A not-so-undercover police officer. All photos by the author
Today marks the 25th anniversary of what is commonly known as the June Fourth Incident, when, in 1989, student-led protests and demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were met with military suppresion and resulted in civilian casualties. Nowadays, the Square, which lies in the heart of Beijing, is a sleepy tourist destination and the symbolic ground zero of democracy in the People's Republic of China.
Given the amount of preemptive arrests of lawyers and activists over the last few weeks leading up to the anniversary, and knowing that security would be extra high, I don't think anyone (including myself) was expecting anything out of the ordinary to take place today. Either way, I decided to see for myself.
If you're a foreigner visiting Tiananmen Square, you're generally waved through the ID checks, if any. But today, right after coming out of the subway exit, a police officer immediately asked for my girlfriend and me for our passports—which neither of us had. Mine is in the Public Security Bureau getting a visa renewal right now, and she forgot hers. I handed over my California driver's license, which expired 3 years ago, and the officer put it on a desk where another officer was going through another guy's papers. The second officer was flipping through his US passport, and I could see an ID card that said "Press Card" on it, though I couldn't see his name.
The officer was on his walkie-talkie trying to determine what to do with the American journalist. While waiting for a reply he motioned for our passports. I told him we didn't have them and pointed to my license with a ten-year-old picture of me on it. He waved us through.
We had to wait in another area before going down the stairs to cross into the Square. In the tunnel there was another checkpoint for bags, and guards were searching people with handheld metal detectors. It was about half an hour from the time we exited the subway to when we entered the Square.
The queue to the queue to get in
It was noon, and the city square was the emptiest I have ever seen it. The relatively low number of tourists accented the high number of police. We walked around trying to be tourists, posing in front of the landmarks and pointing at things. An officer rolled up to us on a Segway scooter. He asked for our passports. "We don't have them," I told him. "What? Then how did you come to China?" he asked. I said that I owned one but just hadn't brought it today. "I have my driver's license if you want to see that." He took it and didn't look at it.
He then proceeded to test our Chinese, asking us where we live and what we do. "Why did you come to Tiananmen Square today?" he asked. I made up some stupid answer about the weather being nice, and he seemed satisfied with that. "You should remember to carry your passport at all times. It's the law." Then he Segwayed away.
The banner in the square reads: "Fortune and Power, Democracy, Civilization, Harmony, Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule of Law, Patriotism, Dedication [to One's Work], Honesty, Friendliness."
We wandered around for about an hour. Uniformed and plainclothes police would come up close to us and follow us for a minute. We'd pose for more pictures. They'd move on. A small group of officers was filming the Square with a big camera on a tripod. I tried to imagine the events that took place a quarter of a century ago, but my visit presented more questions than answers.
Were the people there aware of the anniversary? If so, how many understood its implications? And more important, how long until people will be able to stand in that huge space and openly say what the summer of 1989 means to them?