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Canadian envoy’s bike ride subtly rebukes China’s Tiananmen amnesia

Even in China, a bicycle ride doesn't often count as an act of international provocation. But there may be an exception when it's the Canadian ambassador on two wheels – and he is riding around Tiananmen Square just days from the 25th anniversary of China's military crackdown on democracy protesters, then posts about it on Chinese social media.

Canada has been notable for muting criticism of China's human-rights record in service of seeking greater cross-Pacific trade.

But on Sunday, Guy Saint-Jacques and his wife, Sylvie Cameron, mounted a sly rebuke of the Chinese state and its forced amnesia of what happened at Tiananmen. Shortly after noon on a sunny day, the couple headed toward the square to see the extraordinary security clampdown that is the most visible sign of China's efforts to squash any sign of remembering the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died in 1989.

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The closer the road gets to Tiananmen, the greater the numbers of uniforms, which range from traffic police to security guards, regular police, special police, various branches of the armed forces and, at nearby intersections and overpasses, soldiers holding assault rifles.

"They are nervous. It's a special anniversary, and they want to make sure nobody can get there and demonstrate in any way or fashion," Mr. Saint-Jacques said. "I wanted to see if anyone would try to prevent me from going."

He cycled around the square, approaching it from a number of directions and looking at the tortuously long queues of tourists passing through airport security-style metal detectors. He didn't try to get past with his bike, but did stop beside the square to take a selfie with his wife.

On Tuesday, they posted it to the Canadian embassy's Weibo (a social media site) with a post worded to circumvent the Chinese Internet filtering that scrubs all mention of June 4 and related terms – even deleting candle icons from social media.

In his post, Mr. Saint-Jacques described "a nice bicycle ride around Mao Zedong's mausoleum" – which sits at the south end of Tiananmen square – "on June 1. This brought back memories of all the history associated with the Square, including in the years when it was less tightly guarded and felt more welcoming."

It was posted Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. Comments quickly filtered in, many of them positive. By evening, it had been "retweeted" 861 times. But all the comments were gone, deleted by China's Internet dragnet. Even in vague terms, the allusion to freer times gone by – the years before 1989 had seen a flowering of liberal thought in China – was too much.

Still, it managed to spread, a slightly subversive victory for Canada.

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"This is part of a message saying we remember, we think those events were tragic – and China is at the stage where they should allow more discussion on the subject in accordance with their own constitution," Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

Ottawa has mounted a whiplash-inducing U-turn from Stephen Harper's famous remarks that Canadians didn't want him to sell out to the "almighty dollar" when it came to China. In recent years, Canada has done exactly that. It has focused its diplomatic efforts on trade and, in particular, on smoothing the way for the sale of Canadian oil and gas. Almost entirely gone from Canada's public dialogue with China is any mention of human rights, or of the Canadian citizens denied proper judicial process and left to languish in Chinese jails.

The history of Tiananmen is such an obvious black mark on China, however, that many nations feel free to voice concern. Several weeks ago, Ottawa sent out a press release decrying the arrests of activists who had met privately to remember June 4. On Wednesday, it intends to do the same, calling on China to give its people the right to discuss the issue.

The bike ride was a slightly more daring way to send a message.

Mr. Saint-Jacques spoke Tuesday with U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus, who himself tried Monday to approach the square, but was stopped three times to check for ID – and eventually gave up.

"Apart from the American ambassador, I'm not sure if any other ambassador has gone around the square," Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

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It will, however, take a lot more than bicycles to penetrate the brick wall of China's stance on Tiananmen. A week and a half ago, the ambassador met with the director-general of China's ministry of foreign affairs. The ambassador repeated Canada's criticism of China for arresting those who had met to remember Tiananmen.

The Chinese official replied that history had shown his government right in killing its own. The economic growth in the past 25 years "proved that they had followed the right track in conquering this counter-revolutionary activity," Mr. Saint-Jacques was told.

With official China turning a deaf ear, and state media unwilling to broach the subject, the only way to speak with Chinese people is through thinly concealed messages on social media.

On Monday, the embassy posted about the Harper government's 2008 pledge to spend $10-million to remember the placement of some 8,600 Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in First World War internment camps. Remembering what happened then is part of an "aim to avoid repeating mistakes and also the injustice caused by those mistakes in the future," the embassy wrote on Weibo.

Several commenters agreed. "A country will have hope only if it dares to face history," one wrote.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More


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