Back in July of 2007, I visited Beijing and Tiananmen Square for the first time and imagined the late evening and early morning of Saturday, June 3rd – June 4th, 1989 of the massacre. Tiananmen Square is the largest open urban squares in one of the most populous cities in the world. I can’t imagine the shock and fear of 10,000 troops, tanks and armored personnel entering the Square and firing upon innocent and unarmed civilians.
Twenty years ago, my father, brother and I were at Bucknell University visiting from Massachusetts my cousin who was graduating from college; I was a senior in high school, close to graduation. I remember the months and days that lead up to the Tiananmen Square massacre, with the Square filled up, the construction of the Goddess of Democracy and Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. That weekend, we stayed at my father’s friend’s place, not too far from Penn State, and watched with utter awe on television the events unfolding. I was, perhaps naively so, shocked that the Chinese government would so blatantly roll in the People’s Liberation Army and fire directly upon its own citizens, while the Western media was reporting. We take 24/7 live news for granted today with satellite feeds available globally, but back in 1989, this was still relatively new, and reporters were able to report, if not through television, through telephones and cell phones – rare in China back then – the chaos going on that evening.
In that moment of time, I was pretty pessimistic about China’s future. I had been bullish about the potential growth of Asia — especially China — and how that region might be a growing career opportunity down-the-road in whatever vocation I decided to eventually pursue. As a Taiwanese American, I was also concerned what this meant possibly for my relatives in Taiwan if China started to take a more aggressive stance towards Taiwan, especially as Taiwan’s own democracy was beginning to emerge (to this day, China has yet to renounce the use of force against “reunification.”) But mostly, I was just really shocked that China would remove the protesters with such violent force. Now, when most people outside of China hear about Tiananmen Square, they (as well as Google) synonymously think of the massacre. Of course, the Chinese government has erased that event from the history books and as every anniversary approaches, makes sure that the Square is “protected” with heightened security. In the Internet age, the Chinese government has since installed the Great Firewall of China and the past few days has blocked social media websites like Twitter, Flickr and YouTube.
After getting back home to Massachusetts, I watched French Open winner Michael Chang giving his victory speech and him expressing his great sadness over the events in Beijing in Tiananmen Square and dedicating his win to those who lost their lives. If you had followed Chang’s unlikely progression through the tennis tournament, it almost seemed destined for him to win and help bring more attention — not that the events needed any — of what was going on in China. At the time, Michael Chang, at age 17, was the youngest American and first and remains the only Asian American tennis player ever to win a Grand Slam.
The following day, perhaps the most visually memorable event of the Tiananmen Square massacre events occurred, broadcast live and in broad daylight, when an unknown Chinese young man, colloquially now known as Tank Man (as well as Unknown Rebel), stepped in front a column of tanks, to prevent the tanks from proceeding down the road.
No one, except the Chinese Communist Party perhaps, knows how many people died that evening, but estimates put the number at several hundred. In the past two decades, China not only withstood the short-lived diplomatic and economic consequences of the massacre, but thrived. China is no South Africa; multinationals simply could not ignore the limitless amount of cheap labor in China, nor the vast potential of such a large market for their goods, to ignore China. Over the past 30 years, China has averaged double digit percentage year-over-year growth and this growth has lead to the largest lifting of people (in the hundreds of millions) out of poverty in recorded human history. Yet, there is a long way to go for the rest of this country of 1.3+ billion to grow economically, and certainly politically.
Sadly, even the United States cannot complain and pressure China on human rights as much as we used to, now that China, a Communist government with an capitalistic economy, is our country’s largest foreign creditor. But I was glad to hear that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, no doubt with the Obama administration’s approval, issuing a statement urging China to publicly account for those killed in the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years ago. With further economic growth in China, there will come in time greater political freedom. This has actually been the political evolution of many countries in Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan. I certainly wouldn’t want to see the kind of economic and political instability of the 1990s that Russia experienced nor try to impose democracy on another country, like, say, Iraq.
China’s youth, at 200 million strong since 1989, don’t know much about what happened twenty years ago, nor do they much care – they are mostly concerned about living a better life. Though there were reported signs of civic involvement and duty in the post-Sichuan earthquake catasotrophe. Some even claim that democracy is gaining momentum in China. I’m glad that democracy is thriving — but still maturing — in Taiwan, and was immensley proud when, back in 1995, the then president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, gave a speech during his college reunion in Ithaca, New York on Taiwan’s democracy at my alma mater. Let’s hope that in time, those who protested and died at Tiananmen Square will not have died in vain, but be remembered for seeding the beginnings of a much freer and more democratic China than we know today.
(Image Source: Getty Images)