Off-topic but on memory: 20 years ago today I was in Tiananmen Square, reporting for Reuters on the chaos that was the student movement. It was an odd time — sweaty, rank-smelling but rather jolly. Erica’s photo captures rather well the unbridled hubris and optimism of the students, right up to the last day or two of their protest. It wasn’t until the evening of June 3rd that things got really nasty. By midnight, things were nasty enough that most people, students and foreign journalists alike, had left the square. I stayed there with a colleague, Graham Earnshaw, until the tanks came in at dawn. Or at least I think I did. Graham’s memory of what happened is rather different.
When I first became aware of the difference, I got in touch with several of the old muckers who were in and around the Square with me. What if we all wrote down now what we remember of that night, then compared notes? No-one was up for it. I guess everyone was frightened about the tricks memory can play — and indeed it was that, more than the actual events in Tiananmen Square, that were the subject of the piece I wrote in Granta recently. (pdf) In the last couple of weeks, however, several of my friends and colleagues have sent me their version of events (including this nice piece from Andy Roche.)
In the intervening years, I’ve had the opportunity of working closely with the Chinese government. My colleagues in the Ministry of Health were young, dynamic, well-trained. Though many were from the post-Tiananmen generation, all were aware of what happened, and many were interested in discussing the implications two decades on. Attending mock press conferences to prepare for the release of controversial HIV estimates (inevitably and somewhat ironically, I took the role of the Rotweiler foreign correspondent) I find it hard to believe that the higher-ups could have allowed Tiananmen to happen. And I find it equally baffling that they are trying, still, to suppress discussion of events which were never a real threat to Party rule, and which in the eyes of most of the population belong to a distant past. The student leaders of yesteryear were not terribly coherent in their demands, but the central item of their agenda — corruption within the Communist Party — remains the major threat to that Party’s survival. If the old men sitting sclerotically atop the Politburo were to spend less time blocking web-sites and more time fighting corruption, they’d have little to worry about.