I was not at Tiananmen those weeks in the spring 1989, when thousands of students occupied the square, demanding more room in a modernizing China. Nor was I there in those horrid hours between the third and fourth of June, when under the cover of night the People's Liberation Army first surrounded the area, then pushed toward the square shooting madly at anything that moved, crushing young lives with tanks.

And yet, during my almost 10 years in China, I went to Tiananmen a lot. Firstly, just to gaze at that immense empty space, trying to make sense of its importance. I also went there as a journalist covering the gatherings of the Communist party nomenclature, like the Party Congress and sessions of the National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People. When studying in Beijing, someone from the Yugoslav Embassy lent me a suit so I could join the banquet Deng Xiaoping threw in honor of Josip Broz-Tito in the Great Hall.

It was a strange and funny reminder of when I wore a borrowed suit at the funeral of my father when I was 10 years old. But during all the time I spent in that gigantic and empty square I still couldn't make much sense of it. That is, until the late 1990s when I met Zhang Yuan, then a young film director who showed me Quanchang, his documentary on Tiananmen.

Two years ago, I wrote about what I learned from watching the documentary:

"Tiananmen is a great example of the public square/space contended for by the public authority, the state, and civil society. Zhang Yuan in his Guangchang – The Square describes and demonstrates this battle for a public space that is normally empty. In the case of Tiananmen, it was empty because Mao Zedong wanted it that way so that he could rally one million obedient red guards whenever he needed them to bolster his Cultural Revolution."

"Later, the square was used for military parades. Then, for a short period of time in 1989, the students and newly born Chinese civil society occupied Tiananmen for a few months. They got crushed by the leadership, who sent the military to clear the square. It was a massacre. It is from that time that Chinese authorities fear the crowds will come back and take the square from them. Zhang Yuan filmed all the camouflaged agents and policemen who've surveyed the square after 1989. The regime started to plant trees in the square and built a national flag pedestal guarded day and night; it does everything possible to create obstacles for potential spontaneous public gatherings."

After the massacre, I remember the protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Rome.

With the 30th anniversary of the massacre this month, all the memories of Tiananmen returned with incredible force. I tried to place myself back in time, remembering what I was doing during those monumental days three decades ago. I was working in Rome, not yet as a journalist. In 1989, there was no internet; we depended on the news from Beijing that national and commercial Italian television was broadcasting. One could rely on the BBC World Service on shortwave radio. We also read the reports in papers and worked the phones a lot. After the massacre, I remember the protest in front of the Chinese embassy on Via Bruxelles in Rome. It was a sad and silent protest, with more sinologists than average citizens. I was in contact with people and friends who were involved in the complex rescue operations of Chinese dissidents and students involved in the events on the square. Back then, I was not aware of how complex and risky some of those operations were. Two years after the tragedy, The Washington Post published this report on one of the rescue operations, Operation Yellow Bird.

Was the rescue of Su Zhaoshi, director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, part of the Yellow Bird Operation? This is the first time that I've ever considered this possibility. We will never be sure, as the 82-year-old Su Zhaoshi just died in Beijing within one day of the 30th anniversary. Anthony Saich, the Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a friend of Su's informed me of his death, the coincidence with the world marking the brutal repression of a budding civil society that forced him into exile is more than symbolic. It's tragic.

I got to know Su from the time we met in Ljubljana in 1980, or perhaps a year later. Su Zhaoshi was head of the Chinese delegation that was exploring the dreadful Yugoslav model of socialism, called "self-management." They were meeting various experts and politicians, the high echelons of the Slovenian Communist party, who were trying to explain to the Chinese how it functioned in Yugoslav socialism. Deng's China was looking for bridges toward the West, and Yugoslavia at that time seemed to be appropriate. (Mao Zedong before them considered self-management revisionist communism.)

During his visit to Ljubljana, I was Su's interpreter. After a couple of meetings, I remember being in a government limo with Su when he told me what he thought of the Slovenian leaders' explanations. He thought that the self-management system was a perfect system to subordinate the working class, but that it was too complicated to implement in China! I cracked with laughter. He did not hold it back it either. Hearing this kind of thing from a Chinese official, I thought for the first time how fast China was moving towards the liberation from the Communist dogma. Su Zhaoshi, I learned later, was a genuine reformer, and understood that the system of micro-distribution of power practiced in Yugoslavia would disintegrate China, while it managed to paralyze Yugoslavia.

Soon after Su's visit, the short love affair between the Chinese and Yugoslav ideologues was over. Beijing ditched Yugoslavia for more open Western democracies and Su became a natural supporter of Hu Yaobang, the much adored Party secretary whom the students mourned at Tiananmen. Hu was a resolute social reformer. As a short-lived party boss, he downgraded the party's discredited Maoist ideology, introducing more flexible and pragmatic policy, and replacing the cult of personality with collective leadership by recruiting younger, better-educated cadres. Hu got massive support from the youth, who were pushing for even faster and more radical changes, something that scared party conservatives. They removed Hu Yaobang in 1987. He died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989. Among the young and progressive, his death aroused the worries and fears about the fate of reforms in the country that had only just been introduced to democracy. The soldiers and the tanks on the streets of Beijing confirmed their fears. They brutally repressed any hope that China would ever become an open society.

May 19, 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square — Photo: Edgar Bauer/DPA/ZUMA

Su Zhaoshi and most of the people of the Academy of Social Science were intensely involved in the debate on the square before the massacre. As a consequence, they would become direct targets of the regime once the clean-up operations that tried to conceal the bloodshed were over. Reports from Beijing cited a massive manhunt across the country. Anthony Saich told me that hours after the massacre, he was approached by the U.S. Embassy to see if he could help Su Zhaoshi out of the country since the embassy could not get involved directly. Saich, who at the time was Associate Professor at the Sociologisch Instituut at the University of Leiden, and temporarily visiting China with a group of students, got Su's passport stamped for exit by the Dutch Embassy. They registered Su as one of Saich's students, who were leaving Beijing that day on a Finnair flight. With the help of a diplomat, Su made it on the plane and was in the Netherlands the next day. A year later, we all met at some conference on Chinese democracy in Bologna. There was plenty of time for stories.

After years in exile in the U.S., Su Zhaoshi decided to return to China eventually but was not allowed to publish or speak in public. He died silenced and in near complete darkness, as he was going blind.

During Christmas vacation in 1989, I managed to go back to Beijing. I knew the city very well, but this time it was covered by a cloud that had never before existed. The Capital of the North had been transformed into a ghost city. I particularly remember the naked, motionless construction cranes; it felt like being in Chernobyl. Everything in the city was at a standstill. There were very few people on the streets, Tiananmen was still sealed off, the hotels empty. The intellectuals, artists, poets, writers who wanted to remain needed some connection to a friend within the State security. I remember that a poet friend was under such protection, and asked if we could exchange foreign currency with his protector, the only collateral he could offer. We did, with some increased stomach pain after the protector moved us to a hotel within the State Security compound. My room was facing Tiananmen; it was a nightmare. It was my final two nights in Beijing, and they drove us to the airport in a state security car. We needed to stop at some hotel to exchange clandestine material with a reporter. It felt bizarre, but it was the most secure way.

What would have become of China without the 1989 crackdown?

In an attempt to prevent the oblivion of one of the biggest crimes in the history of humanity, the 30th anniversary has flooded us with new and old material on Tiananmen (like this collection of photos). Among the essays, reflections and memories on the bloodbath, and the end of a democratic epoch China was never able to return to, allow me to mention Minxin Pei, who wrote an essay about the end of the Chinese enlightenment, which came about with the crackdown on Tiananmen. Perhaps ‘enlightenment' is not the best term to use since it has a specific historic significance, but Pei's intention is clear. He is asking himself what would have become of China without the 1989 crackdown.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual fervor and diversity of the 1980s when we look at today's China, where ideological re-indoctrination, censorship, and persecution of outspoken thinkers have turned the country into an intellectual wasteland.

For those who still remember, the enlightenment movement showed what China could have become had the hard-liners not engineered the bloody crackdown three decades ago. By all accounts, the enlightenment movement that made the 1980s the freest decade in the history of the People's Republic was the product of coincidences.

First, after nearly thirty years of self-imposed isolation, Chinese society was seized with an insatiable curiosity about the West (I still recall standing room only lectures given by foreign professors and sold-out classical music concerts). Meanwhile, Mao's blood-soaked rule and the impoverishment of a hardworking and entrepreneurial people forced the survivors of Maoism, including Deng Xiaoping and many fellow leaders, to reflect on the deeper causes of the national tragedy that was the Mao period.

Snapping a picture of Chairman Mao on Tiananmen Square — Photo: Jack Chen via Instagram

Pei then explains other circumstances that created the democratic fervor in China, which could perhaps only be compared to the intellectual and cultural awakening in the period that followed the fall of the Qing Empire, in 1911. Further on, Pei underscores the role of the leaders, such as Hu Yaobang, who created a permissive political atmosphere in which the exploration of new ideas and critical debate about sensitive topics could take place. In that short period of time, there was also the space and tolerance for a critical examination of China's long history, in particular, its autocratic tradition and its mindset of self-glorification and isolationism.

All this is gone, gone with the gerontocracy that replaced the youth on the square but drank their blood in order to continue liberal economic reforms in the fashion of the worst of brutal capitalism. All the economic reforms were implemented in the complete absence of democracy, and to this day new forms of the personality cult (Xi Jinping) have been reinstated, while modern electronic and AI surveillance, additionally poisoned by deeply cultivated nationalism, guarantees further isolationism and cultural separation.

Minxin Pei concludes his essay with dark optimism: "Now that the Chinese economic miracle, buffeted by a structural slowdown at home and a looming economic cold war with the U.S., is fading, the party will find it increasingly hard to sustain its anti-enlightenment project. As only the catastrophe of Maoism could have given rise to the enlightenment movement in the 1980s, it is a reasonable hope that the next enlightenment movement will emerge also only from the unravelling of the "China model."

My thinking is even darker then Pei's. It originates from the student-formulated requests on the Tiananmen in 1989:

(1) affirm as correct Hu Yaobang's views on democracy and freedom; (2) admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong; (3) publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members; (4) end the ban on privately run newspapers and permit freedom of speech; (5) increase funding for education and raise intellectuals' pay; (6) end restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing; and (7) hold democratic elections to replace government officials who made bad policy decisions. In addition, they demanded that the government-controlled media print and broadcast their demands and that the government respond to them publicly.

If you look around, you will realize that the democracy the Tiananmen students desired no longer exists in this world. There are no more models the fresh and young democracy could learn from. There is no more substantial dialogue between present-day China and the rest of the world, if there ever was any. And so, this time, the Chinese have to do it by themselves.


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