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Politics Canada calls on China to ‘break silence’ on Tiananmen Square

People's Liberation Army tanks and soldiers guarding Chang'an Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, two days after their crackdown on pro-democracy students. Thirty years after the killings of June 4, 1989, the government still keeps a lid on what really happened and how many died on that fateful day.

MANNY CENETA/AFP/Getty Images

Ottawa used the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to urge Beijing to reveal how many Chinese citizens were killed and imprisoned in the crackdown on demonstrating students that shook the world in 1989.

“Canada asks Chinese authorities to break the silence on these events by openly accounting for the Chinese citizens who were killed, detained or went missing,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement released Tuesday, three decades after Chinese troops attacked students and civilians in Beijing, mowing them down with automatic weapons or crushing them with tanks.

“Canadians join others around the world in commemorating the 30th anniversary of the violent crackdown against unarmed and peaceful citizens in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989,” Ms. Freeland said.

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China has never provided a death toll for the 1989 violence. Rights groups and witnesses say it could run into the thousands.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa issued a strongly worded condemnation of Ms. Freeland’s statement, saying she made “gross accusations on China’s human rights and religious situation.”

The embassy said the Canadian government has flagrantly interfered in China’s internal affairs and trampled on the norms of international relations.

Three decades after China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square, increased government suppression of rights activism has pushed the demonstrators' original goals further away than ever. Reuters

“The Chinese side firmly opposes it and has made stern representations to the Canadian side. Any attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs or destabilize our country is doomed to fail,” the embassy said.

Beijing’s success in rejecting foreign criticism of its conduct 30 years ago was perhaps most evident in the heart of the capital Tuesday, where crowds began to gather at Tiananmen Square in the early hours, as they do every day. But the people who came showed no obvious sign of assembling to commemorate those who died here.

Instead they came bearing selfie sticks, bright red ball caps and bags of deep-fried dough sticks – tourists from across the country who raised their arms for smiling pictures, mimicking the gesture made famous by Chairman Mao Zedong. Others joined a lengthy queue to gaze in reverence at his preserved body in an adjacent mausoleum.

One tourist from Shaanxi province, nearly 1,000 kilometres away, when asked what the crowd would be commemorating on this day, said he did not know.

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“What happened 30 years ago?” a reporter suggested.

“You mean, to commemorate 70 years,” he responded. It’s a reference to the anniversary of the founding of Communist China in 1949, an event that will be marked with much fanfare in October.

The events of 1989 – the student protests across the country, the sudden appearance of critical reporting on state media, the grisly end to it all – received no such attention on Tuesday in China.

Marks of quiet remembrance circulated between friends using coded language on chat apps. But internet searches for June 4, 1989, and related terms yielded no information. Censors blocked CNN’s website, while Reuters articles about Tiananmen were purged from financial terminals. Police acted weeks ago to place former student protesters and other activists under house arrest, keeping them from making public displays.

Ms. Freeland’s comments come as Canada-China diplomatic relations are at a “freezing point," as Beijing’s envoy to Ottawa recently phrased it. This follows Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei Technologies executive after an extradition request from the United States and the arrest of two Canadians by Beijing for allegedly violating China’s national security. China has also banned imports of Canadian canola and other farm products.

The Foreign Affairs Minister’s statement is the strongest on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square by Canada since Stephen Harper was prime minister. That’s because of the inclusion of the call for Beijing to account for the numbers of killed, detained or missing. Former Conservative foreign affairs minister Rob Nicholson urged the same in 2015.

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Ms. Freeland’s declaration fell short of the U.S. statement on the Tiananmen anniversary. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said hopes of China becoming a more open and tolerant society “have been dashed.” He added that “China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.”

The European Union said it “continues to mourn the victims and offers its condolences to their families.”

David Mulroney, a former ambassador to China, said he welcomes Canada’s statement but said Ottawa should also use the occasion to speak up about specific abuses in China, such as the mass detention of as many as one million Chinese Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslim.

“I am happy to see a statement … but it’s useful to update it because China isn’t staying the same and in many ways it’s getting worse,” he said.

“The country that 30 years ago shot its own students is now in the process of rounding up and detaining and destroying the culture of a whole minority people within China."

The United States also used its statement to criticize Beijing over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.

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China’s Foreign Ministry rebuked critics, accusing Mr. Pompeo of “lunatic words and idiotic nonsense” and the European Union of making groundless accusations while interfering in China’s internal affairs. “The development path China has chosen is totally correct and is firmly supported by public,” spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday.

Ms. Freeland said that 30 years after Tiananmen Square, “the struggle for basic freedoms continues for human-rights defenders in China, including lawyers and journalists.”

She said that “under the Chinese constitution, Chinese citizens should enjoy freedom of speech, assembly, association and belief. Canada supports these fundamental human rights and stands with all those prevented from exercising their rights."

Foreign criticisms were kept from Chinese audiences, as were a pair of unusual official mentions of Tiananmen history. On Sunday, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told a Singapore audience that China’s measures to stop the “political turbulence” were the “correct policy,” saying “China has enjoyed stability and development” as a result. On Monday, the Global Times, a Communist Party-owned newspaper, published an English-language editorial that called the bloody suppression of the protests a “vaccination for the Chinese society” that “will greatly increase China’s immunity against any major political turmoil in the future.”

On Tuesday, the only visible sign of something unusual stood on the streets around Tiananmen Square, where men in shirtsleeves kept watch. A taxi driver said they were plainclothes police.

In China, few “even realize this is a day that should be remembered,” said Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Those who do remember “have been so cowed into submission by very visible punishment of acts of remembrance that people don’t dare any more.”

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The force of forgetting is profound. Earl Drake, Canada’s ambassador to China in 1989, now lives in Vancouver, where he hangs on his wall an enlargement of a picture of an unknown man standing in front of a line of tanks. But when young Chinese people have come to his home, they often stare blankly at the image, even though they are university students in a country with open internet.

“They look at this picture and they say, ‘What is this?’ They have no idea about that picture or what it’s about,” Mr. Drake said.

Yet even at Tiananmen Square, a place rigorously policed to prevent any act of remembrance, police blocked numerous journalists from entering. The Globe and Mail was briefly detained and told not to publish photos and a few people whispered that they knew the importance of the date.

“A major event took place on this day in the past,” one man said. June 4 “is meaningful,” said another, before adding: “I won’t talk to you any more.”

(Both were granted anonymity by The Globe because of concerns for their safety.)

With a report from Reuters

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