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Margin Notes

Memories of Tiananmen Square

I joined the students of Beijing 20 years ago on their march down to Tiananmen Square. Never could I have imagined what would follow.


Do you remember where you were exactly 20 years ago today (June 4, 1989)? I was recovering from a stomach bug in a hotel room in Kunming, China. That’s far from the events taking place that day in Tiananmen Square, but I had in fact been in the square seven weeks earlier on the day the students first occupied it en masse, on April 17.

My then partner Sue and I had been staying in Beijing with a Chinese friend who was a biology professor at Beijing Agricultural University (she had done a postdoc at the University of Guelph, and we’d met through my sister). This was a time when it was still uncommon for Westerners to stay with Chinese in their homes.

As a professor, she was well aware of the plan for the city’s university students to march down to Tiananmen that day and warned us to stay away. But on our way downtown, we ran into the throngs of students en route to the square and spent much of that day following along and trying to communicate with them as best we could.

For the next seven weeks as Sue and I travelled the country, the events at Tiananmen continued to unfold, to our growing astonishment. We saw similar protests, increasing progressively in size, in cities such as Xian and Chengdu as locals there took their cue from the student unrest in Beijing and also took to the streets.

On that fateful day, June 4, in far-off Kunming, word started to filter down to us – this was a time long before the Internet. We ran into a BBC journalist and her cameraman, and they were able to fill us in on some of the details.

It wasn’t until the next day, June 5, that the full impact of the massacre was felt in Kunming. We hovered at the edge of a massive gathering of perhaps 20,000 people who were standing in absolute silence as a young man on a wreath-decked stage addressed the crowd in a voice strangled with emotion. Also that day we saw hordes gathering around to read copies of the Hong Kong newspapers that had been faxed to Kunming and posted on walls and lampposts.

I’m surprised all this activity was allowed to happen, but I guess the authorities were too busy in the bigger cities to be concerned with what was happening in a faraway provincial capital.

In the following chaotic few days, a small group of us Westerners, somewhat panicked and traumatized, made our way out of the country. With the railroads blocked and the airports in chaos, it took us four days by bus and boat.

That final night in China, we saw images on the national news of heroic soldiers, brooms in hand, cleaning up the mess left by those unruly students. The propaganda campaign to sweep away the memory of the events, like the detritus in the square, had begun.

I remember feeling outraged, but I also felt convinced that the Chinese authorities would never be able to get away with this. The world would not allow it!

I guess I was as naïve then as the students I had met seven weeks earlier in Beijing.

It would be easy to conclude that little was gained by those protests 20 years ago. Many of the 20th-anniversary retrospectives today would seem to suggest so. I don’t know. I would like to hope that the optimism, daring and idealism so characteristic of the young does live on – and hopefully remains in evidence on all our university campuses in one form or another. Or am I again being naïve?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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