A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for China

A prominent human rights activist in Beijing has proposed that China set up a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to seal the scars left by the military crackdown in June 1989.

It is the best idea of how to deal with the most sensitive anniversary this year of an event that left up to 3,000 people dead, sent thousands to prison, disgrace and exile and changed the course of China's history, says Dai Qing, a 68, longtime Chinese activist who has paid for his activism with a stint in prison after the Tiananmen Massacre, which left hundreds dead, and who has campaigned against the Three Gorges Dam.

"Twenty years have passed and we always hear two conflicting voices, Dai said. "It is black or white. We do not hear other voices. While the most basic information has not been revealed, the two sides remain in conflict."

The commission would present detailed evidence of what happened, explain to the Chinese public what happened and why and help to heal the wounds still raw after 20 years and work toward the 'harmonious society' of which President Hu Jintao speaks often.

It is a fine idea for a country full of conflict and bitterness but one that will never be implemented. It was possible in South Africa because both sides agreed on what had happened and to hear from the other their version of the story. Such a consensus in China is years, perhaps decades, away. The government will not consider reversing its verdict on June 4 while those who approved and benefited from the crackdown, including Li Peng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are alive.

So the anniversary will be marked this year, as in previous ones, by commemorative events around the world and deafening silence at home. The largest will be in Hong Kong, the only place in China where one is allowed. The organizers hope for up to 100,000 at a candelight vigil in Victoria Park but a more likely figure is 20,000, as the event recedes into the distance and a sense of patriotism grows among Hong Kong people.

Absent from it will be the student leaders in Beijing in 1989. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent, who is studying at Oxford University, has applied for a visa to come to Hong Kong. His application is likely to be refused. Like more than 500 people exiled because of their participation in the protests, Wang cannot return to China.

"To live in exile is a torment, especially for my family," he said. "While my parents can come and see me now in the United States, such a journey will become more and more intolerable for them in their old age. My mother is old and her heart is weak."

Wang's Chinese passport expired in 2003. He applied for a new one at a Chinese consulate in the U.S. It refused to give him one and he has declined to take U.S. citizenship, saying he is a patriot who wants to make a contribution to his motherland.

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A Hong Kong Baptist minister, Chu Yiu-ming, is leading a campaign named 'I Want to Go Home' to try to persuade Beijing to let the exiles return and give back their Chinese passports.

The government is unmoved. Its line is that the students were the vanguard of a 'counter-revolutionary' movement that, if successful, would have thrown the country into chaos and that the crackdown was necessary to ensure social stability, the basis for the economic miracle of the last 20 years.

Hu Jintao says often that this stability is the sine qua non of China's development; without it, the country can achieve nothing and would lose its precious gains in living standards, technological progress and regional peace.

During these 20 years, scholars have constantly reviewed the events of 1989 and asked if the outcome could have been different. The government put the number of dead at 200-300 and the students the number at 2,000-3,000.

"The primary responsibility for what happened rests with the government, which should not have used the military against unarmed civilians," said Jin Zhong, editor of Kaifang (Open), one of the best China-watching magazines in Hong Kong.

"But the intellectual community also bears a heavy responsibility. By the end of May 1989, things were chaotic. The students were confused and not sure what to do. They needed someone to guide them. After the declaration of martial law, it was clear that the army would be used. The intellectuals should have come forward and led the students out of the square. They should have played the role of those in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, like Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov," he said.

He said the intellectuals had been cowed and intimidated by years of campaigns and persecution in the Maoist era and few dared to come forward.

Just before 0500 on May 19, then party chief Zhao Ziyang visited the students on Tiananmen Square and told them to end their hunger strike. "We are already old and it does not matter to us any more. You are young and healthy. Do not sacrifice yourself so easily," he said, his face full of sadness and foreboding.

He was telling the students as plainly as he could that the government would use the army and that they should leave the square. They ignored the warnings of the man they revered as the nearest to China's Mikhail Gorbachev and paid a terrible price.

"If they had left the square, Zhao Ziyang may have won and history would have been different," said Jin. "China today would be a different country. Instead, the hardliners won. The lesson they learnt was that you should leave no space to the media or civil society. Over the last 20 years, political reforms have gone back."