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Views Across A Wide Gulf: Memories That Won’t Fade Away

3 minute read
Adi Ignatius

There is a voice in my head that keeps saying “Get over it.” And I know I should listen. As a correspondent in Beijing in 1989, I experienced the optimism of that spring’s grand democracy movement. And I suffered through the aftermath of the leadership’s decision to send troops to Tiananmen Square on June 4. Although to this day no one has the foggiest idea how many were killed (hundreds? thousands?), we witnessed–live–the slaughter of a spirit of hope and idealism. And yet this voice keeps insisting “Get over it.”

It is fashionable now to dismiss Tiananmen as a reckless, nihilist uprising. In that view, the crackdown was an unpleasant necessity to keep China from spinning into chaos. But that slant requires a selective recall. The movement was initially a peaceful call for reform. But Deng Xiaoping didn’t get that. Soon after the demonstrations began, he ordered the People’s Daily to tar the movement as “a planned conspiracy” and “a riot,” transforming China’s idealistic young into enemies of the state. With that error, Deng lost the ability to compromise.

For many correspondents who lived in China at the time, Beijing is still a city of ghosts. When I am in the center of the city, I’m haunted by images of a dead soldier, his body burned by an angry mob and strung up from a footbridge. Am I the only one? At that spot now is a gleaming shopping mall. When I visit my old neighborhood, I think back to the terrifying scene three days after the massacre when a convoy of troops opened fire on foreigners’ apartments. For months after Tiananmen, you could feel the indentations the tanks left in the asphalt of Changan Avenue. I still sense them, though they have long since been smoothed over.

The fact is, people in Beijing are no longer hung up on Tiananmen. Beneath the surface, it is easy to tap into the latent sense of outrage toward a government that could do such a thing and then refuse to apologize for it. And there are many in China still fighting the battle, struggling to bring about true democracy and a respect for individuals’ rights. But most of China’s citizens are contentedly focusing their energies on more pragmatic endeavors, like making money, learning English, studying computers, raising a family.

Outside China, people find it harder simply to move on. For the millions who were glued to CNN in 1989 during the weeks of hope and the night of horror, China is linked, perhaps forever, with the massacre. It is the toxin in the air that helps explain the passion of Beijing’s critics in the West. The students who bombarded the American embassy in Beijing with rocks and eggs a few weeks ago have provided new images of China. But their exuberance was partly a response to years of China bashing. The bad blood, ultimately, can be traced to Tiananmen. At some point, to use Chinese terminology, the “official view” on Tiananmen will be reversed. Until then, riding an economy that has grown nearly fivefold since 1989, China’s people are freer and richer than ever. “Get over it,” the voice says. But I can’t.

Adi Ignatius is deputy editor of TIME Asia

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