Changing China

Giant on the move

From Canada, looking back

June 3, 2009

I first visited China in June 1997.  It was eight years after the Tiananmen crackdown, weeks before the Hong Kong Handover back to China marking the end of British rule, and over a decade before the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was a family trip — my parents were looking forward to a college reunion with classmates they hadn’t seen in decades and I had just finished my second year of university. I was looking forward to finally seeing the place I’d heard so much about.

Born and raised in Canada, I grew up listening to stories of the past — lessons in history, humanity, tragedy and survival. And like many children of immigrant families, there is a constant search for a balance and a place between the different worlds that shape our identity.

(Caption: Neon lights from skyscraper and 1997 Handover signs cast a glow over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and the extension of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (R, foreground) in this long exposure zoom photograph.  Picture taken June 21, 1997. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

Over the years I’ve witnessed a dramatic change in my parents’ attitude toward China. For them, the changes in China since they left — over 45 years ago for my father and 35 years ago for my mother — have been beyond anything they could have imagined in their lifetime.

Born just before Japan invaded China in 1937, my parents were children during the Sino-Japanese War and teenagers when Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Over the next 25 years, the dramatic upheavals, failures and deaths from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution spared no one.

In the spring of 1952, my grandfather was falsely accused of corruption and was executed about a month later. He was posthumously cleared and declared a victim of the anti-corruption movement at the time.

The years passed, my parents married and had a daughter.

My father, who went abroad to study in 1962, was one of the last to leave before China closed its doors to the outside world. My mother stayed behind but was isolated and persecuted in revolutionary meetings and posters that denounced her “foreign” connections. My grandmother — already nearly 60 years old — was sent to a labour camp for several years. The education system in China came to a halt for roughly a decade and many of my parents’ younger cousins were part of that “lost generation”. Their stories are by no means unique, merely an example of experiences shared by an entire generation of Chinese. They were among the lucky ones. Others suffered much harsher persecution and many lost their lives.

Twelve years passed before my parents reunited again in Canada. When my mother finally left in 1974, she was among the early handful to leave after China’s doors cracked open again. My sister joined my family four years later.

China was changing fast, but not fast enough in 1989.

When the Tiananmen protests erupted in April of that year, my cousin (who prefers to remain anonymous) was a student at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Nearly everyone attended the protests at one point or another, he said, and during its relatively peaceful early days, the students found it “fun” to be part of the gathering crowds.

(Caption: Crowds of jubilant students surge through a police cordon before pouring into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 during a pro-democracy demonstration. REUTERS/Stringer)

The students leading the demonstrations weren’t always particularly well liked, he recalled, “but they were supported because no one else had the interest to stand up, because we never thought students would be able to win.”

Unlike Beijing’s media crackdown around sensitive events and anniversaries today, what was unfolding in the capital at the time was no secret. “The [domestic] media covered everything and was on the students’ side. People were unhappy about their lives, so they were happy to see the students fight with the government,” my cousin, who now lives in Canada, said.

After more than a month of demonstrations, many of the university students had lost interest and were more worried with having to go back to class.

(Caption: A captured tank driver is helped to safety by students as the crowd beats him June 4, 1989. REUTERS/File)

“Most of the people I know didn’t go onto the street any more since late May,” he said. The dark turn in Tiananmen Square took him and others by surprise.

Thousands of miles away in Canada, my parents were rivetted to the television as networks continuously broadcasted the events unfolding in their homeland. I had just turned 13, and was more disturbed by my parents unusual display of emotion than what was happening on TV in a place I’d never been and over issues I didn’t really understand.

(Caption: Student protesters arriving at Tiananmen Square to join other pro-democracy demonstrators, ride pass the portrait of late chairman Mao Zedong. Picture taken May 1989. REUTERS/File)

Ask anyone in China today and they will tell you things have completely changed in the last 20 years — almost exponentially so in some cases — for better and for worse, depending on who you ask.

Construction abounds everywhere and skyscrapers are built with unimaginable speed.

For the tens of millions of Chinese living in cities, the quality of life has transformed dramatically: First came household appliances like televisions. Now everyone wants a car. The new-found affluence means being able to go on vacation or even having a different cell phone for every day of the week. The chasm between the middle class — let alone the super wealthy — and the poor is mind-boggling.

(Caption: Fireworks explode during the closing ceremony in the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 24, 2008. The stadium is also known as the Bird’s Nest. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay)

The first generation of the one child policy — infamously nicknamed “Little Emperors” — are now adults, and for many, politics holds little interest.

“People do not really care too much about [Tiananmen] anymore, especially the younger generations,” my cousin said. There are bigger problems facing the country now than June 4 (as the Tiananmen crackdown is known in Chinese).

There are local bursts of labor unrest, concerns about food and product safety and corruption is rampant in nearly all spheres and levels of life — something that was almost non-existent in the 1980s.

(Caption: A bride poses as pigeons fly during a pre-wedding photo shoot at a park in Beijing July 25, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV)

“If June 4 didn’t end in that way, China might have had a better chance to become a nicer country than what it is nowadays. It closed the door of political reformation but opened the door to all kinds of corruption as a compensation,” my cousin said. He left in the mid 1990s, but still maintains close ties to China.

“People in China are not very happy with what is happening in the country. Although they don’t care about June 4 anymore, it could become a trigger. That’s why the government is still very nervous.”

For a government that believes stability — social, economic, political — is paramount above all else, tightening security, clamping down on the Internet (even if it isn’t always that hard to circumvent) and television access from Hong Kong during sensitive events have become routine.

But my parents are pragmatic. Their experiences have shown how revolutions can create chaos and extremes. They want calm and peace and see the most effective change coming through natural, rather than forced progress. My father openly admits that now “we only see the good side” and that “the past has been forgiven.” He calls the changes in China a miracle.

Fed on a regular diet of CCTV (the official Central China Television), some may say my parents are being influenced by the powerful propaganda machine of the Chinese government. That may be true, but for them, there is also a sense of pride and optimism that a country that has seen so much suffering has come so far in such a short period of time. They go back annually now and witness the changes from year to year. They are not blind to the concern my cousin and others like him express, but it doesn’t dampen their hope.

(Caption: A young girl waves a Chinese flag as she and other school children wait for the arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Macau airport December 19, 2004. REUTERS/Anat Givon/Pool)


Sadly, economic progress has not brought political reforms.

China marks Tiananmen Square with special Happy Meal toy:


It really is crazy how such a peaceful landmark ( ms/18 ) can evoke such emotions and strong memories of violence. I found your picture choices in this post interesting as they juxtapose two different perspective on China during this time of anniversary. Isn’t it strange how for those who don’t remember or aren’t aware of the events of 1989, Tiananmen Square is just another landmark?

Posted by Bryan Schell | Report as abusive

China blocked twitter and flickr today. We don’t know why. Maybe to help its new comers like the chinese competitor of twitter ( ).


The biggest piece of hardware on earth is Tiananmen Square and the Chinese government has it ; the biggest piece of software on earth is human mind and we Chinese citizens have it. Software shall overrun hardware, no matter what.

Posted by Ming Chen | Report as abusive

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