Giant on the move
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
Thirty years ago today, China invaded its one-time Communist ally Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”, to the delight of Beijing’s newfound friend, Uncle Sam, which was still smarting from having lost its own Vietnam War.
The attack came on the heels of Washington switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and a closed-door meeting between China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Washington.
Three decades on, it remains unclear just how much Deng told Carter about the incursion and whether Washington offered any assistance such as satellite imagery of Vietnamese troops and military bases.
Until the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department declassify minutes of the meeting, the world will not know for sure whether the United States offered to back China in the event the Soviet Union rushed to Vietnam’s rescue.
Now the great wheel of history has turned again, and 30 years on, the United States is seeking China’s help in applying pressure on another Communist neighbour, North Korea.
China’s foray into Vietnam was brief yet in some ways disastrous. Its troops suffered terribly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese who were fighting on their home soil.
But there is no arguing that the invasion was a watershed event that smoothed the way for China to mend fences with the West. American investors, tourists and students flocked to China. Western and Japanese aid and loans flowed in, while trade and investment mushroomed, helping to transform the world’s most populous nation from an economic backwater into an export powerhouse and the world’s third-biggest economy.
In an apparent quid pro quo, China abandoned its longstanding policy of “liberating” Taiwan and offered “peaceful reunification” in an overture to the self-ruled island it has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war.
Also in 1979, Deng invited Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, prompting the latter to renounce advocacy of Tibetan independence, beseech CIA-armed and -trained Tibetan guerrillas to end their struggle and send his older brother to China on fact-finding trips.
The United States softened its criticism of human rights abuse in China, including the imprisonment of dissident Wei Jingsheng for challenging Deng at the height of the Democracy Wall movement.
American Sinologist David Shambaugh described as a “marriage of convenience” the teaming up of the United States and China to curb Soviet expansionism.
On a lighter note, American culture invaded China. Many Chinese traded their Mao suits for jeans or business suits and dined at McDonald’s and KFC outlets. Hollywood movies and rock ‘n’ roll — once considered decadent by China’s ideologues — swept many Chinese off their feet.
The honeymoon abruptly ended on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. China slipped into diplomatic isolation in the face of U.S. sanctions.
China broke out of isolation and forced the United States to deal with it after menacing Taiwan with war games in the run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996. Bilateral relations see-sawed in the ensuing years, hitting low points when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter over Chinese airspace.
Fast forward to February 2009. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits on Friday, she will be dealing with a richer, more confident and assertive China. Again, but now in peacetime, it will be a China that needs the United States as much as the United States needs China.
The United States needs China to help rein in a nuclear North Korea and help nurse the global economy back to health. But China’s abrupt slowdown in growth and exports shows that it remains yoked to U.S. fortunes.
Photo Credit: A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham
It’s a month to go! So, we sent our reporters out onto the street to speak to ordinary Beijingers to find out how they and the city are coping.
”I didn’t have much interest in the Olympics before the Tibet riots. After that I became to think: All right. If you guys are so keen to make us look bad, we’ll have to get things done even better. After the earthquake, I felt really sad and at one point even thought that it might be good not to hold the Games any more. But the reality is the country has poured in so much manpower, materials and money to prepare for the Games. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘there can be no turning back once the arrow is on the bowstring’.” – Zhao Qian, 26, a public relations officer for a European company
The Beijing bureau today continued its look at China’s ’08 generation, 19 years after the crushing of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and 64 days before the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games.
Read Lucy Hornby’s piece about the challenges facing China’s college graduates here
Some 5,000 VIPs, cheering workers and media gathered on Tiananmen Square on Monday to welcome the Beijing Olympic flame and launch the 137,000-km torch relay.
Predictably, security on the square was tight.
The 600 reporters, photographers and television crews were bused from the Olympic media centre some four hours before the flame made an appearance.