On Monday morning, for the second time in my life, I found myself on Tiananmen Square. Although it’s the world’s second-biggest city square, Tiananmen is claustrophobic. If you’re a tourist you’re adjusting to the Mordor smog of Beijing (the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume) so your throat burns and chest feels constricted. The buildings on and around the square are blocks in the Soviet-style. Ugly buildings have been put up in the middle too, which means you don’t even get a full view of the scale of the space. It’s difficult to get in (there are bag checks at every entrance). It’s difficult to get out. There is a highly visible police and army presence (and, the stories go, a large plain-clothes presence too). There’s no respite from the glaring concrete and the bland celebration of political horror.
What’s disturbing though is that people are taking pictures with their hands thrust into peace signs. At any given time over ten grinning snapshots are being taken with Mao’s giant portrait, and there’s a huge queue to see Mao’s “remains”. Having come to live in China I still don’t know how to access a more tangible political reality, people don’t talk about it and I don’t know how to prompt them to. Would they be too afraid to speak out? Would they be aware of the crimes of the political elite? Would they care? There were plenty of people on the Square who had to have lived through the famine of the late fifties and early sixties, which, spawned by Mao’s policies, killed tens of millions of people. Even more were around in 1989 when tanks crushed those who did stand up in protest (though according to Lonely Planet’s China guide the tanks simply “forced them out of the Square”. Ducking under the eye of the censor.) Surely in the face of those kinds of upheavals people can’t remain oblivious.
And yet, travelling with four other women from various parts of the West I ended up in group shots in front of the portrait. I literally couldn’t smile.In the same way I couldn’ t hold my thumbs up in front of Hitler’s portrait. I could hardly breathe. I wanted to leave and leave quickly. But no one else seemed so uncomfortable. There’s no way the other four had the truth censored from them. They have come to live in China, so presumably they have some interest in the place. And yet there we were taking snapshots.