On November 10, the Munk Centre for International Studies hosted a discussion about the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square riots in Beijing. The anniversary was almost six months ago, but due to scheduling conflicts, the Munk Centre has only now addressed the issue.

The panel included Victor Falkenheim, China specialist and professor of political science at U of T, Jan Wong, author of Being Confidential and former Globe and Mail correspondent, and Dr. Rowena He of Harvard University. Professor Joseph Wong, of the U of T political science department, moderated the discussion.

The Tiananmen protests began when Hu Yaobang, a government official who supported democratic reform, died on April 15, 1989. His funeral attracted thousands and became an impromptu demonstration for more political freedoms. A protest movement quickly developed and spread across the country.

At first, the government did not know how to react, leading to what Falkenheim calls “regime paralysis.” Eventually, hardliners within the government decided to crack down on the demonstrators.

On the night of June 3-4, tanks and heavily armed troops moved towards Tiananmen Square, where the protestors had assembled, and killed whoever was in their way. By the next day, the square was cleared, leaving many dead. The exact number is not known, but The New York Times estimates 400 to 800 civilians were killed.

The speakers debated the impact of the riots on modern China. Falkenheim believes China has largely moved passed the tragedy, while Wong and He spoke of the strong, persistent memories.

A key question was why China’s youth today are not demanding reforms like the 1989 generation. “It skips a generation," said Wong. "Their parents went to Tiananmen Square, so they’re not going to. It’s the ‘one-child’ generation, and they’re pretty spoiled."

Wong is also concerned that many young Chinese Canadians do not know or care enough about what happened at Tiananmen. But Professor Falkenheim, speaking with the newspaper after the discussion, explained that “Canadian-born Chinese probably know more about Tiananmen than their counterparts in China. They have contacts back in China, and they travel back and forth, so if they know the history of what happed, it probably opens some eyes back at home.”

Both Wong and Falkenheim agree that engagement is a good way to bring change. They say the lack of understanding between China and rest of the world is a factor in the country's refusal to adopt democracy. Wong said that ending prejudice on both sides would help to foster better relations.

China is at a crossroads. For many, the events of 1989 have been eclipsed by the country’s economic miracle, and communism is no longer the goal of the government. The country is vastly different than 20 years ago, and where it is heading is anyone’s guess.

Feelings were generally optimistic about the future. When asked if democracy is inevitable at some point in China, Wong replied “everything’s inevitable.” Falkenheim, however, stresses that it could take many decades.

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