I was eleven years old in the summer of 1989, and though the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle three years before and the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later were also watershed landmarks from my childhood, the massacre at Tianenmen Square and throughout the suburbs of Beijing on June 4, 1989 was the most formative to me.
Amidst all the eager optimism surrounding those years when communism fell and the Cold War ended, this event was a stunning reminder to my young self that the world was not and probably never would be full of nothing but rainbows and candy. (I suppose that’s the lesson young people today may have picked up from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.) I watched those tanks on TV and was grateful for freedom, and resolved to never forget that–as I read later on–the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Today, as China grows in importance and as my own interest in China and the Chinese language continue strong, my enthusiasm for them, like for so many other things, must carry the stain of this shameful tragedy, made all the worse by China’s refusal to even acknowledge much less deal with it.
Two years ago, my family hosted an exchange student from China. Even though I had a picture of the famous “tank man” (below) in my classroom and I know he saw it, the subject never came up. I don’t know if I should have told him about it or not. I don’t know if he already knew anything about it or not.
But I do know that we must always be serious about preserving our freedoms to assemble and speak out, especially if it offends the established order, and we must be ready to help our friends in China learn the truth about their recent past when we can. China can’t regulate and block their Internet access forever.