The truth on the Tiananmen Square massacre must be spoken

The significance of historical events usually fades with time, but the current hostility between Beijing and the West has given a dangerous new edge to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Protesters in Tiananmen Square days before the massacre work on erecting a ”Goddess of Democracy” statue.Credit:AP

It was 30 years ago today that the Chinese Communist Party called People’s Liberation Army tanks onto the streets of the national capital and dispersed crowds of pro-democracy protesters with reckless brutality, killing several thousand.

The Chinese government has suppressed mention of the events of June 4, 1989, inside mainland China. Protesters in Hong Kong will hold a candlelight vigil to mark the day, but border officials have blocked a former student leader flying from the US to join the protest. On the mainland, those who proclaim the truth that Chinese soldiers fired on unarmed citizens, including many students, face jail or worse.

The repression has become ever more brazen under leader for life Xi Jinping, who has taken a callous attitude towards human rights, especially for the hundreds of thousands of members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority detained in re-education camps in western China.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has apparently ducked a chance to use the anniversary to send a strong message about Australia’s human rights concerns.

Three Chinese warships and 700 Chinese servicemen have been allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and will spend the next few days in Australia. It is a rather uncomfortable coincidence, but Mr Morrison said it should not be ‘‘over-analysed’’. It underlines the dilemma for Australia in raising Tiananmen and other human rights abuses when the US and China have entered an intense strategic and economic rivalry that could catch us in its crossfire.

Australia must find the right diplomatic formula for defending human rights while not adding to the atmosphere of conflict. Part of the answer will be to send a message that shows due respect for China and has due regard to our own often imperfect history. Many Chinese are justly proud of their success in modernising in the past 30 years and they resent criticism of the Chinese regime that ignores that record of achievement.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe was unusually blunt at a security summit in Singapore on Sunday in saying that China regarded the brutality of Tiananmen as the only way to avoid the anarchy of the glasnost period in the Soviet Union. ‘‘The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence,’’ Mr Wei said.

It is a sign that China refuses to accept Western interference in its domestic policies or Western claims to global moral leadership.

When they hear criticism of Tiananmen, Chinese are aware – because they are constantly being told by their own state media – that the West has blind spots about its own history too, including Australia’s treatment of its First Peoples and the false claims that justified the US invasion of Iraq.

More recently, China defended its conduct in Xinjiang, arguing that authorities had saved the region from becoming ‘‘another Syria’’.

Lecturing China about the past is a delicate business. In speaking of Tiananmen, the best approach must be to appeal to the desire for human dignity that is as much a part of China’s history as of any country’s. It is in China’s interests to have a free discussion of its past and to imagine a future in which soldiers are no longer needed to defend the regime against its people.

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