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A Fading Scar
A reporter who covered the massacre discovers that her own memories of the bloodshed are more vivid than those of many Chinese.
By Melinda Liu

If anyone is haunted by what happened at Tiananmen square in 1989, it should be Wang Dan. The most famous student leader of that tragic Beijing Spring, Wang was released from prison this year and hustled off to exile in the United States. On the long Northwest Airlines flight, Wang met two women from Beijing, both employees of Western companies in China. They chatted with Wang for hours and happily posed with him for souvenir photographs. One handed him her business card as they said goodbye. "If you miss China," she said, "just give me a ring." Wang was elated. "Those two women are why I'm so hopeful for China," he said, delighted that they weren't afraid to talk to him. "That's why China's future is so bright."

A Chinese man blocks a line of tanks. A Chinese man blocks a column of tanks on Beijing's Cangan Boulevard in 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP)  
Nine years after the bloodshed in Beijing, which I covered for NEWSWEEK, I returned to the Chinese capital to find a country racing forward, not looking back. Once a raw wound in the Chinese psyche, Tiananmen's legacy is subtler now, like a faded scar. The hints are easy to miss. A taxi driver abruptly thanks me for Bill Clinton's efforts to get Chinese dissidents sprung from prison. A Beijing bookseller wordlessly opens a bag, pulls out Wang Dan's book, banned in China, and offers it for sale. Labor protests erupt all over the country, yet the authorities handle them with kid gloves, in stark contrast to the repression nine years ago. Under President Jiang Zemin's stewardship, the Chinese have seen a gradual political loosening. "But Jiang wants it to be controlled from the top down," says a Western diplomat in Beijing, "not from the bottom up, like Indonesia." American Sinologist Michel Oksenberg, who just concluded a monthlong trip in China, calls the process "democratization by stealth."

Of course, no one who was in Tiananmen in 1989 can exorcise its ghosts completely. Feeling a morbid sense of nostalgia, I returned to the aging Beijing Hotel this month. In the heady days before the crackdown, room attendants had written anonymous pro-democracy notes--"Down with corruption!"--on my room-service bills. Then, in June, jittery journalists hunkered down in the hotel to document the bloodletting outside. We huddled on a balcony and saw a lone man confronting an army tank. (Photographer Charlie Cole, on assignment for NEWSWEEK, won awards for his shot of the encounter.) In the lobby, security goons with cattle prods roughed up reporters. Several days after the massacres, I argued with hotel workers over a room bill. I asked for a discount because hotel access had been dicey "due to what happened in Tiananmen Square." Back came the Orwellian answer: "Nothing happened in Tiananmen Square."

  Chinese students celebrate at midnight in Tiananmen Square. Chinese students at midnight celebration for 1997 handover of Hong Kong in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (Katsumi Kashahara/AP)
Why should I obsess over Tiananmen when so few Chinese seem to? Clearly, the issue has yet to play itself out. "Accounts will be settled someday," promises an old Chinese friend. "We can wait." But for now, a new millennium beckons, fraught with great risk and dazzling opportunity. From Beijing to Xian to Shanghai, I found the Chinese abuzz over job layoffs, new reforms allowing them to buy their own homes and a rash of sex-scandal books (including "Sexy President Clinton"). Two Chinese men riding a minibus from Tianjin to Beijing pepper me with worldly questions of a sort I never heard in China just a few years ago. How low will the Japanese yen drop? Is Michael Jackson's nose really melting after all those cosmetic makeovers? Did Clinton threaten to invade Iraq as a diversion from his alleged woman problems? "Whether it's Mao Zedong or Clinton, 'emperors' are all the same," says one with a sigh.

At least for now, political campaigns against "spiritual pollution" from the West seem to be a thing of the past. Beijing finally feels connected, albeit patchily, to the outside world. It's a mind-boggling transformation for an old China hand. When I opened NEWSWEEK's Beijing bureau in early 1980, Western films were nowhere to be seen. When local cinemas finally obtained a scratchy version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a few years later, it was a big deal. Now, even in remote Yanan, where Mao and other communist leaders took shelter in cave dwellings during China's civil war, a crude, hand-lettered poster advertises "Titanic" as "the greatest film of the century."

People haven't forgotten Tiananmen, says labor activist Zhou Guoqiang, who was released from four years of "reeducation through labor" last January. "But people can't change the leadership, so pro-democracy demonstrations are meaningless right now." Zhou, who led labor protests during the 1989 Beijing Spring, says his worst punishment behind bars--even worse than the beatings he received--was being deprived of writings on law and religion (he's a Protestant). Now he sits glued to his growing library of books, such as "World Documents: Human Rights," and to a computer loaded with Windows 98. He remains under tight surveillance; two unwitting upholsterers were detained recently after they arrived to repair his sofa. Zhou monitors news of growing labor unrest. "The government can distance me from other workers, but it can't control the workers' inner frustrations," he says, adding that if China can't handle this well, "it will go the way of Russia."

In some ways, China's workers have taken up where the pro-democracy crowd left off. Under a mammoth downsizing campaign by government enterprises, more than 10 million workers were laid off last year, and some have taken to the streets. But both sides are keen not to repeat the mistakes of 1989. Last fall central government officials issued new instructions for dealing with such demonstrations: mediate, cajole and, if all else fails, pay the guys off. In one startling incident, Hebei police sided with protesting workers and remonstrated with their factory head, urging him to take some back on the payroll. During large, well-organized protests in Shenyang--the dead heart of China's rust belt, where state-run firms are collapsing right and left--police have resorted to tear gas. Here and there, minor injuries or arrests are reported. "But the central government doesn't want any martyrs," says a diplomat in Beijing, who has heard of no labor protester being detained for more than 12 hours.

Chinese officials worry that labor unrest might erupt while the Clintons are in the country. The thought evokes memories of May 1989, when Beijing's sporadic student protests started out as a footnote to much bigger news: Mikhail Gorbachev's state visit, the first by a Russian leader since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. Students outmaneuvered the authorities by occupying the center of Tiananmen Square. By the time Gorbachev touched down, his official welcoming ceremony had to be convened hastily at the airport because Tiananmen belonged to the protesters. His motorcade detoured around the demonstrations, but still he spotted banners welcoming Gorbachev: the real reformer.

That's not on the script for Clinton. In the shadow of Xian's ancient city wall, costumed maidens and courtiers are slated to perform an elaborate ritual known as the Emperor's Welcome. While the Xian stop is intended mainly to help the Clintons battle jet lag, it's also a lesson on China's 5,000-year history--and on imperial excess. Clinton will inspect the famous terra-cotta warriors made for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in about 200 B.C. Qin is famous for uniting China and building much of the Great Wall. But he was also a tyrant; according to a Chinese tour guide, all the craftsmen who knew the secrets of his necropolis, as well as his 3,000 wives and concubines, were sealed with his corpse in the tomb.

A few hundred kilometers from Xian is the haunt of another sort of emperor: the caves of Yanan. Inside one of Mao's former dwellings, now a museum, a young Chinese woman tends an austere bookshop. She says she's "proud" to work here, surrounded by the writings of the Great Helmsman. Yet her own reading material is much racier fare. She blushes and tries to pretend she has no connection to the book in her hand, entitled "The Princelings." It exposes the privileged shenanigans of the children of high-ranking party officials.

The Chinese have a lot of history, and these days they seem quite willing to relegate their bugaboos to it. The Chinese Communist Party, once a monolithic engine of repression, now is regarded by some Chinese as a quaint anachronism, or an honored but senile uncle ranting in the attic. "The party is like a dying tiger," contends labor activist Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen-era dissident who now produces a labor bulletin and a radio show in Hong Kong. "I don't want to waste my time trying to kill the tiger." Warning that another eruption of unrest "could be a thousand times worse than Tiananmen," Han says his goal is a stable transition, avoiding the turmoil that befell Indonesia.

The breathtaking pace of change makes China an out-of-body experience for the returning visitor. I feel a jolt when a curio dealer shows me 8-by-10 photographs of the trial of the Gang of Four, the ultraleftist radicals led by Mao's ruthless widow, Jiang Qing. When I was based in Beijing in the early 1980s, I covered that trial. It was a time of quiet euphoria and national catharsis; Jiang (who killed herself in prison) and her cohorts were held responsible for the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, during which tens of thousands of Chinese were persecuted to death.

I say I "covered" the trial, but that's not really the right word, since everything took place in secret. Flipping through the old black-and-white pictures at the curio shop, I notice some unfamiliar faces. "These are the judges," explains the merchant. "See this woman judge? She's very tough, she really socked it to the Gang of Four." It's the first time I can recall hearing an ordinary Chinese citizen heap such praise on a modern-day judge. "We need more people like this tough woman judge," says the curio dealer, staring at me intently before he turns to his next customer.

Chop by Chinatown Art Gallery

© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.

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