News / Asia

Q&A with Shen Tong: A Personal Account from a Student Leader

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.
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.
 
Q&A with Shen Tong: A Student Leader's Personal Account
Q&A with Shen Tong: A Student Leader's Personal Accounti
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

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.

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid