Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tiananmen Square 20 years on

Aside from the elections, tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

China is reported to be shutting down hotmail, Flickr and twitter to prevent any attempt to commemerate the event.

I visited mainland China for the first time in March and have a slightly different but fundementally unchanged perspective as a result.

What I had not really understood before is that most comtemporary Chinese don't appear to want to remember Tiananmen Square. In a dreadful way, for now at least, the Chinese government has succeeded. They have convinced people that their destiny is to work hard, gain some material luxuries and the government will take care of the rest.

China is keen to present itself, as it broadly managed during the Olympics, as a modern dynamic country. When I first arrived at the airport in Shanghai in March I was presented with the sight of a vast and spotless airport. Most memorably all the immigration officers were smiling. It was slightly eerie as they smiled on taking each passport, carried out their checks (still smiling) and then handed the passport back with another smile. At the immigration counter there were 4 buttons giving the option to grade the immigration officer on a scale of "very effective" to "very ineffective". I, like I think most of my fellow travellers, gave the immigration officer the highest rating for their smile fearing the kind of trouble they would get into if they were graded lower.

I was met by a smart taxi. There was an option of a super-fast magnetic train but as corruption had meant that the terminal for this was several miles out of the the centre of Shanghai, it was not a particularly useful option.

I arrived in my hotel and went for an evening stroll hoping to see the Bund, the colonial heart of old Shanghai. The Bund was actually in the middle of redevelopment so I had a walk around scaffolding, roadworks and back down some rather quiet streets. Three times I was offered "sexy massages" from "beautiful women". The offers were made by dark suited men who scrurried in and out of the shadows. I moved away from them quickly as they tried to show me photos. I saw a man without legs sitting on a low trolley with wheels as he begged. Across the water, from what what I could see over the road works rose the now famous skyline of modern Shanghai. 100 storey buildings sprouted from what had been paddy fields 10 or 15 years ago.

In the office I visited, the local Chinese were proud of Shanghai and its development. They were welcoming to me as a foreigner but their outlook seemed a little shallow. All the talk was of careers, of new apartments and of material wealth. Maybe this is not much different to Britain but their was something pre-prepared about their conversation as if they were talking from a script. They wanted to impress with tales of wealth because they thought that is what they should want rather than necessarily actually wanting it themselves.

In a country with a young population, 20 years is a very long time. For those who know anything about Tiananmen Square, it is generally a bad memory best forgotten. Those who fell, so the thinking goes, probably deserved it or were misguided. Either way, things have moved on and people just don't talk about it.

To raise the subject is to criticise China and to criticise China is seen as insulting for a foreigner and downright dangerous for a Chinese.

Therefore I am now no longer sure how many people in China will be remembering the anniverary tomorrow. I am not sure many will even know and those that do will be keeping their heads down. Twenty years have passed but from what I have now seen as China, the years of propoganda have worked. A lot of people don't actively want freedom. They want the status quo and as long as the economy keeps growing this will not change.

Nonetheless I am certain that one day those who fell in Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989 will be honoured in China. Their cause was noble, in search of freedom. They deserve to be honoured and maybe in another 20 years this will be possible in China too.

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