They were young or not yet born when Chinese officials launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Growing up with the government’s ongoing campaign to suppress accounts of the massacre – of hundreds, maybe thousands, of unarmed civilians – has left many of today’s young adults with limited or misleading information about the seismic event.
“I heard the gunshots and asked my parents, and then they told me it was firecrackers,” said Cici, who was 5 at the time.
This week, the University of Maryland student was among seven young Chinese natives seeking a fuller picture from Shen Tong, a student leader during the massive, peaceful demonstrations leading up to Tiananmen.
“China missed a major opportunity to move forward,” said Shen, now an activist, author, entrepreneur, angel investor and U.S. citizen living in New York City.
Shen shared his perspectives on Tiananmen, on what he considers the futility of a government trying to revise history, on his optimism about the prospect of reforms, and on the power that people of all ages can exert by raising questions – albeit “from a safe place” – about everyday issues.
Shen and the seven students participated in a radio discussion organized by VOA and led by Jim Stevenson, host of “Daybreak Asia” and a co-host of “China Focus.” The students – all from mainland China, all educated at U.S. universities and all using American first names to mask their identities – are relatively close in age to what Shen himself was that fateful spring of 1989.
Unexpected political involvement
Shen was 20 and finishing his third year at Peking University. At the time, “I didn’t think I was political-minded,” he said.
Shen Tong, shown in a 1989 photo in Boston, Massachusetts, was a student leader in China's pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Then the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party general secretary, brought out crowds to honor him and press for more of the political and economic reforms he’d begun. Peaceful protests spread across the country, first among university students, then among people from all walks of life, with Tiananmen Square at the epicenter.
Shen was chosen to co-chair a student group that sought to meet with the government. The request went unmet.
“The movement was very modest in its political demands,” Shen said, noting demonstrators primarily wanted China’s government to uphold the constitutional guarantees of free speech, free press and assembly. They also expressed concerns over corruption and rampant inflation, he added, “but those were not formal demands.”
Shen said the protesters saw themselves “as true patriots … asking for gradual reforms. … We were at that time in support of the Communist rule and in support of Chinese government in general. We believed in the system to be able to correct itself.”
May, a student at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, asked what reforms the current Chinese government should implement.
“We do not have to follow any existing model,” Shen said. The 1989 movement showed that “all walks of society shared the demands for greater individual freedom and a greater liberalization [of] pretty much all aspects of Chinese life.”
Cici asked what Shen hoped younger generations would learn about Tiananmen.
Shen told her about the importance of preserving history, saying that was a motivation behind his 1990 autobiography, “Almost a Revolution.” He wants current and future generations to have a fuller picture of Tiananmen, not just as a symbol of tragedy but as a source of inspiration.
“Nowadays, we remember June 4th
[as] all tragedy and sadness,” Shen said. But for participants, it was “the exact opposite experience. It was a celebration, it was a carnival, it was a celebration of human spirit, and the shared, common responsibilities.”
Tiananmen’s history secure
He said he no longer fears that Tiananmen’s history will disappear.
“Such a collective memory cannot be erased at all,” Shen said, noting that Tiananmen remains a popular search term on Google and other search engines, especially around the June 4 anniversary. That’s despite the Chinese government’s annual clampdown on Internet access.
Fred, another UNC student, offered proof of technology circumventing government restrictions.
He learned about Tiananmen “when I was still a high school student,” he said. “One day I logged into my email account and I found a strange email in my mailbox with a very big attachment. So that email actually included a short video and some picture about Tiananmen Square events. So that is my first time to know this issue -- from the spam.”
Lewis said he didn’t become aware of Tiananmen until 2009, when he was in high school. He learned more about it as a University of Iowa grad student, when a Chinese cinema class screened the 1995 documentary, “Gate of Heavenly Peace.”
Lewis also praised “No,” a 2012 film about Chile’s former military dictatorship, for a storyline encouraging citizens to set aside their fears – in that case, by casting votes.
How to prompt change
The students wondered what it might take to bring about positive change.
Shen suggested it begins with asking questions – “within reason, within some safe zone,” he added, acknowledging some risks.
“Pretty much everyone in China should think about why the air is so polluted, why the food is not safe, why millions of babies are poisoned by … milk powder,” Shen said. “
A simple question asked will send a chain of reaction.
“If you just ask a question,” Shen added, “… no matter how loud the propaganda machines are, you would be surprised” at the results.