It seems like just another day in Tiananmen Square, even though it's far from it -- it's the 18th anniversary of the 1989 government crackdown on student demonstrations in and around Beijing.
The numbers of people who died at the hand of the Chinese government are conflicting, though there are independent estimates of more than 1,000. But today you would never know it even happened. There is no anniversary news in the papers in Beijing, no candlelight memorials, no flowers at the foot of any of the monuments in the square.
An ordinary day
Journalists, especially with TV cameras, usually get stopped even on regular days in the square, but leading up to the Olympics the police seem on their best behavior, so I was curious what would happen today in terms of access.
|Slideshow: Remembering Tiananmen Square|
So as I emerged from the subway into the square, I took out my cell phone camera as I began to walk around. Then I took out my other camera, which is small but it looks a bit more professional than your average tourist.
No one stopped me even though I was trailed a bit here and there by guards. Periodically their vans cruised up next to me and loitered. A watch seller who struck up a conversation with me was shooed away by the police, but they said nothing to me.
Otherwise, Chinese tourists just asked to look at my camera and asked me to be in their pictures.
After a short stroll, I sat down to take in the sights and sounds of the square. With the sun shining, it was a picture-postcard scene – no small feat in often-smoggy Beijing.
I tried to imagine what it was like over those days and nights 18 years ago. I have read a lot about that period, seen all the footage of the chaos – students gathered, tanks, barricades, banners waving. The only waving I saw today was small children running around with Chinese flags, and older children waving over to their mothers to take pictures.
It was what I was expecting – just another day in Tiananmen Square. Then something unusual happened.
A hushed chat
"Excuse me, do you know what happened here?" asked a teenage-looking girl as she sat down next to me. In a quiet voice she repeated herself, "Do you know what happened here –1989?"
No one was in earshot but she pulled out her map next to me, to look like any other tourist. I nodded and smiled, not wanting to bring undue attention to her. Did she understand how bold she was being? Talking about this to me, in the middle of the square today of all days? I soon realized she did.
|VIDEO: Sights and sounds of Tiananmen Square|
She introduced herself and explained she was visiting Beijing from Hong Kong. She had not planned to visit the square on this particular day, but decided at the last minute she had to be.
She told me she was born four months after the demonstrations and that the events of June 4, 1989 are a history lesson to her. She knows she was lucky to even know about it at all – on mainland China the protests have been erased from history books.
She told me she felt ashamed for her country and wished it acknowledged that so many people died and said the government made a mistake in how they handled the protesters 18 years ago.
I was the third foreigner she had gone up to today. She had asked the others –did they know what happened, did they care?
I told her I thought she was very brave.
"Chinese people come here for happiness now," she told me. "They are too busy taking pictures. But I will talk about it for them. For them it's too risky."
Protests take on a different form
Risky? Yes, but what do the Chinese need to protest these days? The Tiananmen protests had as much to do at the time with unemployment and widespread corruption as they did with democracy.
Since 1989 the Chinese government certainly has accomplished a lot. They have raised millions out of poverty. The nation's economy has skyrocketed and investment has flourished. Having the Olympics here is as big a tip of the global hat as any country can get – a tribute to its mass appeal and potential for more growth.
Demonstrations, however, have not gone away. But the Chinese are savvier and certainly more careful about how they handle them.
Xiamen had been recommended to me before I came to China for its clean air. But now a "chemical shadow looms over Xiamen," as one Chinese journalist put it.
Only 10 miles from the city center, a plant is being built that produces a chemical called p-xyalene which is known, in large quantities, to cause liver and kidney damage. That news has been mostly pulled from the national and local papers, but people have been aided by new technology in disseminating information about the plant.
A text message did the rounds last week saying: "we want to live, we want our health, for the sake of future generations pass this message on to all your Xiamen friends."
There also was live blogging from street protests there this past Friday and Sunday. Several thousand people marched with banners in the midst of police loudspeakers announcing that their protests were illegal.
All the activity has had an impact. The city council, even though it did not acknowledge the public reaction, has temporarily suspended the building of the plant. I also saw video of the protests in various forms on You Tube and photographs on personal blogs.
Grievances might be stifled, Web sites blocked and penalties harsh, but people still find a way to be heard. The young woman who sat next to me is just one of those.
More questions than answers
After our initial conversation, we sat in silence just watching families on the square. Then suddenly she said that the longer she sat there, the more angry and sad she became. She wanted someone to know that she remembers the protesters actions.
"Why after all this time is it still not discussed?" she asked. "Why can I only talk about it with you?" She pointed to monuments around the square, "Here are the heroes of our country but, the protestors of 1989 are also heroes."
As she got up to say goodbye, she said "People lost their life. I want justice for them. I would be proud of China if one day they just said sorry…. Thank you for hearing me."
I couldn't help thinking how this bold 17-year-old now seemed to have more questions than answers. She doesn't know how many died or how many were jailed or executed. There is no museum to learn from, no monument.
She is surrounded by her countrymen, but she had no one to talk to but me.