines so that people never know whether they're within the bounds or without, or beyond the limits, and then make an example from people -- arrest and sentence heavily some people. It's totally arbitrary, because some people have been sentenced to 20 years in [jail] for something that their neighbor is doing every day, and he is fine. ...

What we see today is that in this system, the state doesn't need to control all the information, like in the Mao era. What it needs is to occupy the high ground. It needs to be the authoritative provider of most of the information, and if there is a little bit of dissent and criticism there, well, we can deal with that, because the Internet has no memory of China. ... The Chinese Internet is ephemeral. Every day they wash and they tear off the pages that they don't like. ...

This makes all the difference. You cannot control the information all the time for all the people, but you just need to control it in a systematic way, so that no knowledge is accumulated. ... And I think that's the problem for the West, is that they would never have managed, technologically speaking, without the collaboration and the help of Western companies. …

Orville Schell
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

…What about the question of whether a free market capitalism will lead to personal freedom?

…I would say it doesn't preclude it, but it doesn't ipso facto lead there. It could just as well lead to the re-enthronement of the middle class, who finds it within their interest to keep an authoritarian system in power to protect their interest. We've many examples of that in the world.

We do have some interesting wild cards, like the Internet, and I think the Internet is fundamentally a liberalizing force. But I think China, in this regard, is the great petri dish for whether the Internet can be brought to heel, or whether it is, on the face of it, a sort of spontaneous free agent that will catalyse China into a more open direction. And I think the returns are not in yet. China needs the Internet, and it's using it to good effect in business. And the Party is using it very effectively to help communicate with the provinces, the counties, the police units, the army. It isn't purely an engine of dissident energy or of individualism or of democracy. We've seen many technologies from telegraph to radio to television that have been brought to heel quite nicely by commercial interests. So we'll see.

Now you can't control the Internet completely. I don't even think that's their aspiration in China. But their aspiration is to make it difficult enough for most people so that they'll stay within the confines of the intranet, not the Internet. The intranet being China's sort of hermitically sealed room, which is connected to the outside world by a very limited number of gateways. And it is through those gateways, that all the information to the outside world flows, both ways, and that's where it can be controlled.

What do you feel about Western companies and corporations that are assisting China in censorship and even in refined techniques of surveillance?

I think there's no doubt that Western companies are helping the Public Security Bureau, the People's Liberation Army, the Communist Party to maintain themselves in power, and this is what companies do. They sell to whomever wants to buy, so in a certain sense, you can't fault them alone. This is traditionally the role of government: to lead companies, to lead society, lead multilateral organizations. So I think there's sort of a failure of leadership at every quarter, and the market is so seductive right now, nobody wants to risk being shut out. And so everybody just throws cares to the wind; they make their excuses and they go in because they figure they'll be out of the running if they don't.

But we are living in a world which is more commercial than at any time in human history. This is the value. This is our currency. We judge ourselves by how well we do in the market, and less and less by other things. Maybe this will change, but I think it's important to remember that this is the case.

Xiao Qiang
Director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

... The Chinese Communist Party regime is trying to force people to accept that [June Fourth] didn't happen the way it really happened and that the government did something for the interest of the Chinese people, and it's also better not even to talk about it.

So over the last seventeen years, more and more [of the] younger generation of Chinese are not aware [of] what happened. [It's] not in their school books, [they do] not allow their teachers to talk about it. And also at the same time, the society [is] economically opening up, and there's a lot of energy going into channeling people's energy and creativity and attention to economic activities.

…At the same time you see an effort from the Chinese government to control the Internet, making it a market lure for the Western IT companies because there is so much business opportunity. [But] government is trying to control the information. The censorship technologies from those Western corporations' eyes [are] simply a business opportunity. I think there is a very serious ethical question we should ask [about] the social responsibility of those corporations...

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posted apr. 11, 2006

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