The Film

Chicago Tribune
June 27, 1998

Square's History Goes Beyond Killings
Liz Sly

Say the words "Tiananmen Square" to a Chinese, and he or she will probably think first of the place where modern China was born, of a must-see stop on every tourist's itinerary or simply of a place to fly kites.

Say the words "June 4" and you get an entirely different reaction. Either the conversation is stopped short or the subject is changed.

There is no need to mention the year. Everyone knows June 4 refers to the night in 1989 when the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing maybe hundreds, to suppress the biggest challenge to Communist Party rule.

With the killings, the words "Tiananmen Square" were etched into the minds of an American public probably largely unfamiliar with the square or its role in Chinese history until then.

To the Chinese, Tiananmen Square is a place, June 4 is a time, and they carry quite different connotations. In Chinese, Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and the gate, on the north side of the square leading into the Forbidden City of China's ancient imperial past, summons images of countless moments in a long history. The 1989 student uprising is just one, and the ceremony Saturday to welcome President Clinton is another.

"When I come here, I feel the dignity of our history and the pride of China," said Zhang Li, a clerk with a state company. "It occupies a sacred place in our hearts. It is the place where China stood up."

Her last sentence echoes the words Chairman Mao Tse-tung used when he came to the square on Oct. 1, 1949, to declare the birth of the People's Republic of China to a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands.

In 1966, Mao stood there again to rally another huge crowd behind the destructive chaos of the Cultural Revolution. A decade later, the square again was thronged with people, who came to mourn the death of Premier Chou En-lai and to protest the power of the Gang of Four.

Yet another decade later, the square was filled again with students demanding political reform. Purists say that most of the shootings actually occurred around the square, rather than on it, but the shootings nonetheless abruptly ended that brief flowering of free expression.

"Just these three syllables, Tian-an-men, are associated with the massacres in American minds," said Carma Hinton, an American born and raised in China who made a seminal documentary on the student protests, "Gate of Heavenly Peace," reportedly watched by Clinton before he left for China.

"To most Chinese, June 4 is a moment . . . the moment when the government shot at the people."

It also is a moment that isn't mentioned these days. An official veil of silence has since been drawn over what is euphemistically referred to, if at all, as the June 4 "incident." That doesn't mean the massacre has been forgotten.

"I believe even a lot of the higher-ups in government don't agree with what happened," Hinton said. "But there's a deadlock in Chinese politics. It's something seen as so dangerous, so volatile, that nobody dares open it up."

Its memory lingers as a subtext to virtually everything that happens in China today. Behind an emerging debate on political reforms, the efforts to establish a just legal system and the worries about social instability from economic-reform unemployment lie an unspoken determination to avoid a repeat of the events of 1989.

"No one talks about it because if there is talk there must be some conflict," said Mao Yu-shi, head of the Unirule Institute, an independent think tank. "Both sides made mistakes. Both sides didn't reconcile, didn't talk, didn't negotiate. So how can they solve their differences?"

Hinton's documentary portrays the students during the demonstrations as as uncompromising as the government. Their leaders instituted rigid rules and regulations, and they refused to tolerate the views of those who disagreed with them.

"June 4 is still a symbol of (a) society that cannot deal with discontent as a normal part of society," Hinton said. "China has moved in a direction of being able to deal with some discontent, but the mentality is so deeply rooted. It will take a long time."

Mao Yu-shi believes China is starting to escape from the shadow of June 4.

"Both sides have learned some lessons," he said. "On the government side, the lesson is to find a set of rules for conflict resolution between the government and the people." Such sweeping legal reforms are under way.

"On the student side, the lesson is to give up the idea that 'I am the master of the people.' The basic spirit should be reconciliation and negotiation and not to insist (on) one view without listening to other views."

Yet to this day, the words June 4 stand as a wedge between the government and its people, between those who have excused the party's decision to use force and those who cannot forgive or forget.

"That's a long time ago. Let it pass," said Zhou Yi Ren, 26, a graduate student. "Maybe some Americans pay too much attention to what happened. Look at what China has achieved. Our living standards are improving. We want to focus on our economy and our development."

That is the government's official view: that the decision to use force was correct and that the matter is closed. "We have already drawn a correct conclusion on that matter, and this conclusion will not be changed," China's reformist Premier Zhu Rongji declared when he took office in March.

For those who participated in the protests or who lost loved ones, June 4 remains a watershed, an unresolved blot on China's past.

"To hold a ceremony at such a time and place greatly hurts the feelings of freedom-seeking Chinese people, and especially the feelings of relatives of the June 4 dead," wrote Ding Zilin in an open letter to Clinton. She is an associate professor of philosophy at People's University in Beijing whose 17-year-old son was killed at the square.

Such open talk is not tolerated from most Chinese, but Ding, as a bereaved mother, is left largely undisturbed. Dissidents abroad keep up a steady call on the government to "reverse the verdict" on June 4 -- In other words, to admit it was wrong.

Yet although this is a time of greater political openness in China, in which debates on the merits of democracy and protests by angry workers are tolerated, Chinese who raise the June 4 issue still risk detention.

"It's not just a case of simply reversing the June 4 verdict, but that this is a society that needs to change politically to deal with dissent," Hinton said.

"But both sides don't see that. It's still a case of 'You were wrong, and I was right.' It will take a long time."

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