Do you remember the man who stopped a column of 17 tanks on Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace in June 1989, the day after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests? It is today the 25th anniversary. Included in Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Important People of the Century, this "unknown rebel," also known as "Tank Man," is a freedom hero all over the world.
But the overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens are unaware of the powerful symbol of this man (who has never been identified) because the Communist Party banned any reference to what its newspeak calls "the political incident in the late 1980s and related issues" and its censorship blacklisted Tank Man's famous photo.
After the bloody crackdown on the "Beijing Spring" student protests, a political ice age was decreed just before the vast economic liberalization launched by Deng Xiaoping. Some foreign diplomats bet on the supposed beneficial effect that economic growth would have on civil liberties. It is clear, 25 years later, that they got it wrong.
While Taiwan proves that there is nothing about Chinese culture that prevents the advent of democracy, the Chinese authorities are waging a harsh crackdown on "dissidents" and are stepping up the fight against what used to be called "spiritual contamination," namely references to freedom and democracy. Paradoxically, the courage that Tank Man inspired had more effect on Eastern Europe than on his own country, which is changing fast but within a propaganda straitjacket.
China is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Under its systematic curtailment of freedom of information -- the freedom that allows one to verify respect for all other freedoms -- China persecutes those who try to expose "factual truths." At least 30 journalists and 70 non-professional reporters (bloggers and netizens) are currently in Chinese prisons, some of them serving very long sentences. On April 24th, the famous journalist Gao Yu was arrested and then forced to give a "public confession" on the state TV. Such "self accusations" are leading us back to the Mao years.
Intimidation, threats, illegal spying and abusive detention in "parallel prisons" are all sufficiently common to have a deterrent effect and to make the immense majority toe the line. Investigative reporting by foreign media was needed to expose the hypocrisy of the Chinese government's talk of combating corruption.
The news agency Xinhua and the state broadcaster CCTV are regarded as "central organs." The propaganda department in Beijing sends a thousand directives a year to the media to regulate content. Although many try to push back, China's journalists are forced to comply with restrictions, which prevent any investigation of the Communist Party's inner workings and the domains over which it claims privilege, not only the country's politics but also its economy and society.
Whether passengers are attacked in Kunming station, in Yunnan province, or an incident takes place in Tiananmen Square, the media must "adhere strictly to Xinhua's dispatches or to the information provided by the local authorities." News conferences by senior officials such as the prime minister or central bank governor are stage-managed (only bogus "foreign journalists' are allowed to ask questions) and an ideological exam has been reimposed for Chinese journalists who need to renew their press card.
In late 2013, China's president Xi Jinping launched a very determined campaign "against rumors," which can be taken to mean "any information liable to embarrass the Communist Party." The aim is to rein in all the citizens who are too talkative on social media, so that they are controlled as much as journalists are.
This is the same Xi Jinping who, when installed as president, said the Chinese constitution must be applied. In practice he is flouting article 35 of the constitution, which says: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."
Unless you don't care what the world and your own fellow citizens think, will you please tell us, Mr. President, whether you intend to respect Tank Man's memory and apply your country's constitution soon?