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.