The pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 featured several student-led groups amid an outpouring of public support by millions of people from all walks of life in China. One group from Beijing University was led by Shen Tong. Like the other student leaders, he was forced to leave China for his personal safety following the deadly June 4th government crackdown.
VOA’s Jim Stevenson spoke with Shen Tong on the eve of this 25th anniversary of the crackdown to find out more about what the demonstrations and atmosphere were like from inside the student movement.
SHEN TONG: In the spring of 1989, I was 20 years old. I was a third year biology student at Beijing University, also known as Peking University, or Běidà.
STEVENSON: What was the mood on campus like at that time? How did the discussions of this whole reformation of government start to take place on campus?
SHEN TONG: Throughout the 1980s, different probably from what people would have imagined today, looking back, is that big college campuses were not so interested in political issues or even public policies, the young, kind of normal, higher education campus activities. This has been a decade-long opening up of Chinese society and economic liberalization. And as a result of that, our generation, the generation is a product of rising expectations in many different areas. This is also moving away from a political era.
My group and Wang Dan’s and a couple of other student clubs were in the extreme minority. I mean, my group didn’t focus on politics either, none of us, even now, some of my former colleagues from Běidà don’t consider ourselves political. You know, we were actually interested in lobbying the national congress and different ministries for better research environment. When the spring of ’89 arrived, and then on April 15th the news of the death of Hu Yaobang (a former Chinese leader), there was a very strong reaction from campus people – just felt emotionally very engaged.
So by that point, my group, the Olympic Institute, and a couple other very small campus groups actually felt – we were very opportunistic. We felt that this is finally a chance that we can kind of get the attention from the rest of the student body to start to talk about the more issues of public policy.
STEVENSON: About how large would you say your group was before this turning point?
SHEN TONG: It would have had about a dozen members, about seven or eight were pretty active. And we’re talking about a couple of people from my dorm and another dorm from across the hallway – no more than a few dozen when we had those gatherings. And it started a larger group which also played a very big role later on, it’s called Democracy So-Long, and their biggest event was three, four hundred students, and that only happened a couple of times.
STEVENSON: Was there any sense of, perhaps, repercussions of speaking out or meeting in your groups at that time?
SHEN TONG: My group, including myself, didn’t think we were really engaging in things similar to what I did in the previous years. We were just engaging in policy and public debate, and how naïve were we, you know?
We started turning to protests and we started having demands for greater reform. That’s when it hit me, I really shouldn’t do this to my family, how much worry they have gone through the last three times. And I remember actually, that’s how I got elected. Not by putting myself on the ballot, I was there as the representative of the news center to observe the election. And I made the speech after people running the meeting invited me, that if you, whoever the candidate might be, ever sense yourself being the so-called student leader, the main responsibility you take and think about is to minimize the damage from the inevitable suppression from the government against the broader student body. And so for that reason, there was a rule invented on the spot, that people don’t have to nominate themselves as a candidate, and for some reason I got elected.
So you can see the very conflicting mindset we had at the time.
STEVENSON: You mentioned your family in all of this, and I can imagine that it must have been a rather difficult time at home at certain periods during this.
SHEN TONG: My father, who had a misfortune at that time was working for the Beijing Municipal Government, which is a front line defense for the government to diffuse, eventually suppress the student-led protests. And I would want to emphasize, Jim, that the label of student movement is quite inaccurate because by May, three, four weeks later, really all walks of Chinese society, with prolonged large-scale protests and some estimated 100- to 150-million people, went on those demonstrations.
There wasn’t a protest and anger, the atmosphere was rather a carnival and a celebration. There are instances, quite a few of these instances where knowing that quite a few key student activists, organizers, were called back by their families. The government put pressure on the family to basically pull those students out of campus. So for my family, the people who were guarding the news center and the dorm room actually escorted, they blocked my father and escorted him away from campus to avoid the same thing happening to me.
And there’s also this kind of conflicting mentality of believing we’re the true patriots, we really are not against the Communist Party, and we’re really not for regime change, we really just want to help the government to reform further, in a way that we understand what reform is meant to be for greater liberties and greater freedom.
So at the same time, a few of us who experienced suppressions from operations before, somehow intuitively know, this will come down badly. So there’s that, but it’s also the same thing for my family, they were very concerned. By the same time, they were also transcended and were proud of the fact that I was very involved. So that kind of dichotomy, that kind of conflict lasted through the movement, even beyond the June 4th massacre after I was fortunate to escape China.