Our Dear Leader…

Tiananmen Square. In America, it’s not just a raw word. It’s fully cooked and grilled, squared into an entire concept, an argument, a thesis if you will. For Americans, it evokes the image of Deng Xiaoping, the supposedly pragmatic and moderate magician behind China’s seemingly inexorable economic rise, sending in tanks to massacre hundreds of his country’s brightest college students on prime-time television. Tiananmen is a one-word reply to any idealist in America who thinks China can ever become democratic. If such a rational man, who himself suffered unforgettable pain as a result of Mao’s excesses, was so entrenched in the autocratic tradition that he could order the Chinese Army to mow down protestors, how could China’s political elite – who revere and strive to emulate Deng Xiaoping – ever relinquish such a tendency?

Yet in China, it’s not just another word. It’s a simple and sanitized word, albeit one that is subtly suppressed. I find it difficult to believe that every time – and only when – I type in the word “Tiananmen” in my Hong Kong Google search, my Internet connection mysteriously drops. Look at the photo below to see what the Chinese-approved Wikipedia page on Tiananmen said happened in 1989:

Is this real?

Is this real?

The students I met on my bus ride from the airport on Thursday had no idea that a massacre ever occurred at Tiananmen Square. So perhaps that explains why I was the only person in a packed train who flinched when I read that there are two subway stations in Beijing named Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West.

When I stepped out into Tiananmen Square, however, it’s hard for this memory not to fade. Magnificent and richly red, with the Chinese flag proudly waving at the middle, Tiananmen is a vast space that stretches beyond the horizon. Chinese guards stand stiffly and sternly as you instinctively reach for your iPhone, wanting to take photos of the Forbidden City and its elaborate Ming Dynasty architecture.

Yet in the middle of Tiananmen Gate is the famous portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, the most ubiquitous face in humanity’s history (it’s difficult to believe until you actually arrive in China, but Mao’s face really has been printed and painted more often than Jesus’). As the Great Leader unctuously smiles down on onlookers, you can’t help but think that’s he won.

Thousands of Chinese families are walking around the grand space, eagerly taking photos and almost all are more prosperous than their fathers or grandfathers were. Adorned in (almost certainly fake) Western brands, from Louis Vuitton luggage to Adidas tracksuit pants, Chinese parents see Tiananmen and the Forbidden City opposite it as a place of national pride and celebration. Perhaps it’s just me, but the square was thronged with a disproportionate number of families (in China, that obviously means one couple, one child). Children were adorned in patriotic gear, with many wearing pseudo-military uniforms, and everyone who walked out of the subway into Tiananmen Square (including our clearly foreign contingent) was offered a Chinese flag and absurd Maoist “ushankas” (those black fur caps branded with the red star), which sadly offered minimal protection against the unsmilingly cold winter winds. If this was a caricature, it was one, like the emperor with no clothes, that no one wanted to point out; every Chinese couple I saw gladly snapped up these offerings from their otherwise insouciant government. Just over 23 years ago, the predecessors of today’s guards were shooting at the fathers and mothers of those who today were rushing to take photos of the changing of the Chinese guard and the lowering of the flag at 5 o’clock.

It was a bizarre way to end 2012, and in a way, it perfectly encapsulates the bizarreness of modern-day China. Soon we hope to return to tour the insides of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Tonight we’ll probably celebrate New Year’s at one of Beijing’s flashier clubs, another more modern fixture of a very complex and contradictory country.

On a lighter note, we are enjoying the Wi-Fi at the Starbucks nearby.

Rishabh, Harry, Jess and Haley at Starbucks

Me, Harry, Jess and Haley at Starbucks









Rishabh Bhandari


Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *