Chen Guangcheng

Tracking back

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am

Yet another blind man is in the news. If the story of the first shocked the world, what happened to the second only fuelled our outrage.

One was disabled from a young age, jailed by the authorities on sham charges for helping his fellow villagers fight for their rights, and put under illegal house arrest after his release from jail. Finally, after seven years of misery, he and his family became free with the help of the US embassy. His name is Chen Guangcheng .

The other grew up healthy but lost his sight after he was locked up in 1989 - and subsequently tortured - for helping to organise protests supporting the Tiananmen students' movement. He was freed briefly, but was thrown back in jail for petitioning the authorities to pay for his medical expenses. He spent a total of 21 years in prison, and was left a broken man. On June 6 - 23 years after the crackdown - he died in suspicious circumstances, touching off a storm of anger online and a march by 25,000 Hongkongers demanding an inquiry. His name was Li Wangyang .

What happened to both Chen and Li illustrates the inhumanity of the Communist Party's policy to weiwen, or 'maintain stability'. Li's death, in particular, shines the light on a forgotten group of victims of the Tiananmen massacre. They were not students or intellectuals; they were the workers and ordinary folk who marched alongside the students. When the student protests were labelled an 'upheaval' by the government, they stood with the students.

The working class is the vanguard in a Marxist revolution. In the history of Chinese communism, the workers were often the ones out on the streets, taking the lead, and they played an important role in the June 4 movement. But Chinese farm labourers and workers lost their exalted position in Deng Xiaoping's push for economic reform, and became a group of people to be exploited, their place in society devalued.

Their brave actions during the June 4 protests, and in the days after, have long been overlooked, and their role is rarely mentioned today. This emboldened the Communist Party to ruthlessly retaliate. In party propaganda, the workers and ordinary folk who had taken part in the Tiananmen movement were denounced as a 'mob'; the punishment and abuse they received was far worse than that suffered by students and intellectuals. Many of them spent years in jail, and were freed only when they were past middle age, poor and sickly, with no means of livelihood.

Their long years in prison made them lose all hope in the government, and hardened their opposition, which invited even harsher reprisals. This group of June 4 protesters will fight to the bitter end.

Li's suspicious death was tragic and infuriating. In life, what did he have to put up with? We can hardly imagine. No one knows how many Li Wangyangs there are in China. Just as no one knew about this Li Wangyang before his death hit the headlines.

June 4 is a wound that has never healed. Now that it's exposed for all to see, trying to cover it up again will be difficult. A repressive government can take away a people's voice, but not their memories, and these memories have a way of staying fresh.

If we were to look, we'd see that the government policy to suppress dissent has left tracks, though the rapid economic development over the past 20 years has done a good job of covering them.

There's a change this year. Some people in Beijing, Shanghai and Guizhou openly held their own memorial services for June 4, and it shows that an issue that has been deemed highly sensitive by the central government is losing its 'sensitivity'. Interestingly, most of the participants were petitioners. This is no coincidence - the events of Li Wangyang's death exposed the relationship between the June 4 crackdown and the Chinese government's policy to 'maintain stability'.

Before now, we'd seen the two as separate: Tiananmen is a debt of history, and the policy to maintain stability a recent creation of the state. But, in fact, the second is a continuation of the first. In Beijing's eyes, June 4 was a spectacular success story in keeping order and ensuring its rule endures, and the need for stability becomes the priority that overrides all. June 4 became the government's model for dealing with any dissent, using extreme force. Forced eviction of residents, the abuse of petitioners and the persecution of human rights activists - such problems have worsened over the years.

The Tiananmen crackdown isn't over; neither is its opposition. Chen Guangcheng was not jailed for his involvement in June 4, but he was nevertheless a victim of the policy of repression that took its cues from June 4. Hongkongers marching for justice for Li Wangyang did not call for a re-evaluation of June 4, but they were protesting against the systematic repression that is its legacy.

Both the repression and the protests will spread, taking different forms.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese