Chinese students abroad expose Tiananmen

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education (5/28/15)

Chinese Students in US Seek to Expose Tiananmen Square Crackdown to Peers Back Home
By Mary Ellen McIntire


Yi Gu, a graduate student from China at the U. of Georgia: “I believed it was the moral responsibility to reveal the truth and show students in China how the truth has been hidden.”

A letter about the Tiananmen Square massacre signed by 11 Chinese students in the United States and other countries is gaining traction after a state-run Chinese newspaper wrote that the students had been “brainwashed” while studying overseas.

Yi Gu, a graduate student from China who is studying chemistry at the University of Georgia, published the letter online detailing the violence that took place in Beijing nearly 26 years ago. His letter, presented as discoveries Mr. Gu has made since coming to the United States three years ago, addresses a subject that is rarely discussed publicly in China and is widely censored by Chinese authorities. As such, it marks an unusual move for a Chinese student.

“This part of history has since been so carefully edited and shielded away that many of us today know very little about it,” the English translation of the letter reads. “The more we know, the more we feel we have a grave responsibility on our shoulders.”

Mr. Gu said he’d learned little about what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 before coming to the United States, but he was able to conduct his own research online and in the library when he arrived at the University of Georgia. He said he even spoke with survivors of the massacre who gathered in Washington, D.C., last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the incident.

“I believed it was the moral responsibility to reveal the truth and show students in China how the truth has been hidden,” he said in an interview on Wednesday with The Chronicle.

With the 26th anniversary coming up, on June 4, he said it seemed like an appropriate time to share his findings, which he has posted online to be read back home even though the Chinese government censors Internet sites there.

Mr. Gu’s letter was signed by students at the University at Albany, the University of Missouri, and Columbia and Missouri State Universities, as well as at universities in Europe and Australia, before publication. It has since gathered about 100 signatures more. He said he hoped to inform peers in China about the killings, since they are given few details about the massacre in Chinese schools.

It’s unclear how widely the letter has been read in China. But it has attracted attention from the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, which posted an editorial denouncing the letter and arguing that the student signers had been influenced by “some overseas hostile forces.” The vocal response has helped increase the number of signatures on the letter, he said.

Fear of Returning

Mr. Gu said he had received a few threatening messages, written in Chinese, since the letter has drawn notice.

But he said he’d also received more uplifting responses.

“We have been living in this constant fear for several decades, and if we continue to keep silent, and no one rises up, we and our friends will continue to live in this fear,” he said. “What we are doing is trying to stand up and fight for our future where everyone can live free without fear.”

Still, Mr. Gu said he wonders when he might be able to return to China now that he has spoken out about Tiananmen Square.

“I miss my parents, and I want to be with my family, but it seems almost impossible for me to go back right now,” he said. “But I hope that one day I will be able to go back to China.”

Perry Link, a well-known China scholar at the University of California at Riverside who has been barred from China for nearly two decades, said that Chinese students in America will typically seek out such information on their own but avoid talking about it even among themselves.

In class discussions about their home country, the students typically avoid politics altogether, he added, although they will sometimes speak privately with a professor.

“Even for Chinese students outside China, they feel watched, and indeed they sometimes are watched,” he said.

Mr. Link noted that American universities seeking partnerships with Chinese institutions know that self-censorship and limits on academic freedom come with the territory.

“When an issue like this letter comes up,” he said, “it just raises the stakes for U.S. college administrators on the academic-freedom side.”

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