John Garnaut: Learning to forget Tiananmen

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Garnaut is a Beijing based reporter.]

It is minus 12 degrees on a Beijing dawn and a line of 32 soldiers raise their bayonets to a rising red flag. Perhaps a thousand pilgrims have gathered to express their national pride at Tiananmen Square, the sacred heart of Communist China.

Ahead is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, from where Mao proclaimed the new People's government about 60 years ago. Behind lies the Monument of the People's Heroes and a mausoleum for Mao's embalmed body. They are two monuments of history, frozen without context, in a city designed and continually remade to forget its past.

Geremie Barme's The Forbidden City tells how a million Red Guards ushered in the Cultural Revolution against all things old with chants previously reserved for the emperor - "wansui, wansui, wansui - may he live for 10,000 years". Mao waved to them from the gate.

In Tiananmen Square the old is erased and reborn. It pays to bring some memory guides. Especially this year.

It is about 20 years since the Chinese people claimed Tiananmen Square for themselves. Today, those at risk of not remembering to forget are watched from unmarked vans. Hundreds of closed circuit cameras peer out from lamp posts. Tourists are often outnumbered by plain-clothed police.

At sensitive times like these, when the public is liable to forget to forget, the underpass walkways are closed and tourists are searched for subversive items, like unauthorised flags. At night now the square is entirely cordoned off.

The blood has long been scrubbed away, the bullet holes puttied over and the tank-tracked concrete tiles replaced as new.

The loudspeakers on the lamp posts have been upgraded since crackling out the government's ominous verdict on the night of June 3, 1989: "A serious counter-revolutionary riot has broken out in Beijing. Thugs have stolen the army's ammunition and set fire to army trucks. Their aim is to destroy the People's Republic of China."..

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