We All Live in Tiananmen Today

June 4th, 2009; 10:58 am by Ryan Thornburg

Twenty years ago the Chinese military killed perhaps thousands of people as they crushed a pro-democracy movement in Beijing. Two weeks ago I stood in Tiananmen Square for the first time, looking for any remaining hint of the energy and tragedy of that day.

What did I find? Unable to speak Chinese and woefully ignorant of the subtleties of country’s recent history, I was able to take mental snapshots of China, without knowing the signifance or meaning of those images in my head. But today I sit here writing a blog post that my friends in China probably won’t be able to read. And I find it incredibly ironic that while the Chinese government let me freely wander Tianament Square two weeks ago, today it prevents me from speaking freely with friends — or enemies — who live there. In the interconnected world of social media, I feel the spirit and tension of Tiananmen more today while I’m writing this blog post than I did two weeks ago standing in that concrete pasture 7,000 miles away.

Here are my snapshots of China. I’d like your help thinking about what they will mean to us on the 40th anniversary of Tiananmen and the world in which my daughter will be entering when she turns 21 on June 5, 2029.


Full Screen Slideshow

(Conflict of Interest Disclosure: My airfare to Beijing was paid for by the China Internet Information Center, which is controlled and directly funded in large part by the Information Office of the State Council. I was invited to China for the purpose of speaking with the staff of China.org.cn about online journalism, through an ongoing partnership between that Web site and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Censorship and Surveillance in China

I have to admit that one of the sights I was most looking forward to seeing in Beijing was the “Great Firewall of China.” While I worked at washingtonpost.com, our coverage of controversial stories in China often coincided with reports that the site was not available there, so I was looking forward to seeing this first hand. What I found instead was an Internet that was relatively open to controversial subjects, compared to my experiences in other countries such as Dubai. I think the only two sites I couldn’t access were a Time.com blog about China… and this blog. But that was easily overcome by asking friends in the U.S. to cut and past the text of specific stories in to emails.

Of course, the picture of censorship on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square looks much different today. The whole cat and mouse game seems like a sad waste of everyone’s time. It’s tough to create a visual of Internet censorship, but this video from Australia 7 News via Yahoo does a nice dramatic interpretation I think.

The futility in that video is hilarious. Not so funny, though, when the dance between pro-democracy and anti-democracy forces looks more like the final — but often forgotten — final seconds of the video of this famous scene from 1989.

We often see the still image from that sequence as passive resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. But the events at the end — the man climbing up on the tank and looking for the damn door — is a great metaphor for efforts to create online discourse about political freedoms in China: “Come on out, we just want to talk.”

It is important that we try to keep the doors open and respect a two-way free flow of information and opinions. As much as I want the Chinese government to remove any walls that prevent me from speaking directly to my friends and former students there, I also sincerely want to hear the government’s view of the world. You don’t like something reported on washingtonpost.com? Don’t block it, link to it and tell me why not. I’d welcome much more a partisan view of the Tiananmen Square events than a pointless effort to pretend it didn’t happen.

Oddly enough, the kind of censorship I saw most often today was the anachronistic efforts to make lemonade out of lemons in print media. The one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province that crushed school buildings and the children in them. Several American reports have raised serious questions about whether shoddy construction led to unnecessary deaths. And a year later, according to the New York Times, victims of the earthquake are seeking detailed information about the numbers, names, places and causes of thousands of deaths. An American journalist in China with first hand knowledge of the situation told me that residents in the area are still secretly trying to get information about school construction in to the hands of journalists.

But there was no mention of this controversy in China Daily. What did it name it’s special section commemorating the tragedy? “Sichuan … Marching On: Icons and Images” — the images predominantly consisting of smiling children and heroic first-responders.

(On a bizarre side note, the same day’s paper reported that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was greeted in Beijing by a “wall-size poster” of “his smiling visage” and the words “‘the great prophet is coming!’” Reportedly, people paid between USD $850 and $8,500 to hear him speak at Peking University.)

But censorship in China doesn’t come only under the “put-on-a-happy-face” brand. When I showed some folks the JibJab cartoon from the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, one said “If we did that in China, we’d be executed.” It may have been hyperbole, but considering the number of unarmed people shot in back by the Chinese military only 20 years earlier on streets not more than a mile from our conversation, I took the comment as sincere.

The Spirit of the People

Most Americans, I suspect, can hardly imagine what it must be like to live under such a restrictive environment. Speaking only for myself, I’d imagined it would be a country filled with people living daily life with either resigned depression or displaced fear and anger. I didn’t find either. The people whom I met there were joyful for the most part — people who were able to giggle as we discussed the subtle differences between the English words “transgender” and “transvestite.” They were able to debate the finer points of the current season of American Idol. One Sunday morning, I saw hundreds of older and middle-aged men and women playing games in a park.

But the topic of Tiananmen didn’t come up. I’m embarrased that I never asked anyone about it directly. In 1989, many of the people I met must have been about the same age of the students in the square. Many more of the people I met were recent university grads themselves. What snapshots of the events did they have in their minds? What did they mean? Were they anything like the memories I have of seeing the streets of L.A. after the 1992 riots or the smell of the burned-out Pentagon as I drove by it in September and October 2001?

What controversial topics did we discuss? Well, I remember talking about corruption among real estate developers in Beijing. I remember a cross-generational and cross-gender conversation about family planning that surprised me very much. I remember someone asking me why Americans who visited Beijing always said they felt they “needed” to learn Chinese and never said they “wanted” to learn Chinese. I had an interesting conversation about what it meant for a young Chinese person to wear hipster t-shirts with images of old revolutionary posters on them…. we agreed that it didn’t have the same irony I intended with the Mao Zedong wristwatch I purchased at his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

20 Years From Now

One of the great blessing of my life has been my ability to meet people who were once sworn enemies of each other. I’ve met Americans who fought in World War II, Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps, a German man whose father carried a gun for the Nazis and fled as a child from the atrocities of the invading Russian army.

I’ve stayed at an ultra-luxury hotel feet from where President Reagan urged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” I’ve been to a bar in the gutted building that once housed the communist parliament of Easy Germany.

Will my children meet the children of students who were killed in Tiananmen Square and also meet the children of the soldiers who drove the tanks? And, more importantly, will they share a narrative of different perspectives based on a set of common facts?

I’m going to do what I can to make sure they will. I will continue to build personal friendships as well as professional relationships with my own Chinese friends. Maybe not today, but someday, they will read this post and they will comment. They will tell me they disagree.

And one day, all of our children may read the dialog because we did not let another 20 years pass without remembering and discussing and recording together the first rough draft of our shared human history.


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