30 years ago today tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and violently ended a pro-democracy protest. The 4thJune 30thanniversary is being talked about in the press, and being commemorated by many people; some publically and many, no doubt, through private reflection. Marked by various events and media stories in many parts of the world, in China, the anniversary is being marked-by-implication, through being a non-event, of heightened security in many city centres – a curtain of official silence alongside, perhaps, a dignified reflective silence among those who remember.
30 years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Exeter University. I was very much involved in campus politics – at the time, this meant the “Grants-not-Loans” campaign to protect the student grant and rights to benefits (the idea of paying tuition fees seemed ludicrous), together with a broader on-going commitment to stand up to Thatcherism and the rise of what I would find out later to be called Neo-liberalism. We had recently staged a sit-in, taking over the Vice Chancellor’s office; we had been on protest marches in Exeter, London and Manchester. In June 1989, the student-led protests in Beijing seemed to be part of our movement, protecting student rights, and seeking a progressive and more inclusive future – indeed, similar in nature to the protests from behind the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were still some months away.
Towards the end of May and start of June in Exeter, I remember students gathering on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Student’s Union building. I am sure that we all knew that signing a petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Beijing was hardly going to change anything in itself, but somehow there was a genuine feeling of connection; that lighting a tea-light candle in a jam jar actually meant something – even if just a material and public display of solidarity with those protesters in China. Their struggle and our struggle were one.
But then, on the 4thJune 1989, everything seemed to change.
We came to understand that their struggle was of a different nature, and was something that could lead to death or imprisonment. At first sight, all that sitting around strumming on guitars, signing petitions and lighting candles seems incredibly stupid and banal. But, while those vigils on the lawn outside Devonshire House in Exeter were certainly naïve, they also made the connection with those in Tiananmen Square somehow momentarily more real. When the shock came, it seemed to be more painful, with a profound sense of bereavement. Naïve, we might have been but our tears were honest and heartfelt.
The construction of a monument to mark those feelings seemed to be a natural response. I don’t know whose idea it was – it doesn’t actually matter – but I think we all felt a sense of genuine investment and connection to that monument, which ‘sprang up overnight’. I remember that the University authorities were not keen on it at all and wanted it removed, but everyone knew that it would be unmoveable. At least for a few years….
By definition, the student collective memory at any University is always fairly short-term and in constant flux. Most students are only at a University for the duration of their degree, and so by the mid 1990s, very few people at Exeter University could remember the circumstances of how the Tiananmen Square statue came to be where it was – nor why its location, on the lawn in front of the Union Building, was so significant. Furthermore, while the material nature of monuments is often seen as a very tangible and unchanging medium of commemoration, the Tiananmen Square memorial at Exeter University had a knack for changing! First, being made of textile, the flag deteriorated and fell off. It was replaced a few times, but with half-hearted protection, the figure very much transformed from being ‘Marianne’ in nature and representative of a cry for freedom and comradeship across the world, to being more baton-wielding ‘special forces’ in nature. Indeed, the loss of the flag seemed to run alongside the decrease in the angle of tilt in the figure’s arm, producing an ever more frightening pose.
Then the memorial statue disappeared completely. The lawn was earmarked for development, but the University authorities would find a ‘suitable location’ for the memorial statue – nevermind that it was the actual location that was the key element in the memorial, much more so than the now-transformed warrior-like statue.
Perhaps with an eye towards diplomacy, with the University actively seeking Chinese partnerships and wanting to attract more and more Chinese students to take courses in Exeter, the University’s ‘suitable location’ turned out to be a field on the edge of the main campus. The statue is still visible from the road, but there are no paths to the statue and very few regular passers by. The memorial now stands as a largely forgotten curio. It is on the Exeter University Sculpture Trail, though without reference to the connection between student protests in the UK and China, which meant so much back in 1989. And the lawn area that once stood just at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Union Building is now an outdoor seating area of a Costa Coffee shop. The memorial statue itself seems to be an empty vessel, though I guess it is still representative of the very real and profound connection that some people in Exeter felt with people across the world 30 years ago.