Yesterday was the 29th anniversary of the murderous events in Tiananmen Square, an event that should be remembered not just for the killings but also for what it also reveals about China's continuing mindset. Suppression of information about the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, held in scores of cities throughout China, continues today.

Two million online censors are employed to block not just the key words "Tiananmen Square" but all combinations of the numbers six, four, or 1989 that may reference the "'June Fourth incident"', or 6/4, as it is known by millions in China. They can now access it only through oral memory.

Today, too, it can be difficult to express concerns about China's attitude to information sharing in Asia and the Pacific. A recent report by a Canadian intelligence service seminar raised concerns about China's efforts to threaten New Zealand sovereignty and "directly affect the rights of Chinese New Zealanders to freedom of speech, association and religion".

Although dismissed as having discussion group status only, the report drew on verifiable instances. It detailed the curtailing of freedoms for our ethnic Chinese community, "a silencing of debates on the PRC (People's Republic of China) in the wider political sphere", and the corrupting influence on the political system of the "blurring of political and economic interests".


These instances were drawn in part from research by Canterbury University's China specialist Dr Anne-Marie Brady, as well as the public record.

Whatever the level of concern about sovereignty and independent foreign policies, for New Zealanders wishing to benefit from China's huge trading and credit capacity – including its 2013 Global Belt and Road initiative, or so-called digital silk road – the report was surely accurate in its conclusion. Containing foreign political interference, it said, requires "the political will of the government of the day and popular support".

On that score our record is mixed. In 1999 and 2003 our police prevented protesters from being seen by visiting Chinese leaders, once by driving tourist buses in front of the delegation. Then in 2007 they removed an ethnic Chinese reporter from parliamentary coverage because of alleged Falungong membership.

Citizens in our close neighbour, Fiji, have also had cause in the past decade to reflect on sovereignty issues. In 2008, soon after Fiji expressed its support for China's actions in dealing with rioting in Tibet, Fiji police arrested 17 people peacefully protesting in support of Tibet outside China's Suva embassy.

Frank Bainimarama's regime was defended by China at the UN. Photo / Dean Purcell
Frank Bainimarama's regime was defended by China at the UN. Photo / Dean Purcell

Later that year, after China committed to increasing its imports from Fiji, Commodore Bainimarama, Fiji's dictator, thanked the Chinese Government for recognising Fiji's sovereignty and "adopting a policy of non-interference".

In 2010, when several countries at the UN highlighted human rights violations under the Bainimarama administration, the Chinese delegation intervened to commend Fiji for its efforts "in the promotion and protection of human rights".

The anti-corruption campaign within China and attempts to apply the rule of law have been well advertised. What is not widely known is that China conducted a month-long investigation in Fiji into "internet-related crimes" by its citizens there.

Dramatic scenes splashed over its own media as a cautionary tale received little coverage here despite images in English and Australian news media showing handcuffed and hooded renderings back to China.


Although Fijian opposition party and Amnesty International protests that sovereignty was impinged and lawyer access provisions not met, 77 open visa holders were airlifted to China without due process.

If this can happen in the largest Pacific Island nation, smaller countries in the region must be vulnerable to Chinese high-handedness impinging on their sovereignty.

Mandarin-speaking Prof Brady refers to principles of Chinese diplomacy: "seek common points and set aside differences" (qiu tong cun yi) and "seek common points, face up to differences" (qiu tong li yi).

After an anonymous warning letter last year, Brady had her university office and home broken into and laptops taken. Around the same time, her academic associates in China were taken in for questioning.

Her cautionary tale is that when dealing with China, or any superpower, we keep our eyes wide open – and ensure both parties face up to important differences.

Steve Liddle is a researcher and independent journalist based in Napier. He was working for the AAP in Sydney at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and had just accepted a job teaching English in Hangzhou which he lost.