News / Asia

Tiananmen Student Leader Says Change Begins With Questions

FILE: The Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square in 1989 is little more than a distant tale to young Chinese, including two photograhed in Beijing on May 7, 2014.
FILE: The Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square in 1989 is little more than a distant tale to young Chinese, including two photograhed in Beijing on May 7, 2014.
VOA News
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.Shen Tong, shown in a 1989 photo in Boston, Massachusetts, was a student leader in China's pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
x
Shen Tong, shown in a 1989 photo in Boston, Massachusetts, was a student leader in China's pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
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.”
 
Recommended reform  

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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Sun from: Taipei
June 04, 2014 7:08 AM
PRC leaders are still repressing their people. In these 25 years, nothing has been improved in China mainland under the rule of the selfish communist party. PRC is steadily going the way linked to its collapse.

by: Anonymous
June 04, 2014 3:16 AM
I thought the Tianamen protests were originally about cafeteria food and student living conditions? The CCP is not the only one who is trying to rewrite history, but these things happen a lot anyways.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs