At the Gate of Heavenly Peace

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Beijing: the first visit to Tiananmen Square is a spectacular sight. The square was built at the gate to the Forbidden City, at what is known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Here a photograph of Chairman Mao is flanked by military at attention, standing guard, protecting the sanctity of the founder of the People’s Republic. The presence of security is truly intimidating: how can one not think of the events of June 4th, 1989 and the iconic photo of a lone dissident challenging a fleet of tanks.

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Tiananmen Square is sprawling and monumental, flanked on either side by the epic-sized National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People: culture & politics serving as the pillars of the Chinese republic. The Square is also a vast gathering spot and historical epicenter, much like the National Mall in Washington, DC, where the national identity is modeled as a spectacular stage set. However, here at the gate of the Forbidden City, where the ancient emperors once ruled, it is startling to see the presence of high-tech media propaganda, blatant and exposed, its messages, imagery and cheerful music broadcasting across the square.

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This is clearly one of the most secure spots on earth, much tighter than Washington, where military personnel stand at attention – everywhere – their eyes scanning the crowds looking for any kind of suspicious behavior. And yet, it is the combination of being watched by those darting eyes, and the ever-watchful jumbo screens, which makes one realize that Tiananmen Square, at the heart of Beijing and the Chinese culture, is a manifestation of the Orwellian warning.

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Here at Tiananmen Square, it appears that the public plaza, a collective space based on the Greek notion of the Agora – the seminal gathering spot for the artistic, spiritual and political life of a city – is in direct opposition to the requirements of maintaining ultra-high security at the heart of the Chinese political system in Beijing. In a nation bounded by the Great Wall, where authority is of the essence, the notion of a heavenly peace seems only possible by means of control.