Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Tiananmen ‘incident’

Twenty years ago, I was a cranky 17-year-old teenager looking at a vast, open future full of possibilities. It was June 4, 1989, and I was just weeks away from the graduation of a lifetime. After this month, I thought, I'd be free to do anything and everything I wanted to do. That was a breath of fresh air. Particularly away from the bullies I had to deal with daily during my time in that institution.

But, in another part of the world, at the same time, there were mightier bullies. As a result of their actions, many breaths were taken away – some say 800, some say 1,000, some say 1,500.

The site? Beijing. The square? Tiananmen.

The event? None other than a massacre that shocked the world.

After six weeks of raucous protests all over the world calling for a change to China's authoritarian system, the Chinese military cracked down on its own people, sending in tanks and guns into and around Tiananmen Square and opening fire on what – to me, anyway – seemed to be a largely peaceful protest, and what – to me, anyway – seemed to be mostly unarmed, normal citizens. It was probably one of the most ruthless, most effective crackdowns on an uprising I've seen in all my 37 years. I've never seen any peep of a call for change out of China anytime since.

As a 17 year old I was flabbergasted. For days and days afterwards, I stared at the TV screen in absolute horror as I watched frantic Chinese screaming into the TV camera and running around like madmen in the night. One of the more coherent phrases being screamed over and over again was one that I'll remember for a long time: "Let the world see what's happening!" It was a clear message to leave the TV cameras alone and let them record everything.

A distant echo of the old Vietnam War protests where as soon as one baton was laid onto one hippie's head, a chant would break out: "The whole world's watching! The whole world's watching!"

The whole world was indeed watching that week. At that time in the late 1980s, in my high school, I distinctly remember a sharp influx of Chinese students, mostly from Hong Kong. Many were awkward socially, nervous being in a new place, and many were absolutely fantastic students. Many were children of wealthy Hong Kong folks who had "discovered" Vancouver as a place to move to thanks to Expo 86. They wanted to get out of Hong Kong before the handover to China in 1997.

After the events at Tiananmen, there was a notable feeling of disenchantment in the air, and some students had black armbands with some Chinese lettering on it – on buses, at school, etc. As a mark of respect, I pulled out some black hockey tape and wrapped that around the arm of my jacket. One group of kids – Canadian – came up to me and pointed at my impromptu armband and said: "What the fuck's that?" When I told them it was because of Tiananmen Square, they just blew a raspberry as if to say; "Who cares about that?!" I remember wanting to smash their noses in – but as a gangly, underweight, skinny kid who wasn't exactly the most popular kid in school, I thought the better of it. But I was concerned that people didn't appreciate the magnitude of what had happened. Think about it. All these people gunned down for something we take for granted in our society.

Interestingly enough, on the same day the massacre happened, the so-called first Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, died in Tehran. Here was a great enemy of America, the leader of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the man who issued a death warrant on Salman Rushdie's head for The Satanic Verses. This wasn't a small death by any measure of the stick. Neither were the deaths of hundreds and maybe a thousand plus a few in Beijing that night.

So here you have two huge world events both happening in the same week. "Dad," I asked one day, "is it that I'm getting more interested in the news nowadays or is it because it's really that big of a week in the news?"

He just nodded and said it was probably a bit of both. He's likely right; I took a much greater interest in the world's events from that point forward. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a catalyst for my interest in world events, but it was also the catalyst for brutal suppression of an entire population of people. Interesting how one single event could have such drastically opposite results. First, whenever I think about that massacre or read about it (as I've done a lot of these days), I realize that we're pretty bloody lucky in this country to be able to stand on a street corner and wail into a megaphone about Quebec, about the First Nations, about Stephen Harper and Gordon Campbell and what snivelly rats they are (just the fact that I can write that means something), and so on. And second, in China, this notable anniversary is passing by without much noise. The Global Times, a recently launched English-language newspaper in Beijing, caught people's attention with barely a passing reference to the "June 4th Tiananmen incident". Not much else at all. Candlelight vigils were held in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in mainland China? Not really.

So, to repeat; this event had two outcomes. For me, a greater, perhaps healthier interest in all things world, a sharper appreciation for my own ability to write blogs such as this without fear of a knock on the door. For the Chinese, a very restricted movement in their country, a very real sense of repercussion for speaking out against the authorities, and a fear-driven respect for all things that go on in China's government. No talk of Tibet, no talk of Taiwan, no talk of Tiananmen Square.

I did have a black armband on my jacket that week in 1989. I know that the kids who gave me a hard time about that armband were just being bullies. But at least the bullies I put up with during my time in high school didn't have guns, and they didn't have a government that could crack down on me if I dared wear a black armband to commemorate a night of infamy in Beijing.