Events of China's Tiananmen Square protests must still be pieced together, 25 years later



Emily Judem

WASHINGTON — Even though I did not experience Tian’anmen Square Protests first hand, the event has had a profound influence on my life.

In my hometown, a small city in South China, people stay away from politics. The first time I heard about the Tian’anmen Square events of June 4, 1989 was in my Chinese history book, which included only one single sentence about the horrific incident.

While I can’t remember the exact wording, the sentiment of the vague reference was this: “Because the capitalism was invading China. Young students were brainwashed. They went to parade on June 4th, 1989, and fomented a political unrest.”

As students, we didn’t know what the “political unrest” was, and we were not required to take exams on this topic. The history teacher did not explain anything further, and our other textbooks did not even mention what had happened.

It was not until I arrived in the capital city of Beijing to study at a university that I realized how enthusiastic people were about talking, or I should say, gossiping, about June 4th. With little information about what really happened that day, gossip and rumors based on vague assumptions was all that people could muster.

Every year around the anniversary, it becomes increasingly difficult to use Google as a researcher. During the two or three weeks before the date, the security check in Beijing’s metro stations becomes extremely strict. People have to wait in long queues to get through security, and the already crowded metro stations become even worse. I’ve heard that in some stations near Tian’anmen Square, there are plainclothes policemen everywhere. Buses that go through the Chang’an Avenue all have their windows closed in case someone attempts to throw brochures about the protests out the window.

And you’d better not drink a bottle of Coke around Tian’anmen Square. A friend of mine who tried to drink a bottle of soda water was suddenly taken down by some plainclothes policemen. They said they suspected that he would drink something to burn himself in protest.

While studying in Beijing I would often visit my grandmother who was living there only on the weekends. One day, when we were having dinner, she suddenly became very emotional. She said she missed many of her colleagues’ children, who were killed in the protests. She said that when the demonstrations and government crackdown happened, it was a horrible time in Beijing. Her family did not go out during these days.

“Many of those who were killed were my friends’ children. They were still college students then. They were young, naïve, and easily instigated,” she said with tears in her eyes.

My grandmother, working in a government-run institute, held to Communist beliefs. She believed these protesting students were “brainwashed by the capitalist ideas, persuaded and used by evil Western people.” It was only later that I began to understand they were just pursuing freedom and democracy.

However, she still condemned that there were many killed, a scene that was so horrible in her memory that she cried when she recalled it.

As we concluded the conversation, she warned me in a low and worrying voice, “It’s just the small talk within family. Don’t talk to other people about this. If someone ever asked you who told you this, you just say you heard it from people talking about it in the bus.”

As I became more involved in society as a student, I began to learn more and more about the Tian’anmen Square protests. But all of the information I had was in small broken pieces, unable to portray the whole story. Although internet technology was booming in China, censorship and the great China firewall prevented me from finding anything about this topic online. No books provided any additional information.

Eventually, after graduating from the university, I noticed many people wanted to know the truth. Some friends in Beijing went to Hong Kong especially to buy some books about June 4th. Some others in Hong Kong memorized the names of victims who were in the protests on that day.

What happened in Tian’anmen Square remains a sensitive and heavily guarded topic in China.

The length to which our government goes to keep us from knowing the truth is ridiculous.

Why can’t we, very ordinary citizens, know something about the history? Though our government has achieved a lot economically and in other sectors over the past 25 years, it continues to unwisely zip its mouth about this important event in our history.

Only after I came to the United States did I begin to know more about the protests of 1989. When helping a colleague to do some research on the event, I happened to find some photos online.

In a black-and-white photo, in the familiar but old Chang’an Avenue, I saw a man’s face that had been torn apart, and his brains spilling out.

I rushed to the toilet, and couldn’t help shedding tears.

People who are struggling to learn the truth about this part of history in China are often monitored, abused, or even tortured by the government, a major setback in the pursuit of human rights in China.

The truth cannot be erased.

For ordinary Chinese citizens, it is important to know what happened on June 4th because it shows us how much we still need the freedom and democracy that the students were calling for 25 years ago in Tian’anmen Square.

The name of the author has been changed by Human Rights First, who worked with Huang Tinging on this article, for his protection.

This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.