By Philip Cunningham
I approached the Square from Qianmen which back in the old days of the Qing Dynasty was the traditional gate into the Forbidden City; nowadays it’s the gate to a quasi-forbidden public square. In better times, one used to just walk onto the Square, from almost any direction, at almost any time. It was wide, inviting and open to the public, but over the years it has been circumscribed and carefully fenced in from every angle. It turns out that the only way to enter from the south is to go underground and pass through the easterly entrance of the Qianmen subway station, which has X-ray bag checks as a general security measure. From there one walks up a narrow staircase and emerges onto the southern perimeter of the Square, only to enter a maze of crowd-control fencing with signs warning against trying to jump the fence. After zigzagging through the chrome maze, there’s a short breakway and then a line of people waiting to enter the Square, bottled up by a security shack guarding another fenced in area, passage through which leads to the Square proper.
The movement of people was guided like that of farm animals in a fenced in corral, there’s only one way in and it involves individual security checks as thorough as immigration or at an airport. There’s a line for ID check; it turned out that foreigners (I was the only one at that moment) must have passports, no other ID would do.
The line moved slowly, almost imperceptibly. The way people are processed seems a deterrent from that helps keep the Square free of crowds; the work pace seemed deliberate and slow; staggered out to limit entrance to the Square. I watched the Chinese day trippers ahead of me endure ID check, frisking and bag checks. The line had about 50 waiting, all Chinese, most docile, some hiding under umbrellas to keep away the hot rays, others smoking, which only made the wait worse. After a fifteen minute delay in the hot sun, and another 15 minute delay for the man who took my passport to clear it with his supervisor, I had the privilege of being questioned and frisked. My bag was X-rayed and then hand-inspected. The book I carried, about Chinese revolutionary Xiao San, was looked at with curiosity and thumbed through. Had I been carrying my own book, Tiananmen Moon, it would have been game-stopper. Those behind me on line were inspected and let in, one by one, while I was delayed because the cop didn’t like the look of my visa, nor did he seem pre-disposed to like foreigners for that matter,
The atmosphere was lackadaisical yet tense; a few gatekeeper and guards lorded over the hou polloi public rather imperiously, taking their time, and singling out certain individuals for more intrusive checks than others. When I finally got to the front of the line, the uniformed agent who examined my passport started snapping commands to me in incomprehensible English. And then in very comprehensible Chinese, he addressed the crowd. “Is anyone with him or is he alone?” The only thing that was clear was that I wasn’t going anywhere soon. He gestured that I should step aside while he tried to ascertain what kind of visa I was on. I told him I couldn’t understand what he was saying, he said he’d call a supervisor who spoke better English. I said why don’t we speak in Chinese and save some time. I said I was on a visit, he wasn’t satisfied with my minimal explanation. He got busy on his phone, trying to find out what certain markings meant on my visa. As the crowd shuffled past me for bag inspections and ID checks, the cop started to walk away; I told him to return my passport. He stopped, glaring at me angrily. Meanwhile, a tall older man brushed against me, cigarette dangling as he waited his turn to enter the security booth. I asked him not to smoke next to me. The cop was taken aback. “Who are you telling him not to smoke? Even I don’t have the right to tell him that. He can smoke if he wants.” I said his smoke bothers me, my not smoking does not bother him, it’s not equal. That earned a suppressed grin, but no rapport. We regarded one another as if in a face off, each the other’s nemesis. The inspector stayed right next to me, like a cop who has collared a suspect. We whiled away the time, exchanging terse comments, me pressing him to speed it up, him clutching onto my passport until his supervisor came. I said do you like doing this? Isn’t this boring (wuliao) and he snapped, what job isn’t boring? I said last time I visited there was not much security, what’s with this, something about 6/4? He stared knowingly, a thin smile breaking on his tight lips, but didn’t answer.
The supervisor arrived at last. “This is the guy, he speaks Chinese (ta hui shuo zhongwen…”) announced the inspector.
The supervisor smiled and was rather pleasant, in comparison to the ball-buster beat cop who was now hand-copying my passport number on a piece of paper. The supervisor asked amiably, visiting people? Yeah. Where? Shida. Are you a reporter? No, I am not a reporter. A teacher? Yeah, you could say that, but not at Shida. He took my passport and the notepaper from the beat cop, looked at my visa, but then handed me the paper by mistake. I said, no thanks, I’d rather have my passport back. He smiled and quickly corrected himself.
He said I was free to go on, and in parting I said your subordinate needs to learn more about visas; he doesn’t know about visa types which wasted a lot of everyone’s time. The beat cop was appropriately humble in front of his supervisor, he said he would study more. (Xuexi, xuexi). Then my passport was checked again, my bag X-rayed and hand searched and I was “free” to walk out onto the empty downtown plaza ringed with the heaviest security I have ever seen.
I found myself at last on a public square where police vehicles were parked and idling in every nook and cranny, and the adjacent street facing museum and running the length of the square entirely closed off to traffic, other than crowd control busses and security vehicles. Mounted cameras seemed to whir from every other pole, and temporary fencing, in addition to the more permanent fencing that has been put in place over the years, gave the open vista of the people’s plaza a confining, penned-in feeling, like a giant prison yard.
Men in uniform patrolled and watched at every juncture, sometimes they would approach people already on the Square for a follow up security check or interrogation. I saw only five foreigners on the Square in the two and a half hour period leading to sunset and the lowering of the flag. three of whom, young blond women, were stopped for no apparent reason. They looked a little scared so I asked them if everything was alright, which of course prompted the cops to turn their sights to me, asking if we were together. A female officer ushered me away when it became obvious I wasn’t with the other foreigners. Nearby empty busses and police vehicles idled and sat in the setting sun, ready to process detainees in the hundreds, if necessary. But the crowd was thin, and generally docile and nothing much happened. Content the three foreign ladies were not being unduly abused, I moved on, aware of being observed from many different angles, from prowling security staff on foot and on wheel. There were conspicuous plainsclothesmen studying new arrivals at entrance staircases from underground passages, on the north face of the Square, even though visitors had already passed through checkpoints on the way in.
The centerpiece of the Square, the Monument of the People’s Heroes was unapproachable; fully fenced off, and even taking photos with my phone camera of that stone obelisk provoked some alert stares from security personnel. There were “garbage collectors” riding around on electric scooters, but they frequency with which they passed me when I decided to sit down in a spot of shade next to a police truck suggested they had other duties as well. The crowd was sparse and mostly provincial visitors from what I could see. There were two affable Tibetan monks, or perhaps two jokers dressed as monks, for they wore rainbow beanie cap umbrellas on their heads and couldn’t take enough pictures of one another. About the only sign of normalcy was seeing families with small kids, who as ever, romped about without political cares and urinated openly on the Square instead of making the long trek to the public restrooms, which would have involved another security check to return.
The early June sun was hot and unforgiving, but the constant monitoring and suspicion of any kind of human interaction made for a cold reception. One of the handful of Caucasians on the Square by chance came to be standing next to me at the railing overlooking at the boulevard and Mao’s portrait on the other side. The mere, inadvertent proximity of two foreigners quickly raised pert stares and suspicious glances from the well-bullt T-shirted men guarding the north side of the Square. It’s as if they saw us as co-conspirators.
I said hello to a few people, and got one smile, but that was about it. Otherwise there was an unusual degree of silence about scattered, lightly peopled crowd. The sober mood was pierced by a few of the awkward “hallows” one gets from quirky provincials, and one brazen “Hello-where-are-you-from?” routine from two enterprising bar-girls who braved security measures to seek prey in a captive location. “We are from Harbin. What is your country?” I humored them long enough to sense a routine, and then brushed them off; I had been interrogated enough for one day. A few minutes later they were talking to a foreign man, asking the same questions. Before I walked out of earshot I heard them suggesting he join them for a beer, probably at a bar of their choice with extravagant prices, or so goes the scam.
The open vista around the monument has for some time been blocked by two elongated television screens showing scenes of beautiful China and the latest lame slogans from the party. The screen on the west flank sits pretty much where the hunger strikers did a quarter of a century ago. Nestled in the southeast corner of the monument, where the students had their headquarters in the broadcast tent, stood an empty guard post and a do not enter sign.
There were policing techniques that were new to me, at least as seen on the Square. Police patrolled the perimeter with hefty-looking guard dogs. There were several police scooting around on Segways. There were periodic brisk marching movements of men in formation, going nowhere in particular. There were armored vehicles and tow trucks and black-windowed vans and green army trucks. It was like China’s version of the US security state, no expense spared to keep Tiananmen under wraps.
I watched the sun set and red flag go down. I thought about how political lies and denial of history continues to hurt and haunt China.
And then I walked. I walked out of the prison pen and back into the real world. I ambled along Changan Boulevard, then went up to Donghuamen. From there I threaded through the portion of the Forbidden City open to the public, which, for all the horrors of imperial history, was tranquil, majestic and at peace with itself. I walked past the secretive compound of Zhongnanhai, where the living leaders of China were safely guarded with a fraction of the manpower and hardware deployed to make sure nothing happened on the cold paving stones of an empty Square. I circled past Beihai and Jingshan Park and walked on to Houhai, where it was just another raucous fun night for youthful revelers with no memory and little knowledge of Tiananmen in 1989.
Related video added by Juan Cole