Final Tiananmen Square prisoner to walk free

Loud and clear: More 100,000 students marched through Tiananmen Square in April 1989.

He has been imprisoned for 27 years for throwing a basket at a burning tank during China’s devastating pro-democracy protests. Now, Miao Deshun will be released. Has his country changed?

A few months before Miao Deshun was jailed in 1989, China was facing a crossroads. After decades of violence, isolation and poverty, it had begun to turn its face towards a more prosperous future. Bicycles flooded the streets. The US president and Michael Jackson had each paid a visit. There was even a KFC in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

But the gradual attempts at reform had a long way to go. One journalist recalls that ‘even the most mundane activity’ involved ‘a nightmarish obstacle course of petty bribes and fawning to superiors’.

By April, the people were demanding real change. While across the borders communism in the USSR was crumbling, thousands of students were occupying Tiananmen Square and workers were protesting in the suburbs. The ruling Communist Party was torn: should it listen?

The decision was made on June 4th — and soldiers in Beijing opened fire. Hundreds of people were slaughtered in the streets by their own government.

In the midst of the violence, 25-year-old Miao threw a basket at a burning tank. In August, he and 1,600 others were jailed.

Now aged 51, in October Miao will become the last Tiananmen Square prisoner to be released. ‘It could take him a long time to get accustomed to life on the outside,’ warned a former inmate. ‘I have a pretty hard time myself.’

When Miao steps out of the prison gates, it will be like stepping into another world. Since 1989 China has seen the fastest economic growth in history. Around 800m people have been lifted out of poverty. Over 200m cars have engulfed the cities in a toxic cloud of smog. Smartphones now offer instant access to the internet — although any references to the massacre Miao witnessed 27 years ago will be hidden behind the ‘Great Firewall of China’.

But has anything really changed?

Forbidden city

Of course, some claim. The arrival of capitalism and the middle class has transformed Chinese culture. Emerging from a poverty-stricken past, most people are now free to get a world-class education, travel all around the globe, and build a comfortable life for themselves. There are still problems, of course — but things have improved since that terrible day in the Square.

Don’t be so sure, retort others. China is still controlled by a one-party state, and its media is still carefully watched. In recent years, the tight grip on free speech has become almost suffocating: human rights lawyers are arrested for ‘creating public disorder’. Feminist activists are detained for ‘picking quarrels’. One academic lamented: ‘As a liberal, I no longer feel I have a future in China.’ Even its ‘miracle’ economy is sputtering to a halt. The sad fact is, Miao will feel right at home.

You Decide

  1. Will Miao be surprised by the China he finds in 2016?
  2. Can China ever win the democracy that Miao once hoped for?

Activities

  1. Write a short story from the perspective of someone who is released after being in prison in your own country since 1989. What do they think of the world they find?
  2. Create a timeline of Chinese history over the last 100 years.

Some People Say...

“China cannot be free until it truly remembers 1989.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Of course China has changed. Haven’t we all?
Naturally technology and globalisation have changed all our lives since 1989. But in this case we are looking under the surface: have the attitudes of the people and the government changed?
Why wasn’t Miao released earlier?
Initially, he wasn’t going to be released at all: he was given a death sentence, which became a life sentence in 1991, which has been slowly reduced in the decades since. It is thought that he is the last Tiananmen prisoner behind bars because he never admitted any guilt, and refused to do any prison labour.
Will he be okay?
It will be a difficult transition: he is said to have several health problems, and to have spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. That could make it very hard to adjust to being back in society.

Word Watch

Decades
One of the darkest periods in Chinese history was the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1966-76. China’s leader Mao Zedong set about purging the country of reminders of its ancient history and cultural traditions, instead focusing entirely on the Communist state. Millions were killed and persecuted in the struggle.
Tiananmen Square
The size of 70 football pitches, the square in Beijing once held the gates to the Imperial City. It was here in 1949 that Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
USSR
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union; the Communist state led by Russia from 1922 until it finally fell apart in 1991.
Hundreds
It is not known how many people died in Beijing on June 4, but estimates range from a few hundred to 3,000.
Economic growth
Since its economic reforms began in 1978, China’s economy has grown by around 10% each year — although this has dramatically slowed recently.
Great Firewall of China
A nickname for China’s extremely strict censorship of the internet, which includes social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

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