Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Reflections on Tiannamen Square

I remember my first visit to Tiannamen Square. It was for the national holiday in November marking when the Communists gained control of China. It was my first trip up to Beijing.
I was nervous and did not know what to expect. I was surprised at how the Chinese responded to Tiannamen. They wanted to take us there so we could see it. No one mentioned June 4th. Foremost in my mind, of course, was the Tiannamen Square massacre. I figured they'd want to keep us from there, but everyone just acted like it never happened. I wondered if there would be evidence of the violence that occurred, but we just all loaded up onto the school's bus and drove north.
We spent the day walking around the area, visiting the Forbidden City (where the Emperors lived) that is directly across from the Square and spent time in the Square itself. Basically, it's about a mile square piece of concrete with some memorial statues to great Communists (none of the students who died, of course) and Mao's mausoleum (The Maosoleum) as well as thousands of pots of flowers arranged in neat designs. Across the street on one side is the Great Hall of the People, where government officials work. It's like our Capitol building, but uglier. There were unarmed soldiers around who ended up trying to play with the Nerf football one of the American teachers brought, but appeared to do little as far as the crowds.
The place was packed with people. There were thousands of people in the Square, mostly families, many of whom were busy flying kites. Our group of eight Americans stood out from the crowd and we ended up in group photos with all sorts of people we'd never met before.
It wasn't at all what I expected. I think I thought there would be blood stains on the cement. The only sign that anything had ever occurred were some bullet holes that you could see in a few of the statues. It was basically like a giant concrete park in the middle of the city.
It seemed so surreal to me. It still does. During that year in China I had the opportunity to visit the Square several more times. I even bought a kite and flew my red fish kite in the Square. I have a photograph somewhere of my kite flying over the portrait of Mao. I ended up photographed a lot that day.
When I returned home I had the opportunity to read more and study about what had occurred in those fateful days in the Square in 1989. I cried often as I read. How senseless the deaths all seemed. For centuries, the Square had been the place for the Chinese to protest and air their grievances before the Emperor and the government. The people were in the right place, but one of the big problems was that it was definitely the wrong time.
The students had gathered in the Square to mourn the death of a Chinese official beginning in April. Intellectuals, students and labor activists began to gather together to protest corruption in the government and to try to improve life in China. As the numbers grew and time went on the government struggled with what to do with the protesters. Protests were also occurring around the country.
Things really became more troublesome as the students launched a hinger strike just before the well-known arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev for an official government visit. It didn't look too good to have hundreds of thousands of people protesting right in front of the home of the government. (I've often wondered what would have been different if the students had chosen a different location.) Plus, there were a lot of foreign press agents who began to let the rest of the world know what was happening, so the government couldn't hide and save face. It felt compelled to do something.
In the end, no one may know all that went on. Official reports put the number of dead at 200-300, but other reports go from 2,o0o-3,000. Many died outside the Square itself as they tried to keep the soldiers and tanks from entering the city. Innocent bystanders died as well. So many were arrested and are still jailed. Others are just considered missing. Some protesters have even found their way here.
All said, it was an awful event. How sad to me is that it could reoccur at any time. Corruption is rampant, and while the average citizen of China has access to more material goods than ever before, their access to the basic freedoms we take for granted is limited. The face Beijing will show at the upcoming Olympics will be a friendly on. However, behind that mask will be citizens locked up in their homes because it is feared that they may try to protest, or somehow show that everything is not as wonderful in the Peoples' Republic as the official voices say it is.
It's hard to believe that many in China do not even know about the Massacre. Here's a link to a newspaper story that just came out today. Information is so controlled still. Things like cell phones and the Internet can change the way people find out things, but progress is slow.
I miss the Chinese people. I miss my students. I miss the friends I made there. I miss so much and yet am ever so thankful that I can live here freely in America, write freely, and worship God freely. Pray for China.

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