Thinking about Tiananmen

As Iran appears ready to explode, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on a vaguely similar protest that occurred twenty years ago this month. I am, of course, referring to the infamous Tiananmen Square protests and accompanying massacre that happened between April 15th and June 4th in Beijing, just outside the forbidden city.

I just returned from China yesterday–from Shanghai–hence the timing of this post. I am vaguely leery about writing about Tiananmen from China. Not that I worry that anything will happen to me, but there are issues regarding censorship and getting visas. But I’m back in Vancouver, so its home free.

I don’t have any brilliant insights or anything of the sort, but I thought the experience of being in China during the 20th anniversary might be interesting to some of you. Of course I was in Shanghai, not Beijing, but it’s all ruled by one regime…one iron fist, if you will.

The most obvious effect of any sort of political crisis in China for the ex-pat population is internet access. When I first got to Shanghai, summer of 2007, one could not access Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, pretty much any forum etc. Additionally, any news articles that mentioned China in what could be construed as an unflattering light were blocked: BBC, CNN etc.

During the Olympics access to most of these sights was restored, and its pretty much stayed that way throughout the year. Rather unexpectedly, most of these sites were accessible throughout May and June. Hotmail, Twitter and Flickr were down for the few days surrounding June 4th, but people were still able to access them (through magical technology that I do not understand), which was generally not the case before the Olympics.

Additionally, none of the major news sources were blocked–even specific articles detailing Tiananmen were accessible. That was rather shocking and unexpected! BBC focused on the massacre for almost a week leaving up to it, and it was not ever blocked. In fact, according to people more familiar with BBC than I, we had access to the full service, rather than the usual limited version we usually do.

Obviously nothing major happened in China to mark the anniversary. Officially it never happened. Tiananmen Square was flooded by plain clothes cops, and even Shanghai had an increased security presence.

The intersection between my house and school had a cop car sitting there all week. They didn’t seem too bothered by the cars constantly running through the red light, but they kept pulling people over for no apparent reason. Who knows if that was related to the anniversary or not.

In Zhudi town, the village-suburb of Shanghai where I live, something very odd happened the Friday preceding June 4th. A family friend came by to drop off my dog and mentioned that there was a massive sit-in in the main intersection. She could barely get her car through the crowd, and it was growing. Unfortunately, once I had hopped on my bike and ridden the 10 min. into town, there was nothing left but the usual crowds and a couple of unmarked trucks. Security forces of some kind? I have no idea. And who knows what happened to the sit-in. Was it broken up? Peacefully disbanded? A flash protest? I have no idea. I would love to have seen it and still wonder what it was about.

Finally, this year is also the 60th anniversary of the Revolution in China. We’ll see what happens in October (in 1999, everyone was given a week off, but there was no official recognition or celebration), but it might mark another interesting moment in China.

“The June 4th Incident” passed peacefully and quietly this year. Nothing happened. No protests. No recognition. No remembering. It is going to be a long time before anything like that happens…

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Genevieve is mildly opposed to writing in the third person about herself, as it sounds rather pretentious and forced. But she will prevail. She likes books and curry and opera and that feeling you get when a professor compliments your writing/thinking etc. She is double majoring in English Honours and International Relations, which sometimes feels like the fast track to a nervous breakdown, but she loves it. She was raised internationally, and has no idea where she is 'from', but currently divides her time between Shanghai, Vancouver and the ever exotic Bellingham, Washington. She is somewhat intimidated by her fellow writers on Terry*, but she tries. If you like her, or hate her, or just want to read more, she also keeps a personal rant--er, blog at