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China urged to carry over quake openness to Tiananmen

BEIJING (Reuters) - The most senior official jailed for sympathising with the 1989 Tiananmen protests urged China, praised for its openness in handling last month’s earthquake, to come clean on why the pro-democracy movement was crushed.

Paramilitary soldiers march during the flag raising ceremony at dawn in Beijing's Tiananmen Square June 4, 2008. The most senior official jailed for sympathising with the 1989 Tiananmen protests urged China, praised for its openness in handling last month's earthquake, to come clean on why the pro-democracy movement was crushed. REUTERS/David Gray

The demonstrations that lured more than a million people onto Beijing’s streets ended in a military crackdown on June 4 of that year. Now a fading memory -- or no memory at all for young people -- the massacre is still taboo in the Chinese media.

But Bao Tong, once the top aide to purged Party chief Zhao Ziyang, argued that China, host of this year’s Summer Olympics, has been praised for its transparency in handling the devastating May 12 earthquake and should also reveal the rifts in the leadership that led to the massacre.

“Through this quake ... they have tasted the benefits of openness and should know that openness is better than being closed,” Bao told Reuters in an interview at his Beijing home.

“June 4 of 19 years ago was a man-made disaster, but like natural disasters it should be made known to the people of the entire country and the whole world,” said Bao, who was jailed for seven years and remains an outspoken critic of the government.

The square bustled with tourists and police, uniformed and plain-clothed, with no signs of protest on Wednesday.

“You think today is still a sensitive day?” one woman selling souvenirs on the square said. “That was a long time ago. It was a period of chaos that the government handled well.”

Zhao was ousted as Party chief in 1989 for opposing then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision to send in the People’s Liberation Army to crush the pro-democracy movement.

Zhao died in 2005 after more than 15 years under house arrest. He was replaced in 1989 by Jiang Zemin, who in turn retired in 2002 to make way for incumbent President Hu Jintao.

Plainclothes police turned back a Reuters reporter at Zhao’s home, saying the widow was resting and the daughter was out of town. Bao’s home phone went unanswered.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China was due to host its annual candlelight vigil for the Tiananmen victims on Wednesday in between downpours in the former British colony.

Despite efforts of dissidents and families of victims to keep memories of Tiananmen alive, the virtual silence on that period within China means few people know much about the movement.

Asked on Tuesday about the anniversary, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the government had given a verdict on 1989 long ago and the issue was an internal one.

But in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack disagreed.

“The time for the Chinese government to provide the fullest possible public accounting of the thousands killed, detained or missing in the massacre that followed the protests is long overdue,” McCormack said in statement released by his office.

Wang Dan, a student leader in 1989 now exiled in the United States, said the earthquake and the coming Olympic Games were the “most important events in modern China” since those protests.

In an opinion piece issued by Global Viewpoint, Wang wrote that Beijing could use this time to “let go of old wounds and offer an Olympic amnesty to all political prisoners”.

Bao has remained outspoken about 1989 and he also urged the leadership under Hu to disavow Deng’s “greatest mistake”.

“In the end, debts will have to be repaid ... the earlier they are repaid, the more timely, the more thorough, the more it will be in command, the more dignity and the more face it’ll have,” said Bao, who is under round-the-clock police surveillance.

A student from Sichuan, surnamed Liang, visiting Beijing to escape aftershocks from the May 12 tremor, knew nothing about the events of 19 years ago.

“Today’s a special day?” she asked. “I haven’t studied that far in my history class.”

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Additional reporting by Chris Buckley