June 27, 1998
Square's History Goes Beyond Killings
Say the words "Tiananmen Square" to a Chinese, and he or she
will probably think first of the place where modern China was
born, of a must-see stop on every tourist's itinerary or simply
of a place to fly kites.
Say the words "June 4" and you get an entirely different
reaction. Either the conversation is stopped short or the
subject is changed.
There is no need to mention the year. Everyone knows June 4
refers to the night in 1989 when the soldiers of the People's
Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed student protesters,
killing maybe hundreds, to suppress the biggest challenge to
Communist Party rule.
With the killings, the words "Tiananmen Square" were etched
into the minds of an American public probably largely
unfamiliar with the square or its role in Chinese history until
To the Chinese, Tiananmen Square is a place, June 4 is a time,
and they carry quite different connotations. In Chinese,
Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and the gate, on the
north side of the square leading into the Forbidden City of
China's ancient imperial past, summons images of countless
moments in a long history. The 1989 student uprising is just
one, and the ceremony Saturday to welcome President Clinton is
"When I come here, I feel the dignity of our history and the
pride of China," said Zhang Li, a clerk with a state company.
"It occupies a sacred place in our hearts. It is the place
where China stood up."
Her last sentence echoes the words Chairman Mao Tse-tung used
when he came to the square on Oct. 1, 1949, to declare the
birth of the People's Republic of China to a cheering crowd of
hundreds of thousands.
In 1966, Mao stood there again to rally another huge crowd
behind the destructive chaos of the Cultural Revolution. A
decade later, the square again was thronged with people, who
came to mourn the death of Premier Chou En-lai and to protest
the power of the Gang of Four.
Yet another decade later, the square was filled again with
students demanding political reform. Purists say that most of
the shootings actually occurred around the square, rather than
on it, but the shootings nonetheless abruptly ended that brief
flowering of free expression.
"Just these three syllables, Tian-an-men, are associated with
the massacres in American minds," said Carma Hinton, an
American born and raised in China who made a seminal
documentary on the student protests, "Gate of Heavenly Peace,"
reportedly watched by Clinton before he left for China.
"To most Chinese, June 4 is a moment . . . the moment when the
government shot at the people."
It also is a moment that isn't mentioned these days. An
official veil of silence has since been drawn over what is
euphemistically referred to, if at all, as the June 4
"incident." That doesn't mean the massacre has been forgotten.
"I believe even a lot of the higher-ups in government don't
agree with what happened," Hinton said. "But there's a deadlock
in Chinese politics. It's something seen as so dangerous, so
volatile, that nobody dares open it up."
Its memory lingers as a subtext to virtually everything that
happens in China today. Behind an emerging debate on political
reforms, the efforts to establish a just legal system and the
worries about social instability from economic-reform
unemployment lie an unspoken determination to avoid a repeat of
the events of 1989.
"No one talks about it because if there is talk there must be
some conflict," said Mao Yu-shi, head of the Unirule Institute,
an independent think tank. "Both sides made mistakes. Both
sides didn't reconcile, didn't talk, didn't negotiate. So how
can they solve their differences?"
Hinton's documentary portrays the students during the
demonstrations as as uncompromising as the government. Their
leaders instituted rigid rules and regulations, and they
refused to tolerate the views of those who disagreed with them.
"June 4 is still a symbol of (a) society that cannot deal with
discontent as a normal part of society," Hinton said. "China
has moved in a direction of being able to deal with some
discontent, but the mentality is so deeply rooted. It will take
a long time."
Mao Yu-shi believes China is starting to escape from the shadow
of June 4.
"Both sides have learned some lessons," he said. "On the
government side, the lesson is to find a set of rules for
conflict resolution between the government and the people."
Such sweeping legal reforms are under way.
"On the student side, the lesson is to give up the idea that 'I
am the master of the people.' The basic spirit should be
reconciliation and negotiation and not to insist (on) one view
without listening to other views."
Yet to this day, the words June 4 stand as a wedge between the
government and its people, between those who have excused the
party's decision to use force and those who cannot forgive or
"That's a long time ago. Let it pass," said Zhou Yi Ren, 26, a
graduate student. "Maybe some Americans pay too much attention
to what happened. Look at what China has achieved. Our living
standards are improving. We want to focus on our economy and
That is the government's official view: that the decision to
use force was correct and that the matter is closed. "We have
already drawn a correct conclusion on that matter, and this
conclusion will not be changed," China's reformist Premier Zhu
Rongji declared when he took office in March.
For those who participated in the protests or who lost loved
ones, June 4 remains a watershed, an unresolved blot on China's
"To hold a ceremony at such a time and place greatly hurts the
feelings of freedom-seeking Chinese people, and especially the
feelings of relatives of the June 4 dead," wrote Ding Zilin in
an open letter to Clinton. She is an associate professor of
philosophy at People's University in Beijing whose 17-year-old
son was killed at the square.
Such open talk is not tolerated from most Chinese, but Ding, as
a bereaved mother, is left largely undisturbed. Dissidents
abroad keep up a steady call on the government to "reverse the
verdict" on June 4 -- In other words, to admit it was wrong.
Yet although this is a time of greater political openness in
China, in which debates on the merits of democracy and protests
by angry workers are tolerated, Chinese who raise the June 4
issue still risk detention.
"It's not just a case of simply reversing the June 4 verdict,
but that this is a society that needs to change politically to
deal with dissent," Hinton said.
"But both sides don't see that. It's still a case of 'You were
wrong, and I was right.' It will take a long time."