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Letter: Tiananmen memories

Twenty-five years ago, my wife, Pat and I found ourselves living in Beijing. On June 4, 1989 the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) moved into the city proper and ended what the government called “the turmoil” — the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The growing liberalization of the post-Mao era started to unravel two months earlier with the death of Hu Yaobang (Google him). There’s not much I can add to the images that Americans saw of the crackdown — I am not a “China hand” and was not out dodging bullets, believe me. However, the bravery of so many citizens was stunning to this foreigner. One afternoon, I heard an odd metallic squeaking sound outside our residence; the students had commandeered an armored personnel carrier and were running it up and down the boulevard waving banners and singing. After the crackdown, it was torched and left in the middle of the road to rust. Was the PLA still the “fish through water” that the citizens had supported to repel the Japanese and drive out the Nationalists decades before?

When Pat and I returned in 1995, the city (the whole country, really) was barely recognizable; private cars packed new highways, many old neighborhoods had completely metamorphosed. Had Tiananmen been forgotten? The government has consistently promoted what it calls “stability” — understandable, given the consistent bravery shown by Chinese citizens. Despite the lack of any news coverage, demonstrations against land-grabs by local officials and for better wages and working conditions seem to be regular occurrences. Fear, on the part of the government, in the form of the “Great Firewall of China” — or in the form of American news organizations kowtowing to that government — may lead us all down a tumultuous path. The Chinese government’s co-opting of a few rocks in the East and South China seas (Google “nine-dash map”) may well, sadly, end up being the strongest argument today for us maintaining a powerful conventional naval force. This was palpable even in 1995.

Nobody has forgotten Tiananmen Square — least of all, the Chinese government.



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