In Tiananmen of Games, No Trace of '89 Massacre

Fireworks set off as part of the Games' Opening Ceremonies illuminated the sky above paramilitary police stationed in a refurbished Tiananmen Square.
Fireworks set off as part of the Games' Opening Ceremonies illuminated the sky above paramilitary police stationed in a refurbished Tiananmen Square. (By Nick Laham -- Getty Images)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; Page A01

BEIJING, Aug. 11 -- The Tiananmen Square that Liu Xiaobo knows is not the same one Olympics fans are seeing on television.

With a jubilant, 55-foot-high "Beijing 2008" sign revolving at its center and 1 million newly placed potted flowers, the square this week and next is the scene of graceful dance and sports performances most mornings, a fairyland of colored-light displays each night.

Liu's Tiananmen harks back to June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government deployed troops and tanks to crush pro-democracy demonstrations, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the square and nearby streets.

Though he lives in Beijing, Liu has not returned to the square since that night. It is still too painful.

"It is very hard to change the image of Tiananmen in people's hearts, just by adding green plants, flowers and statues," said Liu, 53, an adviser to the student demonstrators nearly 20 years ago.

But a reinvention of Tiananmen is precisely what the Chinese government is seeking. And of all the public image campaigns it is pushing during the Games -- the green China, the modern China, the harmonious China -- the carefully manicured presentation of a new Tiananmen is the boldest, and perhaps trickiest, of all.

"The theme is 'The whole world happily greets the great events of the Olympics, reform and opening up to create a harmonious period,' " Qiang Jian, the deputy chief of the Beijing office in charge of beautifying the square for the Olympics, told reporters the week before the Games opened.

To preserve its approved picture, the government has limited live broadcasts from the square to certain hours of the day and banned live interviews. Officials also tried to require foreign journalists to register before working at Tiananmen, though that plan seemed to fizzle when many reporters simply ignored the notice.

Police and paramilitary officers patrolling the square are careful to use plainclothes officials and neighborhood volunteers to tussle with the few protesters who have succeeded in staging small demonstrations in recent days, to be sure no photos are taken of those in uniform using force.

The Chinese public knows very well not to mention the events of June 1989. "It is not discussable," said Liu, who knows because he spent nearly five years in prison and labor camps for refusing to remain silent.

The forced amnesia is perpetuated in Chinese schools, where the lessons of the Tiananmen massacre are not taught in history class. If it is mentioned at all, students are instructed that some soldiers lost their lives putting down an unruly anti-government mob.

Instead, students are taught to think of Tiananmen in terms of the founding of the People's Republic of China, which Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong announced in 1949 as he stood atop Tiananmen Gate. The generation of students graduating college these days grew up singing a song with the words: "I love Tiananmen in Beijing, the sun rises from Tiananmen, great leader Chairman Mao guides us to go forward."

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