We visited Tiananmen Square on a beautiful spring morning in 2004. At first glance, we could hardly recognize the place from the pictures the world saw on television in June of 1989 when tanks rolled into the square and soldiers with guns advanced on the young men and women who were exercising freedom of speech and expression.
Now people from all over the world milled about Tiananmen Square, snapping photos of Mao’s portrait and lining up to visit the mausoleum which houses his body. Folks were busy capturing digital images of the famous statues and monuments.
Video cameras rolled as families posed in front of the impressive Great Hall of the People. Many citizens from all over China had made the trip to see this spot where their former leader is honored. Mao Zedong still seemed to be a hero in his homeland.
On the day we visited Tiananmen Square people were laughing, talking and enjoying tea and breakfast in the square. Children were playing tag and flying kites. Vendors were selling Mao playing cards, Mao watches, copies of Mao’s infamous Red Book and even Mao cigarette lighters that played the national anthem when you flicked them open. We were told that early that morning thousands of citizens had congregated in the square just as the sun was rising to see the flag of China being raised in front of Mao’s portrait.
As we drove up to Tiananmen we asked our tour guide where the army tanks had driven into the square on that fateful June day. He quickly moved to the back of the tour bus where we were sitting and spoke softly. “Over there,” he pointed. “That’s where the tanks rolled in. But please do not ask me any questions about the student uprisings while we are in the square itself. I will answer all your questions later, back on the bus.”
This surprised us since at the start of our three-day Beijing excursion our guide had told us that in the ‘new, open China’ he was allowed to say anything he wanted.
Later we realized Tiananmen was still a politically sensitive spot. We heard someone wailing and saw a gray- haired woman prostrating herself in front of Mao’s portrait. She had Chinese characters written all over the large white tunic wrapped around her body. Uniformed officials were trying to get her to stand up. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time two policemen lifted her under her arms and carried her away. “Keep walking forward”, our guide urged as we continued to turn around to see what was happening to the woman. “Do not take pictures” our guide instructed in a firm brisk voice, as I took my camera out of its case. “I will explain later.”
He was true to his world. In the tunnel leading into the Forbidden City he told us the woman was protesting the fact the government had confiscated her family’s land and not paid a proper price for it. The writing on her clothing said that when her husband went to the local officials to complain he was arrested. Our guide believed she had come to Tiananmen Square to pray before Mao’s picture. He was her last resort.
We asked if the woman would be punished. Our guide thought she might be imprisoned for a few days for disturbing the peace. “The problem of her husband’s arrest and the loss of her land will be addressed” he assured us. “After all she has now talked about it here in the square in front of all you western visitors.”
Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” There was little about Tiananmen Square that was peaceful on that June day in 1989 when so many students protesting for democracy were killed. Although at first glance Tiananmen presented a much more peaceful picture on our visit, some people were still protesting in Tiananmen Square.
Other posts about China protests….