It’s June 4th again: the anniversary of the day tanks rolled into the Gates of Heavenly Peace. That’s what “Tiananmen” means in Chinese. Once a training ground for imperial soldiers and now one of the main tourist attractions in Beijing, twenty-four years ago this place became the epicenter of the most iconic massacre in contemporary Chinese history. Over the years Communist leaders have softened language around this bloody day when they even mention it at all. In the West, there’s a common misconception that the events were purely the work of college students, a now-irrelevant generation. In today’s China, the “June 4th Incident” or “June 4th Movement” is still heavily censored. There is no commemoration.
This morning The Atlantic ran an article entitled “How China Made the Tiananmen Square Massacre Irrelevant” which enrages me. I’m not disputing the content of the article. I’m just angry because my life has been shaped in the shadow of the crackdown, even though I wasn’t even conceived until months later. It isn’t irrelevant to me, and it shouldn’t be irrelevant to the international community or the Chinese nation itself. The Party is making this irrelevant. That’s wrong.
China in the eighties is a place that I know only from description. From pictures of my older sister as a toddler, living with my grandparents. It’s something I never learned from my father, as he left the country to pursue his PhD in Ohio in 1983, nor from my mother who followed a couple years later. However, the fact that they could even leave the country was indicative of a larger change in Chinese society. Then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “Reform and Opening up” meant students could start studying abroad, that economic policies went on the increasingly moderate track that have ultimately led to today’s diametric economy of foreign investment and extreme state control. A family friend spent a car ride explaining to me once that it was during the 1980s when he finally heard Western classical music—even the Russians had been out of his reach before. Another, a Chinese classmate of my parents’ at OU, described teaching English in Beijing as his carefree youth.
Exposure to new ideas is a hallmark of youth in this era, however they were by no means liberal times. Professional opportunities were slim and largely unbalanced. Political corruption was high, as was inflation. The citizenry had little voice in Party affairs and the Party, as it is today, existed mostly for its own interests. Self-expression was limited, never mind political expression. A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that there was still only a limited range of clothing available. If you look at photos of Beijing residents, white shirts and black slacks are the primary uniform of an urban male. This cocktail of new ideas and discontents ignited into popular protests in April of 1989, with the death of Communist leader Hu Yaobang.
Hu was seen as a more reform-minded leader who was ousted by his hardline contemporaries in a political struggle centered around an earlier round of protests in 1986. The day before his funeral, April 22nd, an estimated 100,000 students marched into Tiananmen Square. Revolutionary fervor had ignited in Beijing, and the youth were once again instruments of change. Student protesters formed organizations and their own leaders emerged. Similar protests in different cities turned into riots. Sympathetic leader, Zhao Ziyang, urged a conciliatory attitude towards students. He was pitted against hardliner Li Peng, who would go on to declare martial law in Beijing.
The discord of the events in May almost angers me to study or to think about. This is the point where I want to scream. Don’t you understand that you’re writing history? Why don’t you see that what you do has consequences for us all? The struggle in the upper echelon of the Party was mirrored by the clamorous voices of students in the streets. Protests weren’t enough: organized by student leader Chai Ling (who would, two decades later, controversially say she “forgives” the Party for its crackdown) hunger strikes began. Protests continued even despite a visit from Soviet leader Gorbachev, which was seen as a huge embarrassment by the Party. This coincidentally ensured that Western media were on the ground for the protests. (It’s also noted that Gorbachev took this experience with him, and was very moderate when dealing with protests of his own.) With disorganization rampant in the students, conciliatory gestures by more moderate Party leaders were met with suspicion and discordant demands. At the same time, the continuation of protests during the Gorbachev’s visit turned moderates within the Party conservative, and cemented the divide between China’s highest leaders: Deng and Zhao.
Zhao blinked first. On May 20th, the day martial law was declared in Beijing, he would deliver the speech that would define his career as a politician, at the very end of it. At closing in on five in the morning, Zhao spoke directly to students. He was visibly moved.
“You are not like us, we are already old and do not matter. Now in your teens and early twenties you are sacrificing your lives!” Did Zhao know how prophetic his words are?
For me, Zhao’s departure marks the point when events pile up and careen out of control. For one thing, this wasn’t just a Beijing movement anymore. By mid-May, the movement really picked up steam with protesters from across the country traveling to the capital, and more protests breaking out in hundreds of Chinese cities. Critically, this included Shanghai, where Jiang Zemin, then a municipal official, was given the opportunity to shine. With heavy-handed police action, a political purge, and total control of the local media he subdued his city. Obviously, this was prime leadership material. He would go on to destroy the lives of a hundred million people.
With the declaration of martial law, a first mobilization took place in Beijing. Protesters thronged around tanks, preventing them from advancing. A few days later, they made a withdrawal, but more trouble was brewing. A total mobilization had been called, and military from all across China were on their way.
The numbers of protesters in and around Beijing are unknown specifically, but at their height it is believed that 1 million people were in and around the square. Imagine the summer heat in Beijing. It’s sweltering, I can contest to that. So humid you can’t breathe. Imagine the pang of a week of hunger strikes. Imagine the unorganized revolutionary fervor of youth: those one hundred schools of thought that sprang up and fought for of the bullhorn. Imagine, in the air, an impending tang of violence. It’s there, and so is the weary disillusionment. Sanitation and hygiene have become serious problems. But compounded with that, there’s also a high of having “turned back” that first military tide. The determination of wanting to hold the Square, a symbol of China from its dynastic period, Chairman Mao watching from overhead.
On June 2nd, the Party moved to clear the Square. Tiananmen, it was decided, was to see…peace.
Events from here are again, complicated and tangled. There are reports that military divisions were also preparing against internal attacks from other units, of a general who would only accept written orders to complete the violence. But between June 3rd and 4th, high estimates say 3,000 protesters and residents were killed. You should know that any number from this point on is disputed. In later years, accounts show that most of the violence took place in Beijing residential areas, where residents had set up barricades to stop the advance of tanks. Eyewitnesses say that Beijing residents wanted to protect students. They were rewarded with live bullets. I am not inclined to believe the official account, which says that residents burned soldiers alive in their cars and threw molotov cocktails at them. But again, there is confusion. That isn’t to say there were no army casualties: there are reports of civilians reaching into tanks and beating soldiers to death.
Beijing residents gathered by broken barricades, wearing black armbands to show their defiance. And in the smoke and darkness, rickshaw drivers carried away the wounded to safety, sometimes being shot themselves. Roadblocks crushed, the military reached Tiananmen in the middle of the night. They didn’t fire immediately, under orders to initially tell the remaining protesters to leave. And those last protesters still there were divided: accept the military amnesty, or hold their ground. In the small hours, they left.
There is debate about whether there was actually violence within the Square itself. Conflicting contemporary reports say students were crushed by tanks and that soldiers unleashed indiscriminate fire, or that there was simply an empty standoff. Shooting happened in the aftermath: that is certain. Live rounds were apparently fired at students who’d already left Tiananmen. Anyone who tried to enter the Square the day after was shot, possibly in the back. As they ran away.
The aftermath lives on. We still feel Tiananmen. Not just from a human rights aspect. Tiananmen was a turning point for China. The whole contemporary history of China could have changed here: those who fell from grace could have changed the course of history. Most moderates, with the notable exclusion of Wen Jiabao, were out of the picture. Zhao Ziyang spent the last decades of life under house arrest, only emerging to play golf and attend funerals. Instead of Zhao, Deng Xiaoping picked Jiang Zemin to be his successor. And he controls China’s hardline faction to this day, clinging to influence even over a decade after he left office. His hands are scarlet with blood. In 1999, it was under his direct order that the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners was declared. I remember sitting around the dinner table at nine years old hearing about the first weeks of the persecution: clearly imbedded in my mind was the feeling of rice turning to lead in my stomach as my mother told me someone had died in police custody. So many have died since then. People who I called auntie and uncle were thought for a period to be among that number. We lost contact with them for years while they were in labor camps. The sheer scale of persecution in China means that someone was friends with a Falun Gong practitioner. Someone worked with a House Christian. Someone’s mother lost her house, or her land.
This has shaped me. I was on China’s blacklist before I even turned eighteen and I will be an activist until there is genuine change. It’s ironic, because it was the Tiananmen crackdown that allowed for me to be born, an accidental second girlchild, because my mother could stay in the US. She was on a student visa, which was, post-massacre, extended by an executive order from HW Bush. (Note: this was after he killed a Dem-led bill to the same effect.) I am a product of China as it is, someone who is for all intents and purposes an American girl, straddling the gulf of two cultures. Someone who can never go home.
And so that it is today, I don’t just commemorate those who died. I mourn the China that never was, the one that we lost in the smoke and the confusion. Because “the revolution begins in the heart” and really, that’s something we can’t afford to lose. Tiananmen has to stay relevant to show us the China that should have been.