Apart from my sister’s 30th birthday (I’m determined not to let her forget it), today marks the 24th anniversary of the crackdown on student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. While hundreds of students were killed that June 4th, today the day is best known outside of China for Tank Man, and one of history’s most poignant photographs.
You’d be hard pressed to find that image floating around television stations or the Internet here in Beijing. Around this time every year, Big Brother kicks into high gear, sending police (and cameras) to Tiananmen and censoring the Internet, even blocking search terms as seemingly innocuous as “today,” on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter (Twitter, of course, is blocked here year-round). Even searches of “5.35,” referring to May 35th, will yield no results. Meanwhile, a friend of mine snapped a picture (that got picked up by a NYTimes blog) of custodians casually collecting flyers someone had released in Tiananmen. Many riding in her bus, stalled in traffic while history was literally swept off the street in front of them, had no idea why their commute was being held up.
I was going to comment on how surreal it is to be inside the Security State on such a day, to see the flashing lights of police cars at a rate enough above normal to notice, but not enough to think it strange; to watch my Twitter feed fill with commentary about the anniversary and censorship (#Tiananmen is currently trending) but wonder how many people I saw on my way to work even knew the protests happened, to worry slightly about what I post myself because I am, after all, here at the whim of the politburo. But then I flipped through the dozen or so open tabs I have running in Chrome, bookmarks for articles I intend to read later. Here are a few of the headlines:
“Photos from Guantánamo’s Force-Feeding Facilities”
“Is Political Reporting Dying?”
“The Many Secrets of a Bloated National Security State”
“Leaks Inquiries Show How Wide a Net Is Cast”
“Letter from Loretto”
And now I feel I no longer have the moral authority to write about the lack of freedom here in China, the aggressive silencing of dissidents, the casual intimidation by the State against would-be protesters through government-issued ID cards and closed circuit television among other both more and less sophisticated tools.
I’ve written about this elsewhere (including my graduate school application essays), but it’s beyond obvious to me that, in the name of security, America has progressively given up so many of the values we as Americans continue to consider part of our identity, the values by which we compare ourselves with other nations. If as a country we wish to stand as an example for others to follow – or hell, even if we simply want to maintain our feelings of cultural/political superiority so that on June 4th we can say without irony or crippling cognitive dissonance, “Wow China, that’s messed up,” we must do better, and we must demand of our leaders that we do better.