Gao Zhisheng rose from poverty to become one of China's best lawyers -- even making the country's "top 10" list in 2001. He taught himself the law and stood up for justice. He gained fame as a human rights attorney defending China's otherwise voiceless victims. And the government tolerated him, for a while.
Wang Bingzhang was a prominent lung surgeon in late 1970s China. He was chosen to be among the first Chinese doctors allowed to study abroad -- and this is what brought him to Canada's McGill University. While here, Wang began to appreciate what true freedom felt like.
Both Gao and Wang began their lives thriving in a China that could offer them great personal success -- for a price. That price was silence: silence in the face of totalitarian control, silence in the face of systematic human rights abuses, silence in the face of oppression and repression.
Gao and Wang had the option of staying silent and reaping the rewards. But both chose to speak out against injustice.
Gao's life changed when he started representing Christians and Falun Gong practitioners who were persecuted and tortured in China. He was convicted of "inciting subversion" and, in December 2006, began his new life of constant monitoring, frequent confinement to his apartment, and repeated abductions and beatings -- for both him and his family.
The next year, in response to his letter to U.S. Congress, Gao was detained for 59 days, during which time he was severely tortured. The year after that, Gao's 15-year-old daughter was barred from school, leaving her depressed and suicidal. This prompted Gao's family to run away to the United States this January; thereafter, Gao -- still under 24-hour surveillance by the government -- ominously "disappeared." He was last seen being abducted by police officers in Shaanxi province, and has not been heard from since.
As for Wang, after his experience in Canada in 1979, he worked tirelessly to become the leader of China's overseas democracy movement. In 2002, while visiting with labour activists in Vietnam, he was forcibly abducted and carried into China, where he was immediately apprehended by police. A closed-door trial -- at which Wang was not granted the right to speak, and at which no evidence was presented against him -- led to his conviction and sentence of life imprisonment. A 30-minute appeal later confirmed the verdict.
Wang is now in his seventh year of arbitrary detention by China, as confirmed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He has suffered three strokes in that time, all suffered while being kept in solitary confinement. His health is rapidly deteriorating and he is plagued by depression.
Wang has a daughter named Ti-Anna, in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A Montrealer, she decided to delay her studies at McGill University this year to devote herself to campaigning for her father's freedom.
After many delays, the Chinese government finally approved Ti-Anna's visa to visit her father last month under strict conditions. And then, without any explanation, she was turned away at the border; her visa was cancelled. Repeated attempts to obtain a rationale from the Chinese embassy have proven fruitless.
And so this is where we are 20 years after Tiananmen Square. Heroes of democracy and justice, like Gao and Wang, see their rights -- and the rights of their loved ones -- trampled upon, because they spoke out for what is right.
The Chinese government's line is unflinching: while the regime will open up the country to trade, technology and status mobility, it will come down ruthlessly on those who question the legitimacy of the regime itself. Today's generation of Chinese knows the equation well. University students understand they have a bright future ahead of them, just as Gao and Wang once did -- so long as they are willing to toe the party line.
It is well past time for the international community -- and Canada in particular -- to alter this cynical calculus. In the years since the Tiananmen Square "uprising" 20 years ago, China has succeeded in changing the narrative away from democratic rights. It has succeeded not only among its own citizens, but also in the community of nations. Courageous men like Gao and Wang have been abandoned -- and with them, their ideal of bringing the rule of law and democracy to China.
And so, while Gao and Wang's choices continue to shape their lives, the choices made by this generation --within China and without --will shape the next one. Will Canada and other western democracies demand the immediate and safe release of Gao and Wang? Will China continue to escape human rights scrutiny? Will Chinese citizens need to continue to choose between speaking freely and living successfully?
The answers to these questions will determine what China will look like 20 years from now -- and whether anyone in China will even know what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Irwin Cotler is special counsel on human rights and international justice to the Liberal party and is the MP for Mount Royal. He is a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada and is a professor of law (on leave) at McGill University.
David Grossman is special assistant to Mr. Cotler.