Love and conflict in modern China

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KATY CLARK: Diane Wei Liang has lived a life framed by events in China's recent history. She was born in 1966, the start of the Cultural Revolution, and as a student at Beijing University she took part in the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. She's written a memoire about her experiences. It's called, Lake with No Name: A True Story of Love and Conflict in Modern China and it's just come out in paperback. Liang says the suffering of her parents' generation and the Cultural Revolution had a powerful effect on her generation.

DIANE WEI LIANG: My parents lost their jobs and they were sent to labor camp and they spent most of their productive years doing self-criticism learning [SOUNDS LIKE] mouse red book. We've witnessed that and that gave us the determination not let that happen again.

CLARK: Well, by 1986 you were a student of psychology at Beijing University. In your book you describe a campus that was a hotbed of activity at the time, and you seemed to participate in everything. What was that like?

LIANG: China was really opening up. We had a lot of interaction with people from overseas, and also debate what China should do to modernize. It was very, very exciting time.

CLARK: In April, 1989, Zhao Ziyang dies and he was a former leader of the Chinese Communist Party and also seen as a reformer and supporter of the students. His death touched off series of protests that eventually led to the events that we know of as Tiananmen Square, and you were

right there for all of that. At one point during the weeks of protest you make your way to Tiananmen Square to hand out newspapers and fliers, and you confront soldiers who have been sent in to "keep the peace".

LIANG: It was an amazing experience to climb onto a real tank and I just remember how massive and powerful that machine felt. To go and talk to soldiers who had to come to suppress the student movement, and we had made copies of earlier newspaper reports and handed those out so that they would know that we were not there to overthrow the government. The soldiers were rather subdued and they had been stuck there for days, the students had brought water and food to them, so there was relatively cordial relationship mood and they took the leaflets, although they didn't read them. I don't know whether they were illiterate or they just didn't want to show their commanding officer that they were reading these leaflets.

CLARK: What happened to you after the massacre at Tiananmen Square?

LIANG: On June 4th, in the very early morning, I remember standing at the gate of Beijing University with Molotov cocktails with my friends and fellow students. The dawn was only breaking and we had heard the news of killings and bloodshed at night and we were all ready to defend the university. By noon, the students had withdrawn from Tiananmen Square and we very thriftily went underground, and a week later I actually left Beijing to go to the countryside to hide.

CLARK: It's been 20 years now since the massacre there. Do you have a sense of whether the student democracy movement you were a part of is influencing China's university students today?

LIANG: That is a very difficult question to answer. China is more open today and the students can openly discuss democracy as long as they do not write articles against the government and go out marching, and they participate in lots of Internet debates, particularly one Hilary Clinton visited China for example. I think that in some ways that idea of democracy and freedom was introduced to the Chinese people.

CLARK: Did you have a vision of the China that you wanted your country to become back in 1989, and I'm curious how close the China that you just visited recently, meets that image you might have had in your mind?

LIANG: The China I saw in the past weeks has exceeded in so many areas of what I ever dared to imagine for China 20 years ago. When I look at my father who is now 75 years old, in his lifetime being able to afford a bicycle was a luxury. Today just cars and cars. I'm just amazed every time to look at how much people's living standard had improved.

CLARK: Diane Wei Liang's memoire is Lake with No Name: A True Story of Love and Conflict in Modern China. Thank you so much.

LIANG: Thank you.