The Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Square of Vanishing Protestors

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Tiananmen Square
is massive. Once you’re through the metal detectors you’re engulfed in it. You could carve out sixty eight football fields and still have enough room for Mao’s mausoleum. The term ‘Square’ is a bit of a misnomer. It implies ice cream vendors and flower beds, maybe even a duck pond. Certainly there should be somewhere to sit.

Tiananmen is much more like a massive parade ground. There are no benches. No one was peddling cheap plastic junk. The architecture is austere and uninviting and the concrete tiles have socialist utilitarianism written all over them. Mao’s face still stares down from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. China as a nation has ditched the scripture of socialism, but kept its biggest Saint. There were hundreds of tourists but they didn’t seem to be having any fun. It was more like they felt they had a duty to visit. Like a kid dragged to an art gallery they don’t care for, because their parents say its good for them.

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Today the square was cloaked in Beijing’s characteristic polluted haze. That felt appropriate as, to us, more than anything else, Tiananmen is a monument to modern China’s ability to forget times of tumult. They’re behind a haze of censorship. The government tightly controls information about the bloody crackdown against protestors in 1989. There’s a race between dissidents to find new phrases to explain what happened and censors to get them blocked. At times the government has banned the phrases: “4 June”, “June 4”, “35th of May” and once even “the truth”.The shape of what happened on 4 June 1989 and the days that followed is probably better known in the West than in China: under martial law government troops violently evicted students who were protesting in Tiananmen Square. But both we, and the Chinese, should remember some of the detail too:

  • About 2,500 people were killed. That estimate is based on assessments of the Red Cross and Swiss Embassy who visited hospital morgues at the time. Anyone trying to get a more accurate count since has encountered two problems. First, the government persecutes them. Second, many families disavow knowledge of sons and daughters who died.
  • No one died in the square itself. Most of the deaths (including ‘tank man‘s) were in the days after troops invaded when they were seeking to clear streets. Many who died were spectators coming to check out the spectacle, not protestors.
  • None of the student leaders of the protests were killed. They became fugitives in China and many were smuggled to Hong Kong through Operation Yellow Bird.
  • The protestors did want democracy, but that was one of several demands and not the first. Their chief complaint was about government corruption. They presented their complaints to officials with bowed heads. This was more like the Occupy Movement than a terrorist group.
  • The first attempt to disperse the protestors, about ten days earlier, failed. Army trucks were met by upbeat protestors who massed to block their paths to the square. The army had to make an embarrassing retreat. Troops were then exposed to days of indoctrination. Then they were ordered to make their own way to the square on foot where they’d don uniforms, collect weapons and organise as if a Trojan horse.

There is neither memorial to, nor mention of the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square today. But we could hardly think of anything else as we walked around.

There’s a giant flag pole at one end of the square and crowds cheer when the Chinese flag is hoisted on to it at sunrise each morning. It’s hard to believe that they’d cheer so loud if they knew that their government had turned on its own people who were protesting peacefully around about where the protest stands. It’s chilling to realise that they still might.

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