Imagine the world if the students and workers of Tianamen Square had triumphed

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the massacre at Tianamen Square.  Imagine how the world might have been different if those students and workers who so bravely faced down soldiers and tanks would have triumphed in their demands for a more democratic society. 

 While the rest of the world pays tribute to those brave students and workers, including tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong the Chinese government is doing everything possible including banning Twitter and dire warnings to bloggers who have come up with subtle forms of protest like taking their sites down for maintenance in the days around June 4.

In those thrilling days in the spring of 2009, literally millions of students and workers took to the streets across the country asking for a more democratic society.  When I visited China on a holiday about a year before, I felt like I was in the a pre-revolutionary society.  Some members of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party were supporting opening up the society both to capitalist economic ventures and to democratic reforms.   People we met were enthusiastic about both.  But I'll never forget the debate I heard in the Democracy Park in Shanghai where students wanting to practice their English debated whether what they wanted was a democratic socialism or a capitalist road.  It was a very open, very sophisticated discussion.  There was no doubt a serious current among the students who wanted democracy but not capitalism.  I was amazed and excited.  The decision of the Chinese leadership to savagely repress the movement for democracy while enthusiastically embracing the move towards capitalism, was truly heart breaking. 

In an op ed piece in the New York Times last Sunday Chinese writer Yu Hua writes for the first time about the Tianaman massacre.  He says that it is the first time he has written about the democracy movement because he fears that it will be forgotten in China but also because it was the first time he really understood what the power of the people really means, a notion, the says that has little meaning in today's China

Protests were spreading across the country, and in Beijing, where I was studying, the police suddenly disappeared from the streets. You could take the subway or a bus without paying, and everyone was smiling at one another. Hard-nosed street vendors handed out free refreshments to protesters. Retirees donated their meager savings to the hunger strikers in the square. As a show of support for the students, pickpockets called a moratorium...

Today, few young Chinese know anything about what happened at Tiananmen Square, and those who do only say vaguely, “A lot of people in the streets then, that’s what I heard.”

The people. Still, it was not the rallies in Tiananmen Square that made me truly understand these words, but an episode one night in late May. Martial law had been declared by that time; students and residents were guarding major intersections to keep out armed troops.

I was then living in the Lu Xun Literary Institute. Practically every lunchtime I would ride my rickety old bike to Tiananmen, lingering there through the evening and into the early hours.

In Beijing in late May, it’s hot at midday but cold at night. I was wearing only a short-sleeved shirt when I set off after lunch, and by late that evening I was chilled to the bone. As I cycled back from the square, an icy wind blew in my face. The streetlights were dark, and only the moon pointed the way ahead. Then as I approached the Hujialou overpass a wave of heat suddenly swept over me, and it only got hotter as I rode further. I heard a song drifting my way, and a bit later I saw lights gleaming in the distance.

Thousands of people were standing guard on the bridge and the approach roads beneath. They were singing lustily under the night sky: 'With our flesh and blood we will build a new great wall! The Chinese people have reached the critical hour, compelled to give their final call! Arise, arise, arise! United we stand .... '

Although unarmed, they stood steadfast, confident that their bodies alone could block soldiers and ward off tanks. Packed together, they gave off a blast of heat, as though every one of them was a blazing torch. That, I discovered, is what “the people” means.  That night I realized that when the people stand as one, their voices carry farther than light and their heat is carried farther still. That, I discovered, is what “the people” means."

 It is rare that the mainstream media in North America gives such great coverage to a people's movement.  One is tempted to believe it is because it was against a Communist regime, but that regime has now joined the capitalist brotherhood of profit seekers even bailing out the United State of America.  In today's Globe and Mail, Charles Foran suggests that our governments pay tribute to the students and workers of Tianamen because of their collective amnesia about human rights abuses in China when it comes to economic priorities. 

Those things are probably true but I would like to think that "the people" of China who so bravely stood non-violently against the tanks as symbolized in that iconic image of one man standing in the way of a line of tanks inspired all of us to think a better world is possible.  And while Yu Hua is pessimistic about democratic change coming to China, I can't help but think that whatever  the Chinese government does, the memory of Tianamen remains as an ember in the hearts of the people there and as Chairman Mao once said, "it only takes a tiny spark to start a prairie fire."


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