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Q&A with Rowena He: Remembering the Tiananmen Crackdown

  • Sarah Williams

FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square May 17, 1989, in the biggest popular upheaval in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square May 17, 1989, in the biggest popular upheaval in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Among the new books concentrating on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China by Rowena He. She is now a lecturer at Harvard University, but was a high school student in Guangzhou in 1989.

He interviewed three leaders of the protest movement: Wang Dan, Shen Tong and Yi Danxuan who are now exiled from China. The interviews were the basis of her doctoral dissertation, but she expanded the book to include the remembrances of four others, including herself. He spoke with VOA’s Sarah Williams about her own recollections of the tumultuous events.

HE: When I say a witness, I was not in Tiananmen Square, that’s another point I try to make in the book. I think the whole world’s image about the Tiananmen movement was in Tiananmen Square, it sounds like that’s the case, but it’s a nationwide movement, it happened in all major cities across the country in 1989.

And the second point I want to make is not just about the top, high profile leaders. There were many people who were affected by that event, not just a small potato like me. I was just a teenager, what do I know? But I think that those extraordinary days that happened in contemporary Chinese history as a watershed really changed the Chinese society and many people’s lives like mine.

WILLIAMS: One of those people that you interviewed for this book, Wang Dan, was a top leader of this movement.

HE: Exactly, he was number one on the 21 most wanted list. And if you have read my book, you noticed, I did not just interview him. I did not treat him as a high profile leader. I also just approached as a human being.

I think in the past 25 years these so called leaders, these student leaders, disciples or whatever the government tried to name them. They’ve been viewed as heroes, as national traitors. But at the end of the day, I think my book tried to just approach them as ordinary human beings like any of us.

When I finished my book I asked myself, one thing that I should have done but did not do in my dissertation, so in the prologue I have four people who were not leaders in any sense. They were not even exiled by the government. But they were personally affected by 1989 and they chose to exile themselves, self-exile, including myself.

So among these four people, for example, Liane Lee, she was a Hong Kong student who went to Beijing to support the student movement. And she was right outside of Tiananmen Square. She saw two young boys covered in blood and she fainted, and when she regained consciousness, people tried to push her into an ambulance. And then she struggled not to get in, she said “I’m not wounded. I don’t need an ambulance.” And then a second ambulance came and she struggled not to get in again. And she said, “I told you guys. I’m not wounded. I do not need to get into an ambulance.” It was at this point, a female doctor turned to her and held her hand and said to her in English and not in Mandarin, but broken English said, “Child, we know that you are not wounded but you are from Hong Kong you are the only person who can leave here now. We want you to leave alive and tell the world about what the government did to us tonight.”

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