Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

June 4, 2019 marks the thirty year anniversary of a dark day in Chinese history – what is known in the west as The Tienanmen Square Massacre.

I remember this day very well. I had just graduated from college a month before. I had just gotten married a week after college graduation. We were in Chicago for a friend’s wedding, and I remember waking up on Saturday morning and watching the broadcast of the Chinese military, under orders from Premier Deng Xiaoping, starting a methodical and violent clearing of the pro-democracy protests which had been going on in the square for some time.

Tienanmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. On one end is the Forbidden City, the former home of the emperor, now adorned with the iconic picture of communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao’s massive portrait looks out over the square and keeps a close watch on his own mausoleum on the opposite side of the square where the preserved body of Mao continues to be proudly displayed in a rather grim and solemn granite structure.

Chinese university students had been occupying the square, demanding a fifth modernization to go with Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on science & technology, agriculture, industry, and defense.  Deng’s leadership had brought China out of the darkness of the cultural revolution which had decimated the Chinese economy and had proven how backward the Chinese regime had become. The cultural revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, but its lingering effects had worn down a weary culture. Deng’s modernizations were a welcome shift, but with modernization came new attitudes and desires for more than just economic relief. The students in the square were seeking that fifth modernization: political freedom. They even erected their own version of Lady Liberty to stand in stark contrast to the staunch communist eyes in Mao’s portrait.

The Chinese government could only take so much political embarrassment and bad international press, and on June 4, they moved in to squash the demonstrations. It was brutal. Hundreds died. Perhaps more. No one really knows. Many were arrested and the air of freedom which hung in the optimistic spring of 1989 was violently halted. I watched it all on TV as I readied myself to go the wedding. Little did I know that I’d be standing in the middle of that square just three years from that day.

I traveled to China for the first time in the summer of 1992. I was to teach at an English camp for Chinese English teachers in Dalian. On our way through Beijing, we got to see all the sites including the Great Wall and, of course, the square that was still very much in my memory. Before we arrived in China, we were instructed very clearly not to mention anything about what happened in 1989. Don’t bring it up. Don’t have an opinion. Pretend it didn’t happen.

On the particular day I visited the square, it was a far cry from the images on the TV. There were some vendors and some tourists. Modest lines waited to visit the body of Mao and others queued up in front of Mao’s portrait to tour the Forbidden City. I spent an entire summer in China and heard nothing whatsoever about this historical event. But it wasn’t hard to imagine what many were feeling underneath their skin.

Authority may destroy the movement of freedom, for a time, but it can’t change the thoughts we have within. And who doesn’t want freedom? Who doesn’t want to be able to focus on “the pursuit of happiness?”  Even the great Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh understood this. If you visit his mausoleum in Hanoi, you’ll see etched across the granite facade one sentence: “Khong co gi qui hon, dap lap, tu do” – There’s nothing as precious as independence and freedom.

China is a generation removed from the incident of Tienanmen Square, but I can’t help but think the underlying desire of true political freedom hasn’t change one bit.


A Chinese Reminder of a 2016 Presidential Candidate

I was showing my class a Discovery video about China’s transformation prior to the Beijing Olympics. I’ve shown this for several years now as it’s a great video to help understand the turmoil China went through in order to emerge as a 21st century powerhouse.

One section of the video always produces some laughs. It concerns a local election in which the female mayor of a small village is being challenged at the polls by a local garlic grower. This section highlights the democratic changes in Chinese society which are taking place at the very lowest levels.

The current mayor has proved herself to be a shrewd politician who understands the needs of her constituents. She has paved a road from the village into the neighboring town so farmers can easily bring their wares to market. She has inspired many farmers to switch to flowers, instead of rice, more than quadrupling their income. She keeps a village ledger on the side of one of the buildings to keep the local government accountable for their actions. She has, in every sense, been an exemplary public servant.

Her challenger, Mr. Zhang the garlic grower, acknowledges this fact and even says that everyone admires Mayor Lieu.

You might be wondering what his running platform is? How does he have a chance against her? What’s his strategy? Does he have any clever tricks up his sleeve?

Yes, he most certainly does. He says, “I think the way I can compete with Mrs. Lieu is that I’m a man, and she’s a woman.”  Okay, he says it like it is. But he doesn’t stop there. He said that a leader needs to make others rich, and to do that, the leader also needs to be rich – like he is.

So let’s boil this down to a campaign slogan. “Vote for Zhang. I’m a man, and I’m rich.”

But as I was watching again this year it hit me: this guy is the Chinese Donald Trump!

“Vote for Trump: I’m a man, and I’m rich.”

A good chuckle was had by all. I have found his Chinese twin. A rich garlic grower.

By the way, Zhang lost in his election by nearly a 4-1 margin.

Those Chinese farmers know a thing or two.

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #4 – Beijing, China

My first trip to Beijing was in the summer of 1992 as I flew to Asia for the first time to teach in a summer English course in the northeastern city of Dalian. We were fortunate to stop-over in Beijing during both ways of our trip.

The Beijing of 1992 is certainly a far cry from the post-Olympic model which has swelled to more than 21 million people and is famous for the smog which leaves a permanent blanket over the city. I can’t speak to that image of Beijing, but I can speak to the one which has left an indelible mark on my mind because of the grandeur of history which sat before my eyes.

For me, visiting Beijing was like looking into the past and trying to understand an ancient culture which my country boy, Pennsylvania eyes had trouble comprehending. But I did enjoy the trying.

I remember standing in the middle of Tienanmen Square just trying to understand the scope of what I saw. The large portrait of Mao. The elaborate Forbidden City. I remember our tour guide taking us into the labyrinth of buildings with the curved roofs. He said, if my memory serves me right, that one could sleep in a different room in the Forbidden City each night and wouldn’t duplicate one until they were 60 years old. It was awe-inspiring.

But then we went to The Great Wall and took a picture on the wall which my mother had framed. It was one of those moments in life that you just want to last forever, to take a deep breath and take in the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and try to understand the scope and scale of things which enabled them both to be.

Visiting Beijing and the surrounding region was indeed one of those magical times for a boy never imagined an opportunity to take in the roots of an ancient civilization such as China.

Whatever else Beijing is to others – a mecca for food, shopping, modern culture and development, to me Beijing is about history and heritage thus making it one of my favorite places in Asia.

To review the list so far:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. ????