Letter from overseas Chinese breaks silence on Tiananmen

Tiananmen Square Protests: 26 Years After 1989 Massacre

BEIJING (AP) — They were born too late to remember the night 26 years ago when Chinese troops slaughtered hundreds of pro-democracy student activists in the heart of Beijing. Many grew up hearing only government accounts of the event, which paint the massacre as the unfortunate conclusion to some vague political intrigue.

Nonetheless, this June 4, 11 Chinese university students living overseas are trying to break through the official silence with a widely circulated, passionately worded letter that encourages their compatriots to learn more about the Tiananmen massacre — a watershed event that has defined China ever since.

Written by University of Georgia graduate student Gu Yi, and co-signed by 10 other overseas Chinese students, the letter has become one of the few flashpoints as this year's anniversary arrives, with Chinese authorities on guard against even the tiniest of commemorations.

The letter remembers the government crackdown that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of unarmed protesters and onlookers. It demands that the Chinese leaders who gave the orders late on June 3 and in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, be held responsible.

"We do not ask the (Chinese Communist Party) to redress the events of that spring as killers are not the ones we turn to to clear the names of the dead, but killers must be tried," the letter reads. "We do not forget, nor forgive, until justice is done and the ongoing persecution is halted."

An online copy of the document has reached readers in China with the help of software that let PDFs get past Chinese censors, Gu said. The document has already drawn a strong rebuke from the Communist Party-run Global Times, which said in an editorial that the students "harshly attacked the current Chinese regime, twisting the facts of 26 years ago with narratives of some overseas hostile forces."

Gu said he was addressing Chinese students who had not seen the troves of photos, film footage and eyewitness accounts about the massacre that he came across only after he left China to study.

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Tiananmen Square Massacre - June 4, 1989 (w/ captions, use this)
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Letter from overseas Chinese breaks silence on Tiananmen
TO GO WITH AFP STORY 'China-politics-rights-Tiananmen' by Robert Saiget(FILES) This file photo taken on June 2, 1989 shows hundreds of thousands of Chinese gathering around a 10-metre replica of the Statue of Liberty (C), called the Goddess of Democracy, in Tiananmen Square demanding democracy despite martial law in Beijing. Families of those killed in the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on June 2, 2010 demanded China end its silence and open a dialogue on the bloodshed. In an annual open letter, 128 members of the Tiananmen Mothers castigated the Communist Party government for ignoring its calls for openness on the crackdown that occurred June 3-4, 1989 and vowed never to give up their fight. (Photo by CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 18: Riding motorbikes, Chinese workers parade through Beijing streets 18 May 1989, in support of student hunger strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square, the scene of the mass pro-democracy protest led by students against the Chinese government. The April-June1989 pro-democracy movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June 1989 when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 27: A police line is squeezed by a crowd of student-led demonstrators at Tiananmen Square 27 April 1989 in Beijing. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) A dissident student asks soldiers to go back home as crowds flooded into the central Beijing 03 June 1989. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protestors, using lethal force to remove opposition it encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 3: Exhausted, humiliated soldiers are hustled away by Beijing people in central Beijing 03 June 1989. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protestors, using lethal force to remove opposition it encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA: An armoured personnel carrier is in flames as students put in on fire 04 June 1998 near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protestors, using lethal force to remove opposition it encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Photo credit should read THOMAS CHENG/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA: Beijing residents inspect the interior of some of over 20 armoured personnel carrier burnt by demonstrators to prevent the troops from moving into Tiananmen Square 04 June 1989. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the square to end a weeks-long occupation by student protestors, using lethal force to remove opposition it encountered along the way. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the environs of the square. (Photo credit should read MANUEL CENETA/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 13: A 18 May 1989 file photo shows students from Beijing University during a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square as they start an unlimited hunger strike as the part of mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. The 'Beijing Spring' pro-democracy movement culiminated in the massacre of demonsrators by Chinese troops on the night of 03-04 June 1989 when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 25: Beijing workers sitting in a bulldozer shovel shout slogans as they drive their engine in front of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square 25 May 1989 during a rally to support the student pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. The April-June 1989 movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese residents check a burning armoured personnel carrier which was put in on fire by rioters fighting back when the army opened fire on the civilians on June 4, 1989 near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. A series of pro-democracy protests was sparked by the April 15 death of former communist party leader Hu Yaobang. In a show of force, China leaders vented their fury and frustration on student dissidents and their pro-democracy supporters. Several hundred people have been killed and thousands wounded when soldiers moved on Tiananmen Square during a violent military crackdown ending six weeks of student demonstrations, known as the Beijing Spring movement. According to Amnesty International, five years after the crushing of the Chinese pro-democracy movement, 'thousands' of prisoners remained in jail. AFP PHOTO TOMMY CHENG (Photo credit should read TOMMY CHENG/AFP/Getty Images)
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"All they need to know is actually very simple," Gu said. "Some people died, and some people killed them. If you understand that, you don't have to understand a lot more."

In what's become an annual ritual, Chinese police were stepping up their vigilance in the capital Thursday to prevent any remembrance of the event. References to the massacre are nowhere to be found in Chinese media, and censors scrub social media posts that mention the event or its date.

In the only major act of commemoration in China, thousands of people in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong are scheduled to hold their annual candlelight vigil Thursday.

Gu said he was not worried how the letter would affect his chances of returning to his home country free from official harassment. He said his family had not run into any trouble yet from the authorities, although police had contacted the relatives of some of the co-signers.

"I can't do something always thinking about how this will affect me," Gu said. "Sometimes, it's just the right thing to do."

The students' letter was not the only one to mark the anniversary. A group of relatives of those killed in the massacre also issued a statement demanding that Chinese leaders be brought to justice and that the victims' families win compensation.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded Tuesday to the relatives by arguing that the country's rapid economic growth over the past 26 years justified the crackdown.

"As for the political turmoil that happened in the late 1980s, the Chinese government and party have already made a clear conclusion," Hua said. "The great achievements China made during the past 30 years in the practice of reform and opening-up have shown that China's development path is absolutely correct, and wins resolute supports from 1.3 billion Chinese people."

So far, such acts of dissent haven't penetrated what's been a remarkably successful campaign by Chinese authorities to erase Tiananmen from the collective memory, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"It is still important to the extent that it shows that the generation of Chinese who were born after Tiananmen Square are still eager to find the truth and defend the truth," Lam said of the students' letter. "Still, it's difficult to see what kind of impact it would have, whether it would make a dent in this so far quite effective strategy by the authorities to impose amnesia on June 4th."

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