Commentators are discussing the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On June 4, 1989, Chinese army troops rolled into the center of Beijing to destroy the nascent democracy movement there. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Beijing, it would be the equivalent of tanks on Washington’s National Mall.
I remember the June 4 very distinctly, as I was in Beijing at the time. In my personal history, that was a day of confusion and packing and evacuation, rumors and speculation. More significant in my memory is the afternoon of June 2, 1989.
I was in high school in 1985 when my dad accepted a job with IBM to help open a Beijing office. When I first went to China to visit my parents, it was still clearly a communist country. Everything was gray, or at best the brown of dirt and the drab olive of the androgynous uniforms everyone wore. I should have felt rich with my pockets full of American dollars, but spending foreign currency was officially limited to a specialized “Friendship Store,” half-stocked with trinkets for tourists.
By 1989, things had improved a little. A door had been cracked open and students and other protesters were seeking a voice in their future. Democracy. Freedom. Abstract concepts in a country so large, geographically and population-wise.
I watched on television as ragged-looking youths camped out in front of Beijing’s government buildings. Their demands seemed noisome and futile and the camera panned over to a crude looking facsimile of the Statue of Liberty that the protesters had christened The Goddess of Democracy.
It all seemed a bit pathetic to be honest.
When my dad suggested we visit Tiananmen Square, I went more for the sake of historic curiosity than real sympathy for the movement. In real life, the camps seemed even more squalid — the students stayed up late at night chanting and demonstrating and now many of them were napping on flattened cardboard boxes like homeless people — and the statue struck me as ugly.
We walked around a bit, picking up flyers that I couldn’t read. My parents translated signs and explained Chinese puns that they found clever. My mom laughed at a series of three portraits of Chinese politicians: Hu Yaobang, Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang. What was funny about that? “Wan Li” sounds like the words “ten thousand miles” and the series suggested that the new Party Chairman Zhao Ziyang was ten thousand miles from his liberal predecessor, Hu Yaobang.
Then, as we were readying to leave the square, people started shouting. Rumors were flying. The police were coming! The army was coming! They were coming to take down the statue!
Suddenly, the crowd rose up. They rallied and gathered around the statue. And that lousy Liberty wannabe transformed before my eyes: she became The Goddess of Democracy. In the center of a mass of young people demanding dignity and recognition, she became beautiful, and her protectors heroic. I felt — perhaps it was just my imagination — that the students had moved beyond fear and were motivated by a positive energy, by ambition, and righteousness, and hope.
My parents, worried about our safety, shuffled us away, back to their apartment on the outskirts of town. Of course there was no crackdown, no massacre that day. That wouldn’t happen for another 36 hours.
The Tiananmen Massacre was horrific, and more so for being so thoroughly whitewashed within the country. A young Chinese friend told me that when he grew up, he heard that in 1989, violent student protestors had killed a police officer and the students had to be jailed for their offense. It wasn’t until he worked as a tour guide and was constantly asked about Tiananmen that he did some research on English language internet sites and found the truth.
China is very different now. A visit I took in 2007 showed a country that was in motion: colorful, vibrant, full of energy and ambition. Stores were full of international and domestic made goods and they were all happy to accept US dollars. Men and women wore bright, modern fashions that made me feel dowdy. Shanghai seemed to exist five years into our future, with its shiny new skyscrapers, elevated highways and go-getter populace.
(It’s not all good, however. As the government dissolved socialist work groups, they also disbanded the health care system and social safety net that went with them. Rural poverty and urban pollution remain large problems, and political dissent is still far from tolerated.)
Looking at the past 25 years, it’s tempting to see all the progress as having happened despite the June 4 crackdown. I see it another way; that for twenty-five years, the spirit of the demonstrators of Tiananmen, the energy unleashed by the students and ordinary folk who wanted to contribute to mapping out the the future of their country and their own fates has been the engine driving the nation.
There is no democracy in China yet, and certain freedoms are limited. That said, modern China looks a lot less like the Communist forces that crushed the protests and a lot more like the vision of the protestors.