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China, 20 Years After Tiananmen Square: Liberty Has Many Faces

Twenty years after cries for freedom were silenced by tanks and soldiers at Tiananmen Square, many Chinese are exploring new freedoms.

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By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009

BEIJING -- "Freedom" is a tricky word, malleable for some, immutable for others. Many in China today are exploring new freedoms, bolstered by the nation's two decades of strong economic growth. Although cries for democracy were silenced in the bloody crackdown on student-led protests at Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, and the Communist Party continues to hold a monopoly on power, people gingerly pick their way around sensitive political topics to sample other kinds of freedom.

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Here is what freedom means to a few of them, interviewed in recent weeks.

Qi Yuting, 72

Retired laborer

Xing Donghua, 73

Retired electrician

Qi Yuting's earliest memories are of suffering and hunger. She remembers her mother bowing to the Japanese soldiers who occupied China starting in 1937. When she was 3, people in her village survived by eating tree bark. Her parents once bought her a corn cake, a rare treat, but before she could take a bite, someone ripped it out of her hands and ran off. Qi recalled she burst into tears.

Qi married Xing Donghua in 1960 and together they survived the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, when one political misstep could land a person in prison or worse.

"I think these days we're very free," Xing said. "In Mao's time, you just couldn't say certain things."

Indeed, Xing fretted that perhaps there is too much freedom, especially for young people. "It doesn't matter for us old people," he said. "We won't make mistakes. But young people don't know how the world works."

In Qi's mind, the Tiananmen Square protests were a mistake that cost many lives. "That time was cruel," she said. But ever since, "our life has been good. We only have progress. We promote harmony."

Zhang Lifan, 59

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