Tiananmen: then and now through my father’s eyes

March 9, 2017 — by Kyle Wang

From a distance, I could see the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the gate to the Forbidden City, but the locals — tour guides, soldiers, passersby — did not seem to notice it. It hung over them like a storm cloud in the distance, growing larger as we neared Tiananmen Square.

We walked past street vendors, past tourists posing for photographs and past soldiers standing guard over the plaza. I don’t remember if I counted the flags or tried to read the bold, golden Chinese lettering plastered on the walls of Tiananmen Gate.

All I remember is the red we saw — the bold, fearless red of the Chinese flag.  

All of this happened two summers ago, when my parents decided that it was time for my then-10-year-old brother and me to visit Beijing.

They took us to Tiananmen Square, where 30 years ago hundreds of students had stood in protest against the communist regime.

In 1989, China faced serious economic difficulties with rising living costs and rampant inflation. It was during this stagnation that thousands Chinese university students had begun to blame the Communist Party as the source of their troubles. At first, they clamored for reform, and when that didn’t work, they protested more openly, defying decades of iron-fisted control by the party.

My father, Eddie Wang, was 819 miles away from Tiananmen in Shanghai when the protests erupted. But like thousands of other students, he  took to the streets.

“Regardless of where you were at the time, we were all trying to achieve the same thing,” my father said. “It started because students were not happy with the pervasive corruption they’d seen and they had no channels to voice their concerns.”

Nowadays, he speaks about the incidents carefully. I don’t imagine he was the loudest voice of them all, or standing upon a stage with a megaphone. No, he was just a student, a face in the crowd — there to show his support for a cause but not ready to fully commit.

“We thought we had the people’s support,” my father said. “But we didn’t realize that we only had their sympathies. Nothing more.”

He remembers one specific incident. While students marched down a busy street in Shanghai, their protests interrupted the flow of daily traffic in the city. One large bus filled with older, working-class citizens parked in the middle of the crowd — perhaps because it was unable to move through the swarm of arms and bodies, or maybe just because the driver wanted to make a point.

Nevertheless, the passengers stayed put. They sat and watched as the students marched, choosing to wait in the traffic peacefully rather than join in protest.

“[The passengers] knew we were being watched,” my father said. “They knew we were being influenced to direct our anger toward certain party leaders because we’d been told who was corrupt. They were a lot more sensitive than us about that.”

My father grew up in a small coastal city in Southeast China, with two parents who served in the Chinese military as hospital workers. As a child, he lived far and away from the political interplay of big-city life in China, and spent his days preparing for his Gaokao college entrance exams.

Even then, he remembers that in the liberal arts and humanities-related subjects such as history and literature, the government had censored school textbooks fairly tightly.

By the time he arrived in college in Shanghai, the government censorship had taken a different turn. Many student-run newspapers were being closed down for openly promoting “pro-Western” policies.

“The protests were pretty important,” my father said. “They took up almost a whole semester.”

Like most major Chinese universities, the one that he attended in Shanghai chose to end that semester early, he told me later. The situation had spiraled out of control after the government sent troops to Tiananmen Square 819 miles away.  As many as 10,000 protesters were arrested in the aftermath; estimates put the death toll at anywhere from several hundred to thousands of civilians. But, as a mere participant in Shanghai, my father was safe.

In the weeks following the tumult, my father went back to school. Soon the protests, the shouting, the anger faded into memory.

“It was so busy,” my father said, “with homework and all.”

I’ve been to Shanghai exactly once in my life, and I’ve never visited the streets where my father might have stood. Back then, I was too young to understand it all. Even when I visited Beijing just two years ago, I didn’t see or feel the decades of blood, sweat and anger trampled beneath so many tourist’s feet.

To me, of course, these names and phrases are meaningless. I feel guilty writing this, but that’s the way it is — I did not stand beside those students and chant in the same angry voice or make the same sacrifices for freedom. Naturally, my father has grown since then, and he looks back at the protests with a mixture of pride and regret.

“I would say this is a little bit like some of the demonstrations in the U.S. today,” he said, “but ours flamed out of control like the Vietnam anti-war protests in 1968.”

None of this was on his mind when he and my mother first brought my brother and me to visit Tiananmen Square.

“It’s such a solemn place. I wanted you to understand it’s importance as a cultural center with all the rich history behind the buildings,” he said. “It wasn’t all about 1989.”

Looking back at the photographs from our visit, I see now that both my father and I wore red when we visited the square that day. My father sported the red of the Chinese flag and I, coincidentally, the deep maroon colors of Arizona State University, the American university he would later attend.

Both of us are smiling. We look harmless — maybe not total pacifists, but just tourists who have allowed the echoes of 1989 to fade into memory.