Part twelve in a series
“Tiananmen” means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” Ironic, then, that most Americans know it, if at all, as a scene of violence and bloodshed.
photo by Jeff Widener, A.P.
June 4 marks the 20th anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on protestors who’d gathered in Tiananmen Square. The incident made headlines across the world, and the image of a lone protestor blocking a line of tanks proved especially powerful.
The protesters had camped out in the square since the April death of a pro-reform Communist Party official, Hu Yaobang. By June 4, after a great deal of international attention that embarrassed the Chinese government, tanks and troops rolled in and started cracking skulls.
Western news outlets reported yesterday and today (June 3 and 4) that no media would be allowed near Tiananmen Square on June 4th. Soldiers and uniformed and plainclothes police stood at attention everywhere in the square this morning, and visitors were being searched.
But visitors to Tiananmen Square are always searched. I was searched when my group first visited the square on Tuesday, May 26. I was searched again when I went there on my own last Sunday. The searches were similar to the same thing I went through at the airport: carry-on bags and metal items got sent through an X-ray machine, and I had to pass through a metal detector. We were allowed to keep our cameras with us.
Standing in Tiananmen Square for the first time really drove home how significant the crackdown was which the Chinese government refers to as “The June Fourth Incident”).
First of all, it’s impossible to appreciate how wide and vast Tiananmen Square is. It’s the largest public square in the world, even beating out the public courtyard at the Vatican. It can hold a million people—just as it was doing by June 3, 1989.
China’s Great Hall of the People, opposite Tiananmen Square
The square sits opposite the Great Hall of the People, roughly China’s equivalent of our Capitol Building. In essence, that made the protests a direct slap in the face of the Communist Party and central Chinese government even though the demonstrations were peaceful.
In the resulting military action, thousands were injured. The number of killed various from 241 (the Chinese government’s official number) and 2,600 (an unofficial number once given by the Red Cross).
While I certainly don’t condone the government’s decision to clear the square, I can understand it a little better than I once did. China is not, nor has it ever really been, ruled on principles anywhere close to ours. Authoritarian rule has always been the way there—for five thousand years. We forget how old and ingrained that is.
On Sunday, as I strolled the square, I saw a few extra plainclothes police near Mao’s Tomb. Nearby and just out of direct sight, soldiers were drilling in a closed-off portion of the square. I have no idea if that’s normal or not; it’s just what I saw and heard on Sunday.
I’ve also heard that the government was blocking internet access and it was blacking out CNN. It was trying very hard to be sure that no one remembered the events of June 4, 1989.
I didn’t register as a journalist before I went to China, so my dispatches have been under the radar screen I suppose. But from my own perspective, I’ve not had any trouble blogging since I got to Beijing (although I think some of my e-mail was reviewed or filtered or something). I couldn’t access YouTube, which I only tried to access because I’d heard from my students that it was off-limits. They were right. On Tuesday, students suddenly couldn’t access hotmail, either.
I actually had more trouble in Shanghai than in Beijing. In Shanghai, I couldn’t log on to LiveJournal, although I never had a problem logging into or posting at Scholars & Rogues (I suppose we at S&R need to start being even more subversive!).
In Tiananmen Square, looking south toward Mao’s Tomb
But I’ll be honest: I didn’t feel comfortable talking about Tiananmen Square in my dispatches other than to provide a description. In my post about Mao’s Tomb, I didn’t feel I could talk about just how oppressive Mao’s regime was. Maybe it was just my good manners because I didn’t want to run the risk of causing headaches for my host from the Beijing Institute of Technology—which is, of course, a government-run school.
Tiananmen is one of the “Three T’s and an F”: Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, and the Falon Gong (a cult-like religious group that stirs up a great deal of political controversy). Those are the taboo subjects. The government actively discourages and represses coverage of those topics, although I was able to discuss the “Three T’s and the F” openly with tour guides and people I met.
The same day we visited Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall, for instance, the president of Taiwan was in town for talks on more open relations. The few Chinese citizens I spoke to about Taiwan expressed delight that relations between the mainland and the island had thawed considerably over the past year or so.
My students, colleagues, and I had a chance
encounter with a Tibetan monk (pictured center).
That same day, our group also had a chance encounter with a Tibetan monk near the gates of the Forbidden City, just a stone’s throw away from Tiananmen. The students thought he looked cool and all wanted their photo taken with him, but I’m not sure if they realized what a rare encounter or a big deal it was. “Imagine what he must feel like,” one colleague said. “People around here must be looking at him like he’s some kind of trouble-maker.”
It’s too bad the government frowns on discussion of those controversial topics because the rest of the world doesn’t get the full story. Any P.R. person knows it to be true: Tell as much of the truth as you can because otherwise people will think you have something to hide, and their assumptions will usually be far worse than the actual situation.
I’m no expert on Tibet, for instance, but talking to ordinary Chinese folks—who are, far and away, an apolitical bunch—they see the Tibet issue much differently than Westerners do. A Chinese princess married the Tibetan emperor in 640 A.D. to unite the kingdoms, and in Chinese minds, they’ve been one kingdom since and that’s that. Their sense of history comes not from the Communist Party but from a long oral tradition, so they aren’t just spouting party propaganda.
The Chinese people aren’t exposed to the Dali Lama’s P.R. efforts—and we are. I emphasize that because we forget, in the end, that the Dali Lama is conducting a P.R. campaign. (I don’t mean to oversimplify, although I am, because I know there’s a lot more to the Tibet situation than I’ve even broached here—but that’s part of my point: there’s a lot more to the Tibet situation than we even realize.)
The silver lining is that the Chinese people find ways to talk about these things anyway. As CNN correspondent Jaime FlorCruz told us, technology provides ways around the government controls. As restrictive as the Chinese government can be with its censorship, it can only just keep up with the internet—it can’t control it. FlorCruz’s kids, for instance, can bring up YouTube on a whim by easily circumventing government blocks.
That trend will only continue as the number of online users grows (the online population in China already exceeds the entire population of the U.S.). The Chinese themselves call for more information.
“The internet is one of the most revolutionizing phenomena in China,” FlorCruz said. “The Chinese government can join it, ride it, sort of control it, but they cannot stop it or shut it down.”
Wondering if you noticed all the electronic surveillance in the cities, as documented by Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone last year: China’s Alll-Seeing Eye.
There were cameras EVERYWHERE in public places. The most surprising was in the Forbidden City. We all stopped for a group picture with our university banner, and sudden a guard materialized out of nowhere and told us to put the banner away. Then he went over to an old lantern standing in the courtyard and flashed a sign into it. After he left, I went over to look, and there was a fiberoptic camera tucked into the side of the lantern, hidden to anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for it.