19 May 2009

Seeking Truth From Facts: The 20th Anniversary Edition

I was interviewed for the radio the other day on the subject of the number of individuals who remain imprisoned in China in connection with the protests 20 years ago. As I wrote last week, Dui Hua publicly revised its estimate for this, cutting it by half. I sensed as I was giving the interview that the reporter was challenging me more than usual, questioning whether the sources behind this estimate were reliable and, subtly, suggesting that I may have some kind of agenda behind minimizing the number of individuals imprisoned from that time.

Perhaps I'm too sensitive. I don't mind being challenged—though I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it—because I can usually provide a good explanation of the basis for my reasoning and assumptions. A good example of that happened just the other day, when I was challenged to explain my estimate for the number of state security arrests in China last year. I have a whole spreadsheet of data and calculations that underlies that one.

In the case of June Fourth, I'll be the first to admit there are a lot of unknown variables, but I'm reasoning on the basis of information that, frankly, no one else has really bothered to aggregate and analyze—at least not for quite some time. That's why I found it a bit frustrating when the reporter who interviewed me chose to add a "rebuttal" of my estimate—from someone whose work I respect a great deal but who has not spent even a fraction of the amount of time I have spent considering the evidence at hand—that said, in effect, "It seems kind of low. I just have to believe there are more prisoners out there who haven't been accounted for."

But as I was fuming, I realized: the emotional stakes are likely higher, or at least different, for this person than they are for me.

Someday, there will be no more June Fourth prisoners in prison. That's simply a fact and, in my opinion, that day will arrive within a matter of a few years. But it's also a fact that, given the lack of transparency in China's criminal justice system, particularly with respect to sensitive events like this, without fuller knowledge of the fates of those detained 20 years ago it's unlikely that we'll ever know when that date actually arrives. But it seems certain that it will precede the day when the official verdict on the "counterrevolutionary turmoil" of 1989 is overturned and the victims of that period are duly accounted for. I just don't see signs of that one anywhere on the horizon.

Under those circumstances, it makes some sense to interpret the reluctance to believe that there are so few remaining prisoners as originating from a fear that, once there are no more prisoners, it will be that much easier to "let go of the past and focus on something more positive" and "let bygones be bygones" (as it was so insensitively put in a recent column in Hong Kong's Standard) and the memory of what happened in 1989 will fade even further. To me, it is rather reminiscent of the way that some in the US cling to the belief that there exist POWs or MIAs from the Vietnam War, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

All I can say is that I have no intention to minimize the suffering of those who paid a price for participating in the events of 1989, nor am I trying to erase historical events from memory. Otherwise, why would we spend so much time trying to bring these obscure prisoners' names into the public eye? My commitment to that history is to "seek truth from facts," not fight one mythology by perpetuating another.

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