By James Jeffrey
Sunrise, June 3: A phalanx of People’s Liberation Army soldiers marched in quick step from Beijing’s Forbidden City, escorting the Chinese national flag onto the broad expanse of Tiananmen Square. Despite the early hour, thousands of onlookers watched as the crack, green-suited honor guard hoisted the colors – gold stars on a blazing field of red – until the flag fluttered in the morning breeze while the national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” wafted over the square.
This ritual, performed each morning at dawn, is emblematic of sharply differing views many Chinese and Westerners hold of China’s national meeting place. To many in the West, Tiananmen—the world’s largest public square—is synonymous with the Chinese government’s June 4, 1989 crackdown against demonstrators gathered there to call for political reform.
The photographic image of a lone man standing defiantly in front of a line of army tanks remains iconic in the West, and unconfirmed estimates, like one from Amnesty International that puts the death toll at roughly 1,000, still rankle. For many Chinese, however, the square continues to represent a source of surpassing national pride.
“Tiananmen is the heart of our country,” said Ye Yibing, a 24-year-old man from nearby Shandong province. “It’s the symbol of our nation.”
That view stems in large part from Oct. 1, 1949 – the day Mao Zedong stepped to a microphone in the square to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China with the stirring words, “China has stood up.” That China had endured three years of brutal civil war between Mao’s communist forces and the nationalist army of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and decades of occupation by Western powers only drove the point home.
“I’m very excited to see this [ceremony],” Ye added, before hurrying off—miniature Chinese flag in hand—across the vast square to take up a good viewing position in front of the flagpole.
“Beijing is sacred as the capital city,” said Wang Yamhua, a construction worker and Communist Party member from Shanxi province, 900 kilometers away. “I’ve been dreaming about this moment for forty years,” he said of the trip that his local party branch helped pay for.
“All countries encounter difficulties,” said Chen Dan, a 24-year-old man visiting Tiananmen from distant Henan province. “But in the long run overcoming these difficulties and experiences will become the treasure of the country.”
The turbulence at Tiananmen in 1989 is easy to forget today seeing the orderly collection of tourists that visit the square daily to pay their respects. Yet even some tourists offered views that straddled the East-West divide.
“Tiananmen is the image of China, the carrier of our history,” said 43-year-old Lie Tang, a bio-systems professor at Iowa State University who was visiting China with his wife and two sons for the first time in seven years. “We wanted the kids to know where they are from.”
In addition to hosting Mao’s declaration of the PRC’s birth, Tiananmen was the site of a key event in modern Chinese history—the student demonstrations of May 4, 1919. After the end of World War I, the Western allies ceded Chinese territories to Japan, leading to student protests that sparked an intellectual movement that, in turn, helped give birth to a Communist Party movement.
Fast forward to 1989. Tang said he remembers participating in parades in his hometown in Sichuan province in support of the students rallying in Tiananmen square. “The demonstrations were not organized but had a good wish for the country—it got a little chaotic,” he said.
“I’m not fully convinced China was—or is—ready for that change,” Tang said. Back then, with the country facing such difficulties, he said he and his wife decided to move to America to experience greater opportunities. “We found more happiness there,” he said. “As young people, it was easier to focus on what you wanted to do.”
As the flag reached its zenith on the morning of June 3 – and lines began forming outside Memorial Hall where Mao’s body lies in state – Tang acknowledged that there are more opportunities for young people in China today thanks to economic development. For such progress to continue, he said, China and America will have to learn to respect one another more and try to adjust their views accordingly.
“China has its own way, though we still need the politics to reform,” Tang said. “It’s getting better – time is going to work out the solution.”