We Remember

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The symbolism that wraps itself around Beijing's Tiananmen gate is five centuries old and yet profoundly contemporary. This was the portal through which Chinese emperors emerged from their palace, the Forbidden City, to meet the people. Conversely, as far back as 1911, Tiananmen was where the people gathered to vent their displeasure at the rulers on the other side--as if the Chinese versions of Versailles and the Bastille were combined and planted in the middle of Beijing.

Ten years ago, idealistic and angry university students occupied Tiananmen Square, the hallowed, 40-hectare, stone-lined expanse that Mao Zedong built just outside the gate. The protest was one of the first events broadcast around the world live via satellite, and Tiananmen's symbolism quickly went global. Those with long memories recalled black-and-white photos of maniacal Red Guards filling the square during the Cultural Revolution, cheering on Mao. Now they saw color video of determined, attractive college students calling for democracy and an end to corruption. Near the end of the seven-week occupation, students borrowed a symbol from the West and made it their own: the Goddess of Democracy, modeled after the Statue of Liberty and meant to stand for the Chinese people's yearning for political change. When the square was finally cleared, the movement provided the world with our generation's ultimate icon of freedom: the anonymous citizen who tried to stop a phalanx of army tanks with nothing but courage, an outraged hand and a universal cause.

Had the protests ended peacefully, the spirit of Tiananmen would still reverberate. Its ultimate carnage has only made its reverberations more durable. The students rejected the government's ultimatum to clear the square, to give up the struggle. And when the army launched its assault, the avenues leading to Tiananmen witnessed horrifying scenes: soldiers gunning down students; mobs slaughtering men in uniform. The army reached its goal in the early hours of June 4. The lights on the square came on and the troops went in. The extent of the slaughter is still debated.

Tiananmen is cited so frequently and in such varying contexts--within China and without, in economic analyses and U.S. presidential campaigns--it's hard to believe 10 years have passed. Were the events at Tiananmen a cause for ultimate hope: the discovery of an underground river of Chinese democratic yearning that must some day burst its banks? Or was its tragedy the touchstone on which every optimistic bet for China gets broken? Even after a decade, it's too soon to tell. In the following pages some of those who were there share their experiences--and offer their opinions on Tiananmen's legacy.