This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured; thousands more were jailed, some for years.
Many journalists, myself among them, felt Tiananmen as intensely personal. The quelling of dissent always chills writers; Tiananmen was as dramatically public a shutdown of dissent as had ever been witnessed on TV.
TV and print journalists in 1989 spoke about how Tiananmen made us think about how vital reporting is, particularly in giving visibility to those who would otherwise have no voice.
During Tiananmen, I was in California working on an investigative series for the Philadelphia Inquirer on how pesticide poisoning was killing the children of farm workers. For weeks, I drove hundreds of miles from tiny farm hub to tiny farm hub and then back to Fresno to sleep. The work was harrowing; the victims made invisible by poverty and immigrant status.
Before I left for Fresno, I had spent some time with a fellow journalist who was a reporter for Time, assigned to Beijing. He left for Beijing as I left for the Central Valley.
Some stories change our lives, are indelible. Yet while stories like Tiananmen headline the evening news, others get less visibility. No one televised the 4-year-old girl who died of pesticide-induced cancer. Or the boy born without arms and legs because his mother was repeatedly sprayed with pesticides while she was pregnant, working in the fields. Or the mother who had lost three of her 10 children to cancer because she too had to work the fields during her pregnancies.
Those memories of 20 years ago surfaced this week as the anniversary neared. I remember my friend calling me from Beijing, cataloguing the day’s events. We were covering very different stories, but we were doing the same thing: uncovering truths no one wanted to acknowledge.
Across the U.S., there were protests last week as the California Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8 came down. The ruling let the voter-adopted amendment to the California constitution stand, while also validating the marriages of 18,000 same-sex couples. It was headline news, but not for long. LGBT people are — as the ruling affirmed — still second-class citizens, just like those farm workers and their children or the protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Dissent is provocative: The image of the man standing down the tanks at Tiananmen is seared into collective memory. He risked — and probably lost — his life to dissent. Hundreds of Chinese were imprisoned for simply talking to the press about their status. The farm workers who talked to me risked their livelihood — the only thing they had left. And LGBT protesters still put their jobs and homes and families on the line to come out publicly.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in China a decade ago and removed from the list of mental illnesses in 2001. Still, coverage of LGBT issues or programs with LGBT themes is banned. In 2004, the Chinese government banned all homosexuality from the airwaves as “against the code of healthy living.”
Films addressing gay or lesbian issues have also been banned, like Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” the popular Chinese gay film “Lan Yu” and “Butterfly,” about Chinese lesbians.
Twenty years ago, Tiananmen seemed like an historical moment made for TV, replete with high drama and, inevitably, bloodshed. If there is a legacy of Tiananmen, it is that the whole world is watching, sometimes. If we want the world to witness our suffering, then we need to get the cameras on ourselves. If no one speaks out, no one will know our outrage — whether we are a Chinese student, an immigrant farm worker or a queer American.