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Annual Tiananmen Square cat-and-mouse game

As Beijing blocks memorials, attempts to mark the student-led protests in 1989 take the form of subtle allusions. Was a newspaper's cartoon of a child drawing a man in front of tanks one of them?

June 04, 2010|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beijing — It was a simple cartoon published June 1 to mark a day that honors the world's children. It showed a boy drawing three tanks on a blackboard and — uh, oh — a small stick figure standing in front of them.

To some, the cartoon in Southern Metropolis Daily was evocative of a certain, unmentionable something that happened in Beijing's Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989. The little stick figure resembled the lone, unarmed man who famously faced down a column of tanks, captured in a photograph that has become the iconic image of the bloody crackdown on student demonstrators.

The day after the cartoon was published, the newspaper issued a disclaimer, saying that any resemblance to the events of 1989 was purely coincidental. Nonetheless, it took the cartoon off its website: "To avoid negative connotations, we pulled the picture off voluntarily," a customer service representative of the paper, which is based in Guangdong province, was quoted as telling Radio Free Asia.

The misinterpretation is understandable. The 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, in which the People's Liberation Army fired on student demonstrators — killing hundreds, perhaps thousands — is Friday.

It is the time of year for a ritualized cat-and-mouse game performed by pro-democracy activists, who try to commemorate the crackdown, and Chinese censors, who try to block any allusion to it. Often, the references are oblique plays on the date itself: One advertisement that slipped into a newspaper last year showed two groups of people — six on one side and four on the other — looking philosophically toward the sky.

"Until there comes a time that the Chinese government acknowledges what really happened, people will continue to try different ways to express their feelings," said Wen Yunchao, a Guangzhou-based blogger known as Bei Feng, who has campaigned to abolish Internet censorship.

Wen said, however, that he was unsure whether the cartoon really was an attempt by Southern Metropolis to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although the newspaper has been known to push the boundaries, Wen pointed out that the stick figure in the cartoon held a gun, contrary to the spirit of nonviolent resistance personified by the demonstrator who faced down the tanks in 1989.

The "tank man," as he is popularly known, has never been identified.

In Hong Kong, where public discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown has usually been allowed despite the return in 1997 to Chinese control, police Saturday arrested activists who were erecting a replica of a statue called the "Goddess of Democracy," built by protesting students in Beijing in 1989.

Hong Kong police also confiscated the statue of a woman holding a torch, much like the Statue of Liberty. The statue and activists were released later, the artist, Chen Weiming, a New Zealand citizen who lives in the United States, was refused entry to Hong Kong when he arrived Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch issued a call this week for the Chinese government to open up about the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

"The government has failed to publish verifiable casualty figures, quashed all public discussion of June 1989 and continues to victimize survivors, victims' families, and others who challenge the official version of events," it said in a statement released by its New York office.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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