Twenty-five years ago on the evening on June 3, 1989, I was standing in the northeast corner of Tiananmen Square as Chinese soldiers emerged in large numbers from inside the National History Museum a short distance away. From loudspeakers came instructions that all those gathered in the square should leave in an orderly way. The Tiananmen Square Protest, begun seven weeks earlier, was entering its final and most brutal phase.
It would be another seven hours or so on the morning of June 4th before the last of the demonstrators would be led unharmed out of the Square. The violence that night occurred elsewhere. Chinese troops entering the city by road encountered stiff resistance, particularly to the west and south of the square. I witnessed some of this at close quarters – the mayhem and loss of life. I was a reporter at the time. I don’t reflect often on these events, and this is also the first time I’ve written about what I saw there.
Most of what I and so many others thought was true and inevitable at that time turned out to be wrong. There was no civil war, no fracturing of the country, no return to Maoism, no retreat into bitter isolation, no dying of the universal hope here for a better life.
China today is an infinitely better, fairer, richer, more open and freer place than it was in 1989. This is the reality that too many in the West are unable or unwilling to see. Their views about China were cast in concrete that awful night in June 1989. All they often choose to see are ghosts of repression and despotism.
So what I have learned these twenty-five years? China’s long history, for all its stunning achievements and millennia of global weight and prestige, is also etched with pain — from war, famine, civil discord. No single cataclysm could possibly define its destiny or determine the country’s future. Not Tiananmen. Not the Cultural Revolution. Not the civil war that brought the Communists to power in 1949. Not the Japanese conquest of the 1930s, nor the Taiping Rebellion eighty years earlier in which perhaps 30 million Chinese perished.
“Amnesia” is what some Western commentators and authors now choose to call it. I prefer to think of it as a deep, practical and praiseworthy resiliency. China is where it is today, at a moment of prosperity and bright prospects unprecedented in its history, because most, if not all, of the country of 1.3 billion willed it there. Through toil. Through self-reliance and self-improvement. Through an unshifting focus on bettering their own lives, and those of their families. And, also through knowing when and how to bury the past.
Was this made easier because no news about the Tiananmen protests circulates in official media, and nothing is taught in schools? Quite likely. But, by itself, the impact of this was negligible on China’s transformation since 1989. The country is now thirteen times larger, in per capita gdp terms, than it was then. The improvement in people’s lives goes beyond the scale of numerical measurement. It is the largest, most complete and most rapid uplift in human history.
Yes, some problems from 1989 still remain. China has polluted air and water, as it did in 1989. It has corrupt officials. As it did in 1989. Its politics are now and were then opaque and closed in most parts to public scrutiny. Then, as now, China confounds and sometimes infuriates those who visit it, study it, admire it, or seek to trade with it.
I left Beijing on June 15th 1989, together with my oldest and closest friend, who was expelled as an Associated Press journalist “due to alleged links with student ringleaders”. We met as two of a handful of American students in Nanjing in 1981, when food was still rationed and China was as poor, per capita, as India and poorer than just about everywhere in Africa.
I stayed away for many years, moving back almost five years ago. That friend is also back now in China, raising his three children in Beijing. He and I don’t see eye to eye on China. Our interpretations are quite different on what happened in Tiananmen that night, and the impact it exerts over today’s China. We speak about it rarely. He’s writing a history book now on the many ties that bind the US and China together. He is more fixated on politics, with intrigues and policy shifts in Beijing. I care little about that, and far more about what happens here financially and economically.
We both feel grateful to live in China now, and in our own ways, grateful also to hold onto a few memories of China as it was 33 years ago, and also on that night in 1989. No amnesia. Some late middle-aged forgetfulness for sure.
China is not at all like the sad place we expected it to become when we left Beijing together in 1989. It is our home. It provides us both with opportunity, friendship, purpose, careers, happiness, love, occasional frustrations and, when we remember to take note, a sense of astonishment at all we’ve witnessed, and how much farther China has come than we ever dared imagine.