When you walk into Tiananmen Square you are stunned—there’s no other word for it—by its vast emptiness. It is a great concave crater of grey stone, the identical governmental buildings framing its silence and small bundles of trees bending in thatches around the wide doors of its federal ministries. But above all, the haze and the dead air and sheer acreage bespeak emptiness, vacuity, a soundless void. It is like one of those flag-flecked de Chirico paintings, calling attention to its geometric forms that somehow became, for some unknown reason, empty of everything human.
So it is essentially an unpeopled place. It may have been a place of the people in 1949, when Mao, whose face gazes Oz-like from the balcony of the Forbidden City, announced the new regime after decades on the Long March. And it became a place of the people for a short historical moment in 1989, but more about that in a minute.
That infamous weekend thirty years ago I was at the medical school graduation of one of my best friends. In the days before the ceremony, we watched the TV footage of crowds gathering on the capital’s boulevards and subway platforms, people of every conceivable stripe: college students, municipal workers, seniors in wheelchairs, gymnastic instructors who led the great bends and stretches of the pre-office national exercises, sometimes there in the Party’s otherwise sedate sanctum sanctorum. All we could see on the TV screens was a sea of banners, the great marked sheets fluttering waves through which bobbed tens of thousands of smiling, self-surprised faces.
By the time we emerged from the med school auditorium, out into the already torpid Dallas sunshine, things had grown more menacing in that other ceremony 9,000 miles away. I had never before heard the Hippocratic Oath recited by new clinical graduates, and my ears were still happily ringing with it, with the first lines Galen and Herophilos had uttered to their own teachers: “First, do no harm.”
In the preceding days, there had seemed little chance that harm would come to the Chinese multitudes calling for democracy. The army had allowed them to pitch tents in the square, drive vehicles around in a normal ped-only zone. There was an exuberance on the faces of both the marchers and the soldiers, a dreamlike wonder at the unfamiliar, the sheer happy oddity of the newly, suddenly allowed. The soldiers had no weapons and looked more like cheerful traffic cops. And the demonstrators were respectful, conversant with the militia, bowing in the ancient, Confucian gesture of mutual “honoring.”
What we couldn’t see was the pain of autocratic history floating in the crowd, a sense of zero-sum or either/or: their happiness either stood for real traction toward Deng Xiaoping’s promised liberties, or it was baseless intoxication. They were delirious, but was it well-founded hope based on reforms, or, like religious novices, were they simply giddy with delusion? As for signage and symbols, the people in the crowds were being careful. They folded their banners and stowed them away each night. They didn’t surround their tents with junk. The one exception to their humility, their mutedness, was a thirty-foot-tall Styrofoam replica—the resemblance was denied but unmistakable—of the Statue of Liberty: her backside was too big, she gripped her torch with two hands, like desperately catching a runaway pet, and there was a kind of grimace in the look she cast out over the multitudes. But here she was: The Goddess of Democracy. A Beijing University student pointed to it and told Orville Schell, whose To Get Rich Is Glorious chronicled Deng’s reforms: “There’s no way the party will ever get things back into the old bottle; just look around us—history is sweeping them away!”
Not so fast, the Owl of Minerva might have said. He was forgetting the old Confucian adage that one “can reach for the heavens, but must not forget to keep yourself on the earth.” As with many events seen from afar, what we couldn’t see on our TV in the Texas hotel was setting up the framework of a catastrophe. The demonstrators were not the only ones occupying the Square. Several regiments of the Red Army had been dispatched to keep the Square peaceful. They were on their way from a garrison, walking, riding in Jeeps and armed personnel carriers (APCs).
This is where the students upped the ante. Several hundred thousand of them blocked the soldiers on the entry roads. As the putative people’s army was being stopped by the people themselves, the focus shifted to a who-blinks-first blockade of the surrounding streets. Premier Li Peng had already appeared on TV May 19 to declare martial law, and Deng, informed of the blockade, grew furious in the presidential palace. Zhao Ziyang was general secretary of the Communist Party and sympathized with the plight of marchers and their unprecedented, powerful new media outlets. Finally, in the late afternoon of June 3, the loudspeakers around the square thundered with Deng’s usually avuncular baritone: “For many days now, the Liberation Army has exercised restraint, but now it must absolutely counteract the rebellion.”
And that was it. The soldiers suddenly had guns, the tank and APC turrets suddenly had shells in their huge magazines. The infantry fired volleys into the crowd, then fired at the medical students—I remember my new doctor’s gasps—who came to treat them on the ground or get them onto evacuation gurneys. (It was eerily like the Mexico City Olympic riots in 1968, when the medical students saved scores of people wounded by Echeverria’s rifles.) When the dust cleared the morning of June 4, bodies were still being carried away. As with the armed response of many such regimes, there was a humiliating sadism in the treatment of the dead. Morgues were told by the government to refuse refrigeration of bodies, and the most vivid memory of some was how their friends were placed in the sun until their bodies were bloated with maggots.
The U.S. had become so dazzled with Deng’s small, clumsy steps toward capitalism that President George H.W. Bush did not raise his voice too loudly. He was more concerned with balance of power, Kissingerian calculus, than with individual human rights. He mumbled about tyrants from “Baghdad to Beijing,” but never got more specific about what we all saw, iconically, in the single protester standing before the long barreled Soviet tank, the “Tank Man” who simultaneously walked into the history of photography and human suffering—the futile, lone pilgrim staring down an eighty-millimeter cannon with his mixture of goofiness and stunning defiance.
Bush was so concerned about keeping the lines open with Deng that he dispatched his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, to secretly placate the Middle Kingdom’s leader, who had finally showed his true colors. Later, Bill Clinton also was unforgivingly flabby with China on human rights, not only facilitating its entrance into most-favored-nation status but fast tracking its entry into the World Trade Organization. China’s slow road to new freedoms soon got eclipsed by more vivid, more media-drenched (with the advent of twenty-four-hour cable news) episodes of state and tribal savagery. The Tito-less, fragmenting Balkans fulfilled their prophesy of bloodbaths; the Rwandan genocide was a mere four years away. Human rights got muffled under geopolitical priorities like land borders, Mideast skirmishes, oil, eco-catastrophes, and the disastrously necessary boom-bust cycle of capitalism.
Wang Dan, one of the Tiananmen leaders, had helped organize the enormous music festival on May 27, 1989, where Chinese pop stars were clamoring for invitations to play. Wang was to address the crowd as he had the previous week (most photos of the dais have him at the microphone), and he was racing down the Yangtze River in a hydrofoil, dictating a speech in a barber’s chair, to get to the June 3-4 demonstrations. He was too late and, though he missed the actual massacre, was jailed twice with long prison terms after he was finally caught about a month later. In an op-ed in The New York Times June 1, 2019, he wrote:
Our movement failed 30 years ago because we lacked support and experience in promoting democratic change. Many of us pinned our hopes on the liberal factions of the Communist Party leadership to initiate changes from within the system, but we underestimated the power of the party elders. The massacre shattered our illusions, helping us to see the brutality of one-party rule.
How far has a democratic China come since 1989, and if the foregone answer is “not much,” what are the reasons? They are essentially two-fold: economic prosperity and the technological surveillance state. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch said this year’s crackdown before the anniversary had been harsher than usual, with house arrests less common than direct custody by intelligence services. But in China economic security and a rising standard of living have taken young peoples’ minds off the police-repressive apparatus that so dramatically came down on their older siblings and parents. Young Chinese are not so concerned about about freedom of the press and assembly. Deng’s economic reforms led to vast advances in the tech sector, and almost any Chinese university graduate is guaranteed upwardly mobile employment, which didn’t exist before 1990.
President Xi has also sent the unmistakable message that the benefits of higher income and an easier life come with a necessary nationalism that eschews comparisons and copying of Western “freedoms.” Chinese migrants no longer seek refuge from upheavals at home by building new lives in Southeast Asia. They can get all the benefits of living in Hong Kong or Singapore by simply staying in their home cities. Opportunities and the New Nationalism have led to an apathy that disheartens artists, filmmakers, writers and political commentators.
Meanwhile, the country is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control. China is a society in which trustworthiness, i.e. fealty to the Party, partakes of a rating system. Wherever you go, your “citizen score” follows you. Imagine we were back in the 1950s, and everything Joe McCarthy had on you was somewhere on a hard drive that all authorities—federal, provincial, city and academic—could access with lightning speed. Everyone carries a National ID, and all of your actions in the world outside your door are swept into an information dragnet from the video cameras mounted on practically every vertical structure, including all the hundreds of light fixtures in Tienanmen Square. However small your crime, say, jaywalking or shoplifting, facial recognition algorithms match the camera-gathered footage of your face to the photo on your national badge.
A content-filtering Great Firewall prohibits foreign internet sites, including Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. In Shanghai this writer tried to file copy on a story with a simple word attachment to an e-mail. We were in Shanghai, and the hotel official explained this impossibility with dignified embarrassment. Finally, my son took screen shots of the seven pages and flitted them across the ocean to my editor in Vancouver. But the hotelier, who could face substantial fines for harboring a Western rule-breaker, warned me with trembling hands and wet eyes: don’t experiment too much. Don’t send out anything about the Xi regime good or bad. Don’t swim in the devil’s lake in this country. The intelligence services are a step ahead of however far ahead of them you think you are.
Early last year I finally stood on the Square on our last day in Beijing, before heading to the Sodom that the Xi government brands Westernized Hong Kong. A millennial, he is very much a visualist. A good reader and editor, he nevertheless knows how effectively the image reigns. I pulled up the picture of Tank Man, which he had never really seen even in Santa Monica High School history class. He was transfixed by it. He magnified the man, magnified the tank barrel, the periscopes, the other tanks waiting in line behind the first one. He looked up at me and asked with his eyes, “Here?”, pointing to the ground. Before I could say yes, a soldier came up behind us and looked with reticent approval at the photo, the picture and the event that existed before either he or my son were alive. Then he gave his obligatory warning, in perfect English, that photography was not allowed.
But the picture that mattered had already been taken. It was almost Soviet in its mixture of the valiant and the quotidian. A single student had walked the hero’s path by simply seemingly doing nothing but just standing there, swinging around two white garbage bags. One man, one boy younger than yesterday, his white shirt flickering before the oncoming deadly night like a candle in Babylon.
Richard Wirick is the author of the 2018 novel The Devil’s Water (Ekstasis/Macmillan) and two earlier collections of short fiction, both from Counterpoint: One Hundred Siberian Postcards (2006) and Kicking In (2011). His collection of essays, Hat of Candles, which features this essay, is forthcoming in February 2020. He practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his family.