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Remembering when China opened its door

Posted June 03, 2013, at 10:29 a.m.
Sandra Hutchison wears a style of coat popular in China when she lived there 24 years ago, standing in front of calligraphy given to her by students.
Courtesy photo
Sandra Hutchison wears a style of coat popular in China when she lived there 24 years ago, standing in front of calligraphy given to her by students.

June 4 is always a hard day for me, not because early heat waves in the month are becoming the norm in Maine, and not because I have yet to put in my garden, and I must brave the heat wave to do so. The day is difficult for me because each time it arrives, I travel back in time to the heart-rending day I spent in my room at Anhui University in Hefei, China, 24 years ago after learning that in the early morning hours, the Chinese army had fired on the students who were camping out in Tiananmen Square to demonstrate for a more democratic China.

Until that fateful day, the year I spent in China had been filled with adventure. I had made a pilgrimage to the top of a Buddhist holy mountain and lectured on the Bible and Western literature at a teacher’s college in a Muslim region of the province. I had travelled to the countryside to see what life was like in a peasant commune, and I had spent numerous weekends enjoying the cultural life of a small village where my friend was starting a Dutch-Chinese joint venture.

One night I sat for hours through a Chinese opera performed by a local troupe in the community hall. I had interviewed the sculptor who created Tiananmen’s famous Monument of the People’s Heroes, and I honored my students’ ancestors on the Qing Ming Festival. I had even found myself at the center of several advertising campaigns developed by local business people who wanted a foreigner to promote their products.

When China opened its door to welcome outsiders, a wave of hope swept across the nation. China would no longer be isolated by its communist ideology. China, it seemed, would join the world. My students shared with me their dreams and aspirations. In turn, I shared mine with them, including my hope that China would guard carefully its traditions and culture in the face of what was, as China’s door opened wider and wider, promising to be an onslaught of western ideas and values on China’s ancient culture rooted in the Confucian values I found largely intact despite decades of communist rule.

Twenty four years later, I wonder if things might have turned out differently had China’s leaders not made the decision to crush the Tiananmen protests. Might Chinese youth have retained some of their idealism about social change? Might the students of Tiananmen formed a generation of visionaries who could have reimagined China as a nation that, while increasing its gross national product, could still have avoided the pitfalls of consumer cultures throughout the developed world?

Today China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has become the world’s factory, a country with endless human resources to be marshaled to make goods at low cost to be exported back to the west and sold for profit. If the Chinese army crushed the idealism of the Tiananmen generation, the success of consumer-capitalism in China has squashed any hope that the Chinese might turn to their ancient culture for the answers to the economic and social challenges the country continues to face.

The quality of life for students and intellectuals has improved with the economy, and opportunities have increased dramatically as the government has invested billions of yuan in academe in the form, for example, of government-sponsored research grants and trips abroad for scholars. Students have the freedom to date and do as they please in their personal lives, as long as they do not challenge China’s one party system.

Many commentators have observed that the Chinese government’s efforts to appease the students and intellectuals in China seem to have succeeded. Life is good. No one wants to talk about the tragedy of Tiananmen. It seems that many Chinese intellectuals have either been distracted by the good life they are beginning to live or are engaged in a collective effort to forget what happened twenty four years ago.

Still, when June 4 comes around once again, I remember the youthful idealism that brought students from all over the country to Tiananmen in the spring of 1989. I cannot forget the hope the students harbored for a peaceful transition to a more democratic state and their firm conviction that they could shape the future of their country simply by joining hands in a public square and making their views known by means of slogans, posters and song, all simple acts of nonviolent protest.

Sandra Lynn Hutchison, an English professor at the University of Maine, will be showing her slides of China and reading from her memoir, Chinese Brushstrokes, at the Orono Public Library at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 4.

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