The Chinese Government Would Like You To Know That On This Spot In 1989, Nothing Happened!

It took almost exactly three months, but yesterday, three months to the day I departed from Chicago, I finally visited Tienanmen Square. This was in the early afternoon. We were a bit late to do any of the more lengthy tours of the nearby sights, like the Forbidden City, Mao’s Tomb (where a Lenin-like preserved Mao corpse rests – not the official name, but I call it the “Mao-soleum”), several museums and such, so we’ll have to return another day. But at least yesterday, we were able to take in just a walking tour, and that proved fascinating enough in its own right. The YouTube video above shows some of what we saw, and pictures will be coming soon.

One of the first things we noticed was perhaps not so surprising. That is, that the authorities keep Tienanmen swarming with policemen and guards. The story I’ve heard is that they apparently have things organized such that if anyone so much as sneezes in a way that suggests they are going to be protesting there, no matter how large your group, no matter who you are, the cops will have you removed in no more than four minutes, tops. Indeed, Allison and I saw several paddy-wagons kept at odd corners of the Square, and should anything go down, they can be on top of you in a lot sooner than four minutes. The Lonely Planet Guide to Beijing put it well when it characterized the Square as a charming combination of old school Chinese architecture and history with Soviet-style bigness and alienation. The ever-present cops certainly suggest a Soviet-style of doing things. And there are also perhaps some elements of the East German Stasi, in that it seemed pretty obvious to Allison and I that many of the “tourists” there probably secret police in plainclothes, or at least people trained to spot any protesters and to alert the police before anything could start. If that wasn’t good enough, there were video cameras everywhere, and those were just the ones we could see. I don’t know about the Square itself, but I did read that the Forbidden City has a ban on xeroxed documents – perhaps so as to prevent anyone from distributing papers from within its walls?

So, if you didn’t have any doubts before, this certainly wasn’t subtle: China is still very much a police state, ruled by the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years. And they will not tolerate a repeat of 1989 or the various Tibetan or Falun Dafa protests that have popped up since. It certainly gave Allison and I a very different impression than what the Chinese government really wants to give tourists. The police did not inspire a sense of comfort, a sense that we were being protected. Rather, they were there to protect the State, and in particular, the Communist Party – from negative publicity.

Before coming into the Square, there was a police checkpoint of sorts. We weren’t searched or frisked or anything, but other people were. I think they were probably looking more for people carrying signs, or perhaps ethnic Tibetans or Uyghurs. We saw plenty of fellow foreigners, as well as Han Chinese, everywhere in the Square, but certainly no Tibetans or Uyghurs. (Though to be fair, I doubt very seriously that members of either ethnic group would have any desire to go there, even if the police could be expected to treat them fairly.)

Once in the square, we encountered several people trying to sell us products of various kinds. There were a few people selling beverages from the outskirts of the square, in large trailers. But we occasionally had people come up to us to sell us postcards, pirated Fuwa and Olympic merchandise, and believe it or not, cheap copies of the “little red book” printed in both English and Chinese. This is already odd on many levels: capitalism in the middle of a monument to communism and Mao, and even more strange, the pirated Fuwa and Olympic merchandise sold openly in the middle of the square, when the Chinese government has made it an official priority that such goods were the target of a massive crackdown. Intellectual property rights suddenly seem to mean something once it’s the government’s own copyrights at risk. Or so one would think, but I didn’t see any evidence that for all the surveillance in the Square, that these people were being bothered at all.

We spent a total of two or three hours total in and around the Square, just looking around, examining statues, and taking in the sights. Against Allison’s better judgment, when no one appeared to be looking, I pulled out my pocket US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and posed in front of one of the massive group-statues in front of the Mao-soleum, trying to strike a pose similar to those you see in Cultural Revolution propaganda posters, where some heroic looking man or woman holds a copy of the little red book. My reasoning was that this was relatively safe. The cops there don’t really care about western tourists clowning around in a subtle way, and probably wouldn’t know what the book was, or what we were doing. They’re looking for the not-so-subtle protesters. Besides, if they’re worried about bad PR, how would it look if they arrested an American tourist for holding out a copy of the US Constitution? The only thing I regret is that I didn’t think to hold out an utterly non-political book, like the great Robert Hamburger‘s Real Ultimate Power: The Official Guide to Ninjas.

We also tried to pose a picture of me looking back at the giant painting of Mao with a look of incredulousness and disgust. Again, Allison urged me not to look too obvious, so I may not have quite the look that reflecting the true extent of my disdain for a megalomaniac and mass-murderer who is one of only two people who were able to pull off killing more people than Adolf Hitler. Say what you will about the complicated relationship that the Russians have with Stalin. Many Russians show a kind of nostalgia for Stalin, some revere him, and engage in historical revisionism to defend him from real historians who exposed the depths of his crimes. Tragically true enough. But even the Russians don’t put Stalin on their currency, much less all paper currency worth more than 15 cents, and statues of Stalin, even if they do exist, are not common.

As for the protests of 1989, I had a hard time thinking of anything else. I kept thinking of the unknown Tank Man, and the hundreds killed, and the thousands imprisoned. And yet, I can’t help but think that regimes of this nature can’t last forever. Since the death of Mao, and the decision to turn China toward a more pragmatic economic policy, and opening up to the west, China has changed substantially. It still has a long way to go, but it’s already virtually unrecognizable from how it was a mere generation ago. It’s perfectly kosher, for example, to say in public that the Cultural Revolution was a bad idea, so long as you don’t directly lay it on the feet of Mao. You can say he was sort of wrong, or misguided, or given bad advice by colleagues like the Gang of Four, who were later blamed for the “excesses” of the Cultural Revolution. But as long as you aren’t making the tyrannies, both petty and nation-wide, part of a criticism of Mao, you’ll be okay.

So perhaps the most likely outcome for the People’s Republic of China is not an end with a bang, but a whimper – a slow, drawn out, gradual whimper as the police state apparatus becomes more and more unsustainable. As it is, Allison and I share the perception that Something Big is on the way. The Tibetan protests may just be the beginning, and the more I think about it, the more I can’t believe that the Chinese government thought that it would be otherwise. It hasn’t received much press yet, but already the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang are gradually becoming more bold with their protests, after a prominent 38-year-old businessman in Xinjiang was arrested under mysterious circumstances in January, and even more mysteriously, he was returned to his family dead in March, dead, the government claims, of a “heart-attack.” Mass arrests of Uyghur men, to preempt any protests, have had the opposite effect of causing their wives to mount larger protests. Why on earth would all of the dissidents in China pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be seen and heard by an international audience, and force the government to either alienate about half the world by acting in a draconian manner against them, or to allow them to openly criticize the government? In the former case, if they do something too heavy-handed, more boycotts would be organized and implemented. If the Olympics go forward with only the participation of, say, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, the Palestinian territories and Sudan, China would have a black eye that would take ages to live down.

All told, this leaves the Chinese government in the unenviable position of having to strike some kind of balance between pissing off too many other countries, and preventing any public outcry by its dissidents. So even, if, like me, you don’t really care for sports, the next few months ought to be pretty interesting. The Chinese government is learning that it may not have gotten exactly what it bargained for in getting the Olympics, and the true meaning of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”


1 Response to “The Chinese Government Would Like You To Know That On This Spot In 1989, Nothing Happened!”

  1. 1 artprop
    June 25, 2008 at 6:13 am

    “If the Olympics go forward with only the participation of, say, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, the Palestinian territories and Sudan, China would have a black eye that would take ages to live down.”

    Actuslly, I believe that whatever the Chinese government did in the next few months, the only countries who would even consider boycotting the Olympics would be NATO members.


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