Mumbai June 3 1989. I had just come in on the night train from Ahmedabad, and was going to Pune for a few days of down time. Work was tough, and I had a lot going on in my life, not least of which was the fact that I had not seemingly settled down to domesticity like a number of my friends. I was not yet past my twenties but getting closer to the big hump. One of my closest friends who was the most bohemian of them all, had found love and a home. I was not sure where I was headed. My life had not changed that much, ever since I got out of business school. My job did not pay well. What I thought was the love of my life had ended up a bust. What did my future hold? Around me was a country that seemed frozen in time – the noise, the bustle, the vast numbers of people, the ramshackle infrastructure – all of them seemed to indicate that I was in a static world slowly gathering mould, as was my own existence.
I looked around me at ordinary people in the bus with that sense of discombobulation that young people have. My friendly Sony Multiband Radio was in my backpack with headphones to my ears. My favourite station, BBC World Service, was on. It was morning. And what I heard astonished me.
Through the ether came the voices of radio broadcasters telling the world that young men and women in China were doing an incredibly courageous thing. They were asking for the right to live fully free lives, free to say what they want, live where they want and be who they want. They wanted the Party to butt out of their lives. They were willing to fight for these rights, and if needed, to die for these rights.
It’s easy to dismiss these as mere clichés. But on the radio, the sounds of the passion and intensity of protest were loud and strident and very, very real. As was the gunfire and the shouts of kids dying as the State finally decided on a bloody end.
Today, images of Tien An Men crowd the media, especially that of the young man in front of the tanks. Sitting on the bus, headphones stuck to my ears, the words that I heard seemed to convey the sense of a brand new beginning taking place in one of the oldest countries in the world.
Tensions had been building up since the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. China was then experimenting with letting economic freedom develop while trying to keep strict political control under the Communist Party. Scarce eight years before, Deng Xiao Ping had enabled Chinese people to break free of the economic shackles of the Party.
The students had been in occupation of Tien An Men for a few weeks, demanding liberty and political freedom. When the crackdown came, it came on the orders of Deng Xiao Ping, who took the opportunity to side-line (and later exile internally) his great rival Zhao Ziyang who appeared sympathetic. People’s Liberation Army soldiers in tanks and armoured cars poured into the Square, firing into the crowd and killing and wounding thousands. As we all know, the State never fell and the revenge of the Chinese state was swift.
I did not realize then, that a scarce three years later, I would find myself standing on Tien An Men Square. All traces of those events three years ago were wiped clean. However, not all the scars. The big buildings surrounding the Square, on what is Chang’An (Long March) Avenue, still carried bullet holes from the machine guns that day, These were pointed out to me by the young Chinese computer programmers I was hiring for my company to work on automation. I asked them what really happened. They would go silent, shake their heads and tell me “Many people died”. Nothing more was said. The book shop at the Shangri La Hotel had a Chinese Government publication on sale that went by the title of “The Truth About June 3 1989”. I still have a copy. It had pictures of dead and dying youth, all labelled as Party activists and unarmed soldiers, who had been brutally massacred by the counter-revolutionaries. All said with a straight face.
Anyone who has spent some time in China will tell you that they are the nicest people, very friendly and eager to learn and make something of themselves. They are also fiercely proud of being Chinese. They have had the most horrible transition from an ancient Empire to a modern State.
And yet it is amazing that these kids still trust and believe in the idea of a strong Chinese state to get them back to the great nation they once were. The State has become more and more authoritarian as the Chinese Republic rapidly becomes wealthier and more powerful by the day. The Party knows it has the people with it as long as they keep delivering wealth and stability and a tiny bit of freedom, but is not taking any chances. Every June 3, the old men at Zhongnanhai remember how close the state came to collapse and prepare to head off any more threats to the State. Preventive arrests, a further clampdown on the press, threats to foreign media – the usual formula. Like this year.
In his book “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, Milan Kundera talks of how the Communist State would make an “un-person” of a person in order to remove him from public memory. June 3 1989 will not be forgotten. At some point the Chinese State will come to terms with what happened. But not any time soon.
Listening to archives of some of those broadcasts brings those memories back. It was heady to listen to those events, and also incredibly sad. At the same time, so empowering that young people always want to change the world for the better. The BBC was right in front. In China – and to me – shortwave radio was indeed the window to the world,. Listen to this broadcast from Radio Beijing, dated June 3 1989. The announcer later spent several years in a Re-education Camp. And to this.
I have to ask myself if India should have had it’s own Tien An Men moment. When young people came out to ask for change, to ask for the status quo to be demolished. For the State to be more responsive. Beneath the garb of democracy the Indian state can be just as venal. Are our youth too compliant, too passive, too accepting of the many ways used by politicians to make them blind to what would be blindingly obvious – the lack of jobs, of prospects, of real change?
I remember that day on the bus so vividly. Full of hope, and sadness.