No that’s not a typo in the title. I’m talking about June 4th using the oblique reference some Chinese satirically use to avoid drawing unwanted government attention to their discussion of the pro-democracy protests on that day 25 years ago. Also with a little nod to Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch thrown in for good measure. Also, yes I know I’m a few days late, but the last several days have been so full of thoughts and news and reflections that it took me some time to get my own in order.
The iconic image of the young man standing in front of the oncoming tanks is known to many, but the details of what happened that day are not often focused on. This post is just my own musings on the situation, and not really meant to be a history lesson. Fortunately, there are a ton of retrospectives out there right now, so google to your hearts content for the official history or just click here for a short sweet version with videos.
My Impressions of the Square
The first time I went to China, I visited the square on my last week there in the summer of 2005. The square was very open, ringed by government buildings, the tomb of Mao, and the Forbidden City, the giant expanse of red brick was scarcely broken up at all. The streets around the square are major roads, and there were only a few places where one could cross them, but the important thing here is, one could cross the roads and enter the square at pretty much any point. There were underground passages into the square. I actually thought at the time that these were kind of cool, because it seemed safer for the huge mass of pedestrian traffic to not have to deal with street lights and cross walks.Oh, I can’t forget to mention the Olympic countdown clocks, which were counting down the subsequent three years until the Beijing Olympics.
My last visit was in 2012, after the Olympic updates and security increases, and now the square is entirely enclosed by a permanent fence and can only be entered via the underground tunnels which now include security guards and x-ray machines that make TSA look wimpy. Additionally, food trucks, extra architecture and gardening, and huge giant massive televisions screens have been installed in the square, breaking up the previously wide open space, and pretty much destroying the awesome impact of standing in the world’s largest public square. Here’s the same statue in 2005 and 2012, you can see the added fences and hedges, and the two television screens that break the whole square up.
All of this increased security and breaking up of the landscape is designed specifically to prevent the use of the square as a platform for public protest, while keeping it a bustling tourist attraction.
So What About the Massacre?
This is a little trickier. I don’t actually remember when I learned about it first. I think we talked about it in school when it happened, but Chinese culture and history is not widely taught in America, so it was never more than mentioned. I did spend some time studying in grad school while I was researching the Falun Gong, because the 10th anniversary played a role in the 1999 crackdown on that group. What I do remember, is that I never for a moment doubted that this was a stunning act of violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests of those who wanted to bring democracy to their country.
On the 4th, one of my former professors from the UW who is still on my FB posted some of his own pictures and journal entries from the event. You see, he had been there. Seeing someone I know in the midst of all that was really quite surreal. And his journal entries gave an extremely personal view of the violence, speaking of the rusted skeletons of army trucks on fire, the bullet holes in the glass of the subway station, and bicycles pancake-flattened like cartoons after having been run over by the tanks.
This made me think about my own experience with the youth of China while I was teaching at a college near Beijing in 2007. I have no idea how the topic came up, maybe we were discussing rights and freedoms. The Chinese students were very proud of all the rights they have as Chinese citizens, but the right to assembly and peaceful protest still don’t exist there. Then all of a sudden, we’re talking about the pro-democracy protests in 1989. I’m curious what the students think of it, do they even know it happened? Because of the internet, it is difficult to keep certain things from the tech-savvy Chinese youth, and they had all seen the iconic tank-man photo. However, they argued, since the tanks had stopped and not run the man over, it was a peaceful protest and no one died.
Relying on the notion that few Chinese would take the time and energy to go through proxy websites (circumventing the Great Firewall of China) to read English language historical accounts, the government acknowledged the photo, but changed the narrative around it. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t formulate a response to this argument, which was probably just as well, because trying to convince my class of the real history could have gotten me fired or even deported. Yeah, free speech is totally a thing there.
The 25th Anniversary
All over the news, all over the net, trending in social media in Hong Kong, Taiwan and all over the world except in China. Back to the Great Firewall of China, the government actually banned the use of certain words for the day, including the word “today”. The internet police (yeah that’s a thing) managed to get each offensive reference to the date off the net in about ten minutes. However, according to the BBC China Trending Editor (how do you get this job title?) the Chinese who wanted to commemorate the event did so by referencing the musical Les Miserables, specifically the Finale.
That’s right, the modern Chinese pro-democracy movement is looking to the French struggle for democracy as a means of discussing their own plight. And while I am sad that my students didn’t seem to know what had happened in their country less than two decades before, I am heartened by the number of people in China and around the world that have taken the time to remember what happens when people stand up for a government that they want, instead of one that is forced on them. We are seeing this every day in the Arab Spring, in Thailand, and other places where the quest for self-governance becomes violent, and now we know we’re seeing it on a quieter scale through the global community on the internet.
This afternoon, while listening to NPR, I heard the story of Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. They were pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (nee Burma) who started protesting in 1988, and were arrested and spent many years in prison. The military dictatorship they were fighting against finally ended in 2011, and they (along with hundreds of other political prisoners) were freed in 2012. Ko and Nilar were greeted as heroes. Maybe one day, the thousands who lost their lives and freedom at Tiananmen 25 years ago will be remembered by everyone as fondly.