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Tiananmen Square on my mind

Twenty years ago today, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and crushed a peaceful protest with harrowing force that left hundreds dead, I was too caught up in my own pain to give more than a fleeting glance to reports from the scene. My mother was dying of brain cancer. In the omnipresent fog of impending bereavement, I couldn’t mourn the students whose mangled bikes were their only memorial. I couldn’t ask what it meant that innocent people, united by their own fleeting hopes for a better way to love their country, had been mowed down by the People’s Liberation Army.

Now I can’t get that question off my mind.

Two Sundays ago, on as clear a day as we could hope to see in notoriously polluted Beijing, my husband and I strolled out of our hotel on Chang’an Avenue, steps away from the spot where the lone protester known only as Tank Mantransfixed the world by stopping an army tank with nothing but two shopping bags and desperate chutzpah. We craned our necks at the gigantic portrait of ruddy-faced Chairman Mao, a prime photo op for beaming Chinese tourists. After passing a security check, my husband and I stood in Tiananmen Square as a phalanx of soldiers marched by. They looked as young as the students must have been, rigid with resolve yet untouched by life. Their very presence said, “Don’t even think of trying anything here.”

The Chinese have a genius for designing spaces that exalt the mighty and intimidate the powerless. The nearly 9,000-room Forbidden City, where emperors once held sway, seems to me an architectural warm-up for Tiananmen Square—the largest urban square in the world at 100 acres, and the home of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. A mere speck of a white-sneakered tourist, I tried to get my mind around the vast proportions of the place. I might as well have tried to inhaleMoby Dick in a day or swallow a giant rib-eye in one gulp.

And the monumental crux of it was this: we were?standing where the massacre happened.

Yesterday in The Guardian I read the most powerful account I’ve yet seen of the slaughter and its aftermath, by novelist Ma Jian, whose books are banned in China. A few months ago, he returned to Beijing to interview others who were there.

Thanks to Ma Jian, I know that the place where I stood in my scuffed white sneakers was the place where a distraught teenage boy rushed at soldiers with a rock in his hand, crying, “You shot my brother! I want to avenge his death!” only to be fatally shot himself.

Where a young man lost his arm as a tank ran over him and 13 others, all killed (every June 4 since then, police have camped out in the maimed man’s home to prevent him from telling his story to foreign journalists).

Where 7,000 fledgling soldiers, village boys pressed into service and disguised as civilians on army orders, were transported in public buses with concealed assault rifles.

Where the same soldiers were later charged with cleaning the Square and burning all evidence of the massacre. One of them told Ma Jian, “I walked across the swath of flattened tents, blankets, sandals and leaflets, and picked up two journals and one long plait of black hair tied at the bottom with a plastic band. I guessed that some girl must have cut it off in despair before the army arrived …”

The Museum of Chinese History, on the east side of the square, is silent on the subject of the massacre. This week, in a fit of 20th anniversary paranoia, the Chinese government blocked Twitter and other social networking sites. Today’s young Chinese know almost nothing about the events of June 4. They exude a proud innocence, both touching and troubling. Not far from the Square, as we searched for the Temple of Heaven, a boy about eight waved to us and said, in accented but exuberant English, “Welcome to Beijing!” Part of me wondered why we’ve never received such a welcome in any other country (or extended one to tourists in our own). The other part asked if this boy will ever be allowed to acquire the perspective that defines an informed citizen—of his own country and the world.

My birth year, 1949, was the year of Mao’s Communist Revolution. When I was a child in the Cold War years, people used to speak of “Red China.” I thought of the Chinese as mindless drones in identical Mao suits, with no purpose but following orders. My social studies teacher quoted Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep. For when China wakes it will shake the world.”

The China we saw last month was, at first glance, wide awake and swaggering, with a full-throttle zest for?state-of-the-art infrastructure?that puts Canada to shame. Why can’t we have a high-speed train from the airport to downtown (Shanghai’s makes the journey in seven minutes flat)? Why do we pay $2.75 to ride Toronto’s dated and inadequate subway system, when Beijingers can go anywhere in the capital for a quarter (although they’ll most likely have to stand?). If we could muster a fraction of China’s commitment to mass transit, wouldn’t more people get out of their cars? You can’t help but marvel at Chinese initiative. And by the way, there wasn’t a Mao suit to be seen: a buoyant middle class flaunted low-slung shorts and sequined T-shirts. Yet what haunts me now is the human cost—the people displaced from ramshackle but cohesive communities and isolated in suburban apartments, the irreplaceable old buildings demolished to make way for skyscrapers and, above all, the silence of repression. The country’s soul—a good part of it, anyway—is still asleep.

Ma Jian puts it this way: “The Chinese have made a faustian pact with the government, agreeing to forsake demands for political and intellectual freedom in exchange for more material comfort. They live prosperous lives in which any expression of pain is forbidden. When I talk to young Chinese about 1989, I am invariably accused of spreading false rumours and being a traitor to my nation; when I bring up the subject with my old friends, most of them laugh scornfully, as if those events are now irrelevant. But I know that behind this show of derision or apathy lies real fear. Everyone knows that attempts to break the Tiananmen taboo can still destroy a person’s life and the lives of their families.”

Some vacations remind me of Hollywood blockbusters: they go by in a blur of special effects and then I hardly give them a thought. Our trip to China was more like a grainy and gritty foreign film that lingers on the mind long after the closing credits roll. After we saw The Lives of Others, we couldn’t stop discussing the tough moral issues that it raised. These days we’re talking about China.

Click here and here for my previous posts from China. I wanted to write others. A charmingly complex tea ritual, the surprising richness of Chinese home cooking, the staggering vista from the Great Wall, Mao’s?oversized head glowing orange in his death dome, where he lies surrounded by lilies…it all cried out for comment, but the Chinese government makes it tough for foreigners to use Internet cafes.

Posted by Rona

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