In 1989, I was in primary school in Sichuan. My experience of the Tiananmen Incident started with recognizing unfamiliar, scattered words and phrases.
Beginning early that summer, I frequently heard the phrase from my aunt who was then in college: "Hunger strike." Each day, on my way to school, I found
the buildings on my route covered with posters. One word stood out: "Democracy." The context in which these words were spoken didn't become clear to me
until I went to Beijing for college. "Liu Si" --Chinese for 6/4, and code what happened in Tiananmen that June 4 -- became a siren call. The day was a
dangerous, forbidden, tantalizing secret, especially when people abruptly veered away from talk of it if they felt the conversation might touch on this
time and place.
But I have always been able to hear the siren. It returns from time to time. One day, after a long talk with a professor of mine, he unexpectedly recounted
how he had tried to persuade one of his favorite students not to go into the streets on June 4 and how he later carried his body back to campus. When I
began work as a journalist, I discovered that many people were holding onto their stories of that day like secrets, no matter if they were
environmentalists, journalists, lawyers or officials. When getting familiar with them, they didn't mind telling me their stories, quietly and in vivid
But not everybody's willing to hear siren. In 2004, on the 15th anniversary of the incident, I went to Tiananmen with a colleague. Plainclothes cops
outnumbered the tourists posing for photos, smiling, excited, and a little tired. Each year, the government orders universities to watch their students
more closely around June 4, but the order seems increasingly paranoid and ironic. When, for instance, I called another college professor of mine to check
in, she told me students were busy looking for jobs and preparing for final exams. Without the order to remind them, June 4 would be like any other day.
At a high school reunion dinner back in my home town, I talked with old classmates about the secret. One woman who'd shared my cynicism when we were teens,
raised her head and looked at me with surprise and slight disappointment, saying, "You are such a contrarian."
I would remind readers that the Deng Xiaoping era, which carried on through Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and continues today under President Xi Jinping,
started with the famous slogan "in solidarity look forward" (tuanjie yizhi xiang qian kan) -- a slogan that can be interpreted as a reproach to avoid
facing the past.
Though China's political values today may be more diverse across different social groups, it seems to me that most Chinese still are impacted greatly by
government attitudes in their choice of approach to social, political, and historical issues.