I’ve been to China and its capital of Beijing twice – in 2005 and 2011 - and both times I found myself with a need and a desire to stand in Tiananmen Square. Each time, even in a crowd of tourists, I could envision the lone pro-democracy demonstrator standing where I stood staring down a line of armed tanks 25 years ago today - the now iconic image of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the courage and fortitude of the young protesters.
Chinese troops gunned down hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. The killings were capped on June 5 by that photo of the lone activist. CNN in a piece today tells what happened to some of the protest leaders who survived.
As I stood in the Square In 2005, I felt a smidgen of the discomfort they must have felt. Armed soldiers were visibly present all around. Not because of any hint of potential protests, I'm sure. But the mausoleum of China’s great hero, chairman Mao Zedong rests there. A huge picture of Mao is displayed on the Tiananmen gate leading to the Forbidden City.
Nothing in Tiananmen Square commemorates or acknowledges the massacre that took place there. That didn’t surprise me. Though Chinese officials were busily touting their phenomenal economic and physical changes – and they were/are real – some crucial things about China politically and socially seemed stuck on pause.
Many of the Chinese people I officially talked to seemed scripted – spouting feel-good propaganda for my benefit and the other journalists who were visiting – and those I spoke with unofficially were tentative and let me know they were probably being “observed.” I was told by some young people during my last visit to Bejing three years ago that Chinese “observers” were all around. And those who said too much or spoke out of turn were likely to find themselves invited for “tea” with Chinese officials – invited for tea is the euphemism given for what we might call a trip to the wood shed. For Chinese strayers though, that wood shed might wind up being jail.
The apprehension and furtiveness I felt from some of the Chinese young people I spoke to is echoed in a piece I read in Foreign Policy from a young person born after the Tiananmen Square killings ho didn’t want to be identified. He writes in part:
“I am a member of the jiulinghou generation; the roughly 135 million Chinese born in the 1990s. We are web-savvy, dig Western movies and pop music, and are the future leaders of China. And we were born after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when Communist Party troops descended on Beijing’s central square to bring order to pro-democracy protesters, killing and injuring hundreds or thousands in the process. It was a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Yet a great many of us in this generation know almost nothing about it – and those who know don’t dare to discuss it.”
He goes on to say he learned about what happened from a 7th grade teacher who said that a few leaders had been “erased” from our recent memory, ousted for sympathizing with student protesters seeking democratic reform. When he asked his parents about the matter they gave him disapproving looks. So he tried to find out more for himself through the internet, which he said was less censored then than it is now in China.
“The key distinction between the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and other politically sensitive events in modern China is the relative official silence about the former,” he writes. “For example, although the state prevents discussion of the full details of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a period of massive political turmoil that saw the persecution of intellectuals around the country, the event is nonetheless tested on high school and college entrance exams and depicted in popular books and movies. The 1989 Tiananmen protests, on the other hand, lack an official account or a chapter in our history books – not even a sugarcoated one for us to dispute. Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, doesn’t contain an entry for the year 1989, and names and places such as Zhao Ziyang and Tiananmen Square are permanently or seasonally blocked on the Chinese Internet.”
He ends by saying “I’m not eager to argue which side was right on June 4, 1989, but rather to present the historical facts and discuss the best future for our country and our people.”
The article has a poignant endnote: “Due to the possibility of Chinese government retaliation for speaking out about Tiananmen, this author has chosen to remain anonymous.”
What happened in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago is a troubling reminder of the lengths authoritarian governments will go to squash dissent and maintain rigid control. China has undergone remarkable and impressive changes since then. But today in China true freedom remains elusive as officials continue to suppress and repress its citizens. Any praise for China's economic changes must always be tempered by that knowledge.
- Associate Editor Fannie Flono