Have you ever been to Tiananmen Square?

I have been to China four times and, on each occasion, I have visited Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital Beijing. Inevitably, each time I have recalled the massacre of June 1989.

In my account of the first visit in 2000, I wrote:

“One advantage of seeing the palace [the Forbidden City] from north to south is that we came out into Tiananmen Square. The name means ‘The Square of Heavenly Peace’, but of course all of us associate it with the terrible events of 1989. Peter [our guide] was living in Beijing at the time and went to the square, so he was able to give us a very personal view of events. 

He was convinced that it was a genuine mass movement with extensive support and not simply a student protest, but he felt that the demands were more economic than political. He doubted whether there were many deaths in the square itself, as opposed to the adjoining streets, and castigated the wild estimates of the number of deaths made by some western media commentators. However, he had no doubt that the Chinese authorities had exercised sophisticated media control over the presentation of events and that the whole episode had been the catalyst for the subsequent remarkable economic developments. 

Tiananmen Square is simply huge and one has little difficulty accepting the claim that it is the largest inner city square in the world. Estimates of the number of people that it can hold vary between half a million and a million. On one side is an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao at the main entrance to the Forbidden City and on the other side is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum. One wonders how long these now rare commemorations of the Great Leader will remain [they are still there]. 

The huge picture of Mao Zedong
at the entrance to the Forbidden City

In the square, we had an official tour group photograph with Mao smiling benevolently behind us.”

In a blog posting on my latest visit tio China just last year, I wrote:

“On our first full day in Beijing, we visited two major locations in and around the enormously expansive Tiananmen Square. The security in the square is phenomenal: one can only enter through guarded points where Chinese citizens have their identity cards electronically scanned; at a further security point, all bags are x-rayed; and everywhere there are police and military, not to mention the plain clothes personnel.”

This evening, I watched a 90-minute documentary on BBC Four entitled “Tiananmen: The People v The Party” with moving testimony from some of those who were student protesters in the square. The programme explained the conflict between the reformist General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the hard-line Premier Li Peng. Sadly today the line is harder than ever.


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