Saturday, February 18, 2012

squaring off with history

Tiananmen Square.

The words are freighted with Chinese history.  For westerners, it is where students, favoring the heady dream of political freedom, were crushed in 1989.  For the Chinese Communists, it is a constant reminder that all governments fall.

And it was a perfect spot to orient tourists to the political center of China and the physical and psychological center of China’s capital city.  This was the square that Mao built.

After the Communist victory in 1949, Mao Zedong needed a symbol for his “heaven on earth.”  Tiananmen was his choice.

His original dream was to build the world’s largest square.  But he settled for second. He then sprinkled the perimeter of the square with the party’s major government buildings.

Including, the Great Hall of the People, where the Congress meets every five years to ratify the party’s choice for president.

And the National Museum of China, housing many of China’s treasures.

In the center, like a lonely groom on a wedding cake, Mao erected the Monument to the People's Heroes to commemorate China’s revolutionary struggle that culminated in the Communist victory.  Including the war against the the Japanese.  All honored with calligraphy in Mao’s hand: “Eternal glory to the people's heroes!”

Many of those struggles.were acted out in the square. The May Fourth uprising in 1919 that led to the eventual victory of the Chinese Communist Party.  The declaration of the Communist victory in 1949.  Protests following the mysterious death of Zhou Enlai in 1976.  And, of course, the Cultural Revolution -- the revolutionary lashing out of the Red Guard at the growing bourgeoisie.

Ironically, one of the men humiliated during the Cultural Revolution was Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, who brought market reforms to China in the 1970s, and launched China on its path to becoming the second largest economy in the world.

In the heady days of 1989 when communism was collapsing in the Soviet Union and its captive nations, Chinese reformers began criticizing corruption amongst the Chinese ruling class -- believing that economic freedom would lead to political freedom, as it had in Chile.

They were wrong.  Deng Xiaoping, like the fearful emperors before him, turned on the reformers, called out the army, and crushed the protesters in Tiananmen Square.  And inadvertently created an icon of the bravery of freedom for the rest of the world.

The communist leadership knew that governments fall when protests spread from Tiananmen Square.  Our guide warned us that our conversations in the square would be monitored by the police and undercover agents.  The leadership still lives in fear.

Mao has left a mixed legacy.  His portrait is ubiquitous.  On buildings.  In some homes.  On the currency.

But he is little more than a hollow icon for the party to trot out now and then in their quest for legitimacy.  Mao’s mausoleum in the square is an apt symbol.  Heroic.  Cold.  And dead.

What is not dead is the party’s attempt to control the flow of political information to its citizens -- including these giant LED screens in the square.

George Orwell would have immediately grasped their purpose.

With the mood set, let’s start our tour through this odd mixture of socialism, capitalism, and political suppression.


Islagringo said...

I well remember the news coverage of the uprising in the Square.  That picture is still chilling.  I think it is one of 3 iconic photos.  The other two being the girl fleeing napalm in Viet Nam and the Buddhist priest setting himself on fire.  Chilling reminders that freedom is not free.

Beth said...

Those LED screens were not in place when I visited in 2008, but then I was there just a few months after the Olympics and I think the city was still putting on a show for "the rest of the world."  Did your guide interpret the message on the board?  I was surprised at how fondly our guide spoke of Mao.  Perhaps that is required of the guides, but she seemed sincere - she was also too young to have had first hand experienced with him. 

Steve Cotton said...

 Our guide was rather dismissive of Mao.  He pointed out tat there appears to be a large division of opinion -- based mainly on age.  In much the same way that some older Russians are nostalgic for Stalin.

Steve Cotton said...

 I was in England at the time on an assignment.  We had some very interesting discussions on how the United States should react.  But it is one of those photographs (and videos) that cannot easily be forgotten.

Marionparker45 said...

I would have to add the photo of the South Vietnam General executing the North Vietcong prisoner. Providing Freedom can be frustrating!

Steve Cotton said...

And just imagine the images we would have had if photographers had been around to record the victims of Lenin and Stalin. But I guess that is why we had Solzhenitsyn -- to capture in prose as an eye witness what the press could not provide us.

Steve Cotton said...

One of my readers in Pátzcuaro has been frustrated by Disqus not allowing him to post a question.  (That makes me wonder who else may be having Disqus issues.)  His question is: "Which are the largest public squares in the world? Red
Square? The Zócalo de la Ciudad de México? Tiananmen Square?"

Tiananmen is either the second or largest
square.  Some people count Freedom Square
in Jakarta.  But it is more like a square
in a park.  Sunflowers Square in Brazil
is a traditional open square.  And about a
quarter larger than Tiananmen.  But it did
not exist during Mao's lifetime.

Oddly, Red Square and the Zócalo are way down the list.

Muycontento said...

That is not what he was doing. He was executing a Vietcong who had just killed a police officer.That was what happened. There were witnesses. 

Steve Cotton said...

You are correct. The Vietcong was involved with a group that had earlier that day killed a number of policemen and their families -- including family members of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the police chief photographed shooting the Vietcong. The photographer later said he regretted taking the photograph because of its impact. But it truly did become an icon of the war.

al said...

does anyone know what happened to the guy who stood in front of the tank? 


Steve Cotton said...

 No.  But the best available information is that he was grabbed by the police and executed that day -- or later.  He has not been seen since.