I heard a lot about the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on the radio while I was driving today. It got me thinking of my experiences in China last summer.
I think I remember walking along the sidewalk shown in the image above. I could be wrong, because Tiananmen Square is so big. I think that a few of my study abroad friends and I went through the tunnel in the middle of the sidewalk while we were walking around one night after eating at a well-regarded dumpling restaurant. We spent a lot of time in a big candy store and in one of the countless “Beijing 2008” stores in prominent locations of the city.
It’s hard to believe that hundreds, maybe thousands of people died there. When I was in China, I never felt frightened or oppressed, and the Chinese people didn’t seem to either. With the Olympics approaching, Beijing felt peaceful and safe. I would probably have felt frightened if I had chosen to stage a protest somewhere, though.
The reports I heard today said the Chinese people have chosen economic growth over freedom in the twenty years since the Tiananmen massacre. That may be true, but saying it that way sounds too harsh. It’s hard to blame the Chinese for cherishing economic success after a half century of Communist rule. The growth that I witnessed while I was there was inspiring. My friends and I loved to visit a cute, but very dirty neighborhood close to our school that was smelly, with piles of trash festering in the streets. They obviously received few government services. But a lot of Beijing was shiny and new, and there was an incredible amount of construction. It was clear that the new developments were overtaking the old ones. This progress improves lives. Frankly, it’s more valuable than freedom of speech.
Anyway, I’ll admit my knowledge of this is a little stale, but in a Modern China class I took a few years ago we learned that the Tiananmen Square protests weren’t primarily about freedom and democracy. Instead, students and workers were angry because the government was cancelling benefits to them (such as guaranteed jobs after college) as it loosened its hold on the economy. The calls for democracy were real, but I think they came later. So in a way, they were protesting liberalization.