Twenty Years Later

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Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre (known as the "June 4 incident" or just "6-4" here in China). I was a junior getting ready for finals at Stanford during the period leading up to that sad day. I remember very well trying to follow what was going on; there was no Internet, just newsgroups, at the time so I spent every spare moment in the computer lab reading the rumors and news bits that were dribbling out of China via fax and other means.

When the news of the shootings came out, I sobbed, uncontrollably for a while. Honestly, this reaction surprised me. It was really the first time I felt any connection to the people in China. Prior to this time, I had always viewed the people in China as different from those of us who supported "Free China" (Taiwan). But, these were college students like me, my peers. They simply wanted what I already had. We were the same. I was Chinese too.

So, fast-forward twenty years: I live in China now. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn't feel like I'm living in the same country that we saw in the news reports twenty years ago. In many ways it's not. But, every so often there's a reminder. When the about-to-open Mandarin Oriental Hotel burned down, there was no news coverage of the event (there's no live news coverage in China) and the incident was downplayed. I actually learned about it via friends' posts on Facebook. Then, this week, the service I work on, Bing (Microsoft's newly re-branded and greatly improved search service) was blocked in China along with Live Spaces, Twitter, and FlickR and some other sites; the government wanted to suppress access to controversial content.

Interestingly and perhaps non-intuitively to many outside of China, this day is not viewed as a particularly memorable or important date to many Chinese, at least the ones I talked with about it. Since it's not discussed or taught here, my guess is that most young people simply don't know much about it.

For older folks, I have some speculation. During the lifetime of everyone alive today and even before, China has suffered greatly from humiliation by foreign powers, Japanese atrocities, civil war, the Cultural Revolution, famine, poverty, and so on. First, while terrible, the events in Tiananmen and Beijing twenty years ago may not be any more significant than dozens or even hundreds of other incidents in modern Chinese history. These last twenty years have been increasingly stable and prosperous; people are proud of what China has become (culminating in the awesome Olympics last year) and satisfied that they are better off than the generations that preceded them. They're also optimistic about the future. There's simply little reason in their minds to make a big deal about this or to rock the boat.

I struggle with the question of whether we're helping or hurting things by living here. I certainly don't support the lack of freedoms here. (You can see a brief view of my political beliefs in my short-lived 2004 presidential campaign...) But, ultimately, I think constructive engagement is the best way to influence other countries. Still, just writing this article and thinking about that horrible day twenty years ago gives me pause.

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