His cousin did not come home.
Once we get off the bus, James said, I will lead you through the square and describe its history. Please do not ask me any questions while we are there, because I will not be able to answer them. There may be people in the crowd who look like tourists, listening, but they are agents. Once we are back on the bus, you can ask me any question you want. And do not take pictures of the soldiers. They may take your camera.
So, of course, I contrived to get a picture of the soldiers. A tiny expression of freedom in the place where freedom once meant stepping in front of a tank.
On the surface, it was impossible to tell if the square held any resonance of democracy for the non-western visitors there. Mao's portrait is still the focal point. Soldiers patrol in a non-threatening, honor guard sort of way. A man and kite merge. Tour guides do not take questions.
Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of Chinese citizens by their own army. Things have been changing fast in China, and doubtless have changed since our visit more than three years ago.
But The Economist does not expect much in the way of acknowledgment: "For many in China the nationwide pro-democracy protests of 1989 and their bloody end have become a muddled and half-forgotten tale."
The China Beat offers a different perspective on the silence — that it is neither the result of suppression or fading memories.
Above all, in their material livelihoods the urban educated are doing very well, whereas at the time of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, they had good reason to be angry. Their salaries were low, and sour jokes circulated about private barbers earning more with their razors than hospital surgeons with their scalpels. But in the years since, there has been a deliberate government policy to favor the well-educated. Year after year the professionals on government payrolls have been offered repeatedly higher salaries. During one year in the late 1990s, the pay of all of the academics at China’s most prestigious public universities was literally doubled in one go. Opportunities to earn high salaries opened up just as much in the private sector. Many of the university students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 now drive cars and live in fancy high-rise apartments. They have gained a lifestyle that they had never imagined possible, and they do not want to upset the apple cart. If the government’s plan was to co-opt the salaried middle class, it has worked.
Reflecting on the Tiananmen protests, one of the most famous of the student leaders, Wuer Kaixi, flippantly articulated their desires, “So what do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.” They now have all that, in spades.
As a result, the members of the educated middle class, including many of the former university students who crowded Tiananmen Square two decades ago, have become a bulwark of the current regime. Summarizing a large survey of political attitudes in Beijing, a recent book concludes that, among all urban groups, “those who perceive themselves to belong to the middle class and who are government bureaucrats are more likely to support the incumbent authorities.” If there is another outbreak like Tiananmen, in fact, many of them might prefer to be on the government side of the barricades.
In this land where our former revolutionaries become stock brokers, college professors and community theater matrons, why should we be surprised?