Saturday, June 4, 2016

Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

The calendar tells me that it has been more than a quarter of a century since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China.

My body and mind tell me that it's not possible, but the calendar does not lie.

I was a young high school student, at the end of my freshman year in high school. I had never asked a girl out yet, so obviously, I did not have a girlfriend, although I badly wanted one. My grades sucked, although as bad as they were, they were an improvement, believe it or not, over my performance on the report cards in junior high school.

The 49ers had won what was probably then the most exciting Super Bowl in history against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Montreal Canadiens were on their way to a Stanley Cup Finals again, only this time they would lose to the Calgary Flames, the same team that they had beaten in the Cup Finals three seasons earlier. The Detroit Pistons reached the NBA Finals for the second year in a row, and this time, the "Bad Bys" of the NBA would beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was in 1989, I think, that I got my first ever cd. My grandfather died in June of that month, something that my family learned about after having spent the afternoon swimming at Wawayanda State Park. Later that year, mostly peaceful revolution would bring about an end to communist domination in eastern Europe, and the Berlin Wall would fall.  But that would come much later, and the spirit behind those popular revolts would prevail, unlike in China.

The revolutions in Europe were  beacon of hope to the world, and the powerful images of ordinary citizens taking a sledgehammer to the once feared and hated Berlin Wall, which suddenly was a sign of political impotence by formerly dominant and heavy handed communists, continue to resonate right to the present day. Not much later on, just a few months, actually, came another huge change in a troubled part of the world, when President FW DeKlerk admitted that apartheid in South Africa had been a failure, and announced the beginning of some sweeping reforms that would also be brought about relatively peacefully. At least, there was not an outbreak of some bloody, sweeping civil war, or race war, there.

Yes, 1989 was the big year of change during my lifetime. Things changed radically then, unlike any other year that I had seen before or since (with, arguably, the 2011 Arab Spring coming relatively close to being the exception). And it all started, or seemed to start, in the spring, in China, when the also feared communists saw their rule threatened by peaceful protesters, marching against dictatorial rule, and demanding greater freedom. They built a statue, vaguely reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, and it was on display at Tiananmen Square.

But in China, came a shocking and grim reminder of just how difficult change can be. As promising and inspiring as the peaceful student movement seemed to be, events in China would show something else entirely. If the unexpected winds of change seemed to be blowing in China in the spring of 1989, and promising positive results, the military crackdown of the demonstrators ended it just as suddenly, assuring China would remain the same for a long time to come, even as a pariah state.

The images remain powerful. I still remember the student who stood before the tank, daring it to run him over. And the statue remains an enduring sign of what could have been, of a potential in China that was never fulfilled.

Of course, China has changed. It is far more money oriented these days, far more accepting of capitalism than it used to be, even though, technically, it remains a communist country. And even though it remains a place where true freedom of the press and of speech remain a goal for activists, rather than a reality for citizens.

China has changed, yes. But I was surprised to learn that many young Chinese have never even heard of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or are familiar with the events of spring of 1989 in China.

In a year that saw incredible change, from the spring of 1989 until the spring of 1990, Tiananmen Square unfortunately remains a symbol of just how dangerous and difficult change can be. We may forget that here in the West, living lives of relative comfort and privilege. The surprisingly quick and easy fall of the wall in eastern Europe, and the beginning of real reform in South Africa, not to mention the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Reagan had only a few years before called the "Evil Empire", perhaps led us to the belief that these changes were inevitable, and long overdue. But China as it endures today, as well as places like Thailand and Syria, serve as reminders that, for some people who do not share in our wealth and luxury, change may be desirable, but it is never easy.

It has been a quarter of a century today that the crackdown in Tiananmen Square took place. It started on the evening of June 3rd, and went through to June 4th. I remember the shock, even from half a world away, of seeing something that looked so promising, come crashing down to violent reality.

So on this day, I take a moment to reflect and remember what might have been, and the brave students and activists who tried to bring about meaningful change in a place that has resisted it far better than almost anywhere else.

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