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Gong Min Walk 2008 – Day 29 Yang Jianli Speech: Freedom is not free. It’s earned. – Chicago

(Speech at the 19th Anniversary Memorial Concert and Lecture, June 1, 2008, Chicago)

Today we gather, once again, to remember those who, on this date, 19 years ago in Tiananmen Square, gave up their young lives for freedom. In remembering so many young lives crushed and lost, we must recall that freedom is not free. Freedom must be earned. It was not free for those who paid with their lives. It is certainly not free for those of us who, while still blessed with our lives, have yet to complete the mission for which these brave students gave their lives and their freedom.

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller led a platoon of soldiers to find a soldier called Private Ryan to get him out of harms way. Most of the platoon, including Captain Miller, was killed trying to save Private Ryan. As he was drawing his last breath, Captain Miller leaned forward and what would be his last command as a captain, whispered in Private Ryan’s ear: “Earn this.”

Many years later, Private Ryan returned to Miller’s burial site in Normandy, France. As a now elderly man, this would probably be his last visit to the grave site. He spoke to the white cross above the grave in a soft, emotion-filled voice. “I have tried my best to live up to the words you said to me on the bridge. I hope, at least in your eyes, that I have earned what you did for me.”

In my own life, I have never stopped asking myself if we, as survivors, have earned what our Tiananmen heroes sacrificed for us. As survivors, have we earned what these heroes died for?

I believe none of us can answer with any certainty. But what we can say is that many people have forgotten or have chosen to ignore that which I mentioned in my opening poem.

What is more, the communist regime has tried in every way to wipe the slate clean of all historical memory. As a result, younger generations following the Beijing massacre of June 4 have little or no knowledge of the pro-democracy movement and why that movement ended up in blood.
Three weeks ago, not long after I started the GongMin Walk, the Sichuan earthquake struck. We have lost almost 100,000 lives in this catastrophe, including almost 20 thousand young students. Our hearts are bleeding. On this particular day of June 4th I have been thinking about the connection between the lives lost in the earthquake and the student lives lost 19 years ago in Tiananmen Square. If the students who were killed in Tiananmen were living today, their own children would the same school age as the earthquake victims. But that is not the connection of which I want to speak.

The pro-democracy movement of 1989 carried a second important theme that is not as widely known—the theme of stopping corruption in government. But the communist regime responded with machine guns and rolling tanks. As a result, political reform ceased in China, and the Government has become even more blatant in its corruption. Now, nineteen years later, it is known to almost everyone in China that the schools in the earthquake area would not have become concrete coffins if they had met the same quality construction standards as government buildings and the homes of party officials. In other words, if the communist party had not slaughtered the students with tanks in Tiananmen, but had accepted their requests for political reform, many of our children’s lives would have been spared. That is the connection of which I speak. The corruption that spawned the 1989 protests, the cancerous corruption that took the lives of students in Tiananmen Square, has metastasized, crushing 20,000 innocents in Sichuan. This connection should not be covered up by the dust of the earthquake. The corruption continues, and the sacrifices continue to grow. June 4 and May 12 are dates that challenge the conscience of every Chinese.

Today we are here to remember these young people and children who died in the earthquake—many of whom may well have lived through the earthquake had it not been for government corruption. We must confront the fact that the difference made by democracy is not only whether we have a life of dignity, but very often the difference between life and death itself.

Therefore our memory today is not just a sad recall. Our memory concerns life and death. It concerns the ultimate value of life. Whenever we think of those lives lost so young, we need to challenge ourselves and ask ourselves how we can live so we truly earn what their sacrifices have given us. We truly cannot say we have earned them at this point. For me I will not be able to kneel at their graves and whisper, “I have done my best to earn what you have died for.” For me I will not be able to say these words until I stand in Tiananmen Square, breathing the air of a Free China, a China blessed with the dignity of human rights for all its citizens, and a China secure with the freedoms to speak, to worship, to publish, and to seek redress. Only then can I kneel before the fallen. Only then can we look each other in the eye and say: We have earned this. We have earned this. Rest in peace my dear brothers and sisters of Tiananmen. Rest in peace my sons and daughters of Sichuan.

Let me conclude with a stanza from the poem I read at the beginning of my speech.

No poem can stop a tank
But some poems can stop the forgetting
Stop the forgetting
The skeleton of my soul is as slender as the lines of my poem
The skeleton of my soul, like my poem, is emotional
Oh the skeleton of my soul is naked and has nowhere to hide
Over this emotional body of my poem tanks are rolling over
Rolling over, over,

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