Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

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.


What’s Going On in Hong Kong?

One country, two systems.

In 1997, Hong Kong was transferred back to China after Britain’s 100 year lease expired. The British-Chinese transfer agreement stated that, while Hong Kong would from that point on be under the sovereignty of the Beijing government, it would remain “untouched” in that certain civil liberties and democratic ideals which were not realized in mainland China would continue in Hong Kong for the next 50 years. 1997-2047.

One country, two systems.

What would happen in 2047 remains unknown, but perhaps the current demonstrations in Hong Kong are giving us all clues as to what is to come. And should it really come as any surprise?

In a country where anti-government demonstrations are not welcomed and free speech must toe-the-line with official Beijing policy, different pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong are protesting Beijing’s resistance to true democracy in the HK government’s administration. The protesters are demanding that those who want to run for office should not be vetted or chosen by Beijing, ensuring that the top HK administrators are pro-Beijing.

The protests are intense and the images of the Chinese security force flashing their muscle and threatening crackdowns are ominous. The thoughts of the Tienanmen Square Massacre linger easily in one’s mind, even though this is a different situation.

But is it really that different? The main difference is, perhaps, that those living in Hong Kong were under the impression that they had certain democratic rights and civil liberties when in actuality they do not. The pro-democracy students of Tienanmen knew they didn’t have the rights but were demonstrating for them.  Is there really any difference between the two? Not much.

Once again it comes down to power. The communist politburo is afraid that real democratic reform will threaten their power. If only they could realize that power from government is not derived by the gun one wields, it comes from the consent of the governed, and when a government deprives the citizens of their God-given civil liberties, the people have every right to make their demands known and to ask for redress of grievance.

What’s going on in Hong Kong is a struggle of political philosophy. It might end bloodily by the end of a rifle, but that will not be the ultimate ending because people will always strive to be free. It’s their right.

How Governments Use Architecture

I wrote this abstract of Vale’s article listed below. The abstract highlights Vale’s attempt to show how governments use architecture to reinforce their ideology or to link their government to the glorious past. 

Vale, Lawrence J. “Mediated monuments and national identity.” Journal of Architecture 4.4

(Winter 1999): 391-408.

Lawrence J. Vale in this article “explores the relationship between politically  charged  architectural  monuments  and  the media  campaigns  constructed  to  control  (or subvert)  their  interpretation.”  For millenniums conquering regimes and newly established governments have sought to stamp their legitimacy onto the landscape by designing architectural wonders which display their economic prowess or their national identity. Vale asserts that all modern governments use architecture intertwined with media campaigns to demonstrate their power.  Vale shows how the communist Chinese ‘conquered’ Tiananmen Square by opening the former Emperor’s Forbidden City and hanging the large portrait of communist icon Mao Zedong on its wall.  The Petronas Twin Towers of Malaysia were built as the world’s tallest to show the nation’s economic progress as well as the supremacy of Malaysian’s indigenous Muslim majority.  Vale shows how Saddam Hussein built towers which were exalted by the media as being superior to their counterparts built by their former colonial master the British.  Also, Saddam sought to show a connection to the past Babylonian empire by reconstructing public work projects on the ancient Babylonian site which sought to link the proud modern leader with that of Iraq’s ancient heritage.  Vale’s Marxist approach does not focus on the formal analysis of the designs but seeks to show their importance to their respective countries. Vale in his analysis seeks to show how countries do not so much imbed meaning into the architectural design of these buildings but that the media is used to convey and reinforce the government’s intended purposes for these buildings.  Everything about the Kremlin’s makeover into the symbol of Soviet Russia and about Zimbabwe’s attachment to their great archaeological site which named their country points to the government showing their moral authority, their legitimacy and their national identity.  Vale does a commendable job in showing how media influences the perception of a country through its national architecture.