Tiananmen, squared

Thursday, 4 June 2009 — 11:04pm

I am usually not the sort to aggregate the coverage of world events, but for the remembrance of what happened twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square I will make a special exception. No other event of geopolitical consequence has made a more indelible impression on the family history. Indeed, Tiananmen is probably my earliest memory, however hazy, of living in a world of monumental scope, where the actions of strangers far away crept through the news on the television set and into your very lives. I was four.

There is really no understating the anxiety in Hong Kong at the time: it was so palpable a toddler could feel it. Only five years earlier had Thatcher made the cessation of the colony to the People’s Republic a certainty with a date stamped on it, and there was reasonable cause for worry that the fate of the Tiananmen students would be the fate of Hong Kong as well. I have a theory that this was the final shred of evidence my parents needed to affirm that packing the bags and spending the rest of their adult lives in Canada would be the right move from there. In this household, no name was spoken with as much revulsion as that of Deng Xiaoping. When Deng croaked in the early weeks of 1997, there was more than a little jubilant schadenfreude that he did not live to see the handover.

In case anybody is under any delusions that the China is a repentant modern state unafraid of the history it has made for itself, take one look at the schizophrenia of its media control. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Here is footage of Beijing authorities shutting down BBC reporter James Reynolds with the aid of plainclothesmen carrying umbrellas on a suspiciously sunny day. Reynolds’ account is here, and one only need scroll down to see the shocking comments of Chinese apologists still in denial. (I don’t know if they’re propagandists or civilians, or which of the two would be the more depressing.)

John Simpson, the reporter from the original BBC broadcast of 4 June 1989, has this to say:

There is a noticeable lack of confidence, a nervousness, at the heart of a system which has otherwise been spectacularly successful, industrially, economically and socially. […] It is embarrassing to hear intelligent, highly educated officials who would have sympathised with the students at the time, calling the massacre “the incident”, or even pretending it did not happen.

James Miles, also a BBC correspondent at the time, provides a fascinating account, ascribing the discrepancies in the reporting to the fact that the majority of the killings occurred throughout Beijing and not in the square itself.

The New York Times Lens Blog has a feature on the photographs of the man blocking the tanks. The BBC interviews Jeff Widener, who snapped the shot for the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, 150,000 attended a vigil in Victoria Park—an encouraging sign in the face of reports that Tiananmen is ill-understood by Hong Kong youth. The helplessness of the Chinese government there is splendid to watch, and anyone who celebrated the former colony’s handover as a death blow for the British Empire should bear in mind the good that western liberal ideals and institutions have done for the place.

Charles Burton provides a Canadian perspective here, reminding us that meaningful change in China sure isn’t coming from the state.

Finally, an anecdote. Last year my mother showed me a book she received from old friends in Hong Kong, a large-format photo history of the former British colony. There was a full-page photograph of a protest march that filled a city street. On the front lines, bearing a bold red banner, were my parents and a handful of extended relatives shouting something with a furious look in their eyes. As someone who had the luxury of growing up in a country where real threats to liberty have simply never materialized, it was a rare moment of discovery where I suddenly perceived the historical intrigue concealed in ordinary life.


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