FILE - In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan…
FILE - In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square.

WASHINGTON - On a balmy summer night 31 years ago, tanks and soldiers armed with machine guns shot their way through downtown Beijing where tens of thousands of students and citizens camped out in one of the longest political demonstrations in the country's history.  

Hundreds died. More were injured. And countless more were arrested, imprisoned or otherwise persecuted in the aftermath. The incident set China on a distinctive path of authoritarian rule over a market economy.  

Over the years, the Tiananmen massacre, the bloody crackdown named after the expansive central square where it took place, has been scrubbed by the government from public discussion.  

Derrick Yu attends "Tank Man" statue unveiling ceremony at Capitol Hill in June 2019. (Courtesy photo)

To most Chinese who grew up after 1989 in an era of unprecedented affluence and political amnesia, knowledge of Tiananmen is often acquired through accidental encounters, as in the case of 22-year-old Derrick Yu, who is now studying at a university in the United States.   

On a warm July day in 2019, Yu called for an Uber in a quiet Arkansas town. Some 8,000 miles away, Hong Kong was experiencing its biggest democratic protest movement in two decades. Beijing's patience was running out. 

The driver

"Do you think the Chinese government will send tanks to Hong Kong to suppress the demonstrators?" the Uber driver, a silver-haired woman, asked Yu.  

"I don’t think so,” he replied, “Beijing wouldn’t want the U.S. to revoke its special treatment toward Hong Kong.”   

Then, the driver said, "I will never forget Tiananmen.”   

"I was pretty shocked. An ordinary person in a small American town would remember June 4th," Yu told VOA.  

Chinese dissident Wang Dan addresses fellow students during a demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in this May 1989 photo. The characters on Wang's headband translate as "hunger strike."

The teacher

Unlike most of his peers who never learn about the crackdown, Yu, who was born in 1998, recalled first hearing about the Tiananmen Movement during a high school Chinese literature class, even though it is a forbidden topic among academics and scholars. 

The topic was May 4th, a pro-democracy movement that grew out of student protests in Beijing on May 4, 1919.  Then, the class bell rang. Yu’s teacher ended the class with one sentence he would never forget. 

"A country should never use its tanks against its own people, no matter what."  

The vacation

The second time he heard about the movement was in Hong Kong in 2014 during his winter vacation. He had witnessed the end of the Occupy Central Movement, a peaceful protest fighting for a democratic electoral system in Hong Kong. 

He remembers getting into a taxi and chatting with the driver about how Hong Kongers supported students financially in Beijing during the Tiananmen standoff; Operation Yellowbird, which helped June 4th dissidents escape to overseas; and the annual Victoria Park vigil to remember those who had passed. 

"It turns out, June 4th is a very heavy topic for Hong Kongers," Yu said. 

The traveler

The third time he heard about the movement was in Mongolia in 2016. He was chatting with a man in a local restaurant, who told him that as protests broke out in China, Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries, including Mongolia, embraced the same social movement. The demands were similar — democracy and freedom of speech.  

"Our students walked onto Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar and demanded government reform. Our government listened, but your government did not," he said.  

Chinese students link arms in solidarity at dawn on April 22, 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square

 The radio

The fourth time was when Yu toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2017. A local motorcycle driver told him that he would use a shortwave radio to get the latest about the 1989 protest. 

Majoring in international relations in the U.S., Yu has seen the "Tank Man" picture numerous times. Tank Man was an unidentified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen movement.   

Nearly all of Yu’s American classmates know the story behind the picture. Yet, few of his fellow classmates from Mainland China know the details. 

Yu realizes there is generation amnesia. Censorship, silence and time have created a gulf between the young people who witnessed the Tiananmen crackdown and those who came after them. 

"My generation is born with the ‘red pride’," he said. "In our memory, China has always been a powerful country." 

In the eyes of China’s youth, China’s history has been portrayed as one of constant rise — becoming the world's second largest economy, hosting the Olympic Games, and returning to the center of the global stage as an international power.  

The young generation never experienced the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen. Instead, they learned about defending the South China Sea, sanctioning South Korea over THAAD, possibly using military power to unite the country. The list goes on. 

A Beijing University student leader argues with a policeman about the students' right to march as they are told not to march when emerging from their campus in Beijing, China, on April 27, 1989.

Yu says that starting when he began using a VPN inside China to circumvent the country’s internet firewall, his path started to diverge from many of his peers.  

"My source of information is different from theirs," he said. "In popular terms, we live in two parallel universes."   

In his three years in the United States, Yu said he noticed that many international students still rely on China’s strictly controlled social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat and Douyin as their main information sources. 

"They are physically here, and their brains remain inside the firewall," he said. 

He said he plans to attend this year’s June 4th memorial organized by several veteran rights activists, including Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi. 

He said marking the anniversary is important, so the event is not forgotten. 

Miao Yu contributed to this report.