The 1989 protests and subsequent military crackdown are among the most taboo subjects in the media, academia or other public forums in China, and as a result, a whole generation has now grown up largely unaware of the significance of those events. As the 25th anniversary of June 4th approaches, scores of participants and witnesses to the protests in China have tried to keep their memories alive by recording their accounts and impressions of the spring of 1989. The South China Morning Post online team has created a multi-layered, multimedia feature which features the voices of some of those who participated in the protests. Many others, from foreign students resident in Beijing to soldiers tasked with clearing Tiananmen Square, have spoken with journalists or written essays detailing their experiences. CDT will post these remembrances here, with most recent entries at the top. For more on the anniversary, check our Tiananmen 25 Years tag page. For the best of our coverage and translation on 1989 over the past decade, read here. And see also our ongoing series of original news reporting from the spring of 1989.
Please check back here often for updates.
In telling the story of how his telegraph of support to the recently dismissed editor of a liberal (and now defunct) Chinese newspaper became a protest slogan, director of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project Qian Gang—then an active-duty officer and PLA reporter—provides a glimpse into China’s news media during the ’89 Democracy Movement:
In April 1989, as protests raged in Beijing and other Chinese cities, I dispatched a telegram to Qin Benli (钦本立), the editor-in-chief of the World Economic Herald in which I expressed my sympathy and support following his ouster from the outspoken 1980s-era newspaper. I was an active-duty officer at the time, working as a reporter for the People’s Liberation Army Daily, where I was in charge of the news desk. Though intended only as a personal message of respect and support, that telegram opened a Pandora’s Box of troubles. […]
Student protester Fang Zheng had his legs amputated after being run over by a PLA tank on June 4th, 1989. China Change has published his memory of that bloody morning in Beijing:
I was walking with the girl from my school, and around six o’clock, we turned onto W. Chang’an Avenue that runs east-west across Beijing and passed in front of Tian’anmen, and kept walking westward on the sidewalks and the bicycle route on the south side of the street. We sensed no danger, nor were there any soldiers in sight. Suddenly we heard explosions, one right next to us, and with it, a cloud of green-yellowish smoke cloaked us. The girl fell in the sudden chaos. My first reaction was to pick her up and move her to the sidewalk. But there were five-foot-tall fences separating the sidewalk and bike route, and as I turned to lift her over the fences, I saw, through the fog, a row of tanks, three or four of them, speeding towards the students. One of them was already very close to me, so close I felt its main gun was right over my head. I pushed the girl hard against the fence.
Next – it must have been just a matter of one or two seconds– I felt I was being squeezed and then dragged. I remember thinking, “Shit, I’m being run over.” With my shoulders and arms I pulled hard against the ground. I fell off and rolled to the roadside against the fence. My last visual memory was the white bones of my legs, and then I lost consciousness, first receding sound and then a bright spot moving farther away. […]
With many young Chinese unaware of—or unwilling to contemplate—the June 4th crackdown, The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan asks current students of Peking University (Bei Da), an institution pivotal to the ’89 Democracy Movement, about that fateful day:
I travelled to Bei Da to dine with a small group of students, who were willing to share their thoughts on June 4, 1989. The subject of the protests is taboo in China today. They find no mention in textbooks, in the media or in public debates. There are many chapters in the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that it would rather forget: from Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward in 1958 that resulted in famine claiming 30 million lives to the decade-long brutality of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that shattered the lives of millions.
But it is the memory of 1989, which ironically had far fewer casualties, that appears to worry the Party the most. The CPC allows some amount of reflection on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Any word on 1989, however, is not tolerated if it questions the CPC’s “conclusion” on the event, which describes the young students, who all saw themselves as patriots attempting to cleanse the country of corruption and authoritarianism, as “counterrevolutionaries” and “rioters”. Scholars or citizens who question that narrative are silenced. The CPC is so concerned about a public debate on 1989 that even private gatherings are disrupted: last month, a group of scholars who met to mark the anniversary in Beijing were rounded up and detained. But 25 years on, it appears that the CPC’s approach has been so effective that the Party might not have much reason to be concerned, at least judging from what I heard at Bei Da. Without exception, they appeared to buy into the party line. “China was in chaos, the party had no choice,” one student told me. These were not students who were clueless about what happened on the night of June 3. They all had software that allowed them to scale the “Great Firewall” of Internet restrictions, and watch on YouTube the videos showing bleeding students and tanks moving into Chang’an Avenue. Yet they found Deng’s reasoning understandable, if only because of the two decades of prosperity that have followed 1989. They were the generation that accepted Deng’s grand bargain: prosperity for silence. All the same, it was difficult to hear the words of young girl who told me, very calmly, “I would have done what Deng did”. Lu Xun was wrong: 1989 crushed the spirit of Bei Da. […]
On June 4, 1989, Shen Tong, then a 20-year-old biology student at China’s best university who had spent the last six weeks organizing protests in Beijing, witnessed what is now known as the Tiananmen Massacre. From the doorstep of his mother’s apartment, a few miles west of Tiananmen Square, he saw a man bleed to death in a doorway. A young woman next to him was shot in the face; a line of tanks ran over a group of hunger strikers from behind as they were walking away from the square.
Before the bloody crackdown, he and his peers had reveled in the sense of possibility for reform. “’89 was for China, back then, not a tragedy. It was a carnival, a celebration. It was the first time that a popular protest very firmly subscribed to the nonviolent principles and it was a reform movement,” he told Quartz.
Today, Tong is a businessman living in New York City. He remembers the protest movement with a complicated mixture of guilt and hope, and sees similarities between his generation and the young people of China today. […]
As the ’89 Democracy Movement was gaining momentum and students were pouring into Tiananmen Square, the spirit was also felt by their peers elsewhere in China. The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs, at the time an English teacher in Hubei, recalls:
I was a 23-year-old English teacher at Hubei University, and until that spring, I had thought my students were hopelessly quiescent, cowed by the suffocating repression and resigned to their dreary fates. “We need to let the leaders in Beijing know that the young people of this country are willing to die for freedom,” said one of my students, David, a 19-year-old English major who became an organizer of the civil disobedience that swept the campus.
One of his boldest moves was to orchestrate a takeover of the campus public address system. He and a band of young collaborators renamed it “rebel radio,” and their dawn-to-dusk broadcasts criticized the Communist Party while exhorting classmates to join the daily protests that would later block the sole rail line across the Yangtze.
The momentous upheaval 25 years ago that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the heart of the Chinese capital has been well documented, thanks to the large foreign press corps that was based in Beijing. But less well known is that the protests against inflation and official corruption took place across the nation, paralyzing cities large and small for nearly two months that spring. […]
Tea Leaf Nation has created a time-lapse map of protests that swept the country after the June 4th crackdown. Also see Louisa Lim’s coverage of the violent suppression of protesters in Chengdu who denounced the Tiananmen crackdown from NPR, or read about it in detail in her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia.