Today, June 4th, marks the 25th anniversary of the deadly confrontation that took place between Chinese pro-democracy protestors and the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Living here in mainland China, you wouldn’t know the day is of any historical significance. The government censors are always quick to wield their control over the media. So, it hasn’t been surprising that our television has gone silent and black for minutes at a time during the last week at any mention of Tiananmen Square by the BBC (the sole channel we get).
The censors are equally diligent in their patrol of the internet: no references can be found to “the Tiananmen incident” online. Vaguely associated words like liù (6) and sì (4) have been wiped off the face of the Chinese wide web. In recent days, too, Google has been blocked. For those without a VPN (the majority of Chinese citizens), this means personal Gmail accounts cannot be accessed. Chinese newspapers aren’t covering the historical impact of the event, let alone acknowledging that something of import occurred on this day. Interestingly, though, an opinion piece written by a researcher from the CCCPC Party Literature Research Office and published in today’s China Daily promotes China’s “path of democracy that suits its national conditions, and that path is the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The Tiananmen Square incident happened in 1989. I had just turned six then and can’t say I remember the event, but the images shown in history classes and in the media each year since have stuck with me. So much so that when I think about Beijing, Tiananmen Square is the visual that appears in my mind. It was the sight I most looked forward to seeing when I visited Beijing a month ago. It is the one that most vividly sticks with me now — even after touring the endless Forbidden City, the airy Summer Palace, the impressive outdoor house of worship the Temple of Heaven, the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple, and the Great Wall at Mùtiányù.
Tiananmen Square’s vast emptiness rivals the Forbidden City’s, but there is something more austere about it. The heavy burden of its historical significance hangs in the air, reinforced by the imposing portrait of Mao that overlooks the square from its central position on Tiananmen Gate and the formidable government buildings that flank its sides. Then there’s the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in the center — a place I had no interest in visiting and was glad it was closed on the day of our visit.
The history behind this iconic location goes back well beyond 1989 and even before October 1, 1949, when Mao officially announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But the Communist-era Tiananmen Square is the one our tour guide focused on during our picturesque, sunset evening visit. He gave us the facts we expected: the size of the square, the year it was built, the number of people it can hold, and so on. I don’t remember any of those. It’s hard to cling to cold hard numbers. A personal story is much more effective, and our guide’s lifelong relationship with the square is something I won’t soon forget.
As the sun slowly sank down behind the Great Hall of the People, we meandered around the square, watching little kids run around, getting stopped by young adults asking for photos with us, and marveling up at the fire engine red flags billowing in the breeze.
We eventually stopped at the northern end of the square and looked over across Chang’an Avenue and up at Mao’s portrait, ignoring the lanes packed with cars and buses before us. In his softly spoken, unassuming way, our guide non-sentimentally reminisced about his childhood days in Beijing. He told us that as a young student he, along with his school classmates, held flowers and danced right in the heart of Tiananmen Square as part of the National Day (October 1st) celebrations. He recalled that “everyone was trying to see Mao” who was looking out over the square from Tiananmen Gate. I asked him if he caught a glimpse of the Chairman, but predictably, he said no. Mao was too far away and there were too many people.
Our guide looked older than his 58 years with his disheveled, unkempt style: baggy khaki pants haphazardly caught in his socks, stained and ill-fitting polo shirts, a Washington Capitals hat that sat crookedly atop his head, a man-purse loosely strapped across his small frame, and the leftover gray whiskers his razor had clearly missed around his right lower lip. Despite all this, there was still something youthful, even cool, about him. It seemed he often had much more to say then he divulged. You could tell by his playful, glassy eyes, one of which was droopy and lazy, and the small, non-sinister smirk that often adorned his face after he spoke. This first brief lapse into personal history ended abruptly and we continued on, learning that Tiananmen Gate had always featured the portrait of the current Chinese president, but since 1949, Mao’s portrait has remained. In contrast, a portrait of Sun Yat-Sen was temporarily displayed in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in honor of International Worker’s Day (we wisely visited on the eve of the holiday, April 30th). Thanks to the special occassion, we got to see the square all dolled up with ornate flower displays, not to mention all the red flags that aren’t typically flown.
Over the course of the next two days with our guide — let’s call him Mr. Li — he shared snippets of his life, each one reflective of the larger cultural and political situation in China at the time and demonstrative of the impact Mao and the Chinese Communist Party had on the individual lives of so many Chinese. Mr. Li was born only a few years after Mao came to power. He was the middle of six kids and his parents were factory workers. In school, he just so happened to be on the side of his class instructed to study English; the other half would study Russian. As a teen, he participated in “volunteer” work organized by his school in the countryside near the Great Wall at Mùtiányù. He told us that at the time, the wall (known to the Chinese as chángchéng) wasn’t the big deal it is today. It wasn’t an international tourist destination; it was a crumbling structure that no one paid much attention to. What he remembered about the trip were the five Chinese characters visible on the mountainside that read “Long Live Chairman Mao.”
When he finished high school, Mr. Li was informed that he would continue to study English as well as cultural studies in college. But his prime college years coincided with the infamous Cultural Revolution — that period when schools were shut down and people’s lives were turned upside down for one reason (family lineage) or another (personal political views) or for seemingly no reason at all. Mr. Li, his older siblings, and his father were all sent to the countryside to work, presumably because previous generations of his father’s family had been wealthy. It didn’t matter that the wealth had dissipated long before Mr. Li’s father’s birth.
By the time Mr. Li turned 23, the schools were back in operation and he was able to resume his studies. In many ways, his assigned majors gave him a somewhat privileged life. He had a good job as a tour guide and liked living in Beijing. He got to visit the Great Wall shortly after it became a hotspot tourist destination in the 1980s. He was able to escort a foreign group to Tibet. He continued to dabble in the intellectual things he loved: poetry, literature, and political debate. Both he and his wife participated in the Tiananmen Square protests, but were not there for the violent clash that occurred on June 4th. As parents to a newborn, they decided to stay at home, knowing that after almost two months of protest in Beijing and other cities, the government was going to take action soon. It was only a matter of time.
Mr. Li could have left China in 1985 when a close college friend left for the United States. It was difficult to leave at that time, but not impossible, and his friend urged him to go. The friend had been jailed for several years during the Cultural Revolution for saying something minor, yet still critical, of Mao. “He was just a young guy talking,” Mr. Li explained. A young guy who became a professor at a prestigious university once in the U.S. I asked Mr. Li if he regretted his decision to stay in China. No was his answer. He loved Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. He was pro-democratic and wanted to visit the U.S. But he was Chinese and wanted to stay with his family in China. He said many Chinese move to other countries but never become truly part of the culture they live in. Mr. Li wanted to stay in China and push for change in his own way. He has written political blogs that have been shut down. He always starts another. He expresses his views on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. He has had some of his poems published. In the end, he doesn’t much worry about what he says.
In another life, Mr. Li might have been an academic like his friend who left for America. Maybe even a politician had he been able to promote his platform. But as he told me via email, his life as a tour guide has given him a “wonderful life of freedom.” I wonder how Mr. Li is marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. I wonder how his 25-year-old daughter thinks about the event. Is it important to her? Does she understand the significance of the day to both her country and her parents? Or, is she like the majority of her peers who know nothing of the taboo event due to the government’s successful suppression of it?
For more information about the Tiananmen Square protests/incident/clash, click on the links below: