Tiananmen Square: briefly, anything seemed possible, at the Guardian on-line.
My spring of 1989 was devoted to putting homefront affairs in order prior to leaving for seven months in Europe. I was aware of the pro-democracy demonstrations in China, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that my knowledge of events there was anything more than rudimentary. I had a job to quit, belongings to pack, banking tasks to complete and goodbyes to say. Occasionally, there was time for beer.
On June 4, 1989, I was still on the front side of a full month’s stay in Prague, which of course was the firmly Communist capital of Czechosolvakia, a Warsaw pact stalwart, with the coming autumn’s breathtaking Eastern European collapse barely imaginable, if at all.
My first inkling of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown came a day or so after it occurred.
I was indulging in what became a daily ritual of endless walks through the beautiful and utterly dilapidated urban milieu. It was early in the morning, and I saw what appeared to be hastily mimeographed broadsheets stuck to various inanimate features of the cityscape. The language was Czech, and yet the intent was plainly decipherable even without a dictionary.
As I recall it, there were the words “Tiananmen” and “Wenceslas,” the latter being the name of the central Prague square, plus the “=” sign, and plenty of question marks – or something similar. The proof needed to establish that these posters were not approved by the local authorities was that by the time I thought to photograph one of them, they had all disappeared from view.
I didn’t know what the signs really implied, because there was nothing approximating news available to consult. What had happened in China? I considered asking my host, the uncle of a dear friend who previously had defected to America and providentially washed ashore in New Albany.
However, me friend’s uncle was a Communist party functionary, and for obvious reasons, this wouldn’t have been a good idea. A breaking story was not the sort of thing you’d expect to see emblazoned on the cover of the official Communist newspaper, at least until there’d been time to spin the massacre according to Marx and Engels. There was neither a handy Internet nor cell phones. The information was underground, and I was an English-speaking outsider.
Another day passed, and I walked to the American embassy, presented my passport, and retreated to its wonderful library for a bout of timely reading. Only then, with the International Herald Tribune in hand, was it clear what had just happened in Beijing.
Later, in December of the same year, after I’d gone back home and the Berlin Wall had crumbled atop history’s ever-expanding ash heap, the Chinese scenario began unfolding back in Prague, and the protesters filled Wenceslas Square. It had happened before, in 1968. This time, it was assumed that Comrade Gorbachev would not intervene with Soviet troops from Kazakhstan who’d be willing and able to pull their triggers. Even though there was violence in the Czech and Slovak lands, there was no massacre as occurred at Tiananmen. It was called the Velvet Revolution.
Had the Communists in Czechoslovakia known that Americans relied on Czech and Slovak goods to stock Wal-Mart shelves in Topeka, would the outcome have been different, and Wenceslas bloodied just like Tiananmen?
As Americans, that’s a question for all our consciences, assuming we still have any.