|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.
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