The year 1989 was significant for many reasons. From an historical point of view, it marked the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the 60th anniversary of the May 4th Democratic Movement in Beijing, and the 10th year of the sociopolitical reform of the post-Mao era in China.
To celebrate this conjunction of events, the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and about one hundred intellectuals from inside and outside China pleaded with the Chinese government early that year to grant amnesty to political prisoners. The gesture, they claimed, would facilitate the reform and benefit the country's future.
Unexpectedly, their initiative turned into a mass movement in late spring. More than one million people led by Chinese students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Their message was direct and clear: eliminate government corruption and promote democratic reform. But the negotiations between the students and government leaders ended fruitlessly.
Then, in the dark of the night of June 3th and 4th, the guns of the People's Liberation Army felled hundreds of people. Hundreds of others were crushed by tanks, as was the statue of the Goddess of Democracy erected by the students who study the arts.
By dawn, the gargantuan square had been miraculously cleaned up and only a few debris remained.
Now, 10 years later, these horrendous scenes are replayed by the media, arousing our collective consciousness to reflection.
Until now, the only fact that has been universally agreed upon is that the Chinese government's iron-fisted repression of the Pro-Democracy Movement resulted in the loss of many lives.
But how many? Hundreds or thousands? Other questions remained unanswered. For instance, was the protracted occupation of Tiananmen Square necessary to achieve democratic reform? How could Chinese leaders turn a deaf ear to the demands of a million people? And who was responsible for the merciless attack against the students to end the deadlock?
Obviously, China has changed in the last 10 years, for worse or for better.
But some things have not changed. Corruption still infects every level of government like an endemic disease, to the point of jeopardizing the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project.
On the other hand, the Chinese Prime Minister acknowledged this last week.
Some progress toward democratic reform has been achieved. Many political dissidents have been released into exile. From Fang Lizhi in 1990 until, more recently, Wang Dan in 1998. The opposition party is banned, but there is undeniably more freedom of speech and freedom to travel. Elections have begun to take root at the lower echelons of government.
Perhaps the most striking phenomenon is China's economic prosperity, which has made giant strides despite the lagging political reform. Progress in these two arenas cannot be mutually exclusive as had been predicted by most Chinese dissidents of the Pro-Democracy Movement.
Just three days before this 10th anniversary, it was announced at a news conference in Beijing that the families of the 1989 victims had filed petitions with the Supreme People's Procurator to launch criminal investigations and restore the victim's honor.
It is a courageous action on the part of the victim's families, but both the people and the government, which made this action possible, deserve applause. This is not only the first step in the long process of achieving justice for the victims and their families, but also a clear signal that China is headed in a new direction. Hopefully, entering the new millennium with return to traditional Confucius humanism, as well as a rule of law, will thus, enforce the making of China a land of justice for all.
We shall be following future developments in China with impatient, but cautious optimism, always mindful of the fact that no country holds a monopoly on justice, as the recent calamity in Kosovo has shown.
Back in 1989, people were saddened by the tragic event in China, and felt joyful about what had changed in Europe. Currently, our sentiments seem opposite, why does humanity not advance toward the same destiny in different parts of the globe? For this we may have to wait another millennium.
June 10th 1999, Pei-Yuan Han, Montreal