THE MALTA INDEPENDENT: Great food -- shame about the torture and repression

I am glad that some of my fellow Maltese, however few, gave public protest against the Chinese style of government, when the Chinese president visited our country. I am only sorry that I was not with them. Twelve years ago, after the Tienanmen Square murders, the unforgettable news footage of a single man defying, and dying in the process, a fleet of tanks, drove me to the protest outside the Chinese Embassy. I walked there with a four month-old baby in a pram, a 19 month-old baby sitting on top of it, and a three year-old on a toddler trike. Now that it is easier for me to go, I found it more difficult, and this I regret. There were no police at that protest, and certainly no violence. If there were, I would have been unable to stay with my perambulating kindergarten. So what happened in the intervening years? Have the police become more prone to worry after watching too much coverage of the recent summits in Gothenburg and Genoa, fearing and onslaught of tongue-studded, toe-ringed professional protestors? Or did they have instructions from the Chinese side? The latter would be more likely, because these people spread so much fear, horror, repression and suffering that they live in fear of their lives and their safety.

But it is more than that. They simply cannot understand either democracy or freedom of expression, and all the other freedoms that we in the west take for granted. Our own governments of the 1970s and the early 1980s while they did everything they could to stamp out these treasures in Malta, at least understood them. They were not beyond their comprehension. Yet the behaviour of the Chinese minders showed something very different. All those present at the protest outside St John's Cathedral, including the news people, were of one voice: the minders were absolutely panic-stricken at the thought that their president would see the protestors, their posters, or hear their chants. First, they asked our policemen to remove the protestors. The answer was no. Then they asked them to confiscate the banners (last seen done by pro-government thugs in late 1986), and again the answer was no. They demanded that police order the protestors to keep quiet, and the police told them that it was "not possible"- a subtle reminder to the Chinese that things are done differently in frustration, the Chinese -- trying to import their dreadful way of doings things into somebody else's free country -- persuaded the driver who brought them there to park his coach strategically, so as to hide the protestors. Can you imagine? And the police could not arrest the Chinese without causing a severe diplomatic incident. However, they did tell the driver to move along and get his coach out of the way. But just think how scared these people were -- scared that their president would be exposed to free speech and the protests of those who opposed him. That should tell us quite a lot about the way things are back home in China.

There is something else which tells us a good deal, something that at first may seem insignificant, but is nothing of the sort: the gift that the Chinese president gave to our own president. It is a bronze chariot excavated from the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, and dated to 259-210 BC. In no country in the democratic world would a leader even dream of distributing parts of the national heritage to foreign dignitaries on overseas trips. And if he or she did so, there would be a massive outcry, with the media baying for blood. Yet Mr China is able to do so, because where he comes from, the president is the state. But more to the point is the fact that, where people have no rights, they cannot even conceive of a national heritage or think of something as a national treasure, which is not in the gift of the president. It is a place where everything is owned by the state, but where nothing is public property.

That, however, is another bag of worms. The Chinese president has come and gone, welcomed with smiles and handshakes in the interest of economics. The enduring image, though, is not of President Jiang trotting the globe distributing pieces of ancient statuary stolen from his own people. It is of a lone student standing still in front of a moving tank, now one of the most famous images in media history. Even the one-time babies, who didn't know they were there at that protest, knew exactly what it was and what it meant, when they saw it recently on MTV, used in an advertisement for one of their preferred clothing brands. President Jiang would hate that.

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