Earlier this month, many news stories marked the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre – that awful event when Chinese troops fired into crowds of student protesters and workers – up to 100,000 – who for days had been calling for Democratic reforms. Unknown numbers were killed. The Chinese Communist government quickly suppressed news of this horrifying tragedy. But, thanks to new worldwide electronic communications, citizens around the world saw those unforgettable pictures of that bloody confrontation in Beijing’s massive Tiananmen Square
Who will ever forget the single, slim dark figure who came from the sidelines and stood Goliath-like in front of an enormous government tank, bristling with guns, his arms raised as he literally defied the tank to run over him. Watching, world collectively held its breath. The tank slowly ground to a halt. Forevermore, this figure is known as “tank man.” Now the world is again watching as thousands and thousands of young Iranian students have taken to the streets of Tehran to protest the results of Iran’s highly disputed “democratic” election.
While I have no claims to being “an old China hand,” Steve and I did make it to Tiananmen Square a few years ago on a three-week tour of that remarkable part of the world. Our main Chinese tour guides, “Vivian” and “Richard,” were wonderfully bright, personable, experienced and thoroughly competent in keeping track of some 30 aging American tourists. Still groggy from jetlag (Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Beijing) late that afternoon, we assembled for our tour of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and other nearby treasures of this centuries-old civilization.
I was unprepared for the size of the square – a vast open expanse of perhaps 60 or more acres. It’s surface was tiled in deep, iridescent colored squares, decorated with symbols, motifs and the like. Half a dozen other tour groups were in and around the square, herded expertly by three or four guides. But once you began making you way across the square, you immediately realized how exposed you were – and how vulnerable those student protesters had been.
In our group, we buzzed among ourselves. What did the more educated Chinese think about what happened in this place on June 4, 1989? Once back on the bus, our guides, Vivian, about 29, and 21-year-old Richard, with their excellent English, would surely answer our questions. We were stunned. Each seemed truthful. “We really don’t know what happened. Perhaps sometime later we’ll learn more about it. But that was a long time ago and China is moving ahead – quickly.”
These two were upwardly mobile young Chinese. They each had careers, lucrative probably compared to what their parents might have had. In any case, the pair made it absolutely clear that looking back into such public events – buried secrets that were best left that way – was unwise and probably dangerous. Both Vivian and Richard had bright futures in this new Communist China. During our three weeks in China and Tibet, we traveled thousands of air miles. We talked about the early dynasties, the Southwestern ethnic tribal areas, saving the pandas, cruised the Yangtze and more. But we never talked about Tiananmen Square again.