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Annual China protest dwindles

Thousands used to gather over the 1989 Tiananmen Square deaths. Activists say they won't forget.

June 07, 2008|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The crowd of about 150 people dutifully arrived just before sundown outside the Chinese Consulate in Koreatown to commemorate those who were gunned down during the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown 19 years ago.

Back then, many were idealistic students. On Wednesday, some brought along children and busily snapped photos.

They held candles in paper cups, shared a moment of silence and listened as to a handful of speakers called for democracy in China. Peaceful, solemn and cohesive, the event wrapped-up in just over an hour when organizers respectfully asked the participants to pick up their garbage and leave.

Each year, the crowds dwindle as memories of Tiananmen Square fade and China's image in the world shifts from human-rights abuser to economic powerhouse. Thousands once protested, but now a steady group of political dissidents and pro-democracy and human rights activists often find themselves competing with China's growing influence.

"Even if we're down to one person, we'll still have this every June 4," said Gabriel Law, a member of Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles, the Wednesday night event's lead organization, which has seen its membership cut in half over the years. "These people gave their lives so that China could have democracy and its leaders held accountable. To commemorate them is very important."

Doing so has become increasingly difficult -- especially in an ethnic Chinese community that has found more reasons to promote contemporary China than to challenge its policies and history. Business relationships abound and many have been galvanized by the recent earthquake in Sichuan, pouring donations into the consulate and applauding the government's relief efforts.

"The passage of time dulls memory," said Rick Baum, a China scholar at UCLA. "Look at the commemoration event in Hong Kong where the numbers were also down and it was a bit more muted than usual. It may have to do with all the major emotional upheavals of the earthquake and the Tibetan situation.

"People have a vested interest in doing business as usual with China and don't usually want to be bothered with inconvenient truths," Baum added. "Not that the issue will go away. It's just farther from the surface."

Ivan Yeung, a member of Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles, said today's atmosphere is a complete reversal of the almost euphoric support for the pro-democracy demonstrators among Chinese in 1989.

"We had a blue-ribbon campaign in Chinatown," said Yeung, a Pasadena engineer. "We had the older generation and professors from USC and Caltech and students all involved together. It was very exciting. Now it's the opposite."

Some members of Yeung's group regularly travel to China for work, proud of the improvements in the country but unwavering in their desire to have the government revisit the June 4 incident and improve democracy.

"Just because many people don't show up anymore, it doesn't mean they don't want more democracy," Yeung said. "They have careers now. Many students then are now professors. I have a co-worker who has a picture of Tiananmen Square on his computer. That's how he shows his support."

For L.A.'s small community of Tiananmen dissidents, nearly two decades have provided ample time for revision and soul-searching. Some have abandoned the movement, too focused on raising their families and making their mortgage payments. But a handful appeared Wednesday.

Chaohua Wang, one of Beijing's most-wanted student activists for her role in the Tiananmen protests, put her pro-democracy newsletter and website on hold to complete her dissertation at UCLA. She has since returned to the scene as an author and commentator on China.

She caught the final minutes of Wednesday's vigil after miscalculating how long it would take to travel by public bus from West L.A. Although she has seen fellow activists fall by the wayside, Wang has stayed strong, encouraged of late by the wave of altruism that has taken hold in China to aid victims of the earthquake. It's perhaps a preview of a civil society, she said.

"There we saw national pride and that people can do the things that are good for society and good for human life," said Wang, who has distanced herself from the local Chinese community at large. "The same feeling was felt by demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago."

Some of the student leaders at the time now enjoy successful lives as businesspeople in the West.

One leader who openly commemorated the crackdown was Li Lu, one of Beijing's most wanted who now operates a hedge fund. He was at the vigil Wednesday, mingling and talking to Chinese-language media. He declined an interview with a Times reporter.

Law, of Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles, said that in earlier years, consulate officials could be seen taking pictures and even videotaping participants, who would wave at the cameras in defiance.

Chen Shijie, a spokesman for the Chinese Consulate, said that had been done for security reasons. "We have the right to protect our safety," he said.

The consulate's bronze-colored door was firmly shut Wednesday evening and most of its lights were off. A few workers inside could be seen peeking through the tinted windows at the crowd across the street carrying banners, which included members of Amnesty International and the Falun Gong, a spiritual group outlawed in China.

Law, who often travels to China, is not worried his association with the vigil will harm him.

"As long as we're not too aggressive, we'll be OK," he said. "I take that as a sign we're small potatoes."

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david.pierson@latimes.com

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