Tiananmen - still hard to forget, ten years on; That Summer: China, 1989
Two years after the massacre, I re-visited the square - and, beyond the ice cream vendors, it was obvious the party had rewritten history
Saturday 26 June 1999
On 4 June 1989 I was teaching in south-west China when the troops moved into Tiananmen Square. I still recall hearing the news on the BBC World Service over a Sunday morning breakfast. I knew at once that life in China would never be the same again. And when I finally left - two summers later - the last thing I did was to re-visit Tiananmen Square. It had seen history before. On 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao stood on the balcony of the Forbidden City and declared that the Chinese people had stood up. Communism had arrived, and with it the promise of a new society. In 1966 he stood there again, this time to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A million adoring Red Guards filled the 100-acre square, waving their Little Red Books as they chanted the name of their god.
The Cultural Revolution had turned sour and was now described as the "Ten Lost Years". Mao had been officially declared "70 per cent good". And Tiananmen Square had witnessed its greatest drama yet. According to the People's Daily, it had been the scene of "a great victory". Everyone else called it a massacre.
But was it true? The Chinese would have us believe that it never happened, that the horror movie on our screens was a product of Western fiction. They could rewrite, even eradicate, history for a grateful population only too glad to remove the guilt from their collective consciousness. They could turn the square back from a symbol of repression into one of prosperity at the heart of a modern city, so visitors to Tiananmen would think about the future, not the past.
And they had done it. When I returned, there was no trace of 1989. Children flew kites around the Monument to the People's Heroes, which two years earlier had been the rebel headquarters. Pedlars sold Mickey Mouse masks and candied hawthorns on sticks. Lovers posed for photographs in front of Chairman Mao's portrait and ice-cream vendors did business under enormous parasols. Sleek black limos cruised the boulevards around the square but, on Tiananmen itself, all traffic was forbidden.
The square belonged to the people. The atmosphere was more street party than Communist Party. To the north was the Forbidden City, where generations of emperors led sheltered lives in palaces of ivory and jade. Next door, behind a high wall, the new emperors took refuge from their subjects in the new forbidden city, the party and state compound of Zhongnanhai.
To the west was the Great Hall of the People, built by volunteer labour in 1959 at the height of the Great Leap Forward, when China aimed to overtake Britain's economy in 15 years and the people really believed it could be done. These days the Great Hall houses the Congress chamber where China's parliament meets each spring for its two-week annual charade of democracy. I joined a guided tour and watched the Chinese day-trippers amuse themselves by sitting in the deputies' chairs and toying with the electronic voting devices.
To the east was the Museum of the Revolution, constantly being adapted to take account of each new shift in the political wind. A photograph of student protesters in 1919, astonishingly dated 4 June, was captioned: "Patriotic students calling for democracy". Hadn't anyone noticed the irony? Then there was a "primitive wooden plough share" designed to illustrate the suffering of peasants under feudalism. In Guizhou, where I had been teaching, the farmers still used those in the fields.
To the south, a dutiful queue of pilgrims filed slowly across the square, passing the sculptures of model workers, soldiers and peasants on their way into the chairman's mausoleum. The men removed their caps as they walked silently past the crystal sarcophagus, then joined the queue at the souvenir stall to buy cigarettes packets bearing Mao's name.
Fifty yards away, the world's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken was churning out chicken and chips to Chinese youths anxious to demonstrate their support for Western values. A meal costs several days wages, but there was no shortage of takers.
The chairman looked down sternly from half a mile away across the square, those large brown eyes surveying a scene that he had been determined to resist. Capitalism, fashion, fast food and tourism had taken over where once there was revolutionary purity and hysteria. A great victory - or a massacre?
The author was a VSO English teacher in China from 1989-91
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