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Originally published June 5, 2009 at 3:07 PM | Page modified June 5, 2009 at 8:46 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

The Tiananmen conversation China won't let happen

If only China would permit its citizens to openly discuss what happened in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, the country would be in a better position to move forward, writes Seattle Times editorial-page editor Ryan Blethen

Times editorial page editor

News coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre got me thinking about some of the people I met in China nearly two years ago.

I visited with a group of American journalists a year before the Beijing Olympics. The obvious high self esteem the Chinese felt as hosts was heightened by a white-hot economy.

Pride is fragile. Especially for a nation desperate for international respect.

Scratch at the surface of pride and it collapses like a beautifully fanned peacock tail folded and dragging on the ground.

Two words consistently rattled the bravado coursing through the Chinese students, politicians, business people and journalists we met: Tiananmen and Taiwan.

Our first taste of the Chinese repulsion for discussing these issues with American journalists happened at a meeting with Peking University journalism students.

When asked about Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy protests that led to the June 4 massacre in one of China's most iconic places, there was a short but uncomfortable silence.

For the most part these aspiring journalists blew Tiananmen off as ancient history. Interesting considering how proud the Chinese are of their culture's long, illustrious history.

One student admitted that his generation did not know much about what happened. Another flustered student asked us why Americans are so hung up on Tiananmen Square and that our government has done similar things.

True. The United States government wrongly interned Japanese Americans during World War II, did horrific things to American Indians and shot protesting students at Kent State University.

The difference is that those wrongs were aired in the press, in the courts and sometimes by the government.

This exchange and another with the editors of, one of China's leading Web portals, were at the forefront of my thoughts as I read the news out of China. How is China supposed to heal from the damage inflicted at Tiananmen Square if the government continues to be as effective as it has been at suppressing the horrific event?

Students encouraged by a decade of China's opening to the world were slaughtered by soldiers. It is still not known how many died because the government has never said. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who was there, estimated between 400 and 800.

It is not a surprise that the Chinese government spent the past month blocking social-networking sites like Twitter and barring Hotmail and student message boards. It also was expected that the might of the Party would descend on Tiananmen for the Thursday anniversary.

Foreign journalists at the square had their identification recorded and cameras blocked by umbrella-wielding security forces.

The scene was different in Hong Kong, which operates with some autonomy from the mainland. Depending on whom you believe, between 62,800 and 150,000 people rallied in tribute to the Tiananmen Square protests. That is a lot of people with many connections through China's great firewall.

There is a hunger in China for news. The Web portal gets more traffic for its news channels than for its sports channels.

"The Chinese have a great interest in politics ... here people care more about politics." That is what Yu Wei, Sohu's managing editor, told us during a meeting.

Too bad that these many millions of politics-crazed Sohu readers will not read anything about what happened in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago or last week. If they could read a diversity of accounts and opinions about that wrenching experience, then the country could move forward and not expend so much energy trying to obliterate a memory that is impossible to forget.

Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on the editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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