Beijing, China
Beijing, China

Next Year in Beijing?

Jun 4, 2007

Today, June 4, is the 18th anniversary of the bloody ending to the Tiananmen Square protests. Once more, many both inside and outside China will pause to remember and to grieve. And once more, there will be no public commemorations allowed in Beijing.

In April 1989, students began flocking to Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing. Initially they came to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a former leader who had lost his position after supporting short-lived student protests in 1986. But this time, the demonstrations were not quickly suppressed. The numbers of protesters kept growing and by the beginning of June thousands of students were camping out in the Square. Labor activists, intellectuals, workers, and even government officials also took up their pleas for reform—more democracy, less corruption, better housing—a pack of pent-up demands. They were not asking for the overthrow of the government, but for change from within.

Hundreds of thousands of troops were moved into the city, but the citizens of Beijing brought flowers, water, and food to the young soldiers. "Comrades, brothers," they shouted. "Don't move! Don't harm our country's children." And the troops obeyed.

The weeks wore on, the weather grew hotter, and the numbers of people—and piles of ripening garbage—grew in the Square. Normal life was at a standstill. But still the authorities did nothing. It seemed they were paralyzed.

After five years in Beijing, I had moved to Hong Kong a few months before, but was back in Beijing that May. As my friends and I walked to the Square, ten minutes before we got there we could hear the chanting of hundreds of voices. I remember staying in the Square until late at night on May 14, the day before Mikhai Gorbachev was to arrive in Beijing. There was an air of carnival, of euphoria, despite the students on hunger strike hidden inside makeshift tents.

Perhaps it was partly giddiness brought on by fear. Many of us expected the troops to storm the Square any minute. Gorbachev's historic visit marked the resumption of normal relations between the two nations after decades of estrangement, and surely the government would clear the Square before he arrived. But nothing happened. It was impossible to hold Gorbachev's welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen as planned, and instead of making a grand entrance, he was whisked straight into the Great Hall of the People that looks out on the Square. He and his entourage came and went and still the students had not moved. What a loss of face for the authorities! Something had to give.

Then came the crackdown. On the night of June 3, the tanks lumbered to life and rolled in. This time they kept on going, firing bullets and tear gas at the many Beijingers who tried to stop them, ploughing over the overturned buses that had been set up as roadblocks. By the time they reached the Square, most of the protesters had already been persuaded to leave, so it may really be true, as the government claims, that "nobody died in Tiananmen Square." The worst fighting, and the majority of injuries and deaths—most labeled "suicides" or "accidents" on death certificates—were on the streets of Beijing. Nobody knows how many people died, many of them innocent bystanders. Estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.

Immediately after Tiananmen, the state machinery moved into high gear. Some protest leaders managed to slip out of the country through a Chinese "underground railroad", but many more were rounded up and interrogated, some imprisoned. Back in Beijing in early July, I learned that Beijingers were having stepped-up political study sessions to discuss the "incident," as the government called it. At first, I was told, there were angry outbursts and some refused to speak in silent protest. But gradually most people were worn down and gave lip service to the Party line. I learned that students at Beijing University, the most prestigious in China, and the most prominent in the demonstrations, had to attend "patriotic education" classes, while some were sent away for a year to camps just outside the city, where they attended lectures and worked the fields.

On every lamppost was a notice listing a phone number for people to call and inform on those who had spent time at the Square—which was most of Beijing. Every hour TV programs stopped to broadcast a government film of the "incident," showing gory footage of flames, chaos, and the blackened bodies of a few soldiers who had been lynched and burned. While the demonstrations were going on, the authorities had quietly installed video cameras on the lampposts along Chang An Avenue leading to the Square. They used the footage to make this film and to identify protest ringleaders.

The relentless propaganda appears to have been quite effective. We know that word of June 4 got out to many big cities—there were violent riots in Xi'an and Chengdu in the aftermath—but in those days, over 80 percent of China's population lived in the countryside, and for many, their only news came from state radio and TV. How much did they know about what happened? Later in 1989 I remember visiting a village only 50 miles from Beijing, where locals talked of the sinister group that had plotted to overthrow the government and that had killed soldiers.

Back in Hong Kong in the days following June 4, friends, colleagues, and I tried to get the word out by faxing the Hong Kong newspapers to every fax number in China we knew, and I agonized over what to do next. I worked in the tourism industry, bringing tourists to China and thus helping the Chinese government. Should I quit my job? To my surprise, my Chinese friends urged me not to. "We need people from the outside coming in," they said. "The last thing we want is for China to be cut off from the world." With much misgiving, I stayed.

But tourists stayed away. China was a pariah. Then the following year the Asian Games were held in Beijing, and I was sent to live and work in the specially-built Asian Games Village. Here was Beijing's chance to show the world what they could do, part of their campaign to claw their way back to respectability in the world arena and most of all, an opportunity to rehearse for a bid for the Olympics in 2000. A victorious Olympic bid would signify that China had won the acceptance of the international community.

Everything had to be perfect for the Asian Games. To show their flexibility, the Chinese government even welcomed a team from their archenemy, Taiwan, referred to, in a delicate compromise, as "Chinese Taipei."

The city gleamed. In addition to the new infrastructure—the Asian Games Village with its sports arenas and apartments, a new ring road around the city—Beijing was given a cosmetic makeover for the occasion. I was told that every state worker in the city (and in those days most people worked for the state) had their salaries docked for months before the games took place, forced to give a "contribution" to the beautification of Beijing. Planners carefully calculated the routes that visitors' buses would take, and acted accordingly. All those living in apartments along these routes had to display geraniums on their balconies. The walls along the little lanes and alleyways leading off from the main streets were painted gray, their bricks pointed with white—but only as far as could be seen from the windows of a speeding bus. Then the paint stopped. In the city center new gray and white walls went up to hide shabby neighborhoods, while on the outskirts, in case tourists ventured that far, workers put up temporary hardboard walls, painted to look like gray and white bricks.

The people of Beijing were on their best behavior. "Troublemakers" of all kinds—dissidents, itinerant workers—were ordered to stay indoors or rounded up and sent outside the city. Taxi drivers struggled to learn some standard English phrases. Street cleaners and traffic wardens were issued colorful smocks and baseball caps, and they tried to learn some English too. The closing ceremony was held in Tiananmen Square and the entire city was locked down. Nobody could go in or out of the city center without a special pass.

And the sky was a deep, clear blue. Even in 1990, Beijing's air was badly polluted and the sky was usually a dull, pewter gray or a pale, sickly yellow. But for the duration of the Games, no trucks were allowed in the city during the daytime and for once, every day you could see the outline of the Western Hills on the horizon.

The Asian Games were a success. But the memory of Tiananmen was still fresh and many in western countries did not want to see China host the Olympics in 2000. In the end, China lost the bid by two votes, much to the disappointment of not just the government but of all Chinese.

Much has changed in China since 1989. Although there is a tremendous and growing gap between rich and poor, and China is wrestling with enormous problems—corruption and the devastation of the environment in particular—for millions of people in cities such as Beijing, this is an era of unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity. In 2001, China was accepted into the WTO, after 15 years of hard lobbying and negotiations. Earlier the same year, they won the bid for the 2008 Olympics. All over China people celebrated. Like the Asian Games, the Olympics will probably run like clockwork. Once again, taxi-drivers are busy learning English. Once again, the skies of Beijing will be blue. This time around, though, it will not be enough to simply ban trucks from entering Beijing. Dozens of factories in and around the city are being closed down and moved away.

Will there come a day when there is more political freedom in China and when the truth of what happened in 1989 is publicly acknowledged? Many believe that the loosening of economic controls will eventually bring political liberalization also, as has happened in other countries. But there are no guarantees. China has confounded expectations before.

In my opinion, there are some parallels with Taiwan. After June 4 (6-4, as it's known in China), you could say that the Chinese government made a deal with its citizens: "We'll give you the freedom to get rich, to move from place to place, to choose your own job, to amuse yourselves with all imaginable kinds of consumer goods and entertainments," said the government. "But don't mess with politics." Until not so long ago, Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) government had a similar arrangement with the local native-born Taiwanese. The exiles from mainland China and their children dominated politics and ruled with martial law, while the Taiwanese made money.

Taiwan also had its June 4. In Taiwan it was 2-2-8: February 28, 1947. At the end of World War II, Taiwan, which had been a Japanese colony for 50 years, was returned to China, then under the rule of the KMT government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang sent a new governor-general and army forces to run the island, and to their dismay the local Taiwanese soon found that their new rulers, originally welcomed as blood brothers, were worse than the Japanese. There was tremendous discontent with the KMT's autocratic and corrupt administration, which exacerbated post-war shortages and hardship. On February 27, when soldiers beat up an old woman for selling black market cigarettes, this resentment boiled over into protests and demonstrations. The KMT reacted with ferocity. Starting on February 28, soldiers went on a three-day rampage, massacring civilians. Fighting went on all over Taiwan for several weeks afterwards before the Taiwanese were finally subdued. Students in particular—most of them schoolboys—were singled out and killed. The tragedy was on a much larger scale than that of Tiananmen. Death toll estimates across this small island range from 10,000 to 20,000 civilians.

For decades it was forbidden to mention 2-2-8. When I lived in Taiwan in the mid-1970s, some dissident Taiwanese friends told me about it in hushed voices behind closed doors. Just as with 6-4 in China today, many young people knew little or nothing about it. It was not until the late 1970s, after the death of Chiang-Kai-shek, that some groups dared to petition for an investigation. In 1987 Chiang's son and successor quietly lifted martial law and talk of 2-2-8 was no longer taboo. In 1995, almost exactly 50 years after the event, President Lee Teng-hui—a local Taiwanese but leader of the KMT party which was gradually transforming itself from within—finally made a formal apology on behalf of the government.

One day, there will also be a formal apology for June 4. As in Taiwan, Beijing will build a memorial for those who died, and maybe June 4 will become an official day of commemoration, as February 28 is in Taiwan. Will it take 50 years? Perhaps. Nobody knows.

But in November 2005 came a sign that it may be it sooner than that. Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the 1989 protests, was officially rehabilitated. The Washington Post quoted a retired official who attended the ceremony, but who would only speak on condition of anonymity. "It's already been 16 years," he said. "The fact that they can take a small step forward isn't bad. We can't expect them to take a big step."

As the newspaper went on to note, however, the ceremony was scaled down considerably from the original plans. President Hu Jintao pointedly did not attend, and since taking office in 2003, he has cracked down on journalists, religious groups, and other elements of civil society. (Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, November 19, 2005). We may still have many years to wait. Just as in Taiwan, I believe that real change in China, whenever it comes, will most likely come from within. But the rest of the world has a role to play also, and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which the Chinese care about so much, provide an opportunity to do so.

World opinion is already beginning to have an effect. China got its wish. It is now much more integrated into the world community, but this has made it more vulnerable to outside pressure than before. For some time now, various groups and individuals have been calling for China to change its stance on Darfur and China is beginning to listen. Actress Mia Farrow has been very active and director Steven Spielberg, who is serving as an artistic advisor to the 2008 Olympics, wrote an letter to Hu Jintao in April (which Spielberg made public in May), asking the government to end its opposition to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Sudan. By mid-April China had sent an envoy to Sudan and there are signs that it may be privately pressuring the Sudanese government.

While the world community applauds China's achievements, it must also continue to lobby for improved human rights inside China, where political and religious freedom is still severely restricted. It should criticize its relationship not only with Sudan, but also with Burma, one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

In 1989, my friends in China told me that the best way to help China was to continue to bring in outside influences, not to walk away. This is how the world can help—not from a position of superiority but in a constructive spirit of friendship. Until the day comes when Chinese people can speak freely for themselves, those of us who care deeply about China have a moral responsibility not to remain silent.

And what a wonderful gesture it would be if the Chinese government chose to acknowledge June 4 in 2008. "Next year in Jerusalem," say Jewish people every Passover, symbolizing their hope to live as a free people in their own land. How about, "Next year in Beijing?"

Postscript: On June 4, 2007, for the first time in 18 years, Deng Zilin, leader of a group called the Tiananmen Mothers, was allowed to visit the site of her son's death, a spot a few kilometers from Tiananmen Square.

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