China Beat Archive


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April 15, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright April 15, 2009 Philip J. Cunningham. Used by permission.


If getting caught up in a popular uprising in China has taught me anything, it is that the past, present and future flow together as one with ferocious intensity. Looking back now at the eventful uprising at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 makes it all the more clear that what happened there was shaped by things that came before; and today’s China, basking in a post-Olympic glow and new-found national strength, is still profoundly haunted by the seminal events of 1989, though the topic is strictly taboo in the media and still feared by influential people in the leadership.

I initially got involved in the demonstrations because of my interest in Chinese history, the abstract study of which I had pursued at college and in graduate school. Then I moved to China. Trying to be a little more Chinese and a little less foreign, I immersed myself in Beijing campus life and cultural activities, mostly with Chinese friends. In the time it takes for a new moon to grow full and then wane back into blackness again, I was pulled so deeply into the vortex of living, breathing history-in-the-making that my life would never be the same.

More than any history book I ever read, or any period film I ever worked on, being on the streets of Beijing as history was being made was the most profoundly moving and eye-opening experience of all.

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The uprising at Tiananmen, though highly controversial in China to this day, would shape many of the choices of the Chinese leadership and has been an unacknowledged inspiration for much of the change that has swept China ever since.