Category Archives: China

Tiananmen Square (My Uncomfortable Visit)

In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. It was an eerie, haunting experience not simply because of knowing what had happened there 16 years before but because of the pressure to remain silent and forget.

From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”.

Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released last year, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed. . . .

Over 1 million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s rulers made the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of Beijing.

ABC Report

Only a year earlier we had been treated to high-tech 3-D visuals of Tiananmen Square as a proud jewel of the Chinese exhibit at Brisbane’s World Entertainment Expo.

The event “never happened” according to Chinese government and educational institutions.

Born in 1990, Ming says he never even heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre until he was at university.

He happened to overhear his roommates talking about the so-called June Fourth Incident — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.

It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families, including Ming’s.

In 2005 soldiers stood guard at key points to enforce …. I’m not sure what. Presumably the curfew: no-one was allowed there after daylight hours. Possibly against large groups or persons they deemed suspicious from approaching. It remained a vast empty space broken in one direction by Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and queues of people slowly moving past his embalmed body. I felt very conspicuous stepping far away from that shrine to the vast empty expanse of the rest of the square that particular afternoon, with only a handful of others in the area, and with my movements being watched by the many young guards.

What agonized me was the failure of my Chinese hosts to indicate the slightest awareness of why I might have been interested in exploring further there at all after I had completed the obligatory look at Mao’s embalmed corpse. There was the usual talk of old history, of Mao, of the architectural features. . . . I finally burst it out, though nervously, softly: What did they think of what happened …. I don’t think I had the chance to finish my sentence. One girl butted in with a tense, anxious tone (or was that my imagination?) to tell me that yes, some bad people had been there at one time and how soon afterwards soldiers came to her family’s house (far away from Beijing) to ask about her. I think she had been a student at that time. I was told that her parents and neighbours assured the soldiers that she was a “good girl” and was not mixed up with any of those very bad hooligans causing some very bad trouble in Beijing. The soldiers, she told me proudly, went away smiling having been assured by parents and neighbours that she was, as they said, a “good girl”.

The reaction to my question left me in no doubt that I had seriously gaffed. It was not my place to raise such a question about such a “bad thing” that happened so long ago. Was I some sort of sympathizer with “bad people” for even thinking and wanting to ask about that horrible “forgotten” time?

That was the end of my visit to the vast and — except for the guards and the people immediately surrounding Mao’s mausoleum — practically empty Tiananmen Square.

Photo: Guo Jian’s artwork The Square. It’s a model of Tiananmen Square covered in pork mince. (Supplied: Guo Jian)

Rewriting the History of Modern China

dowagerHow history changes! At school I learned that nineteenth century China was easy-pickings for European powers who were able to easily kick aside her antiquated army and carve out for themselves “spheres of influence” for their own trading benefits as they willed. The most scandalous of these occasions were the Opium Wars in which Britain forced the Chinese imperial government to open up the Chinese populace to British merchants making a “killing” selling Indian opium.

Two reasons were always given for the ease with which Westerners were able to dominate China so easily:

  1. The Chinese felt so superior to the West, disdaining the “barbarians”, that they had no wish to learn from them or adopt any of their ways, not even their superior technology;
  2. The Chinese from the later nineteenth to the early twentieth century was effectively ruled by a Dowager Empress who was authoritarian yet weak and loathed Westerners and resisted any form of modernization.

Maybe those points need to be nuanced but that’s essentially how I recall my high school lessons of China before the Republican movement, the Japanese invasion and the Communist Revolution.

One thing always stood out: the Empress Dowager was bad news for China.

All that has been completely turned on its head since a new book by Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. The author writes with the benefit of documents released for the first time from Chinese and Japanese archives.

It turns out that far from being the brake on modernizing China the Empress Dowager was in fact the driving force behind modernization. At the time of her death she was even working towards establishing a Constitutional Monarchy that would have given millions of Chinese the right to vote. So much that I learned about pre-communist and pre-republican China has been completely turned on its head.

Among the reforms she was responsible for: read more »