mardi 9 juin 2009

Remembering Tiananmen Square

I have been meaning to write something about the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. In China, it is referred to simply as "the June 4th incident". Listening to and reading the numerous eye witness accounts, as well as interviews with today's 20 year-olds in China, who of course were not born or just born when it happened, has dredged up a lot of memories. By 1989 I had left China for France, but I doubt that China had changed enormously in the three years since my departure. Actually, it had probably changed significantly on one level - let's call it eye level because I love this double palindrome - and not at all on the other, deeper level. On the deeper level, all is chaos and anarchy. On the eye level, all is order, discipline and repression.

During the eighteen-month period I spent in China, I had the good fortune to teach adults: young students at the Chinese Foreign Language Institute (which was renamed a few years ago) in Shanghai, but also students at Fudan University and a group of professional journalists. I would not be surprised to learn that they took part in the 1989 movement. My students were curious, courageous and adventurous. Some of the journalists had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, as had Deng Xiaoping, who was China's leader when I lived there. He is widely credited with starting the reform movement in 1978, after having survived tremendous political challenges. One of my favorite Chinese jokes perfectly captures who Deng Xiaoping was at the time: three inmates are languishing in a Chinese prison. Prisoner one says to prisoner two: why are you here? I am here because I opposed Deng Xiaoping. Prisoner two asks prisoner one: why are you here? I am here because I supported Deng Xiaoping, he replies. They turn to prisoner three and ask, in unison, why are you here? Prisoner three replies: I am Deng Xiaoping. His first name (Xiaoping) also means little (xiao) bottle (ping). People told me he was aptly named because, like a bottle thrown in the sea, he always managed to stay afloat.

I felt China moving towards greater freedom when I was there. This was in the early to mid eighties, before China really opened its doors wide to tourists from the West. This was a good thing: without many infrastructures of control/tourism in place, Westerners who had permission to be there had great freedom of movement. We were paid in local currency and had the right to use it and pay Chinese prices (China has since done away with its dual currency system). We could travel peasant class on the trains if we wanted. We could stay in Chinese hotels and go to Chinese restaurants - as opposed to the hotels, restaurants, shops and train cars reserved specifically for tourists. We were foreign experts. Most of us were teachers, teaching the very people who would go on to demand that democratic reform accompany the economic miracle whose foundations were being laid.

Three years later, standing in the living room of a beautiful Parisian apartment located across the street from the Collège de France, one of the world's foremost seats of reason and erudition, I watched from a great distance in horror as events unfolded in Beijing. I could not help but feel that these were people I knew, being gunned down by soldiers of the People's Army. The People's Army, turning on the people. I think that many of those gunned down made the same mistake I did: believing that the People's Army would never turn on the People.