This Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the peaceful protests at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square, protests that sought to bring reform to China.
To mark this anniversary, I was going to write a post on where China is today and its new attempts to squelch any dissent, protest, or rule of law in one of the last areas in China that permits freedom of speech: Hong Kong. But as I sit here in New York City, on a picture-perfect spring afternoon, searching for photos of the tanks rolling into the Tiananmen Square area to accompany the blog post, my twitter feed is full of pictures of U.S. military trucks invading some of America’s largest cities to “put down” peaceful – and some less peaceful – protests. These protests erupted soon after videos emerged of the brutal death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck until Floyd stopped breathing. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, and even after Floyd’s handcuffed body went limp, the officer never stopped his pressure on Floyd’s neck. Three other police officers stood there and watched.
As protests erupt in the United States, our initial response is violence. Tear gas and pepper spray fill the streets of many U.S. cities with the police resorting to heavy-handed tactics. Peaceful protesters are hit with rubber bullets. There is little attempt by the police to de-escalate. Journalists find themselves the targets of police. The government blames “antifa” forces for instigating the protests. These scenes conjure up images of last year’s protests in Hong Kong, where violent police tactics were used against unarmed protesters. And with some Hong Kong protesters’ frustrations growing, they too sought to vandalize stores and destroy property. The Chinese government blames “foreign forces” for riling up the people. The one difference: President Xi Jinping didn’t tweet that the Hong Kong police should shoot the protesters; that would be too reminiscent of 1989. But, in the United States, President Donald Trump did tweet such sentiments. And mere days from the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government unleashing its military to massacre unarmed civilians, Trump has threatened to do the same.
Beijing, June 1989
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Journalists attacked at the Hong Kong protests, 2019
Journalists attacked during US protests, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
I know that substantively comparing the United States and China is inappropriate. The police officer who killed Floyd has been charged with third degree murder and will be prosecuted at a public trial that will be covered by the press. The officer’s fate will be determined by an independent judicial system. These things would never happen in China, and increasing less so in Hong Kong. And there are some police officers and national guard members showing restraint and solidarity with the protesters; those who are not will be held accountable. Again, something that would not happen in China and isn’t happening in Hong Kong. But the images from the United States this week, and the sentiments from the U.S. president, are eerily similar to images of Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong last summer. It’s too much to ignore. And I fear that like the protesters in 1989 who sought a better society for China, the protesters this weekend in the United States will confront a government that prevents them from realizing a better society for us: one that is truly equal and where black lives matter.
Every year, I dedicate this post to those killed on June 4th, 1989. But as I write this, I wonder, how many of the men and women who lost their lives in Beijing 31 years ago used their last breathes to cry out for their mothers, just like George Floyd did last week on the streets of Minneapolis. And while we still must remember June 4th, the lives lost and the dreams crushed, this year, I would like to dedicate this post to George Floyd. And to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardener, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the countless other African Americans killed by the police in the United States (or people who thought they were the police). We need to say their names. We must never forget. For them, we must continue to build a better society with freedom, equality and dignity for all.
Today, China Law & Policy concludes its interview series for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Today, we are joined with Andréa Worden. Andréa is a noted China expert, human rights advocate and she will be teaching a course on human rights in China at John Hopkins University this fall. But back in the spring of 1989, she was an English teacher at Hunan Medical University in Changsha, China. And as a result, experienced firsthand the student protests that were happening in Changsha and then the subsequent crackdown.
Andréa has written about her experience, first, as a chapter in a book containing accounts of some of the pro-democracy protests outside of Beijing and then 15 years later, for China Rights Forum. Today, she’s going to talk to us about some of her experiences there.
Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 40 minutes):
CL&P: So Andréa, just to start, what started the protests in Beijing, for the Beijing students it was the death of Hu Yaobang back in, I believe, April of 1989 and that kicked off a lot of the pro-democracy protests there. For your students in Changsha, what were their reactions to Hu’s death, or did something else cause them to start protesting?
AW: Well first, Elizabeth, it is great to be with you again in the run up to the anniversary of June 4, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about this incredibly important event. I wanted to mention that, just first off, something that is not particularly well known is the fact that in more than 340 cities in China during the spring of 1989, there were protests. Likely that number is much higher. That figure comes from the compiler of the Tiananmen Papers.
I recently saw a figure online, unfortunately without a cite, it was the Wiki on the Tiananmen protests that mentioned the number 400 [cities with protests in 1989]. But my own feeling is that it’s probably even more than that becau
The distance between Changsha and Beijing.
se some of my students in Changsha were from fairly small towns in Hunan. When they went home during this period of April and May of 1989, they said even in their very small hometowns, villages even, there were protests. So it was truly nationwide and unfortunately, we probably will never know the full scope of the pro-democracy protests in China.
So right, April 15 was the day that Hu Yaobang passed away. We know that was obviously a critical moment in Beijing, and that’s what launched the student protests in Beijing. Also, in Changsha, many people were very sad when they heard the news. Hu Yaobang actually is from Hunan, so there was this sense of “he’s our native son” who was viewed very much by many people as being sort of a hero and somebody that they really had hope for, as somebody who supported intellectuals, who supported the students, and was very much involved in the economic reforms and some political reform under Deng.
My particular school. . .so Hunan Medical University medical students, they have a reputation for not being particularly political. But there were a few universities on the other side of the river that goes right through Changsha that were known to be very active politically both earlier in 1979 and 1980, and there’s also an election movement during that time period at those colleges. Those colleges include Hunan University, South Central Industrial University, and Hunan Teachers College. Then it was also known as Hunan Normal University. Over on that side of the river, the other side of the river, there were mourning activities or events [for Hu Yaobang], but no major protest as far as I know, yet.
CL&P: When your students in Changsha at the Hunan Medical University, when they started seeing the students in Beijing protest at Tiananmen Square, what were their reactions to it? Did they talk to you about it? Did they feel like they could talk to you about it?
AW: A few of my students that I had become quite close to as good friends, they felt very comfortable I think speaking with me about it. They were excited. They were sort of amazed, and there was really this sense of hope that students could come together on such a massive scale and speak out about the things that they also very much felt. Those things ranged from inflation, which was really a huge problem then at that time. My students felt it personally when the prices at the cafeteria went up, like doubled, and some of them said, “My parents can’t afford this.”
AW: So there was that on a very personal, practical level. But then also corruption was everywhere. That became a big theme of the movement both in Beijing and in Changsha. Corruption, inflation and then certainly freedom, democracy. Regardless of what they might have viewed democracy as being or how they might define it, my clear sense was a lot of this was about personal freedoms, more personal freedom, certainly freedom of speech, freedom of expression.
Protests in Changsha the Spring of 1989; taken by Andréa Worden
CL&P: So in Changsha itself, when did the protests really take off? You mentioned that they were two different areas of universities and you were in the area on the other side of the river with Hunan Medical University. When did your students start participating in the protests or most of the university students at Hunan Medical start participating?
AW: So the students on the other side of the river – the more politically-active side of town – they had organized demonstrations, we could say a smaller-ish demonstration or just a gathering, on April 15th. Just really, truly mourning this leader. And of course, in China mourning a leader that has passed invariably ends up commenting on the current leadership, even implicitly. So that was happening.
The other folks, the more active folks organized demonstrations for April 22nd, April 26th and May 4. I should say also I don’t have complete information. So there may well have been more than this. This is what I have noted and I’ve written in my article that you’ve mentioned.
So at this point still my students were definitely, I think, interested in watching. Some I’m sure went out to maybe peek and take a look, but the students, the Hunan Medical University students were not yet actively involved en masse.
CL&P: Did they ever become involved en masse?
AW: Yes, they did. Yes. Let me tell you a little bit about that. It was this sort of. . . they were watching things very, very carefully. They were able to get information from the VOA and the BBC over. . .
CL&P: Yeah, a shortwave radio.
AW: Yeah, exactly. So Voice of America and the BBC from England, they were able to get that over a shortwave radio. And so what would happen – of course not everybody had a shortwave radio – but the people who did would write out on large poster board or pieces of paper, they would write out news from Beijing. They’d plaster these large pieces of paper of all over the city or actually in main areas, certainly at all universities and at big intersections people were watching, were looking around.
Also, there were certainly, there were hints on the evening news. A dialogue with the students in Beijing was coming up. This was also of course televised. [Ed. Note: During the course of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing, the central government held three dialogues with the Tiananmen student leaders – April 29, May 14 and May 18. All three were televised; some live, some on tape-delay]
So there was that and there were also of course at this point too, it’s something called chuanlian [串联], which is the students networking or people networking across cities, across boundaries, across the country to try to mobilize other students as well as workers. This was a term I think that came from the Cultural Revolution. Some of the Changsha student leaders were going up to Beijing and they were bringing back information.
So basically what happened at my school – again, probably one of the last schools to get very involved – was one [dorm] room of male students from my class, they decided to fast, to hunger strike or fast [after] one of the days the students had started their hunger strike in Beijing on May 13, and this really moved people. [Ed. Note: Andréa clarified this timeline in a follow up conversation with CL&P. She recalled this group of her students going on their hunger strike a few days after Beijing students did, on May 17, 1989.]
So they [the small group of Hunan Medical male students] were inspired and moved by the students who were hunger striking in Beijing and they said, “We had to do something. We couldn’t just sit here and go to class and not do anything, right?”
A photo from Andréa taken on May 17, 1989 in Changsha showing some of the hunger strikers in front of the provincial government headquarters
So anyways, on May 17, one group of this one room of these young [male] students put a sign up on their door and they said that they would just fast for one day and they weren’t encouraging anybody else to do anything. This was just something these however many boys, I can’t remember, six, eight, had decided they were going to do as a group. So that also inspired so many people at Hunan Medical University. So when some of the girls in our class found out what the boys were doing, they thought “oh, we can’t [not do anything]. We have to support this too.”
So anyway, it kind of went room by room, or dorm room by dorm room. The girls got involved and the students from other classes heard what was happening. Word travels fast. Basically very soon there was a lot of hubbub and momentum, people were fasting for the day, wanting to show support for the students in Beijing.
I wanted to share this story in part because it shows how important one person – or here seven people – deciding to do one thing, this personal act of protest, how that can just totally truly spark a much larger movement or event or action because it has a sort of amazing ripple effect of just inspiring other people to take action.
So that evening the students, the student union leaders, got onto the loud speaker, and announced on the loud speaker that the Hunan Medical University was going to participate in the city-wide demonstration that was going to be held that night. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. It might have been, but. . . .
CL&P: Right. So at Hunan Medical University, once this started around May 17th, the hunger strikes and then the student union leaders announcing that the university was going to participate, what happened with classes? Did they kind of just stop or did students try to balance classes or was it. . . .
AW: So that’s a really good question and they were like on and off. My recollection of this whole period was not a whole lot was happening in terms of classes. I think there was some coursework happening. I recall my students were feeling very stressed about missing classes. They were very obviously concerned about their grades, but they certainly also wanted to participate so there yeah, some classes were being held on certain days but there were other times when basically it was like every day seemed to be a demonstration; there were class boycotts, there were hunger strikes, there were sit-ins. Also, there started to become worker strikes as well. And some students just went home.
CL&P: In the reaction of the female students, I know in your essay “Despair and Hope: A Changsha Chronicle,” you actually do discuss about how the 1989 protests and the movement that was catching the nation was actually in some ways empowering to female students who engaged in the protests. Can you talk maybe a little bit more about that? And put it in a little bit more of a context?
Changsha shopowners providing free tea to the students to show their support – a photo by Andréa Worden from May, 1989
AW: Changsha came alive during this period of time, so roughly let’s say early May or mid-May through June 4, and it was incredible to witness that. There had been such a feeling of hopelessness beforehand and also this feeling of just total boredom and depression that people felt like they had no [choices]. One student had said, “Oh, I thought I was going to go to college and leaving my parents, and was excited about more freedom,” and he said, “When I got to Hunan Medical University it was like I was in prison.”
They had so many rules and were so tightly controlled and they had to sort of watch every step that they took and just be very, very careful. They just felt truly oppressed or repressed, suppressed. They couldn’t really express their individuality. There was a lot of conformity. You had to say the right the thing, you had to act a certain way, and I think students kind of particularly enjoyed our English, not just mine but my fellow English teachers, our classes because we were sort of like, “Okay, you can come to English class and you can say whatever you want.”
We encouraged them obviously to say how they felt and write essays about kind of interesting topics. I think they also felt that they could say more in English than they could in their Chinese classes in terms of maybe possibly “sensitive issues.” They were still kind of watching because they had to still be careful, they were watching sort of what they were saying but it was a breath of fresh air, our classes. I think that they didn’t have much of that elsewhere. So that period when the demonstrations had started, when people were sort of writing these wall posters, when they are out and about looking at and watching the demonstrations or just talking among themselves, the students were talking among themselves, what’s happening? What’s happening in Beijing? Where is this going? Or analyzing what was happening on the political level. Clearly there was a split that was coming to the fore between Li Peng and the hardliners, and Zhao Ziyang. People were very busy talking about that, analyzing this, where was it going to go? What was happening? They were talking about also the dynamics among the schools in Changsha. So it was just this heady time. Basically everyone I think, many people felt they had now the space and the freedom to speak out, including women.
So that was fantastic to see both because they looked so alive, they looked so engaged and happy and sort of free, really free. Anyway, both the men and the women, so the female and the male students, but I think it was interesting because the male students would kind of be quite surprised and sometimes I was too when they would see one of their female classmates who had been perhaps quite maybe fairly demure, shy, didn’t seem to be thinking about much of anything, making speeches on the corner, on the street corner in Changsha about large ideas and large principles of freedom, transparency, accountability, democracy, what do we do about corruption. Just talking, talking, talking.
So in that respect I think everybody felt empowered and that was wonderful. It was inspiring to see and it was also, I think they all inspired each other and I think just people took a particular pleasure at seeing the female students step up into that role.
CL&P: Then so on May 20th, 1989, martial law was declared. What was the reaction in Changsha?
AW: I also should back up a little bit. April 26  was the day The People’s Daily issued this editorial that declared the Beijing protests, what was happening in Tiananmen Square, declared it to be “turmoil.” So dongluan [动乱]. These sort of naïve – they didn’t use the word naïve – but students were being taken advantage of by a small handful of people who were anti-party, who were anti-socialist.
Very hard line, they didn’t acknowledge the students’ patriotism, which was very much front and center in Beijing and also Changsha. People [protesting] were very, very clear that they loved their country; they loved China. They were unhappy about the political system. They were very unhappy about corruption and they were looking for change and more freedoms. So that editorial, just like in Beijing, caused a huge reaction [in Changsha]. Anyways, so more protests, then in terms of May 20, Changsha, the people in Changsha were reacting to what was happening in Beijing.
When martial law was declared – it was the night of May 19th but actually it was supposed to take effect May 20 – people were very upset, very despondent. They felt like okay, this is done. Again it was despair. Our country is going to mobilize the army against us, against the people, against the students and so it was horrible. They felt betrayed.
CL&P: So just. . . and when martial law was declared, how did you feel? Were you scared?
AW: So I sort of felt similarly to my students. I had noted in my article, there was this feeling of “how could our government be so cruel?” So it was this alternation between feeling hopeful and feeling disempowered and just feeling despair. I felt, I couldn’t believe it. I was also just felt absolutely. . . .I also felt depressed and just thinking “oh, this is not going to end well,” but I wasn’t actually scared in Changsha.
As it became clear pretty quickly that troops were not going to proceed into the sort of inner city of Beijing or to Tiananmen, they were sort of stuck on the outside of suburbs, and that there was so
Army troops in Beijing when martial law was declared. The students were able to push them back without incident
much popular support. That then, once the students in Beijing went back out on the streets after May 20th, or maybe that was even the night of May 20th. Anyway, they went back after this [martial law] was declared because they saw that the people were essentially on their side and so when that happened there was this other wave of . . . . [Ed. Note: When martial law was declared, the Chinese government had organized the Beijing division of the army to stop the protests. However the student, workers and citizen protesters stopped the troops from entering the city and, with no shots fired, pushed the troops back.]
CL&P: Wave of hope.
AW: . . . hope. It’s like okay, there is a possible hopeful outcome for all of this.
CL&P: Then did the students in Changsha continue to protest when they saw the Beijing students?
AW: They did, yes. They absolutely did. Right, so that news from Beijing, about essentially the people of the city stopping the advancement of the troops, definitely gave the people of Changsha and the students in Changsha sort of a renewed sense of hope, yes. They continued to protest in various ways.
CL&P: Then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th is the massacre at Tiananmen Square. So the massacre [also] in and around Tiananmen Square that occurred the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th, how did you learn about it?
AW: So I learned about. . . I learned about it from my students actually. So they had gotten up earlier than me on Sunday morning. That was a Sunday morning, June 4. And a handful of them came running over to our, excuse me, to the Yale-China house where the teachers were and were yelling to us from outside and just to say what had happened and they again had heard from. . . not only I guess at this point VOA but also the government was starting to spin this.
Actually one other thing I wanted to say that was also actually incredibly hopeful there was a three week period in May where the newspapers, the journalists probably throughout China, were actually reporting the real news, which was incredible, including in Changsha. So the Changsha Evening News – it’s just something I would read – they were reporting what was happening in Beijing, actual real news because there was sort of this opening.
CL&P: Ostensibly the newspaper would still be government-controlled. . . .
CL&P: . . . but they were still writing the truth.
AW: Right, because they were protesting. The journalists, journalists were protesting on Tiananmen Square. Yes. They’d gotten involved. And also Shanghai there were large journalist protests, so that’s a whole other piece of the story that’s fascinating.
But anyway, so the morning of June 4, people were just incredibly upset, everybody. Some people were showing it more vividly. They were manifesting their emotions in sort of a more visible way than others, but we were just. . . . I remember just personally being floored, amazed, sort of incredibly depressed and also really felt for my students; they were very upset about the news.
We also just kind of couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelievable, right? The People’s Liberation Army opening fire on unarmed protestors. Peaceful protesters. So that is a vivid memory of learning about that from my students that morning.
Then after that, so June 4 later in the day and June 5, probably even into June 6th there were – yes, definitely into June 6 – there were definitely, there were protests against the military suppression.
CL&P: In Changsha?
AW: In Changsha. They were protesting. Also again, this is another part of the untold story. There are many, many untold stories of the spring of sort of April 15 to June 6, 7, 1989 and this is one of them. There were many, many, many cities throughout China where residents, workers, students were protesting against the violence in Beijing.
Photo taken by Andréa on June 5, 1989 – sign in Changsha that says “People of Changsha take action/rise up to support Beijing!”
CL&P: So after the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, other cities, including Changsha continued to protest even though they knew full well that there was a possibility their army could open fire on them.
AW: Yes. Right, so we know Louisa Lim has done a very nice job in her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, telling what she could find out about the Chengdu story. Still, she’s like, “There’s much we don’t know.” But she does a great job laying out what she’s been able to discover. I think also from other things that I’ve read it’s clear that the mobilization at that time of the military – June 3, 4 – that that very likely was a call across the country to all major cities. Because basically in Changsha, people kept saying there’s a rumor that troops are right outside the city. [Ed. Note: In our interview with Frank Upham about his experience in Wuhan during this time period, he too recollects the “rumor” that there were troops outside of Wuhan, ready to suppress the post-June 4 protests.]
And they’re going to come in at any time. And if you read other accounts in the book that you mentioned, The Pro-Democracy Protest in China: Reports from the Provinces, I see many of the other reports from the provinces, same thing. People were hearing that the troops were right outside the city ready to sort of. . . ready to come into the city and suppress protests as necessary. So there was basically a nationwide mobilization.
So people were kind of scared about that. That’s one moment where I was definitely feeling a bit scared because there was clearly an anti-Western turn, particular anti-American turn at this point. Not among the students or friends or faculty, but just overall politically. The CCP, the party secretary at the school and in Changsha, it was like this is an American. . . .Americans are behind this. Fang Lizhi taking refuge in the [US] Embassy with his wife. So this was all unfortunate because we then, the American teachers, were very concerned that we were going to become targets.
What was interesting about that time was that these protests also, sort of in a way became a bit more radical in they basically were causing – it was workers, it was students, it was residents. Many people were involved in blocking the train tracks so no trains could move. So the whole railroad operation was at a standstill.
Also, blocking major intersections. So they would corral buses and trucks. It was really, it was anarchy but it was peaceful anarchy in a way. These were actions that the Changsha populace supported.
There was debris in the streets. I remember the ride out to the airport. [Ed. Note: Andréa left Changsha on June 11, 1989]. The driver was trying to figure out how to get around all these roadblocks. We just saw there was a lot of sort of debris in the streets. So anyway, yeah, I’m not sure if I answered your question, but yeah, so they went on for a couple days but there was also a sense of who’s really in control? Also, again this fascinating feeling of this is so incredibly unusual.
With constant surveillence, don’t expect a Tiananmen protest anytime soon
CL&P: So your experience in the spring of 1989 in Changsha, what impact did it have on you?
AW: It was an incredible moment, incredible time. It was very dramatic. So our exit [on June 11, 1989], our leaving, we left very abruptly. It was really sort of an evacuation. Yale-China Association essentially said, “There will be a plane and you are getting on it and you are coming back.” Our parents were of course like, “Get out of there.” As we were leaving, many people said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen and you have to tell the world what happened here in Changsha.” Because people knew that they wouldn’t then be able to write about it or talk about it or even develop their photographs.
I was thinking about this recently. When I was out watching the protests and sort of taking photographs and documenting, just noting down some of the wall posters, some of the slogans, everyone had a camera, or some people had cameras and were taking photos. Where are all those photos? After June 4 people could not get that film developed. So where did all that go? There’s all this sense of this missing history and I think also people realizing they were not going to be able to tell their story. [Ed. Note: On May 31, 2019, Jian Liu, a student protestor in Beijing in 1989, developed some of his rolls of film from that time.]
I think they were very proud that they came out to support Beijing, to support the students and the workers. So the Changsha workers also got very involved in all of this, which of course made everybody in the government, Party folks, the most nervous. They felt really proud because this was such an empowering moment for them and they were like “we did something here. We didn’t succeed in the end. We want the world to know. We want people to know.” So I did feel this sense of like wow, returning to the US, I had this new sense of feeling very appreciative of the freedoms we have here and the rights that we have here. And that the absence of these rights and freedoms were just so apparent immediately once it was clear that the hardliners [Li Peng, etc.] had won this battle. That people wouldn’t be able to talk about this, and that. . .again, they had to toe the party line. My students had told me that they had two weeks of mandatory political education in the fall of I think it was, yeah, fall or maybe the summer, later in the summer.
Some of them said it was horrible. Some of them totally bought the party line. So anyway, so I felt very much like I wanted to do something to help support the democracy movement in China because it wasn’t going away. These feelings were. . . and these desires, these wants, were felt widely in China and I wanted to do what I could with the freedoms that I have to support their efforts. So when I got back I was starting a PhD program in Chinese History at Stanford, but I was quite involved in Human Rights in China [HRiC], it was just starting to get going – the organization Human Rights In China – doing what I could to help. Also to try to tell the story I helped put the book together, Children of the Dragon, for Human Rights in China. So, I have been involved on and off in various ways over the years in this cause. It’s basically taken on different forms and shapes over the years.
CL&P: What do you think ultimately is the legacy of the Tiananmen Massacre?
AW: So probably there are a few different answers to that. I think it’s an important question. One aspect of the legacy, or one legacy. . .there is very much, what did the Chinese Communist Party learn from this? Deng Xiaoping early on said that this is all – it’s in the Tiananmen Papers and it’s in Zhao Ziyang’s “secret journal,” The Prisoner of the State – the transcription of his audio tapes – that Deng felt that they had been too lax with ideological work.
So early on, in ’87, maybe end of ’86, there had been student protests then followed by the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign and the anti-spiritual pollution campaign. It’s right when I arrived in China. I was a little bit nervous about that. But the people, they were like, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” I was in Tianjin. I spent the first six months in Tianjin and the teachers and the folks that I interacted with in Tianjin were like, “Oh, don’t worry.”
I’d see signs up everywhere about anti-this, anti-that. Essentially anti-western kind of everything. They [the people] would just say, “No, you’re so welcome here. Don’t worry. Don’t pay attention to any of that. We’re not paying attention to it.” So basically Deng was like “this [Tiananmen] is because of lax ideological work.” So we see now 30 years later, Xi Jinping, you cannot say that he’s lax.
CL&P: Yeah. He’s anything but.
Current Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) – is he just a little Mao?
AW: He’s anything but. Right. Over the years, since 1989, there have been moments that were a bit more open. But the overall trend has been “not lax.” And control of information of course, censorship as the internet grew, of course media censorship – so not lax.
So there’s that aspect of essentially political education and indoctrination, ideological education. We see that now tenfold, a hundred fold in Xinjiang with what’s happening with the Uighurs. They’re in concentration camps, probably 1.5 million all told and very much of this is about political education, forced education among other things. So forced ideological kind of education. So one aspect is this, that we have to sort of control information, control thought.
But there’s also just the physical, this physicality, if you will, of the protest. Now it’s physically impossible with all of the surveillance cameras and everything. They want to prevent you from even having the thought of protesting. That’s what a lot of the ideological education is about. And also of course everything is watched and surveilled. So you can’t even mobilize people, like five people. . . . it’s very difficult to mobilize even five or 10 people to do anything. So, it’s extremely hard to imagine a scenario where people are back on Tiananmen Square.
Also, of course another lesson was we need to train people’s armed police, armed forces. We need to be able to also have trained police, quasi-military forces, whatever, to deal with anything that might happen. Like essentially riot police, if you will. So they’ve got that whole aspect of things totally also nailed down.
Obviously we do see these sort of spontaneous or very small efforts here and there, but they’re immediately shutdown. So I think no more Tiananmens is of course a big legacy, and no little Tiananmens in terms of the protest. Then also of course in terms of the legacy, this is such a sensitive issue for the Communist Party, this whole period, particularly the massacre and the incredible spin they put. The story they’ve told that they continue now 30 years later to detain people who might mention June 4 or write something trying to commemorate June 4. One recent example is the folks, the four people in Chengdu I believe with the June 4 liquor labels. [Ed. Note: In 2016, a few people in Chengdu created a liquor label for a few bottles of Chinese rice wine – called “bai jiu” – a sound similar to the word for 1989 – “ba jiu” – with pictures of a man stopping a line of tanks. These men were arrested for subverting state power and were recently sentenced.]
CL&P: Yes. Yes.
The baijiu bottle that resulted in arrests and sentences for four indivduals
AW: I think it was even like one bottle. Then it was like three-year or four-year sentences for that.
So, it’s that level of insecurity, of absolute intolerance toward any sort of expression around June 4 and commemorating the dead, those who were killed. Some have also called to re-designate those protests as patriotic and as not turmoil, something that is going to continue to be something that people will continue to call for. But the CCP, I can’t imagine them really doing that. It would seriously have to be major political reform for that to happen. But one day I’m hopeful, one day that that will indeed happen. [Ed. Note: Rights Lawyer Teng Biao echoed a similar sentiment in his interview: that the Tiananmen protests will not be remembered on mainland China unless there is significant political reform. For him, that is democracy in China.]
And that particularly I wanted to also just mention the group The Tiananmen Mothers. [These are] family members who lost loved ones in Beijing June 3 and 4 in 1989 and who have just been an amazing force to try to uncover – because the Chinese government isn’t and is trying to suppress this information – trying to uncover the names and identities and sort of details about who was killed that night. They’re still at it. They’re calling for an investigation, for compensation and for an apology. Anyway, it’s important to also honor their efforts and their loss.
CL&P: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you and also echo your sentiments that there’s still a lot of brave Chinese that are still trying to commemorate what happened on June 4th and the bravery of their fellow citizens. But I want to also thank you for also writing down your stories and remembering for the Chinese people who can’t right now develop their photos of what happened during that time period and commemorate it in the way they can. So thank you again, Andréa for sharing and do you have any last words?
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) protesting at Tiananmen, spring 1989. He would latter be sentenced to 11 years for participating in 2008’s Charter ’08 and would ultimately die will serving his term.
AW: Yes. Thank you so much. Although it’s a grim topic, if you will, I appreciate the opportunity to sort of share this with you. I do actually want to end on another note of hope, which is that another legacy of Tiananmen is also those people who continue to fight for democracy and human rights in China. For example, Charter ’08 and the Charter ’08 Movement, Liu Xiaobo and many others, many of the human rights lawyers, there is a direct line from 1989 through Charter ’08 to today.
So a lot of the activism is happening outside of China now, but there still are activists in China doing what they can in the very limited space that they have to essentially fight for human rights, for rule of law, and political freedom.
CL&P: Yes. Thank you for reminding us of that.
AW: Okay, thanks, Elizabeth.
CL&P: Thank you.
*********************************************************************************************************************** This ends China Law & Policy’s interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History. If you missed our interview with Frank Upham who was in Wuhan in May and June 1989, please click here. If you missed our interview with human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who recounted the indoctrination he received after Tiananmen and then his awakening to the truth, click here.
Never forget the murder, but more importantly, never forget the hope
In commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, China Law & Policy continues its interview series of various eyewitnesses to this history. Today we are joined by Teng Biao. Teng Biao received his doctorate of law in 2002 from Peking University. He became a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law while he continued as a rights lawyer and advocate. Teng Biao litigated and represented some of China’s most important civil rights cases, including the Sun Zhigang incident, he served as counsel to rights advocates Chen Guangcheng and Hu Jia, and also worked on overturning a death sentence in the Li Peng case in Jiangsu province. In addition to his individual work, Teng Biao is the co-founder of two important Beijing based NGOs that seek to protect the rights of China’s most vulnerable, China Against the Death Penalty and The Open Constitution Initiative. As a result of his advocacy on behalf of China’s most vulnerable, Teng Biao has been detained many times by the police and authorities in China.
Since 2014, Teng Biao has been living in the United States where he was a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU Law School. In the United States, Teng Biao has continued his advocacy for the rule of law in China, and for rights protection there, co-founding the Human Rights Accountability Center. But more importantly for today, back in 1989, Teng Biao was in China.
Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 26 minutes):
CL&P: So, Teng Biao, I want to thank you again for joining us today. Just to get started, can you tell us where you were in the spring of 1989 when the pro-democracy demonstrations started in Beijing?
TB: I was a high school student in Jilin province. I lived in a small town in a rural area.
CL&P: What year were you back then, in 1989? How old were you in high school?
TB: First grade [of high school], I was 16 years old.
CL&P: And in your high school, when the pro-democracy demonstrations started in Beijing, were the students aware of them? Did you hear the news about them?
TB: Yes. We watched the official television, but we didn’t talk about that too much.
Protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, spring 1989
TB: I think almost all the high school students in rural areas and small towns work very hard to prepare the college entrance examination. So I knew, but I didn’t know the truth of the Tiananmen movement and massacre.
CL&P: Yeah. And then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th 1989, when there was the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square, do you remember hearing the news about that?
TB: No. Actually, most of the students, including me and most of my classmates, maybe 100%, were brainwashed. We were brainwashed so much that we didn’t know everything other than the textbooks or what the teacher told us, and we never challenged what the teachers, what the official media told us, and we didn’t have any access to the books, any materials that the Communist Party prohibited.
CL&P: So you’re saying that when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, you guys weren’t aware of it, and then afterwards they tried to brainwash you into thinking. . . .What was the party line that they were teaching at that time, if you remember?
TB: Yeah. We saw something on the television, and we knew that students were on the street protesting against corruption. But we were taught that it was a violent riot, and some soldiers were killed by the students and the Beijing citizens. And we were even actually forced to memorize the names of the soldiers who were killed.
CL&P: Oh wow.
TB: Yeah, and I can remember their names even today, two of the three, that Liu Guogeng and Cui Guozheng, and because we had to memorize these names. They were a part of the political examination. So, for me, I didn’t have the capacity to challenge the official version of this, of Tiananmen.
CL&P: Right, right. And I think it’s important that you mention that they were soldiers that were killed in the Tiananmen protests, but at the same time the students themselves were also injured and killed. When did you start realizing or learning that you hadn’t been taught the full truth, and the full facts about Tiananmen?
Wang Dan, one of the protest’s leaders, stands in front of a sign that says Peking University
TB: That’s two years later. Two years later I went to Peking University, but because of the Tiananmen, all students, the first year students of Peking University and Fudan University had to go to junxiao [军校], military college, to have a whole year of military training. But some classmates of mine brought some books, underground books written by the overseas dissidents and some other democracy thinkers. So I personally knew the truth of Tiananmen from these books, and also some classmates from Beijing, Shanghai, these big cities also told us a lot of stories they saw. They participated in the movement, and they were eyewitnesses of the Tiananmen massacre. So, two years after 1989, I knew the truth.
CL&P: And when you learned about what really happened in Tiananmen, what was your reaction? Or how did you feel?
TB: I was really shocked, and that’s the beginning of my awakening. You know, I was brainwashed, and I didn’t have the ability to think independently. So that’s the beginning of my thinking independently. And I was so shocked that I started to read a lot of books, and I realized that many, many history knowledge that I was taught [in school] was false. So I realized I had been cheated by the Chinese Communist Party for so many years, since primary school.
CL&P: And when you were there in Peking University, this would have been a couple of years after the crackdown, were other students. . .I mean I know some stories from Beijing and Shanghai, as you said, introduced you to what really happened, but what was the majority of students? Did they talk about it? Did professors talk about it? Because Peking University, they played a large role, their students, in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, right?
TB: Yeah. Between 1989 and 1992, 93 the political atmosphere was very, very supressive. People were so disappointed and they were so afraid of talking about these sensitive things. So, some of my classmates were interested in talking about political issues and human rights, but the majority of the college students never talked about it. And the majority of Chinese people, not only students, became more and more cynical and politically indifferent. Yeah, so only a few of my classmates later participated in some political activities, and they also, of course, got punished.
CL&P: And when did you decide that you wanted to go to law school, or to study law, I’m sorry, to study law?
TB: In China we have law school in undergraduate, so because I was brainwashed, so I didn’t know the meaning of entering the law school, the meaning of law, or human rights, or democracy before I went to college. So I had really good scores, so I just registered at the best university in China, and I went to Peking University. So, only four or five years later I got my bachelor degree, master degree, and PhD in law school. So I think four or five years after studying law, I gradually knew the meaning of studying law. Especially in the Chinese context, I think it’s really useful to know the law and politics and we should do something to improve, to promote rule of law in China.
CL&P: In your study of the law, when did you really become, or maybe you started out very passionate, about human rights and taking your career in that direction? In deciding to be a human rights lawyer, as opposed to a corporate lawyer or something like that? When did you decide that’s what you wanted to do? Or did it happen by accident, that it wasn’t a decision?
TB: In 1999, when I started my PhD program, I decided to become an academic. I was so interested in doing research, and I want to be a professor. And to me, the idea at that time was to use my academic research and my teachings as a tool to promote rule of law in China. And at that time, human rights was not allowed to be discussed publicly. There were some academic papers on human rights, but most of them were propaganda papers. The scholars can only say that human rights is, what’s the word? Hypocritical?
CL&P: Hypocritical, yeah, yeah.
TB: Yeah. It [human rights] is a hypocritical theory of western capitalists. But several years later though, human rights was written into the Chinese constitution, and it’s more open to talk about human rights. So, after I got my PhD I began to teach at the China University of Political Science and Law.
CL&P: So, as an attorney who worked on human rights in China, and also supports rule of law, and has worked with the group of rights lawyers, the weiquan [维权] lawyers in China, as a member of that group, is there any influence of the Tiananmen crackdown on that group? Does that drive you, does that drive them to keep doing what they’re doing?
TB: Yeah. I became a lecturer and soon I practiced law as a part-time lawyer, and I dedicated myself into human rights cases. Most of my cases were related to civil rights, to these politically-sensitive cases and I was one of the earliest promoters of the rights defense movement. I found that there was a close connection between the rights defense movement and the previous democracy movement. Many human rights lawyers were influenced by the Tiananmen movement, and they were inspired by the courageous students of 1989, and some of them were also activists or witnessed the Tiananmen [protests]. Some Tiananmen activists and democracy activists joined in the rights defense movement and became part of the human rights movement. And some human rights lawyers, like me, defend not only constitutional rights using the existing legal system, but also promote democracy in China.
So, we gradually politicized the human rights movement. For example, we worked together with the dissidents, the democracy activists. And we joined the Charter 08 movement. We defend dissidents and human rights activists. And we challenge the abuse of power and corruption. So, the human rights movement in China gradually became a movement promoting democracy.
CL&P: So, you have the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown where the Chinese government opens fire on its own people. I understand why the protests are inspiring to the weiquan lawyers now and to you. But why isn’t it also something to be frightened of, that the government is willing to do something so rash? Where does the Chinese human rights lawyers and the advocates, where does their courage come from, in light of the fact that the shadow of Tiananmen hangs over them, that there could be a violent crackdown? And there has been violent crackdowns, just different, in the detentions, the mass detentions, your detentions you’ve experienced. I guess, where does that courage come from to keep going?
Sun Zhigang, migrant work killed while in police custoday.
TB: Yeah. So, for me, I think it’s my responsibility as a lawyer, as an intellectual to bear more of a burden for a democratized China. I had my PhD and I was teaching in the university, and I became a bit famous after the Sun Zhigang incident. So, [I thought] I should do more to promote democracy and rule of law in China. And in the process of human rights movement, more and more lawyers joined, and we got more and more support from the ordinary people. So, we had this feeling of solidarity, and we support each other. We were harassed, and punished, and persecuted by the authorities again and again. But we didn’t give up, and we were admired and praised by the people every time after we were targeted.
And for some other people, especially the young generation, they don’t know the Tiananmen. They may have heard of Tiananmen, but they don’t know the details of the massacre, and they are not witnesses of the Tiananmen massacre. So, of course that’s bad because they don’t have that part of the memory. But it’s also good because they don’t have the fear. They’ve never thought about the possibility of a bloody crackdown on the protesters. So, that lack of fear also inspires some people of the younger generation.
CL&P: And going back to the fact that a lot of young Chinese people don’t really know the full facts of Tiananmen, which can be good in that they don’t have the fear, but 30 years from now when we have the 60th anniversary of Tiananmen, what do you think the legacy of Tiananmen will be in China especially? Will people be able to talk openly at that point about Tiananmen?
TB: The Chinese government has been suppressing the memory of Tiananmen, suppressing the truth. And some Chinese people who commemorated the Tiananmen massacre were even been arrested and convicted [of crimes]. Chinese people now don’t enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of demonstration. So even the Tiananmen Mothers are harassed again and again for these 30 years, only because they want to commemorate their lost children, their loved ones. So, it is not possible to have a real true history, a true memory of Tiananmen if China is not a free and democratic country. So, the answer is that one, the Chinese Communist Party will step down when China can achieve legal democracy. So, I don’t know another 30 years whether or not China becomes a free country, and an open society. It’s possible, and that’s the biggest dream of many of us human rights activists and democracy activists. So we have to keep the memory alive, keep the hope alive. We have to fight for democracy and human rights. So I really hope that 30 years later, Chinese people can freely talk about Tiananmen, to commemorate the victims, and to have the freedom of expression, and a meaningful democracy.
CL&P: Well, I want to thank you again, Teng Biao, for sharing your experiences and your thoughts about Tiananmen, and also for preserving the memory for the many Chinese people in China who can’t talk about it just yet. And I also want to thank you for the amazing work you have done in China, and continue to do in trying to promote greater rights and rule of law in China. So, thank you for sharing.
TB: Thank you.
*********************************************************************************************************************** China Law & Policy will concludes its series “#Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History” with Andréa Worden, a noted China expert and, in the spring of 1989, an English teacher in Changsha, China. Hear Changsha’s story on Tuesday.
If you missed our interview with Prof. Frank Upham who was in Wuhan on June 4, 1989, please click here.
To deal with the student and worker protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on May 19, 1989, the Chinese government instituted a news black out and declared martial law to go into effect the next day. Read a news account of that day – May 20, 1989 – from the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, tanks would enter Beijing killing hundreds to thousands of students, workers and civilians. #Tiananmen30
MARTIAL LAW IMPOSED IN BEIJING
The government Saturday imposed martial law on Tiananmen Square and the center of the city, ordered a news blackout and moved in soldiers as part of a crackdown on tens of thousands of students demonstrating for democracy. There were reports that hundreds of people fought hand to hand with troops trying to enter the capital. Witnesses told Reuters news agency that workers and peasants battled unarmed troops on the main road leading into Beijing . . .[read full article]
Twenty-nine years ago today, on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government ordered the unprovoked and brutal assault by the People’s Liberation Army on tens of thousands of unarmed civilians surrounding Tiananmen Square. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.
In the immediate aftermath, other countries had to figure out how to respond to a government that would massacre its own people. In the United States, that response came from President George H.W. Bush who granted asylum to Chinese dissidents and ordered a plethora of sanctions against China, including suspension of U.S. foreign aid, arm sales, high-level government exchanges, export licenses for certain products and the linking of Most Favored Nation status to human rights. (see Congressional Research Services, China: Economic Sanctions (Aug. 22, 2016), pp. 1-3) In the months that followed, Congress codified many of those sanctions including the suspension of export licenses for crime control and detection equipment. (seePublic Law (“P.L.”) 101-246, § 902(a)(4)) Congress’ reasons for codifying these sanctions: the random arrest and detention of those suspected of participating in the Tiananmen Square protests (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(3)-(4)), continued surveillance on activists (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(5)), blocking foreign journalists from covering the events (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(7)), and continued and unlawful repression of human rights activists and activities (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(8)).
But as time progressed and the events of June 4, 1989 became a distant memory, many of the U.S.’ Tiananmen Square sanctions were waived or rendered obsolete. (China: Economic Sanctions, p. 3) But one sanction that still remains in effect today is the suspension of export licenses to any U.S. company seeking to sell any equipment or instruments related to crime control and detection. (Id., pp. 3, 8; see also Office of the Chief Counsel, Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Legal Authority: Export Administration Regulations (Jan. 4, 2017) (“BIS Legal Authority”), Part III.7 (p. 106)). Although the President can terminate the sanctions, he can only do so if he issues a report to Congress that provides one of two reasons – either that the Chinese government no longer perpetuates human rights violations or it is in the best interest of the United States to terminate the sanctions. It does not appear that a U.S. president has ever issued such a report in regards to crime control sales, leaving the Tiananmen Square sanctions against of such equipment by U.S. companies to China very much in effect.
Chinese police with facial recognition sunglasses
As China uses technology more and more to suppress any form of spontaneous dissent and to constantly surveil its citizenry, the Tiananmen Square sanctions against the sale of crime control equipment to China seem particularly prescient. But, unfortunately, the sanctions have rarely been enforced and U.S. companies skirt the sanctions with impunity. In 2011, Cisco sold over 500,000 cameras to the city of Chongqing specifically to watch its citizens. Every year, U.S. technology and security companies enthusiastically market their goods at the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment, an annual trade show sponsored by the Ministry of Public Security.
And now it turns out that U.S. companies are actively participating in what can only be termed the most profound police state in human history: the mass surveillance, detention and abuse of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in China’s western province of Xinjiang. Cameras on every street are equipped with facial recognition; Uighurs are constantly stopped by police to check their social media accounts on their phones; over 500,000 Uighurs have been forced into detention without any trial, under the guise of “Political Education Centers;” iris scans and blood tests, in order to collect DNA, are randomly performed on Uighurs; the Han Chinese in Xinjiang are exempt from these abuses.
Unfortunately, U.S. company Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of the entities selling DNA technology to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and various Public Security bureaus across China, including those in Xinjiang, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Last month, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) issued a letter to Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, calling on him to investigate Thermo Fisher’s sales to China’s public security organs in light of the export sanctions and to report what other export licenses are being granted in violation of the law. It does not appear that Secretary Ross has responded to the CECC’s inquiry, and if the history of the enforcement of the Tiananmen Square sanctions is any guide, he will not.
Chinese police in Xinjiang city of Kashgar
Many of the reasons for the passage of the Tiananmen Square sanctions almost 29 years ago – the repression of dissent, surveillance of peaceful protesters, the concealment of information, the violation of human rights – are very much alive and well in today’s China. It is true that given China’s current status in the world, it will be much harder now to influence China’s domestic behavior than it was in 1989. But that doesn’t mean that the United States should abandon its own laws, or the policies underlying those laws. The government should not permit U.S companies to profit from the Chinese government’s creation of a Jim Crow society in Xinjiang. To do so would be a disrespect to the many innocent lives lost 29 years ago today and to the valiant efforts of the U.S. government in the wake of the massacre to ensure that the U.S. does not play a role in human rights violations in China.
On Sunday, the sun will rise once again on Tiananmen Square, much like it did on the same Sunday 28 years ago. But unlike that Sunday – June 4, 1989 – Beijing will not awaken to its city occupied by the Chinese military nor the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square littered with the dead bodies of unarmed civilians.
Instead, life will go on in China with no official acknowledgement of the anniversary of that fateful day 28 years ago when the Chinese government ordered its military to open fire on its own people. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.
Hundreds of thousands gather on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)
Contrary to the CCP’s interpretation of events, the protests in Beijing were not counter-revolutionary attempts to undermine the CCP. And contrary to the Western media’s perceptions at the time, it was not an effort to bring Western democracy to China. Instead, the protests were deeply rooted in China’s own history and tradition, a tradition of students conducting patriotic demonstrations in an effort to strengthen their country.
In 1989, those efforts were directed at the nepotism and corruption that was beginning to plague the CCP, the economic turmoil brought on by inflation, the lack of personal freedoms and government censorship. While students started the protests, eventually, much of the populace joined in, with workers going on strike to support the movement. By mid-May, the protests would draw over a million people on a daily basis. Neither the May 19 declaration of martial law nor the pleading by sympathetic leaders for protesters to clear the square stopped the protests. And on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the army to fire on the civilians.
Tanks roll onto Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989
For a brief time after the crackdown, the CCP did acknowledge the event. Not to celebrate the brave men and women who gave their lives to better their country, but to condemn them. Slowly, however, the CCP’s policy changed and instead of trying to change the narrative of that night, the CCP chose to forget it. Today, the Tiananmen massacre is largely scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is not allowed to be discussed openly and many of the children born after 1989 do not know of the truth of that night.
But every year, there are still those in China willing to risk their freedom to commemorate the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square. A few years ago it was Chinese netizens reposting the image of the Tank Man – the Chinese citizen stopping a line of tanks, a banned picture on the Chinese internet – standing in front of a line of large, yellow rubber ducks. The picture spread on the Chinese internet until the Chinese authorities got wind, and censored “yellow rubber duck.” This year, it is four men who produced a Chinese rice wine with a label that references “6*4”, a shorthand for the June 4 crackdown, and calls on people to “never forget.” While the bottle has been smuggled out of China by a sympathetic Chinese official, those four men are currently facing charges of inciting subversion of state power.
As much as the CCP may try, China will not forget the brave men and women who lost their lives on June 4, 1989. For there are still enough Chinese people who are willing to put their safety on the line to ensure that that does not happen.
Wang Nan (pronounced Wong Nan) is a 45 year old Beijinger. Born in 1970, he has seen his city radically change under China’s economic miracle. In fact, as a photojournalist, he has documented China’s unfathomable rise and has been fortunate enough to partake in it. Wang Nan and his wife live more than comfortably in their renovated, Western-style apartment, where his photos from around the world line the walls. He knows he has been lucky, and he will tell you that immediately when you meet him; even with his world travels, he is still a fairly humble man. His 11-year-old daughter worships him even when he sings off key on their Sunday morning car rides to visit his mother. His 78-year-old mother, like all mothers, criticizes him as soon as he arrives – his hair is too long, he’s too skinny, he spoils his daughter – her granddaughter – too much. But like all mothers, she is proud of her son. And Sunday is her favorite day of the week.
But Wang Nan is not 45 years old. He has not shared in China’s economic miracle. He does not have a daughter. And he never sees his mother. For Wang Nan never made it past the age of 19. Instead, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, on the corner of Nancheng Street and Chang’an Boulevard – the Boulevard of Eternal Peace – a People’s Liberation Army’s bullet ripped through this high school student’s head.
June 4, 1989, the aftermath of the Tian’anmen Crackdown
beating when doctors found him unconscious, bleeding from the head. They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the soldiers forbade it. Frantically, the doctors used their last bandage to cover his wound and stayed with him until he died two hours later. With the sun rising on that June 4 morning 26 years ago and desperate to hide the bodies, the soldiers dug a shallow grave in the lawn of the nearby school and dumped Wang Nan’s body there along with two other civilians. There it would lie until a few days later, when the stench was overwhelming and the dirt was beginning to wash away, the health department came to collect the bodies.
Wang Nan’s mother, Zhang Xianling (pronounced Zhang See-ann Ling), one of the founders of the Tian’anmen Mothers, has never been allowed to visit the spot where her son took his last breath. Every June 4, she is held under house arrest, with police standing guard at her apartment door, refusing to let her leave or for anyone else to come in. In a symbol of tormented anguish, she will communicate with the outside world on the anniversary of her son’s death by holding a photo of him out of her apartment window.
Zhang Xianling with a picture of her son, Wang Nan, killed on June 4, 1989
Twenty-six years later, as Lim poignantly recounts in her book, it is this impediment to remembrance and the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) complete control of the history surrounding June 4th that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. And as Lim points out, it is not just the parents who lost children that are not permitted to remember. Bao Tong (pronounced Bow (rhymes with pow) Tongue), director of China’s Office of Political Reform in 1989 and right-hand man to his mentor Zhao Ziyang, believed that Deng’s economic reform must be coupled with political reform, otherwise corruption would prevail. After the Tian’anmen crackdown, it was those thoughts that were blamed for the student protests and resulted in a seven year prison sentence for Bao. In 2005, when Zhao Ziyang passed away, the police, which constantly stand guard at his apartment, refused to let Bao attend the funeral. When his elderly wife attempted to go, the police pushed her to the ground, causing her to break a bone.
It is this recounting of the people’s history and the ghosts that still haunt them, that makes The People’s Republic of Amnesiaone of the most important and moving books about the Tian’anmen crackdown. Lim also does an excellent and unbiased job of describing the precise events that lead up to the crackdown making the book a must read for anyone who wants to understand China’s history and the current leadership’s obsession with “social stability” and complete control.
But Lim not only tells the stories of those who witnessed the crackdown, but also those for whom June 4, 1989 has no significance, namely the babies born after 1990. In one study that Lim conducted, only 15 out of 100 Chinese college students were able to identify the infamous Tank Man photo, a photo that epitomizes the Tian’anmen crackdown and that is perhaps one of the world’s greatest symbols of courage. She follows a college student who goes to Hong Kong to try to understand Tian’anmen, but when he returns to China, he just seems confused and deflated. And then there is the Patriot, a Chinese car salesman who goes to Beijing to participate in the government-sponsored protests against the Japanese. Their failure and inability to know about the Tian’anmen crackdown demonstrates the true effectiveness of the CCP’s re-writing of the Chinese people’s history.
Or does it? Yes, there is a generation of Chinese who have not heard of the Tian’anmen massacre. And then there are others who choose not to care. But to assume that the CCP can so easily erase this dark moment in China’s history is to deny the Chinese people their conscience. There is still a generation of Chinese – those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – who know about Tian’anmen because they were alive when it happened. When this generation comes to power and can change the history, will they? Yes they might be busy making money now, but they have yet to ascend to leadership roles that would enable them to disclose the truth and recognize the bravery of those who died on June 4, 1989.
Tens of thousands march in Hong Kong last year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre
There are the 11 Chinese college students, currently studying in various universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, who wrote an open letter to the Chinese people to communicate what happened on June 4, 1989. The government-controlled Global Times responded with an op-ed condemning these students. Like the students of 1989, these students have chosen to jeopardize their futures in China in an attempt to get the CCP to acknowledge June 4.
And then there are those – like the doctors who tried to help Wang Nan as he laid dying or the medical intern who, knowing the danger, gave Zhang Xianling her son’s last effects, or the individual who took out an ad in 2007 in a Chengdu newspaper stating “Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims” – who, when confronted with the choice, will do what is morally right, not what is politically expedient.
For these people, the world must continue to remember June 4, 1989, so that when the Chinese people themselves can commemorate this anniversary on their own terms, the memory will still be there.
The Goddess of Democracy – the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests
Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of seven weeks of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square itself, protests that were supported by much of the rest of Beijing, protests that would amass hundreds of thousands of people a day, protests that people wistfully thought would change China.
Twenty-five years later the students who participated in the protests are no longer fresh-faced, wide-eyed college kids, the workers who supported them are retired, and many of the bicycle rickshaw drivers who ferried dying students to hospitals on that bloody Sunday morning are long gone. Along Chang’An Avenue, glitzy buildings have replaced the blood and bullet holes. Starbucks stand near where students once went on hunger strikes. Tiananmen is different; China is different. But yet there are some things that remain the same.
The government that ordered the crackdown 25 years ago – the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – is still in power and many of the gripes that initiated the student protests – corruption and nepotism among political elites, lack of personal freedoms, and government censorship – have only gotten worse and continue to be the impetuous for activists. And, like the students in 1989, these activists are still willing to risk their lives to promote the values enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and guide China to become a better place for its people.
But make no mistake, while these factors might be the same, there are important aspects of China that have changed. In
Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents – students, workers, ordinary people – supported the protests.
particular, China’s rise as a global power. Criticizing China for human rights violations and its failure to live up to its own laws is not as easy as it was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush cut off government ties, military relations, and the sale of U.S. government goods the day after the Chinese government’s crackdown. Imagine denying U.S. businesses the opportunity to sell products to the world’s second largest economy? That would never happen today. And to severe relations with China – would the American public want to so easily give up its cheap Walmart goods or be denied the ability to obtain the newest iPhone? Probably not. The Chinese government understands the soothing and influential comforts of our material desires.
But perhaps the most troublesome change is how the CCP now deals with dissent. If the last few months are any guide, excessive violence continues to be the modus operandi of the CCP. Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shoon-lee), an activist who organized small, peaceful protests that called for citizen participation in China’s United Nations human rights review, was detained for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” was denied medical treatment for months, and died in police custody. Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a disbarred-lawyer-now-activist that sought to assist Falun Gong practitioners, has recounted the physical torture he suffered while in police custody in March. Since coming out of detention with 16 broken ribs, Tang has all but effectively been denied appropriate medical care for his tuberculosis which has gotten significantly worse.
Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square
But the CCP has learned from its mistakes. No longer is its violence against dissent as public as it was the morning of June 4, 1989. And no longer does the CCP come off as a lawless regime. Instead, its cloaks its crackdowns with a veneer of legality. Since April 2014, in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has detained – either criminally or through unofficial house arrest – over 84 individuals. But these individuals are not detained under the guise of being counter revolutionaries like the students of the 1989 movement. That would be too obvious. Instead, the Chinese government has slapped the vague and overly broad crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” After 20 years of Western rule of law programs, the CCP has come to realize that the easiest way to deflect global criticism is to follow legal procedure, no matter how abusive, vague or entrapping that legal procedure might be.
If the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen means anything, China’s new strategy – the use of law to suppress dissent – must be
Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students
examined and criticized. China’s activists are being violently detained and imprisoned in record numbers “in accordance with the law.” But that suppression of dissent is no different than what happened in 1989. It is another method of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys – ensuring that the violence against a few “troublemakers” teaches the rest of society not to rock the boat. This time though the rest of the world is increasingly complacent.
As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, China will be the lone nation that will not. Since 1989, its people have been forbidden to commemorate the event; they are not permitted to remember; they are not allowed to note those fateful days that changed their lives more than anything in China’s recent past. And that is why the events that other nations hold in honor of the many brave Chinese people who lost their lives on that night are so important. Because while the Chinese government has found new strategies to more effectively deal with international criticism of its treatment of its people, the one thing that the outside world still has is the truth. But that truth must not be limited to just what happened 25 years ago; it must also be used to call on China today stop its suppression of dissent today. To do otherwise is a disservice the victims of that night.
One of the most iconic photos of the 2oth Century – one man stands up to a line of tanks
Twenty-five years is a silver anniversary; fifty a golden and seventy-five, a diamond jubilee. But 24 years? There is nothing in particular to mark a 24th anniversary – no special color, no special symbol, little attention in the press.
On Tuesday, the world will mark this nondescript 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The 20 year old idealistic college students who called for greater equality and believed in their government back in 1989, those kids will turn 44. The parents who had to bring home a dead son or daughter, they will have to face another lonely anniversary of remembering.
But their remembrance will be in silence. The Chinese government does not mark the passing of its violent crackdown on thousands of unarmed, college students on the night of June 3, 1989 and doesn’t allow its state-controlled press or its people to do so either. The American author William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But in China, that’s just not true of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Since 1989, the Chinese government has effectively expunged the events of that night from society’s collective memory, especially among the young. Today, it is not uncommon to find college students – students the same age as those killed in 1989 – who know little or nothing of the event, who have never heard of the “Goddess of Democracy,” and have no clue about the bravery of their countrymen in attempting to form a more perfect country.
Unfortunately, the Tiananmen Square massacre is not the only part of China’s past that has been forgotten. Take the Cultural Revolution. From
Some of the dead discovered on June 4, 1989
1966 to 1976, China, at the behest of Mao Zedong, descended into chaos. Various factions of high school and college age Red Guards were in charge, parents, teachers and intellectuals were publicly ridiculed, some tortured and the unfortunate ones killed.
Today’s youth do know about the Cultural Revolution but only the white-washed version. Walk into any hip shop on the cute street of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing and it will be filled with kitsch Cultural Revolution memorabilia. Red Guard hats and armbands, t-shirts with puns of popular Cultural Revolution slogans on them, Mao wristwatches. All of these are bought with gusto by Beijing’s youth. But while certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution are allowed to be discussed, the seamier parts – the hundreds to thousands of people killed (either by their own hand or by overzealous Red Guards) and a generation of dreams shattered because of insane policies of the government – are largely unknown to the young.
Every society and every culture has parts of its past it would prefer not to remember. The United States, with its sordid treatment of various ethnic groups throughout its history, is no stranger to forgetfulness. The 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota Indian men for war crimes is known by very few. In fact the specifics of our treatment of Native Americans is rarely taught in school. It’s not uncommon for a high school lessons on the United States’ treatment of Native Americans to – sadly – be concluded with a showing of Dances with Wolves.
Tank Man – A man, celebrated throughout the rest of the world but not in China.
Although historical forgetfulness is never good, there is a difference between a people deciding to forget their past and a government that gives their people no choice. A people should be allowed to acknowledge those actions it deems significant to its culture. For the United States, many of the marches, protests, and bravery of ordinary Americans during the civil rights movement have come to be celebrated, even those events that at the time that seemed pernicious.
But for China, the people have not been given that opportunity. The Chinese people have not been allowed to celebrate their fellow countrymen and women who, during one spring season believed in a better country and who in one night lost their lives at the hands of their own government.