Changing China

Giant on the move

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From Canada, looking back

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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.

“Is this an anonymous interview?”

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I spent a year working at a university in China in 2002. With the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown looming, I wanted to solicit some thoughts from my former students. Unusually — but perhaps not surprisingly in retrospect — I did not hear back. I did hear from friends who are currently studying abroad. The following views are from one 27-year-old originally from Fujian province, who came two years ago to do a Master’s degree in Canada. Anonymity was requested.

Caption: Undergraduates stand in front of a Chinese national flag after three minutes of mourning for Sichuan earthquake victims at Fudan University in Shanghai May 12, 2009. REUTERS/Aly Song

Tightening screws on Tiananmen

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Security on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is always tight.
 
But I knew that today it was going to be particularly so when, upon emerging from the subway station, I was faced with three police vans and literally hundreds of security personnel, all on guard against any kind of disturbance ahead of the 20th anniversary of 1989′s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
 
Nervously I made my way to one of the square’s entrances, wondering if I would even be allowed to enter.
 
I put my bag on the X-ray machine, was briefly frisked by police with metal detectors, and cleared to go on my way.
 
The square was full of tourists, as usual. What was different was the hordes of uniformed police, military police and plainclothes security every few metres.
 
The plainclothes officers were painfully obvious, shuffling awkwardly in T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms, their crew cut hairstyles and poorly hidden walkie-talkies distinguishing them from ordinary visitors. They were also all carrying the same brand of bottled water.
 
Everytime I tried talking to someone, a police officer or one of the guards began hovering behind me. Finally I was able to chat with a trinket seller, who, talking in a low voice, complained
that the security was ruining her business.
 
“June 4 is tomorrow,” she said simply.
 
At that point one of the crew-cut men marched over and told the lady to stop talking to me.
 
By this stage. I had had enough and began heading back towards the subway station, passing on my way a foreign television crew. A policeman was telling them in no uncertain terms that they could not film in the square.
 
I felt lucky that nobody had stopped me. I’m sure the police knew I was there though, and why I had gone.

Photo caption: Chinese security personnel try to stop pictures from being taken as they check the documents of the photographer at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 3, 2009. Chinese security forces blanketed Tiananmen Square on Wednesday ahead of the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

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