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2008 Beijing Games 23 August 2008

Marathon runners urged to turn their backs on Mao portrait and remember 1989 massacre victims

Reporters Without Borders calls on the marathon runners to turn their backs on Mao Zedong’s portrait when they start the last event of these Olympics tomorrow in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The organisation also urges them to spare a thought for the thousands of students and workers who died in the square and surrounding avenues in a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations on 4 and 5 June 1989.

"The official propaganda portrays Mao as the father of China’s recovered independence, but he was also one of the 20th century’s worst dictators," Reporters Without Borders said. "The totalitarian regime he imposed on China, especially during the dark period of the Cultural Revolution, led to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, including many journalists and writers. Mao hated intellectuals and used a subjugated press solely for propaganda and a personality cult. His portrait on Tiananmen Square is an insult to the respect for human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter.

"The square and avenues that the marathon runners will tread tomorrow were also the scene of the June 1989 massacre in which the Chinese security forces killed thousands of students and workers who had been staging pro-democracy demonstrations for weeks. The Chinese government still imposes very strict censorship on any reference to these events and several journalists and dissidents are in prison for mentioning them publicly."

A journalist, Yu Donguye, went mad as a result of being imprisoned from 1989 to 2006 because he and two friends threw egg shells filled with red paint at Mao’ portrait on Tiananmen Square. Torture and long spells in solitary confinement broke him physically and mentally.

Mao Zedong, predator of press freedom

The campaign led by Mao against "rightists" in 1957 resulted in the deaths of thousands of intellectual including dozens of journalists. In the city of Shanghai alone, 80,000 people were arrested and taken to labour camps. Fewer than 10,000 returned alive. During the 50th anniversary commemorations of this event, the Party censured many debates on the subject.

One of the many journalists who were victims of Maoism was Liu Binyan. Widely respected in the 1950s for such works as "On The Bridge Worksite" and "Inside Story of Our Newspaper," he spent a total of 18 years in reeducation camps because his writing was regarded as hostile to the interests of the Maoist faction. The Chinese media published no report of his death in exile in 2005 after the government rebuffed his requests to be allowed to return to his homeland to spend his last days.

There was a bit more freedom of expression during the period prior to the Cultural Revolution, when Wu Han wrote a play criticising an emperor that was very popular with the public. Free speech was then completely eliminated. During the totalitarian years of the Cultural Revolution, People’s Daily and the magazine Red Flag were controlled by the Gang of Four Maoists and were completely given over to agitation of the masses. The other media had to toe the line without any possibility of criticising Chairman Mao.

It was only after the dictator’s death in September 1976 and the Gang of Four’s removal that the Chinese press was allowed to emancipate itself from Maoist dogma, but not from subservience to the Communist Party line. The current system of media control, dominated by the all-powerful Propaganda Department, is a legacy of the Maoist era.

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