Commentary, interpretation and opinion by
PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
天安門: PEOPLE'S SQUARE OR OPEN-AIR PRISON?
What follows is an account of a return visit to Tiananmen Square
in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the peaceful demonstrations
and violent crackdown that I witnessed in Beijing in 1989. It was first published in the Asia-Pacific Journal on June 30, 2014.
Initially I had planned to go to Hong Kong, as I had been invited
to join the well-publicized commemoration in Victoria Park where the
people of Hong Kong have held a candlelight vigil for the lost souls and
lost dreams of 1989 on an annual basis for a quarter of a century now.
In past years I have marched with the conscientious objectors of Hong
Kong, lit candles in the warm tropical air and drawn strength from the
distant but principled and persistent expression of solidarity with the
uprising at Tiananmen.
In Beijing during the weeks leading up to the anniversary, there
were numerous police vehicles and armed guards at key locations, but
most especially in and around Tiananmen Square where pedestrian access
was tightly restricted. The Square is a beacon, the obvious ground zero
for such an anniversary, but any veterans of the movement who would like
to have visited in commemoration were either under house arrest, denied
visa entry or were being so closely monitored as to make a respectful
pilgrimage all but impossible. Indeed, it seemed eerily possible that not a single veteran of Tiananmen 1989 would be there this year.
I felt beholden to get as close to the scene of the uprising and
the symbolic scene of the crime, as much for the survivors who couldn’t
go, as for the memory of the lost souls whose spirit has hovered in and
around Tiananmen ever since.
Although the boisterous student demonstrations of 1989 were the
most crowded communal event I ever took part in, I could not seek
comfort in a group, as Beijing authorities were on the lookout for
anything that smacked of an organized vigil.
So I walked to the Square alone, but not unaccompanied. The faint
echo of long-forgotten millions, the joyous outbursts of song, the
plaintive cries for help and the wail of ambulances still rang in the
I had recently finished revising Tiananmen Moon, which
records and recollects the experience of a month on Tiananmen Square in
the midst of a people’s uprising, just published in an expanded
twenty-fifth anniversary edition, but predictably banned in China.
On June 2, 2014 security was extremely tight, but it was possible
to spend half a day on the Square. The third of June, I went by the
Square again only to find it empty. On that date, which marked
the onset of the violent crackdown of 1989, the Square was closed down
for almost the whole day because of the "coincidental" scheduling of a
state reception for a minor foreign dignitary, hosted at the Great Hall
of the People. I went again on the fourth but could only skirt the
northern face of the Square, as controls were even tighter. The entry
below was written in Beijing and first posted in Beijing using a VPN to
access the Internet on June 3, 2014.
I approached the Square from the ceremonial gateway of Qianmen and
Zhengyangmen, which back in the old days of the Qing Dynasty composed
the first barrier of the formal entrance into the Forbidden City.
Nowadays it's still a gateway of significance; it's the point of entry
to a quasi-forbidden public plaza.
In better times, when the Communist Party enjoyed the trust of the
people, one used to just walk onto the Square, from almost any
direction, at almost any time. It was wide, inviting and open to the
public. I had flown kites there under blue skies, cycled there and
rested by the monument at midnight, and had been there amidst a defiant
crowd of one million. There were no fences and few guards. You simply
walked in or rode around the Square on your bicycle.
But ever since 1989, and the subsequent regimen of information
control that renders taboo public discussion of a crackdown that still
cannot be countenanced, the Square has been circumscribed and carefully
fenced in from every angle.
On this hot June day, the only way to enter the vast Square from the
south is winding and circuitous. One has to first go underground and
pass through the easternmost entrance of the Qianmen subway station,
where one is subjected to X-ray bag checks as a general security
measure. From there one walks up a narrow staircase and emerges onto the
southern perimeter of the Square, only to enter a maze of crowd-control
fencing with signs warning not to jump the fence.
through the chrome maze, there's a short breakaway abutting empty
pavement and then a line of people waiting to enter the Square, bottled
up by a security shack guarding another fenced-in area, passage through
which leads to the Square proper.
I took my place on a long line that moved slowly, almost
imperceptibly so. The way people were painstakingly being processed
seemed a deliberate deterrent designed to keep the Square free of
crowds; the pace of inspection appeared to be staggered out to slow
things down, if not limit, entrance to the Square. I watched the Chinese
day-trippers at the front of the line endure ID check, frisking and bag
searches. There were about 50 people ahead of me, all Chinese, mostly
stoic and docile, some hiding under umbrellas to keep away the hot rays,
others smoking, which only made the wait worse.
We were guided like farm animals in a fenced-in corral, there was
only one way in and you couldn't deviate from the path. The final
bottleneck involved individual security checks as thorough as a border
crossing or an airport, as individual IDs were checked against a police
database on a handheld computer.
After a fifteen-minute wait in the hot sun, I got to the front of the
line where I was singled out by an unfriendly guard. He pulled me
aside, took my passport and instructed me not to move. I moved to the
side, testing his resolve, but also to get out of the sun. From the
shade of the police booth, I waited and watched the procedure by which
each visitor was asked to produce ID, answer questions and get frisked.
All bags were X-rayed and some were hand-inspected as well.
My shoulder bag contained a book and little else, but I knew the book would get looked at. I was reading Shijizhilian,
about the Chinese revolutionary poet Xiao San. Written by his
German-Jewish wife, Eva, who I met while a student in Beijing in the
1980’s, and translated into Chinese by his son Victor, a Beijing friend,
it offers a largely positive view of China through the lens of a
cross-cultural marriage. Xiao San was a school friend of Mao Zedong,
though the book's harrowing description of how the couple was arrested
and thrown in prison for seven years during the height of the Cultural
Revolution certainly raises uncomfortable questions about what it meant
to be a friend of Mao, and the sanity of Communist Party leadership in
Had I been carrying my own book, Tiananmen Moon the title
and cover photo would have been arresting enough to get me turned away, if not detained
and investigated. My book is banned in China.
Even with nothing but a book about a
communist poet in hand I could see it was no simple matter to get
through. Those behind me on line were inspected and let in, one by one,
while I lingered uncomfortably to the side. The cop who collared me
probably equated foreigners with trouble, as in journalists, but it
could have been the black shirt I was wearing, too. Why would anyone with innocent intentions wear the color of mourning for an event that's been officially erased from history?
The atmosphere was lackadaisical yet laced with unspoken tension.
Deprived of my passport, I was left face to face with an array of
security personal who lorded over the hoi polloi day-trippers with the
bespoke imperiousness of gatekeepers, taking their time, and singling
out certain individuals for more intrusive checks than others, turning
some away, letting others through. The uniformed agent who held my
passport started muttering to me in incomprehensible English. And then
in very comprehensible Chinese, he addressed the crowd. "Is anyone with
him or is he alone?"
Nobody knew the foreigner. The only thing that was clear was that I
wasn't going anywhere soon. The guard gestured that I should step next
to the police booth, barking some incomprehensible words in English. I
told him I couldn't understand what he was saying, he said he was
calling in a supervisor who spoke better English. I said why don't we
speak in Chinese and save some time? He asked me if I was a journalist. I
explained I was not on a journalist visa, I was on a personal visit,
but he wasn't satisfied with my minimal explanation. He got busy on his
phone, and his handheld database device, apparently trying to see if
they had anything on me.
As the crowd shuffled past me for obligatory bag inspections and ID
checks, the cop started to walk away with my passport; I asked him to
return it before stepping out of sight. He halted, glaring angrily.
Meanwhile, a tall older man brushed against me, cigarette dangling as he
waited his turn to enter the security booth. I asked him to please not
smoke next to me. The cop was taken aback. "Who are you telling him not
to smoke? Even I don't have the right to tell him that. He can smoke if
he wants to."
Rights. The right to smoke in a crowded public place was upheld while
the right to visit a public square was held in delicate abeyance.
The cop and I continued to regard one another as if in a face off,
each waiting for the other to blink. He clung close to me, as if he had
collared a prime suspect. We whiled away the time, exchanging terse
comments, me pressing him to speed it up, him clutching onto my
passport, which was as good as holding me on leash. I asked, do you like
doing this? Isn't this boring (wuliao) and he snapped, what job isn't
boring? I said last time I visited the Square was not much security,
what's with this, something about 6/4? He stared knowingly, a thin smile
breaking on his tight lips, but didn't answer. The short repartee that
followed earned a suppressed grin, but no rapport.
The supervisor arrived at last, and with it the promise of closure,
one way or the other. "This is the guy, he speaks Chinese (shi zheige
ren, ta hui shuo zhongwen") the indignant inspector said by way of
The supervisor was slightly pudgy, bright-eyed, bespectacled and
confident. He smiled in greeting; I smiled in return. He was relaxed and
pleasant, rather what you'd hope an officer of the peace to be, in
comparison to the ball-buster beat cop who was now assiduously
hand-copying my passport data on a piece of paper. Visiting people? the supervisor asked
amiably. Yeah. Where? Shida. Are you a reporter? No, I
am not a reporter. A teacher? Yeah, you could say that, but not at
Shida.He took my passport and the notepaper from his testy subordinate,
studied at my visa and then pocketed my passport, handing me the police
notepaper by mistake. I said, no thanks; I'd rather have my passport
back. He grinned and quickly corrected himself, saying I was free to go
on. In parting I said your subordinate needs to learn more about visas;
he doesn't know about visa types, and it's hot standing here in the sun
and he's wasted a lot of everyone's time. The inspector was
appropriately humble in front of his supervisor; he looked at me with a
thin-lipped smile and said he would study more (xuexi, xuexi). Then my
passport was checked by a female inspector, my bag X-rayed and subject
to a hand-search. The book was thumbed through with curiosity, as if to
ascertain that the contents corresponded to the cover, and then I was
"free" to walk out onto the empty pavement of a vast downtown plaza.
As I stepped into the clear, I could see that Tiananmen Square was
ringed with heavy security every direction of the compass. I pressed
forward, at once giddy and downcast to find myself at last on a public
square where police vehicles were parked and idling in every nook and
cranny. The street facing museum and running the length of the square
was entirely closed off to traffic, other than crowd control busses and
security vehicles. There were policing techniques that were new to me,
at least as seen on the Square. Police patrolled the perimeter with
hefty-looking guard dogs.
Mounted cameras seemed to whir from every other pole, and the
metallic sheen of temporary fencing, in addition to the more permanent
fencing that has been put in place over the years, gave the open vista
of the people's plaza a confining, penned-in feeling, like a giant
Men in uniform patrolled and watched at every juncture, sometimes
they would approach people already on the Square for a follow up
security check or interrogation. I saw only five foreigners on the
Square in the two-and-a-half hour period that I wandered around. Three
of those foreigners, blond and female, were stopped and interrogated in
the middle of the Square. Hadn’t they passed enough security just to get
in? They looked a little scared so I approached them to ask if
everything was alright, which of course prompted the cops to turn their
sights to me, asking if we were together. A female officer ushered me
away when it became obvious I wasn't part of the three-person “cell”
they were questioning. Content the three foreign ladies were not being
unduly abused, but only experiencing communication difficulties due to
the implied conspiracy of visiting in a group, I moved on, aware of
being observed from many different angles, from prowling security staff
on foot and on wheel, some carrying weapons of war, others with dogs on
The dogs left me alone. Being solo didn’t avert surveillance, but at least I could evade trumped up charges of conspiracy. Empty busses and police vehicles idled and sat in the setting sun,
ready to process detainees in batches of hundreds, if necessary. But the
crowd was thin, a few hundred scattered tourists at most, and there
wasn’t a whiff of a political expression anywhere. Nothing much
happened, but every move was monitored. Why it was even hard to take a
selfie without a police vehicle rolling into view.
There were conspicuous plainsclothesmen studying new arrivals at
entrance staircases from underground passages, on the north face of the
Square, even though visitors had already passed through a series of
checkpoints on the way in.
The centerpiece of the Square, the Monument of the People's Heroes
was unapproachable; fully fenced off and guarded. Just the mere act of
pointing my phone camera at the stone obelisk that had served as the
epicenter of the historic demonstrations provoked attention from
There were "garbage collectors" riding around on electric scooters,
clutching mobile phones in hand. The frequency with which they passed me
when I paused to take snapshots suggested their cleanup duties extended
to reporting on “unkempt” individuals as well.
I found a few local tourists sitting in the shade of a stationary
police van and I joined them. Sitting down felt good, it reminded me of
being on the Square day and night in '89, the way voices echoed off the
stone, the way the sky seemed so vast and unreachable. By chance I had
chosen a spot along the central axis, not far from where the Goddess of
Democracy statue had once stood.
The crowd was sparse, mostly provincial visitors judging from accents
and attire. There were two affable Tibetan monks, or perhaps I should
say two Potemkin monks, for there was something slightly unreal about
One wore a rainbow beanie cap umbrella on his head, and they both
exuded cheer despite the tight security. Giddy about being in the
capital of their motherland, or something else?
The early June sun was hot and unforgiving, but the constant
monitoring and suspicion of any kind of human interaction made for a
cold reception. One of the handful of Caucasians traipsing across the
Square by chance came to be standing next to me at the railing
overlooking the boulevard and Mao's portrait on the other side. The
mere, inadvertent proximity of two foreign men quickly raised pert
stares and suspicious movements from the well-built T-shirted scouts
prowling across the north side of the Square. It's as if they saw us as
I said hello to a few people, and got one smile in return, but that
was about it. Otherwise there was an unusual degree of sobriety and
silence about scattered, apolitical crowd. The sober mood was pierced by
the occasional awkward "hal-low" shouted by provincials with limited
English ability, and one practiced "Hello-where-are-you-from?" routine
from two enterprising bar girls who had braved the security measures to
seek prey in a captive location.
"We are from Harbin. “What is your
country?" I humored the perfumed pair long enough to sense a routine,
and then brushed them off; I had been interrogated enough for one day. A
few minutes later they closed in on the other foreign man, asking,
“What is your country?” and other standard questions. Before I walked
out of earshot I heard them suggest he join them for a beer, probably at
a bar of their choice with extravagant prices, or so goes the scam.
The only “people’s heroes” in the vicinity were embalmed, as the one
in Mao's tomb, or etched in stone, commemorating revolutionary events
long before the unspeakable event that stained the Square in 1989.
The open vista on the north side of the monument has for some time
been blocked by two gargantuan high-tech video boards that flash scenes
of beautiful China and the latest lame slogans exhorting unity in one
form or another. The screen on the west flank neatly blocked the spot
where the hunger strikers gathered a quarter of a century ago.
Nestled in the southeast corner of the monument, where the students
briefly had their headquarters in the broadcast tent, stood an empty
guard booth and a “do not enter” sign.
About the only sign of normalcy was seeing families with small kids,
who as ever, romped about without apolitical abandon and urinated openly
on the Square, and one could hardly chastise them. To return from the
long trek to the public restrooms would have involved another security
There were several police scooting around on Segways.And then there
were periodic brisk marching formations of men in khaki, dressed to
impress but going nowhere in particular.
There were armored vehicles and tow trucks and black-windowed vans
and green army trucks, all idling all the time. It was like China's
version of the out-of-control, out-of-proportion US security state, no
expense spared to keep Tiananmen under wraps.
I lingered on the perimeter of the sterile, fenced-in Square to watch
the sun set and red flag go down. I thought about how political lies,
fear of truth and denial of history continue to hurt and haunt China.
I departed the prison pen that is Tiananmen
and ventured back into the real world. I walked and walked and walked. I ambled along Changan Boulevard, and then
went north to Donghuamen Gate. From there I threaded through the portion of
the Forbidden City open to the public, which, for all the horrors of
imperial history, is now open to the people, an architectural legacy at once majestic and at peace with itself.
I walked past the secretive compound of Zhongnanhai, where the living
leaders of China were safely guarded with a fraction of the manpower
and hardware deployed to make sure nothing happened on the cold paving
stones of an empty Square. I circled past Beihai and Jingshan Park and
walked on past the bars of Houhai and boutiques of the Drum Tower
district where it was just another raucous fun night for youthful
revelers with no memory and little knowledge of Tiananmen in 1989.
Philip J Cunningham is the author of Tiananmen Moon, which was recently released by Rowman & Littlefield in a special expanded edition for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. Recommended citation: Philip J. Cunningham, "Border Crossing Into Tiananmen Square; still under lockdown twenty-five years on", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 26, No. 4, June 30, 2014.