Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Four Dead in Ohio (and thousand or more in Tiananmen Square)
This weekend's Standard column recaps part of my weekend and also revisits an portion of an earlier blog
Except for what Associated Press called ''tightened security'' around Tiananmen Square, the 16th anniversary of the massacre of course passed unnoticed last Saturday on the mainland. In Shenzhen the sky was spitting intermintent bursts of acid rain – an appropriately gloomy mode if one was seriously contemplating June 4, 1989.
I had managed though, to cobble together a minor memorial of sorts in the form of a thoroughly unscientific poll and guarded discussion at a congee restaurant with four young English speaking Shenzhen professionals. They were all 13-to- 15-years-old when the June 4 Movment bloomed and burned. Just a little older than I was when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and a tad younger than I on May 4, 1970 when four American students were slain by Ohio National Guard troops at an anti-Vietnam protest at Kent State University.
''Four dead in Ohio,'' sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in what was possibly the last true American folk song hearkening back to the original spirit of tunes as breaking news. It was written, recorded and released to radio – and, shades of China, banned by some stations – within three weeks of Kent State.
Comparisons between May 4 and June 4 however are admittedly a stretch at best. Possibly thousands, including soldiers, died on June 4 and unlike Kent State no galvanizing protest song or photo of a 14-year-old runaway girl, arms outstretched and keening over the dead body of student Jeffery Miller was allowed to sear the tragedy into the national consciousness.
But there is the Tiananmen Tank Man photo. One of Time Magazine's Top 100 photographs of the 20th century, but not even bubbling under the Top 200 in the PRC, the last century or this. That's where I began the discussion after some nervous jokes by them about making sure our dining area wasn't bugged and that I wasn't recruiting for the Falun Gong.
''No one is very comfortable talking about this,'' said Sally (a psuedonym, as are all the names), a 27-year-old sales manager for a Sino-US joint venture company. The others, two women and a man, nodded.
I described man vs tank photo and asked if any of them had seen it.
"Maybe," said Louis, 30, a telecom engineer. "I am not clear about it. I have seen so many world-shaking photographs.''
Li, 30, a project manager who has lived in Shenzhen for seven years, was equally vague. "I am not sure."
Sally had seen it but shrugged it off as '' interesting.''
Dani, 29, was the only one who had traveled extensively outside China, including a year in Boston. "I know that picture. It is very powerful. I also watched a VCD in the US called Tiananmen. I know now that the government hasn't told the full truth because they want to cover up their crime.''
Would it surprise any of you that the man and tank picture is one of the most famous photographs of China ? More foreigners know it than they do Deng Xiaopeng.
''I am not surprised even if I don't think I know it,'' said Li. She was pragmatic. "It's like we know more about pictures of the Statue of Liberty than George Bush.''
So does June 4 have any meaning for you?
''Absolutely. It has a profound meaning. It let us know how corrupt the goverment is,'' said Dani.
Others disagreed.
"I think it was the price of trying to explore a new success. But we need to forget the past and be a bright future," said Louis.
Li, like the others, did remember radio and TV accounts at the time but still found it hard to understand what, exactly, the demonstrations were about.
''I didn't understand it then or even now. Why did the students have to bleed and parade and how come so many PLA were killed? What were they trying to fight for? I still don't understand or want to know, really.''
Sally had mixed feelings. ''The students used their blood to educate people, to try and encourage other students to do more democratic demonstrations. But after it was all over the fact that people who were there weren't able to get good jobs scared other people. I used to teach English to an older man when I was in college. He told me he couldn't find a good job in China because he joined that movement. He had to immigrate to Canada.''
It was at about that point that I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Annie, a Chinese ex-coworker of mine in Shenzhen who had been at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, though as an observer, not as a demonstrator.
From her perspective it sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.
"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very romantic ... is that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Annie described was the erotic frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.
"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."
Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.
"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"
I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.
"Of course. It was very symbolic."
She seemed lost in thought then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no details. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too.
"I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"
No, I said. I don't.
"White is our color for death."
I briefly described Annie's experience to the four and they were vaguely interested, though unimpressed. She must have had good connections to have her present job was the consensus. What all but Dani agreed on was that June 4, 1989 was China's business, not the outside world's.
"It is all the people's business,'' she said, looking a little embarrassed at being the odd-person out. ''I will tell my children about it. The full truth.''
''It is only our business, China's business,'' said Louis. "I would not tell my children because I don't know the full truth. It is well known that the full truth of history is often not easy to know. So perhaps it is better to say nothing than to be wrong.''
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