Waiting for the sky to fill our hearts

Don Murray column on revisiting China.

The morning had been sunny, but in the early afternoon thunder rumbled across the sky above Beijing. Rain washed down.

"The sky is filling our hearts," the veteran Chinese journalist said. "It's a metaphor for sorrow, an old Chinese saying. I and all my friends were convinced it would rain today."

It was June 4. On Tiananmen square, earlier in the morning sun, crowds of tourists strolled about, watched by extra detachments of police. Nineteen years before, on June 4, 1989, detachments of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, armed with submachine-guns and tanks, broke up the democracy demonstrations staged by students and their friends who had occupied the square and paralyzed the government for weeks. Hundreds died. Many of those who lived were rounded up and imprisoned.

The last time I had seen Beijing was in the midst of those demonstrations. They had stunned me almost as much as they shocked the Chinese government. Nine years earlier, in 1980, I had gone to China as the CBC's first permanent correspondent in the capital. It was, as one weary colleague put it, like entering a convent.

An isolated posting

There were no more than a few thousand foreigners, including diplomats, living in Beijing at the time. This capital city of almost 10 million people turned out its lights at 10 p.m. Foreign reporters were watched, bugged and bothered by the security police. Contact with ordinary Chinese citizens was rare and difficult.

There was worse — there was North Korea — but the People's Republic of China appeared to be a rigidly totalitarian regime with an obedient and silent population, at least in front of foreign journalists.

Less than a decade later, a joyous festival of peaceful protest erupted on the capital's main square. The crowds camped and played around the mausoleum of the dead dictator, Mao Zedong. Students who, a few years earlier, would have hesitated to voice the mildest suggestion of change, now talked of radical reform of the entire political system.

The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, flew in for a state visit. I came to cover it. He counselled caution and a delicate touch to the Chinese leadership. He left but I persuaded my editors to let me stay a little longer.

The Chinese Communist Party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, came out to the square one night to talk to the student leaders. He signalled that he, too, wanted change and pleaded with them to end their protest, to accept gradual reforms. His plea failed. The party strongmen, led by Deng Xiaoping, decided to use a mailed fist. The demonstrations were swept away in blood. Zhao Ziyang was forced out and then put under house arrest. Years later he died, still under house arrest.

Opening up

The peaceful challenge to the regime had been crushed. The regime then made strenuous efforts to airbrush the challenge and its brutal end from Chinese history.

Instead of democracy the Communist leadership would offer the people frenetic economic growth and, for some, riches. The result, 19 years later on my first visit back since the demonstrations on Tiananmen, seems, at first glance, to have produced not so much a different city as a different universe — a modern Asian metropolis with towering and sometimes daring buildings, its streets clogged by cars, its air fogged by pollution, its shops filled with designer labels.

The Olympics lie ahead. Behind lies the rubble of Sichuan.

The vast earthquake and its devastation were so traumatic that, for the first time since Tiananmen, another Chinese leader came out to walk and talk among his people in unscripted encounters.

The leader was Premier Wen Jiabao. Perhaps significantly, in Tiananmen 19 years earlier, he had stood behind Zhao Ziyang as a senior aide. His visits to the earthquake zone and his government's openness to the foreign media, to foreign aid, and to direct and accurate coverage of the disaster, provoked much favourable comment around the world.

A calculated decision?

The veteran Chinese journalist who waited for rain on June 4 offers a skeptical analysis of the leadership's motives. "They still see the Chinese media, all the media, as a propaganda arm of the party. They still call in all the editors and give them instructions on what to cover and what not to cover."

For the journalist, the openness allowed by the leadership on the earthquake coverage was a calculated decision designed to repair and improve the country's image before the Olympics and after the damaging controversy unleashed by the violence in Tibet.

Smiling openness will continue through the Olympics, he believes, and then slowly be throttled back.

His own harsh experience informs his opinion. Four years ago he became the editor-in-chief of a small economics magazine. He turned it into a crusading publication, exposing corruption among middle and high-ranking officials in land deals.

Party officials were not happy. He was told to stop. He didn't. Then he was given a choice — accept a re-assignment or the party closes the magazine. He took the re-assignment.

"Now I write about the price of vegetables," he says. He's not allowed to interview anyone, or even attend news conferences.

A new generation

Nineteen years ago, as a journalist in his 30s, he was on Tiananmen Square, daring to think it would lead to major political change. He says he vastly underestimated the party's will to control society.

Younger Chinese journalists I talked to, now in their 30s, were also on Tiananmen in those heady days. They were teenagers in high school. For them it was a party, a vacation from school, a vacation from reality.

After the earthquake they went to Sichuan to cover the rescue efforts and they disagree with the older editor. They were amazed by the new openness allowed in coverage in the Chinese media, and don't believe the leadership will be able easily to turn off that tap.

Where they do agree with the older editor is about a repeat of the Tiananmen experience. Neither they nor he believe such a thing is likely as far into the future as they can see.

The rain came briefly on June 4, but by the end of the afternoon it was sunny again. The tourists continued to stroll. The editor and his friends were doubly sad: that this flowering of democratic debate almost two decades ago had been chopped down, and that so many in their country seemed to have forgotten it had even happened.