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Abeja Dispatch

I Thought the Bad Guys Always Wore Black
July 29, 2000

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Mao keeps a watchful eye on the trekkers in Tiananmen Square
Stepping out of the Beijing subway into the late afternoon sun, it takes me a moment to absorb all that surrounds me. Chairman Mao stares down from a huge portrait, looking out over the largest plaza in the world -- Tiananmen Square. Tourists from all over China -- and the world -- wander around taking pictures, eating popsicles, flying kites and even playing hacky-sack.

We ask a Chinese tourist to take a picture of all four trekkers together in front Tiananmen Gate -- Heaven Peace Gate -- which was the entryway into the Forbidden City. Smiling for the camera, we stand in front of the center bridge, which only the emperor was allowed to cross. It was this symbol of absolute power and elitism that Mao chose as the backdrop when he proclaimed the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. "That says, 'Long live the Unity of the Peoples of the World,'" Yang-Yang translated.

Carefully working our way through the bicycle traffic in front of Tiananmen Gate, we see a huge crowd gathering. At sunset, soldiers from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) ceremoniously lower the red flag of the People's Republic of China that flies above the square. It reminds me of watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., where tourists from all over America come to honor their country.

During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao would review parades of up to one million "Red Guards" right here where I'm standing. Red, the color of China's flag, is the color of Communism, and the Red Guards were supposed to guard Communist ideals.

Across Tiananmen Square from us rises a tall obelisk called Monument to the People's Heroes, with carvings representing important events in the Communist Revolution. Behind that is the mausoleum where Chairman Mao's preserved body can still be viewed today. To our right is the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress meets. Like all of Tiananmen Square, this was built under Mao.

When I think of Tiananmen Square, I remember the massacre back in 1989, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. "This is where the army massacred the pro-democracy student demonstrators in '89," I said quietly, looking out over the vast concrete expanse full of families on holiday, with dozens of cheerfully colored kites darting around in the air.

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Yang-Yang and I contemplate Democracy in Tiananmen Square
We all got quiet for a moment, but the world kept buzzing around us. "This road is where the tanks rolled in and crushed that student," Yang-Yang pointed out to us. "No one knows how many people died."

"I've heard estimates that say it was over one thousand," I said, and Kavitha's face looked horrified.

"One thousand?!" she asked. I nodded.

The pro-democracy protests had been going on for a month by the time the government declared martial law on May 20th, 1989. China had very high inflation, the government was full of corruption and members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who had pressed for reforms were pushed out of the party. The crowds grew and the protests spread to at least 20 other cities.


elitism - leadership or rule by the elite, a few with much power
martial law - when a government calls in military forces to keep public order and safety when civilian agencies can't
mausoleum - a large tomb
obelisk - an upright 4-sided pillar that tapers as it rises and ends in a pyramid
oligarchy - government by the few

About 3,000 students were on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, and students from the Beijing Art Institute had built a statue called the "Goddess of Democracy" -- which looked a lot like the Statue of Liberty in the United States. There were an estimated 1 million protesters in and around Tiananmen Square when the PLA, China's national army, moved in on June 4. Their tanks quickly rolled over the barricades built by the protesters, crushing anyone in them. The army opened fire on the crowd, and, with the death of hundreds or even thousands of people, the protests were squashed.

Little did I know then that the protests were just a small taste of the push for democracy that was going on around the world: Germany had reunited and the Soviet Union would soon fall apart! The Cold War was over, it seemed, and the good guys had won!

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These statues by the
Back in 1989, I didn't really understand what was going on, even though it was beamed via satellite to my television. I don't understand fully even today. You see, when I was growing up, I thought the world was divided between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." I didn't know the difference between a Communist and a Nazi. They were both the bad guys, enemies of America. This was the "Cold War." I thought that Communism was the exact opposite of Democracy, and was therefore some form of dictatorship or oligarchy (like a small group of dictators). Even though China was more friendly with the U.S. than with the U.S.S.R., the massacre here in Tiananmen Square only strengthened my image of Communism.

When I learned that there was a Communist Party in America -- that sometimes even ran candidates in elections -- I was really confused. How can you democratically elect someone who doesn't believe in democracy? Do they support the sort of repression that happens here in China, against anyone who dares speak out against the government? Would they throw journalists in prison, like the author who dares to question the value of the Three Gorges Dam, or the students I saw being gunned down by the PLA on television? How could anyone who calls themselves American vote for the Communists?

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Flying kites by the Monument to the People's Heroes
Have you noticed that everything here is called "The People's This" and "The People's That?" This is the People's Republic of China, guarded by the People's Liberation Army, near the Monument to the People's Heroes, out front of the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress meets. That's because the basic premise of Communism is to take the power away from the rich landowners and lords, and give it to the people. People are supposed to own the factories they work in, and get equal share in the profits.

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The Great Hall of the People is where the National People's Congress meets
"You know, I could get in a lot of trouble saying this, but doesn't it seem like the basic concept of Communism is pretty similar to the basic idea of Democracy?" I asked quietly, so no one would overhear me. "Both of them are theoretical structures dreamed up by people who saw the injustices in the world caused by a few people having power over everyone. Compared to the traditional systems of feudalism and imperialism that existed before, they're more alike than different. Why were we always taught that they are opposites?"

"Democracy is not the opposite of Communism," Kavitha said. "Communism is an economic system. Capitalism is the opposite of Communism."

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Marx, Engles, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao hang on the wall (left to right) in a restaurant in Tiananmen Square
Wow! I never thought of it that way. Here in China, as it was in the U.S.S.R. and still is today in Cuba, the Communist Party IS the government. The political system is designed to keep the Communists in power. The 25-member Politburo of the CCP basically controls the country. The National People's Congress that meets here cannot appoint anyone to any position without the recommendation of the CCP.

Below the Politburo, the entire country is organized under the CCP, right down to individual schools and workplaces. Each school has a Youth League, and all factories and work places are organized into "work units." Everyone is, theoretically, a member of a work unit, and therefore under direct control of the CCP in everyday life.

This is what the demonstrators in 1989 were protesting -- one-party rule which controls all aspects of society. What's ironic to me is that the people did not get Democracy, but they did get Capitalism. China is still ruled exclusively by the Chinese Communist Party - which seems to have bent the rules of Communism in order to stay in power!

Mao must be turning in his grave! Oh, wait -- he's here, behind glass, in Tiananmen Square, within full view of the McDonald's, KFC and Internet café, and I haven't heard anyone mention any odd movements of the body. Maybe he turns at night, when no one is looking!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - Playing the Game, The Communists Score!
Jasmine - Rural Women Know It All
Yang-Yang - The Many Loved and Hated Faces of Mao
Kavitha - Inside the Secret World: China's Forbidden City

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