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Tiananmen, 30 years later (and in the year of Hong Kong)

Microsoft News 12/31/2019 By Philip J. Cunningham
Why was all traffic halted at Tiananmen Square on July 29, 2019? © By Philip Cunningham Why was all traffic halted at Tiananmen Square on July 29, 2019?

Among the biggest news stories of 2019 were the massive Hong Kong protests that led to more than a million people taking to the streets and later to the election booths. Triggered by a proposed amendment on the extradition of criminal fugitives, the uprising happened in the same year as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square student protests.

Those protests ended with a bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989. To this day, the Chinese government has never released an official count of the dead or injured. 

For Philip Cunningham, a freelance journalist who was working on the square in 1989, the summer anniversary brought memories both pleasant and painful. Through a technology grant program funded by the International Center for Journalists and Microsoft News, he made a private pilgrimage to Beijing to see how things have changed and how they haven’t. Today, its people enjoy increased affluence and consumer choice, but face a city grown more bleak and authoritarian.

Security was especially tight at Tiananmen Square during his visit due to tensions related to the anniversary of the June 4 crackdown, the situation in Hong Kong (news of which was mostly suppressed), and intense preparations for the October 1 military parade. This account, part of a series published in the Asia Pacific Journal, documents what he saw. You can also read more about this trip at his blog.

Tiananmen Square can be forbidding, even in the best of times. It is open to the sky and exposed to the elements, offering no shelter from sun, wind, rain or snow. As it turned out, it rained hard and long the day I chose to visit in July. But the skies started to clear by late afternoon, so I made a dash for it.

The subway approach to Tiananment East station. © Phil Cunningham The subway approach to Tiananment East station.

Emerging from the subway exit at Tiananmen East, I found the square tightly under wrap. It was hard to know on any given day what degree of access would be permitted and denied, and the likelihood of being turned away was high in a season fraught with sensitive anniversaries. A maddening political juncture, late July was equidistant between the security paranoia about a just-passed commemoration that could not be named and the brusque commandeering of space in central Beijing to prepare for a big parade glorifying the ruling party on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

Philip Cunningham in Tiananmen Square. © Philip Cunningham Philip Cunningham in Tiananmen Square.

Despite being hemmed in by the calendar, I was keen to retrace some of the steps I had taken in 1989 to see how life had changed along the highways and byways of the kinetic protest movement, retracing marches and exploring campuses that had been hotbeds of rebellion at that time. Most of all I wanted to make a quiet ritual visit to Tiananmen Square.

The square remains a special place, at once personal and impersonal, uplifting and disconcerting, as full of good memories as bad, a place where day trippers can still wander and wonder within shifting confines. Its vast dimensions invite expression and reflection.

This pilgrimage is one that I have undertaken repeatedly over the last three decades, sometimes with my children in tow. Tiananmen is not always easy to get to, and getting there does not guarantee access, but I get as close as I can, even if I’m sidelined. It’s a way of paying my respects to the victims of a terrible crackdown, and also a way to take the pulse of how China is dealing with the consequences of the repression of the movement after all these years.

There are days when the atmosphere is relaxed, when one might chat with men flying kites and watch rural visitors snapping photos or kids running free unafraid of traffic. But for the victims, there has been almost no progress in terms of reconciliation, rehabilitation or reversing of unfair verdicts. The tragedy extends to the present day because the party that ordered tanks and troops armed with guns to crash through the crowds and crush a peaceful uprising still shows no sign of accepting accountability nor of repentance.

During my visit, the news of two huge, peaceful marches in Hong Kong had yet to officially break the great firewall of China, but unsanctioned reports were leaking about isolated acts of protest and street battles raging at key transport hubs in peninsular Kowloon and Hong Kong island. As I walked around Tiananmen Square, a siege at Hong Kong’s busy airport was underway. It was as if justice denied in the three-decade blackout about the Beijing crackdown had come home to roost in the one part of China where free expression was still possible. Tiananmen Square is a long way from Victoria Park in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong, alone in the Chinese world, has kept the spirit and memory of Tiananmen 1989 alive with annual marches and citizen-driven commemorations.

Tiananmen Square in 1989 during the height of the protests. © Philip Cunningham Tiananmen Square in 1989 during the height of the protests.

The party's default mode is to claim righteousness, thus making a mockery of those who were wronged and relegating the truth of Tiananmen to the dustbin of history. This historic atrocity, like other major miscarriages of justice in the tumultuous years of communist rule, cannot be addressed, redressed or even discussed openly in China today.

On this particular day, July 29, 2019, security was almost airtight; it took only a few tentative steps out of the subway station to realize that I was penned into an inspection zone, blocked from accessing the square. It was touch and go at first as to whether or not I would gain access. On past visits I got in more often than not, but I knew what it was like to be turned away.

A foreboding, guarded, fenced-in plaza on semi-lockdown had come to be the norm. There was no line to enter the inspection booth; it was as if people had given up trying. I'd come without my passport so couldn't produce it as requested, but I got to chatting with the bored and not entirely unfriendly guard who reluctantly waved me on after a few questions and a hard look at a picture of my passport's visa page on my phone.

Near sunset in Tiananmen, last July. © By Philip Cunningham Near sunset in Tiananmen, last July.

Once I got past the checkpoint, the tension of inspection dissipated, and I found something open, inviting, ethereal, almost otherworldly about the atmosphere of the empty plaza. It took a moment to realize something was wrong. It was utterly silent. The square was absent of movement, even on its periphery.

The habitual vehicular flow that traverses the north face of the square had vanished, making for an eerie mood. The normally bustling area in front of Tiananmen Gate was devoid of pedestrians. It was like a still from an apocalyptic film, a world from which people had been whited out. (Some were allowed in later this day, as this video shows:)

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I sighed and pressed forward, knowing that I was pushing my luck. July 29, 2019 wasn't just another routine lockdown on another hot summer's day. It fell midway between two ongoing security nightmares -- one in which nothing was allowed to happen, the other in which everything had to happen on cue. Tiananmen Square security, still wary of the 30th anniversary of June 4, 1989 that had just passed, was now tasked with keeping everything under control for the massive military parade of October 1. But it wasn't just that, either.

It was the day of Li Peng's funeral.

When the death of the most-hated premier in modern Chinese history was announced on July 23, 2019, I was asked by the South China Morning Post to write about his political legacy. My commentary was bound to rile the censors, Li's political base and communist press-watchers in Beijing. Although known as the "butcher of Beijing," Li may have been a terrible leader but he was not the ultimate architect of the crackdown: That bore the decisive hand of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

The headline for Philip Cunningham's commentary. Read the piece here.

To now wander around the storied square on the very day that Deng's successors, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping, solemnly saluted a crony associated with one of the party’s most egregious crimes against its own people offered bitter food for thought. It was one thing to ban the commemoration of an epochal event that China’s ruling party can never forget but is unwilling to confront, and quite another to salute one of the people responsible for the event you can’t talk about. It was like salt thrown on an open wound to hear the lofty party-speak surrounding the death of a cold-hearted party hack, recycling without a hint of rethinking or regret the shamefaced lies that the party has been circulating for three decades. 

Li's casket was being interred with full honors at Babaoshan Cemetery which is where many of Mao’s "good soldiers" in the communist elite have been laid to rest, with important exceptions: When Premier Li's key rival in 1989, then party secretary Zhao Ziyang, fell from political grace for his courageous opposition to the 1989 crackdown, he was placed under house arrest until he died in 2005. His family recently arranged for his remains to be interred in a private cemetery.    

The flag ceremony, taking place a considerable distance from where I stood, held no interest for me other than to note that the red flag of Tiananmen was not flying high, hoisted as it was at half-mast to mark the passing of the supposedly "revolutionary" hero. A lot of negative things have happened at Tiananmen Square, but it remains a positive emotive spot and a positive symbol of people power both for the state and its malcontents. There's something essentially neutral about the broad urban plaza, something in its vast scope and scale and sheer exposure to the heavens that invites the mind to recollect, reflect and let the imagination soar.

The view from the museum steps on May 16, 1989 © By Phil Cunningham The view from the museum steps on May 16, 1989

On this day, as I positioned myself by the steps of the Museum of People’s History facing the Great Hall of the People, I thought of the ebullient crowd that once gathered there, and remember fondly how the colonnaded facade of the museum had provided a convenient spot to meet friends and temporarily escape the heat of the crowd.

The museum steps in 2019 fenced off and guarded by a public security truck. © Phil Cunningham The museum steps in 2019 fenced off and guarded by a public security truck.

Looking from the museum to the Monument to the People’s Heroes I thought of the hunger strike that unfolded in its shadow and how the museum steps offered a comfortable perch from which to view a crowd of 1 million.

A meeting of campus friends in the courtyard above the museum steps in 1989, © Phil Cunningham A meeting of campus friends in the courtyard above the museum steps in 1989,

The first time I was invited to the student command center in the center of the square, I got pulled aside and questioned by a student guard (whom I later wrote about in my book, “Tiananmen Moon,” giving him the moniker 'Crazy Zhang').

Zhang Jian in May 1989 © Phil Cunningham Zhang Jian in May 1989

Zhang Jian, a student at the College of Physical Education, was a great believer in the cause and an exemplary activist despite being a mere freshman. Passionately protective of his older peers, who for a short time ran a protest a million strong from the pedestal of the monument, he was shot during the crackdown but survived. However, after a difficult life made infinitely more difficult by a government that didn’t want him but was reluctant to let him go, he eventually made it to France where he died in exile this past year at age 48.

I think of his youthful bravado as I look upon the deserted square, and think of so many others whose fate was forever changed by those turbulent times. It was he who escorted me to the student command center, nestled against the southeast corner of the pediment of the Monument of the People's Heroes, to chat with the student leaders in charge of running things on the square.

Author in front of the 1989 student command center with student leader Chai Ling © Phil Cunningham Author in front of the 1989 student command center with student leader Chai Ling This led to a series of clandestine interviews, including a teary last-will-and-testament from student "commander-in-chief" Chai Ling, excerpts of which feature prominently in Carma Hinton's 1995 documentary, "Gate of Heavenly Peace."
A still from a May 28, 1989 interview with Chai Ling. © Phil Cunningham A still from a May 28, 1989 interview with Chai Ling.

After martial law was declared and most-wanted lists were issued, desperation mounted to the point that Chai and other students started to talk about how violence might be introduced to what had been until that time an entirely peaceful movement. I disagreed at the time, and I can't see how it would have improved things in retrospect, but I also had a great deal of admiration for student resourcefulness and courage in the face of great odds. As it turned out, despite all the heated rhetoric of "blood flowing on the square" and the like, students were steadfast and self-disciplined in keeping the peace until the military crackdown violently crushed the movement, after which all pandemonium broke out.

Activists Chai Ling and Wang Li aimed for Hong Kong © Phil Cunningham Activists Chai Ling and Wang Li aimed for Hong Kong

The peaceful and relatively apolitical British enclave of Hong Kong was the light at the end of the tunnel for activists like Chai and Wang Li who sought my aid and advice in mapping out an escape to the south. Their journeys turned out to be challenging, protracted and complex but ultimately successful.

Rebel broadcast command center by monument in 1989. © Phil Cunningham Rebel broadcast command center by monument in 1989. The same corner of the monument at Tiananmen Square is now off-limits. © Phil Cunningham The same corner of the monument at Tiananmen Square is now off-limits.

Gazing at a square so empty it almost aches for human activity, I was possessed of the sense that restless, hungry ghosts still wander here, awaiting the verdict of history. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wistfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Tiananmen Square in 2014, the 25th anniversary of the student protests © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen Square in 2014, the 25th anniversary of the student protests

Why is it that Li, who lived to 90, is being saluted when his politics led so many young idealists to be dispatched to early graves? It was the wrong place and the wrong funeral, but the arc is long and perhaps starting to bend. The martyrs of 1989 were remembered in Hong Kong again this year. This annual rite of remembrance and mobilization was quickly followed by the Hong Kong protests against a bill that would allow its citizens to be extradited to the communist-controlled courts of the mainland. The two popular uprisings, past and present, became linked in my mind, the commemoration of something old bleeding into the outbreak of something new. As I paced quietly up and down the east side of the square, my phone inexorably pinging my location even as surveillance cameras whirred, security vans glided by and soldiers marched in formation. Trying to evade the notice of white-shirted, crew-cut teams of plainclothes guards, I felt like a trafficker in historic secrets trying to slip past the long arm of the thought police.

A sole cyclist cruises down Tiananmen East. © Phil Cunningham A sole cyclist cruises down Tiananmen East.

Even as I plodded across the balefully abandoned ground zero of Chinese political protest consecrated by the idea that ordinary people could take history into their own hands, a new chapter of Chinese people power was unfolding in Hong Kong with intriguing parallels and linkages. For one, popular participation in both events broke the 1 million mark — a stinging slap in the face to a government whose legitimacy rests on grand claims to represent the people. In both cases, the massive outpouring of discontent challenged to the party’s sense of self and its monopoly on power.

I found gratification in furtively following events on my VPN-enabled phone, checking in on news banned in the mainland via a proxy server on the internet.

A different story was being told by orthodox outlets such as People’s Daily, China Daily and CCTV. State news reports about Hong Kong’s unprecedented populist marches, coming on the heels of the Tiananmen memorial march in June and echoing the peaceful spirit of Tiananmen, were nowhere to be found. Instead, censored tidbits focused on patriotic flag-wavers saluting the party’s rule, isolated acts of desecrating the flag by rioters and out-of-context reports about civilian battles with police.

Yet the official dispatches, even if only half true by design, could not be entirely discounted. Violent tactics, undertaken by a radical vanguard of protesters who stormed the legislative building and the airport, were being reported on both sides of the information divide.

Given that democracy is as democracy does, there was something disconcerting about the front-line of masked operators and stick-wielding bullies in Hong Kong who intimidated ideological opponents and stirred up incendiary conflict for its own sake. The umbrella, once a symbol of peaceful protest, was now being deployed both to block the view when someone was being roughed up and as an instrument to beat people with. 

Tiananmen Square on the 25th anniversary of crackdown. © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen Square on the 25th anniversary of crackdown.

In contrast, the oft ebullient crowd in 1989 was remarkably peaceful and kept in check by student facilitators and internal discipline until the tragic moment when tanks rolled in.

The two movements remain unique, yet share a similar gravitas and some sympathetic vibrations, like twin baskets swinging uneasily from a bamboo pole hoisted over the shoulder. It would seem the ghosts of an improperly interred past continue to haunt China, even in its furthest corners, especially in its furthest corners.

Hong Kong, which to its credit long carried the peaceful torch for justice denied at Tiananmen, was now the scene of fierce, smoky, pitched battles in its own streets, driven by questions of identity, fears for the future and resentment of the status quo.

The central monument on the square in 1989. © Phil Cunningham The central monument on the square in 1989.

During my walk, it was only near the National Museum, where a brief onrush of bodies streamed past me at a designated opening in the gate, that I felt briefly connected with the vibrant Tiananmen of old.

Not only did the flurry of foot traffic bring a semblance of life to the otherwise sterile environs, but the press of gently impatient bodies, if only for an instant, brought back the memory of fording the gentle, cooperative crowds of the day back in 1989.

Tiananmen East on July 29, 2019. © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen East on July 29, 2019.

I remembered the footsteps, shouts, murmurs and cries of 1989 as I drifted to the north face of the square under a darkening sky. A small stream of vehicular traffic was being permitted now, and pedestrians, after strict inspection of ID and the X-raying of bags, were free to promenade near Tiananmen gate.

Tiananmen East on July 29, 2019. © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen East on July 29, 2019.

The Mao portrait mounted on the resplendent imperial gate still holds the pride of place on the people's square, its visage still gazing recursively at the marble mausoleum that holds the man's mortal remains.

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The portrait is an obligatory photo-op so routine and iconic as to seem banal unless one makes an effort to think about it. Why do tourists, local and foreign alike, still vie to be pictured with Mao? Why do the selfie-snapping hordes still permit a megalomaniac responsible for so much misery in China to photobomb their lives? When will enough be enough?

And yet there was something oddly touching in seeing today’s youth, innocent of history, solemnly pose with Mao in a way that looked earnest and forward-looking.

Where such innocent decency reigns, can disenchantment be far behind?

Students from an art school pose in front of Mao. © Phil Cunningham Students from an art school pose in front of Mao.

Tiananmen Gate is a study landmark and a natural focal point. It has outlasted the emperors and remains the capstone of the exquisite geomancy of the square. 

Tiananmen Square at night. © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen Square at night.

I wondered about the celebratory pomp and authoritarian flexing scheduled for National Day, with its big, bully military parade and gala fireworks. Was it not at risk of being upstaged in real time given all the fire and fury on the streets of Hong Kong?

In contrast to the unsettling news emanating from Hong Kong, it was utterly tranquil in front of Tiananmen Gate, the fabled ground zero of Chinese rebellion since May 4, 1919. Almost too still, since the facade of stability came at the price of obsessively policing freedom.

Reflected serenely in the tranquil puddles on rain-soaked pavement as a technicolor sunset gives way to the velvet cloak of night, Tiananmen Gate shines. Despite the ever-present surveillance, intrusive security and troubling political portent, one can gain a glimpse of crushed hopes and indestructible dreams in this forbidden zone, even on a most forbidding day.

Tiananmen Square at night. © Phil Cunningham Tiananmen Square at night.

You can reach Philip Cunningham and read more about this trip at his blog:

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