BEIJING -- Congress didn't want President Clinton to go near Tiananmen Square because of its symbolism as the site of the pro-democracy movement that soldiers crushed in 1989. Polls show that most Americans feel the same way.
But many Beijingers -- even some who participated in the demonstrations nine years ago -- have trouble understanding the narrowness of the American obsession. Tiananmen Square may represent tyranny around the world, but to most here it is a place of national pride: the political heart of China.
And while human rights organizations and others urge Chinese leaders to apologize for the massacre that took hundreds of lives, few here are willing to do the same for fear of retribution and further violence. In a nation that has suffered through civil war, massive famine and the Cultural Revolution in just the past half-century, hardly anyone wants to risk further instability.
"Americans are too persistent, as stubborn as mules," says a 51-year-old, laid-off textile worker who, like most Chinese, would not give a name. He spent time in Tiananmen during the 1989 demonstrations and thinks Chinese leaders must eventually make amends. But he adds, "You Americans always grab at this topic."
The different reactions to today's ceremony say a lot about the political, historical and cultural differences that divide two nations whose relationship may be the most important in the world for years to come.
It also shows that -- despite the Internet and fax machines -- the Chinese government has done a masterful job of keeping many of the facts surrounding the 1989 massacre hidden from most of its people, just as it has with other sensitive information.
The government has built fire walls to block access to politically sensitive Web sites and restricted CNN to hotel rooms and the homes of foreigners.
When Americans think of Tiananmen Square, they may remember the "Goddess of Democracy," a statue students constructed in the image of the Statue of Liberty and which an armored military vehicle toppled during the crackdown on June 4, 1989. More likely, they recall the lone man standing down a column of tanks on Beijing's main boulevard -- an international symbol of defiance against political repression.
Most of China's 1.2 billion people, though, have never seen theseimages or saw them only briefly, grossly distorted by government television.
They are more likely to think of Mao Tse-tung standing before the area that Tiananmen Square now occupies and announcing the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
"I'd like [Clinton] to go to Tiananmen Square," a young man said this week as he left a screening of "Across the Pacific," a government propaganda film about Chinese President Jiang Zemin's trip last fall to the United States. "I think the square represents our country -- he should take a look."
The information gap appeared in a Beijing bar when four American professionals, perhaps in their 20s and visiting China for the first time, shared beers with four young Chinese women.
The conversation turned to Tiananmen. One of the Americans said that when he watched the lone protester stand down the tanks, he felt as if he were seeing the principles of freedom on which the U.S. was founded.
The women, smartly dressed, college-educated and employed by foreign companies, looked confused. What man? they asked. What tank?
Chinese may react differently to the Tiananmen massacre, in part, because China's culture puts greater emphasis on respect for authority.
"Chinese people have a tradition of being controlled by the father," said Zhang, 35, who left the square late the night of June 3, 1989, as tanks approached. "People don't have their own ideas."
Thoughts of affluence
Also contributing to the more pragmatic approach is a generational shift that has occurred over the past nine years. While students in the late 1980s tended to be more idealistic and politicized, youth in the 1990s have taken advantage of China's spectacular economic growth and focused more on making money.
"The first few years after '89 when I passed Tiananmen Square, I thought it should have been resolved in a better way," said a man who gave his name only as Zhang. He was employed by state-owned enterprise then but now earns much more working for a Danish distribution firm. "But as time passes, I have been so busy, it has occupied my mind less."
Haunted by son's death
Some, though, think about the 1989 massacre all the time.
Ding Zilin, a retired professor at People's University, lost her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, during the crackdown. Now 61, she sleeps in her son's old room and cannot bear to visit Tiananmen because of the memories it provokes.
"I don't even watch the square on TV," said Ding, who wrote to Clinton this month asking him not to attend the welcoming ceremony there. She said that for two weeks police officers have sat outside her home and kept her from leaving the university compound where she lives.
Ding appreciates Clinton's speaking out for human rights in China, but worries that his presence today on the edge of Tiananmen Square would send the wrong message.
"Every step Mr. Clinton makes will be so heavy," she said in a telephone interview, choking back tears. "He not only steps on the hearts of those Chinese who are after freedom and democracy, but on the spirit on which the United States is founded and based."
Pub Date: 6/27/98