Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tiananmen Square, I will not forget you

Tiananmen Square. What comes to mind? Chinese patriotism and a longing to see the national flag raised at sunrise? An image of a lone man bravely standing as the sole blockade against a row of advancing tanks?

Tiananmen Square: Monument to People's Heroes and the Great Hall of the People 

Twenty-five years ago, I was a university student working in a microbiology laboratory in Houston, Texas. Three of my labmates were Chinese graduate students who were closely attuned to the pro-democracy movement taking place in Beijing. Knowing that they would one day return to their home country and with so many of the protesters being university students their own age, possibly friends, the topic came up day after day as we did our experiments.

The protests began in April 1989 after the death of a popular liberal reformer. At one point, a million people were crammed into Tiananmen Square, the epicenter of the movement. A hunger strike stoked nationwide support for the movement, and martial law was declared on May 20.

On June 4, 1989 — twenty-five years ago today — it all came to a head when military forces were mobilized against the protestors. Tanks, anti-riot police, machine guns and assault rifles all made an appearance in an effort to quell the crowd. Official Chinese reports state that 200-300 people died that day. Amnesty International estimates that it was actually several hundred to up to 1,000 dead. Still, they did not disperse.

Then came the Tank Man. The next day, this courageous, anonymous man stood alone against a column of tanks. That is the image that came to symbolize Tiananmen Square for foreigners observing the action from their televisions and newspapers.

One of the Chinese grad students in the lab became a spokesperson in Houston for the movement. I remember seeing him on the nightly news trying to bring awareness and support to his fellow countrymen. I remember him selling T-shirts with an image of Tank Man emblazoned across the front. I still have it hanging in my closet at home as a reminder of that time and not to take the freedoms enjoyed by Americans in the United States for granted.

Last October, my family visited Beijing, and I wanted to go to Tiananman Square. Its location adjacent to the Forbidden City made it an easy stop. The entrance to the Forbidden City is called Tiananman Gate, and it's where the Square got its name.

Tiananman Gate (entrance to the Forbidden City) and the flagpole Chinese tourist come out to see.

For the Chinese, a visit to Tiananman Square is comparable to Americans wanting to visit the National Mall in Washington, D.C. or to the British heading to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard. They go there because they are proud of their country and want to experience a patriotic event like the raising of the Chinese flag at sunrise while a military band plays.

Our tour guide said that she had never heard of the Tiananmen Square Massacre until she started working and her tour customers asked her about it. She had to do secretive research to learn a part of modern Chinese history that is not taught at Chinese schools. For them, the massacre never existed. I tried to search for it on the internet while in my Beijing hotel room, and no results came up. My blog doesn't show up either. It's the Great Firewall of China at work.

On the Sunday morning we arrived, Tiananmen Square was strangely devoid of crowds. The entire square was cordoned off, much to the disappointment of Chinese tourists who had made the pilgrimage there. Even the streets running on either side of the square were blocked off from most vehicular traffic. It turns out that we had arrived a few hours after the Beijing Marathon had kicked off from this very location.

Chairman Mao Memorial Hall with the Beijing Marathon starting gate

It's hard to align this image with the one of a million voluntarily starving protesters packing into Tiananmen Square. I tried to juxtapose the picture of Tank Man blocking the tanks with the current day scenario of many tour groups of Chinese holiday goers proudly posing for photos against these national landmarks.

I will never forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but many of the Chinese never knew about it in the first place. It's already forgotten.



This post is part of the following link ups. Please check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

27 comments:

  1. I have recently read that the young generation of Chinese know nothing about the massacre. I find it amazing how a country can try to ignore such a thing.
    This is a great post - and really hits home hard since you worked with people close to the situation. How interesting to visit it after all these years. I don't understand why your blog wouldn't show up in China. Hard to believe you have something to say that the Chinese are concerned about.

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  2. It is unbelievable that the Chinese people haven't heard about this, that it doesn't exist in their schools or on their internet. The thought has left me speechless...

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    1. PS - I included this post in my latest monthly round up :)

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  3. I find it shocking but not surprising, that the Chinese government can totally block anything they want to from their citizens. The U.S newsmen had to give their report during this week about the Tank Man and the massacre about three blocks away. No reporters and cameras were allowed on this famous square. They reported that the event is a "blank page" and no one is allowed to report that it ever happened. How they could take thousands of massacred bodies away and families can't bury and grieve for their children is so sad. When you live in America, too much is taken for granted. Thanks for your first hand report on this anniversary.

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  4. Michele, Very interesting. Thought provoking. I found Tiananmen Square to be huge, impersonal, and hot (all that pavement). I saw lots of tourists and many Chinese, but I didn't realize that it was a place that meant so much to them. Great article!

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  5. Michele, Are you on twitter?

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    1. Alas, I have not made the jumpnto being active in Twitter.

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  6. I'm also amazed like other commenters that young Chinese don't know about this history, but then, I'm also not surprised when I think about it. The ability to censor history in a country such as China is powerful. I visited in 94 and 96 once in summer and once in winter. I found the winter mist and general cold much more atmospheric. I remember being struck by just how enormous a space it is.

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  7. It hadn't occurred to me that the younger generation wouldn't even know about what happened only 25 years ago. I am not surprised at your blog being blocked there (at least based on some of the US news reports about information blocking). I do show 'hits/visits' on my blog stats from China so I suspect those are my bot-blog-buddies at work, not real humans. Such a timely post - great one!

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  8. Visiting Tiananmen Square was a unique experience.

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  9. thank you for this story. It is amazing how enormous events like this disappear into the history books in some places - and not for the first time in history, and probably not the last. Sad. and yes, such a timely post with the anniversary of the momentous day. Thank you.

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  10. Hi Michelle, a very interesting and touching post. I can't believe it has been 25 years. The coverage of the massacre is still fresh on my mind. When I visited the square I felt quite uneasy because I associated it so much with that bloody incident. It teared me a bit when I read that you hang the t-shirt as a reminder of the importance of freedom. We tend to take our freedom for granted and I think it's important to have a reminder. It's interesting how the young generation in China is so clueless about this significant event in their history which is occurred not too long ago. I'm not surprise though. Great post.

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  11. Thanks for sharing your memories of this historic moment in history. I can only imagine how surreal it must feel to stand in Tiananmen Square today, and I hope to make the journey there myself one of these days. I hope that in the coming years, the young people in China will rise to bring about extraordinary changes in their country.

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  12. THIS IS CRAZY. Wow, I often forget about the censorship that still exists in China. We are so concerned with talking about the chinese economy, export growth, currency devaluation etc. etc. and yet Western media never really talks about how this is still a population of people left in the DARK. It is sad. Sad for them to not know their own history and also sad for us, because you're right, this is an event that is already forgotten. Once books were burned, and now keywords are banned.

    Thank you so much for this post.

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  13. It is frightening that Chinese people don't know what goes on in their own country. No wonder the gap between east and west is so... Particularly sad for those that protested and gave their lives.

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  14. Yes it's frightening, that in this day and age a significant moment of history can be completely censored and a billion plus population kept in the dark.

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  15. What an amazing place to visit... Hope to make it there one day...

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  16. I had a very strange feeling in Tienanmen Square... on one hand, it was amazing. But on the other, it was too empty, too perfect to be real. It was almost creepy. When I found out how much it was censored in China, everything made perfect sense. It's unbelievable. Thanks for sharing your post.

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  17. I had no idea that China completely has written off this historical event, that is extreme censoring! It's sad to think they're preventing people from learning about an important part of their own history and keep them in the dark and uneducated. I remember learning about Tiananmen square and was shocked to hear about it.

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  18. Very interesting and I'm not surprised that information about this is blocked in China. I am a bit surprised that people do not remember or pass along the information to their children, etc. It is scary how people are kept in the dark about their own history - it is always good to learn from our own history or else we will keep making the same mistakes. I wish there was less censorship in China and other places around the world.

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  19. I've never been to China (unless you count Hong Kong which is so completely different), and I cannot imagine what it must be like to live within that censorship. But, I guess you wouldn't know if the government has their way. I would like to visit Beijing one day and see where all this history occurred - even if they deny it.

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  20. Very interesting tour. I know about the massacre of course, but was only 5 when it happened so it is just historical information to me rather than something of which I have memories. The censorship issue is hard to imagine!

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  21. Such a powerful visit. Very glad you got the chance to see it.

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  22. This is totally sad. But as they said: "History is written by victors". And in China the goverement obviously creates a reallity they want people to believe in.

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  23. I remember Tank Man and being glued to the TV watching the news. I'm glad you were able to visit. Though, it looks completely different from how I would have imagined it. That is so sad and interesting about the younger generation not knowing about the massacre and such an important part of their history. Are the older generations censored from talking about it too?

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  24. The censorship is crazy to think about especially since I haven't been to China and crazy to think they don't know about their own history. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!

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