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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    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.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora