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Notes from a non-anniversary: The scene from the Square on Thursday morning

I woke up this morning and took a short walk to a big square.  As expected, it was pretty calm in the kind of jittery, strained, composed way one usually associates with a dinner party where one of the hosts is having an extramarital affair with one of the guests.  The square looked relatively normal but with a seriously beefed-up security detail that included the usual suspects plus a ring of young slack-jawed crew-cut types in tracksuits and matching gray badges worn on unmatching t-shirts.  Reports of visitors being asked to produce passports, to weed out foreign journalists, appear to be untrue overstated.  I walked into the square from two different directions today and wasn’t once asked for my passport.  To read some of the other dispatches from this morning (Reuters/AP) you’d think the square was under martial law, and that’s not really the case.  That said, don’t pull out a camera or try to film a dispatch unless you want an umbrella stuck in your face.  (Yes, the latest in Chinese counter-surveillance equipment can be purchased at any subway kiosk for 5 RMB, or maybe 10 if it’s raining.)

There are many reasons for the non-events of today’s anniversary.  While the square is open, the extra security is clearly ready to pounce on anybody who looks like trouble.  Launching a spontaneous protest today would be like robbing a casino in Vegas, sure you might get your hands on the money but you’re going to get your teeth knocked in before you set a single foot outside to spend it.  Whatever you do better be worth it.  And frankly, people in Beijing don’t really seem to care very much, or maybe they just aren’t that interested in big public displays of dissent.  The majority of urbanites in China’s capital long ago traded away their political pottage for the right to buy knock-off handbags and a decent compact car, and they are reasonably happy with the deal they’ve made. 

There are a few cracks in the facade.  There will be a memorial service at Victoria Park in Hong Kong tonight.  The new English-language edition of the Global Times has run two pieces this week, including a long article in today’s (June 4) edition looking at the Τian’anmen crackdown in historical perspective.  To be sure, the piece does so from the perspective of the CCP, but that the subject is broached at all, even in a relatively new English-language paper, is still noteworthy. 

For the most part, however, the chances of something major happening in Beijing today are about as remote as The Hangover being nominated for a Golden Globe.

In late May, Wáng Dan, a notable figure in the 1989 movement, called on Chinese to show their support by “wearing white,” a traditional color of mourning.  This was either the smartest or the dumbest idea in the history of protesting.  It’s summer in Beijing.  EVERYBODY wears white.  A white, button down short sleeve shirt is almost a uniform among a certain class of Beijinger this time of year.  I have one myself, made of such unnatural fabric that I’ve washed and worn it years after several overpriced dress shirts from Brooks Brothers have been reduced to “sleepwear for the Mrs.” I had it on today. I’d like to say it was out of solidarity with the movement, but I probably would have worn it anyway.  It’s 90 degrees outside and I sweat like a rabid dairy cow under the best of circumstances, on a day like this it’s the only shirt I own that wouldn’t make me look like Chris Farley after a two-day bender in Mexico.

And half this town on any given day in the summer will also be wearing white.  While Wang Dan may have been going for a ‘subtle gesture of protest,’ it’s possible the ‘wear white day’ idea was a little too subtle.  Kind of like: “If you wish to honor the memory of the Τian’anmen dead, don’t shave your left eyebrow completely off on Thursday morning.” 

Finally, there has been a lot made about the Chinese government’s knee-jerk blocking of foreign social media sites like YouTube and Twitter as well as the ‘temporary closure for maintenance’ of their Chinese counterparts.  Nothing makes the CCP look more like a bunch of ninnies than when they let the Net Nanny go nuts.  When YouTube was blocked in March, presumably because of a video purporting to show Chinese police beating unarmed Τibetan monks, most people had never seen the offending clip.  Within a day everybody (outside of China or those who had a proxy server) had checked it out.  Why? Because with not much going on in Τibet this past March, and with nobody able to go there to file anyway, it was something to write about.  On Tuesday it was Twitter. During a week with very little substantive news to cover in connection with the anniversary, the Chinese government’s ham-handed attempts to erase the memory of June 4 and stifle any attempts for dissenting groups to organize became the story. 

(We’ve seen this time and again.  The Chinese government tries to act as if it doesn’t care about something, but in its obsessive desire to act like it no longer cares, it comes across like a crazy ex-girlfriend who is just a bit too cavalierly making out with the lacrosse player from your dorm every time you look her way at the party.  Not that I would know anything about that.  Moving on…)

Blocking Twitter, a site that almost every correspondent in town uses to some degree, fantastically inconveniences the one group desperate to write something bad about the government.  Censored sites is such an easy story – such a gift to the foreign correspondent community in Beijing – that I’m surprised it doesn’t come wrapped in pretty paper with a bow and a card saying “Love, Hu!” 

In the end, whatever one’s views are on the demonstrations, the way they were suppressed, or the aftermath, as a historian I am always disturbed by official attempts to erase past events.  As a commenter noted yesterday, it was Orwell who wrote, “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.”  The CCP has changed in may ways – much of it for the good – over the past twenty years, it is times like these however, when the worst of the Party’s instincts for self-preservation take over, which remind us of how far there still is to go.

15 Comments on Notes from a non-anniversary: The scene from the Square on Thursday morning

  1. Good to read, thank you.

    In the interests of research and not to contradict I should report that my passport was check twice at length. One policeman went into a fuss about my bike too not that that is especially unusual. Finally I got on it and said I’d park it somewhere else. A minute up the road – made all the difference.

  2. Net Ninny Nanny even blocked little old me What is up with that? My post today was totally harmless!

  3. I’d like to hear more about this lacrosse player.

  4. Blocking the net is such a brilliant idea. All young people can sense something is happening and will want to know, while the CCP don’t have to admit to anything. It keeps the spirit alive in China without saying anything. I salute the CCP for their ingenuity.

  5. James Fallows detected a more sinister presence in The Square last night:

  6. Stuart,

    I saw that post. I like Jim a lot as a person and respect him immensely as a journalist, but I think his account was a bit overblown based on my own observations. I go through the square two or three times a month and yesterday was very similar to every other time, EXCEPT there was a lot more of the usual. There are always screeners, bag checkers, metal detectors, plainclothes and uniformed cops, security vehicles, etc. There were just A LOT more of them yesterday. The square often feels a bit ‘sinister,’ my opinion is that yesterday was more a factor of degree rather than a significant qualitative difference.

  7. Damn, the Party’s jitteriness is now starting to hit me in the pocket (well, apart from the massively inflated “arrangement fees” we had to shell out for our visa renewals this year, of course).

    I was supposed to be giving a lecture today at a business college that operates under the aegis of one of the capital’s leading universities. It was cancelled at less than 24 hours’ notice – apparently in response to a recent instruction from the Ministry of Education. No outside (non-Chinese) lecturers to be allowed to speak on campus at this sensitive time, it seems.

    They quaintly call this a ‘quarantine’! No, it has nothing at all to do with A/H1N1; it’s about the control of ideas. You foreigners and your dangerous free-thinking! Don’t come infecting us with any of that!

  8. Highly entertainng and enlightening, as always. BTW, are you able to access the SCMP website, or any other HK media?

  9. Jeremiah,

    “The square often feels a bit ’sinister,’ … yesterday was more a factor of degree rather than a significant qualitative difference.”

    That’s the way I remember it, too. And I wasn’t, as I just explained at PD, trying to sound disappointed that there wasn’t more evil in the air. It was just that JF offered a different take – and alluded, mysteriously, to something more.

  10. Froog,

    “No outside (non-Chinese) lecturers to be allowed to speak on campus at this sensitive time, it seems.”


  11. Great read as always, Jeremiah. I’ve directed my readers to you on this one!

  12. hey- came to your website pretty randomly. made me think of last year when I was standing at the square myself.

    Here is a commentary that I posted on the NY Times website after that.. (Seemed pretty similar, except it was kind of cold that early in the morning.)

    Thanks for your blog!

    Last night I visited Tiananmen Square. I came along with a couple of friends. We had candles and much curiosity to see what it feels like to be standing on the place of tragedy exactly 19 years after the first shot that night. That was on June 3rd 10:30 pm. It did not occur to us that the square closes for visitors every night after the flag is taken down. Yet, there were quite a few people standing close to the square, mostly posing for photographs next to the shiny light up of Forbidden City with taking only a few glances behind them.

    I visited Tianamen Square again this morning at 4:30 am, in order to witness the daily flag raising ceremony. There were a couple of hundred people crowding on the designated space for observers. I couldn’t tell whether it was more or less than usually, perhaps about the same. The perfectly synchronized peace keepers marched in at 4:45 and gave their honor to the flag. A storm of camera clicks followed. Once the flag was flapping in the air, the tourists walked back to their buses and the regular life around the mausoleum resumed. I noticed a couple of people who looked different others, perhaps they were civil rights activists or concerned citizens. They could have been from the secret police too. Or maybe I am just making it up, because I was looking around too eagerly. Many people were weaving their own small Chinese flags, breakfasting, buying souvenirs. Early rising seniors came to wind off their kites.

    I did not regret getting up to see the ceremony. I knew it would have been unreasonable to expect a great spectacle or civil disobedience. However, I was hoping that I would catch a hint of unusual piety. Nineteen years after the massacre, it remains a taboo. There are no apparent marks of the event on the ground and the flag is raised all the way to the top of the flagpole. Does the lack of tangible demonstrations of grief signify that they have forgotten?

    The square remains, even today, The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

  13. James Fallows is one of the best, if not the best, journalists covering China (and a lot of other things). My experience with his writings is that he doesn’t overstate anything. If anything, he is quite gentle on the Chinese.

  14. Jay,

    As I said, Jim is one of the best. And in talking to him, I find that our views on China are pretty similar. In this case, we saw slightly different things, as sometimes happens even when two observers are viewing the same thing.

    That said, I didn’t mention Jim’s piece in my original post because I found his observations to be much more balanced than the rather alarmist language and imagery used in the wire service reports.

  15. I dunno man, Hangover was pretty legit….

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