Great responsibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2009, 12:00am

This year, for the first time since 1989, the official Chinese media actually used the terms 'June 4' and 'Tiananmen incident' - but only in English-language publications such as the Global Times and the China Daily. Those words are still banned in the Chinese-language media. By enforcing silence on its people, the Chinese government evidently hopes that the older generation will gradually forget about the massacre, while younger people will never find out. But this attempt to cover up an atrocity will not work.

The former student leader Wuerkaixi, who now lives in Taiwan, tried to return to the mainland via Macau but was not allowed to enter. 'I am wanted in China, but I cannot even turn myself in,' he said. 'Is China really a confident, great nation?'

That is a good question. By all indices, it would appear that China has actually become a great nation. It is now the world's third-largest economy, behind the United States and Japan, and the world's third-biggest trading nation, after the US and Germany. But it is already the biggest lender to the US and holder of the world's largest pool of foreign currency reserves.

In fact, other countries now look to China to help solve their problems. And, increasingly, there is talk about a G2 - featuring just the US and China. Clearly, China is a major force in the world today. And, after a couple of hundred years in the diplomatic wilderness, China appears ready to take up the mantle of a great power and resume its rightful place in the world.

But is China's behaviour that of a great power? Does a great power go to such lengths to cover up its mistakes and ensure that there is no discussion of what happened?

China is certainly aware of the importance of confronting history. It has reminded Japan of this on numerous occasions. Shouldn't China itself do the same thing? It cannot march confidently into the future unless it is willing to confront its past.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that all countries make mistakes, including great nations. And, throughout history, there have been many instances of governments dealing with their own people in a cruel and bloody fashion.

For one thing, the US was guilty of human trafficking, enslaving and disenfranchising large numbers of its people. But it has changed over the years and, today, an African-American has been elected president. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a resolution apologising to African-Americans for the way they were treated.

In addition, many aboriginal peoples were treated harshly by authorities in such countries as Canada and Australia. Last year, both prime ministers - Stephen Harper of Canada and Kevin Rudd of Australia - publicly apologised to their aboriginal peoples for the way they were treated over a long period of time.

Of course, these apologies came hundreds of years after the original offences and, in the case of China, it has only been decades. But the fact that these apologies have come shows that, increasingly, there is a recognition that governments have to be accountable to their people.

And so it would be entirely appropriate if China, now that it is becoming a great power, should do as other great powers have done and publicly apologise for the way it has behaved not only in 1989 but during political campaigns in which millions died in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The Chinese government, in its human rights action plan for 2009-2010, has promised to provide a list of names of Sichuan earthquake victims who lost their lives or are still missing. That is a massive task; tens of thousands of people are involved. China deserves credit for promising to carry out such a task.

Providing a list of names of those killed in 1989 should be a much easier task. That, also, should be done. The government is not responsible for the Sichuan quake. But it is directly responsible for the shootings of 1989. Publishing the names is what a great country should do. It is time for China to get rid of its Tiananmen baggage and show it can behave like a great power.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator