Breaking taboo

The events of June 4, 1989, remain one of the most taboo subjects inside China. Months of political demonstrations across the country had culminated in a peaceful protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Troops acting on orders from the Chinese Communist Party moved in on the demonstrators, killing hundreds. The Chinese government still bans any public mention of the massacre.

So it came as something of a shock to Steve Levine, a retired University of Montana professor of Chinese history and politics, when he began receiving support last week for his Tiananmen Initiative Project from inside China. Levine launched the project several months ago to encourage organizations worldwide to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and his online appeal is still gaining signatures.

"I'm planning to contact all of the legislative leaders of the 50 state legislatures in the country asking them to pass resolutions in support of commemorating the June 4 anniversary," Levine says, "as well as the U.S. Congress."

The words of appreciation from inside China are what struck Levine most. The website he maintains with Missoula native and Tufts University graduate Chase Maxwell was blocked in China shortly after going up; Levine says he had an American friend in Shanghai repeatedly checking its availability. "I expected that eventually someone would hear about it and the message would spread," Levine adds. "But I didn't expect to get signatures from people in China."

One message in particular stood out: A brief email from Wang Dan, one of the original student leaders of the 1989 demonstrations. Dan was arrested twice after Tiananmen Square and eventually exiled to the U.S. He now teaches at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. The Taipai Times reported in January that Dan is organizing a 25th anniversary hunger strike.

"I just want [to] let you know how much I appreciate for all you have done for the 25th anniversary of June 4," Dan wrote to Levine, "and will be glad to be helpful if you need."

Levine is heartened by the knowledge that people in China are aware of his effort. Missoula will play host to several Tiananmen commemoration events this spring, including an April 9 lecture by Harvard professor Rowena He at UM. But for Levine, the ultimate goal seems partly met already.

"The best outcome," Levine says, "will be that people in China will know, despite the clampdown on celebrations within China, that the world has not forgotten about what they did."

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