Tiananmen silence turns 20

Two decades after the massacre in Beijing, the event remains a taboo in China.

Published June 4, 2009 10:13AM (EDT)

On June 4, 1989, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to break up pro-democracy demonstrations which had been going for months. Untold numbers of demonstrators lost their lives.
On June 4, 1989, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to break up pro-democracy demonstrations which had been going for months. Untold numbers of demonstrators lost their lives.

Two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, the event remains a taboo in China. The former pro-democracy activists are scattered around the world and hope that the truth will one day emerge as to what happened on that fateful June 4.

When the blood had been washed from the asphalt and the hopes of a more equitable China had dissipated, Han Dongfang got on his bicycle and rode out of the city. It was June 4, 1989, the Sunday when the Chinese Communist Party cleared protesters from Beijing's Tiananmen Square and, according to the official figure, shot 319 of them. Other sources cite up to 3,000 dead.

The 25-year-old railroad electrician had dedicated himself to a special mission. "I wanted to ride around the country to talk to workers and farmers," says Han. About a month earlier, his friends had announced, on Tiananmen Square, that they had selected him as the spokesman of their independent trade union.

Ten days later, somewhere in Hebei province, he saw his photograph on television -- as an "agitator and counterrevolutionary," being sought by the authorities. Han was shocked, but he reminded himself of the promise he had made to the leaders of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union before being appointed their leader. "If the time comes for me to go to prison, I will not wait for them to catch me, but will turn myself in." Han rode his bicycle back to Beijing, where he reported to police headquarters -- and was sent to prison for the next 22 months.

For almost seven weeks in the spring of 1989, students occupied Tiananmen Square, where they demonstrated on behalf of their own, independent organizations and against corrupt party officials. What began as a harmless protest movement developed into a revolt against those in power -- until the aging party members surrounding Communist Party patriarch Deng Xiaoping remembered something former Chinese leader Mao Zedong once wrote: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a man who could have become China's Gorbachev and who strongly opposed the use of military force, was first set straight and then placed under house arrest.

"Impetus for reform"

The protests "were not a threat to our political system," Zhao said in retrospect, before his death in 2005, after spending 16 years under house arrest. He even believed that the protests were useful, and that they may have given "impetus for reform in China, even to political change."

Zhao's memoir, titled "Prisoner of the State," recorded secretly on 30 tapes and smuggled out of the country, has now been published posthumously in the United States and Hong Kong. It offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of China's ruling Communist Party. Zhao was in his home not far from Tiananmen Square when the blood bath unfolded. He wrote: "On the night of June 3, as I was sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard heavy gunfire. A tragedy that would shock the world had not been prevented, and now it was happening."

What happened on Tiananmen Square has been seared into the world's collective memory, complete with the unforgettable images of Beijing's brutal settling of scores with defenseless regime critics. When the tanks rolled into the city from the west, the protesters were already exhausted by the heat and by a hunger strike. A few fire hoses would have been enough to drive them from the square.

China has become a different country since then. The Communist Party has granted its subjects previously unheard-of economic and personal freedoms. But a taboo still hangs over the date of June 4. No one has been held accountable for the massacre. The official history books mention the date, if at all, in connection with an "incident." Many young people don't even know what happened in the heart of Beijing in 1989, because both their parents and their teachers say nothing about the massacre.

Human rights activists in Hong Kong estimate that about 30 people remain in prison as "ringleaders" and "hooligans." Of the remaining key players scattered around the world, many have withdrawn into private life and some have become religious.

Teahouses and repair shops

Railroad electrician Han Dongfang, who lives in Hong Kong today, contracted tuberculosis in prison and lost a lung. He was eventually allowed to travel to the United States for treatment, after American union leaders rallied behind his cause. He is no longer willing to talk about his time in prison. "That chapter of my life is over," he says.

Han, a man with delicate features and dressed casually but elegantly, speaks English well. He is sitting in an office on Jervois Street in Sheung Wan, a lively neighborhood of teahouses, repair shops and narrow stores. Barred from returning to Beijing, Han works for his country from Hong Kong. His China Labour Bulletin reports on conditions in factories, on construction sites and in mines in the People's Republic. He hosts a program on Radio Free Asia, talks on the telephone to trade unionists in China about their rights, and secures legal representation.

The former revolutionary has become a man dedicated to small steps. "There is no point in trying to fly when you have no wings," he says. He has abandoned the idea of establishing an independent labor union in China. "My dream is a system that enables workers and employers to negotiate with one another. Independent unions would then develop automatically."

Were the students' sacrifices worth it? "In 1989, I had never heard of strikes," says Han. "They are commonplace today. It was the beginning, and we must continue."

Wu'er Kaixi, 41, was also part of the 1989 protest movement. A member of the Uighur minority, he was studying to become a teacher at the time. After the death of the popular former party leader Hu Yaobang in mid-April 1989, Wu'er and other students formed the Beijing Autonomous Students' Union.

A month late

It was an extraordinarily daring step at the time. After a hunger strike, and still wearing hospital clothes, he appeared in the Great Hall of the People, where Premier Li Peng was meeting with angry students. When the premier apologized for being late, Wu'er rudely interrupted him, saying: "You are not just five minutes late, but an entire month." He now lives in Taiwan, where he and his Taiwanese wife have two children. Wu'er, who now holds a Taiwanese passport, has become more heavyset and wears his hair shorter today.

Even after 20 years, the Communist Party is still punishing him for having humiliated one of its senior officials on live camera. Wu'er's parents are still not permitted to leave China today. They have never seen their grandchildren, except in photos, and their only communication with them is the occasional phone call via the Internet. Wu'er himself, despite having attended an American university, never truly gained a foothold professionally, although he now works for a U.S. investment company.

 'We want the truth'

Shortly before the deployment of troops on June 4, says Wu'er, one of Deng Xiaoping's sons sent him a message to warn him that the protests would end in bloodshed. "I asked him: 'What can you offer us if we withdraw from Tiananmen Square?'" He had no response.

Nevertheless, he tried to convince his fellow students to clear the square, but was unsuccessful. After the massacre, Wu'er fled to the south, where a network of dissidents and businesspeople smuggled him by boat to Hong Kong. From there, he traveled to the United States.

Wu'er plans to meet with former activists in Washington on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre this week. He has never abandoned his dream of bringing about political reforms in China. He says: "One cannot live in exile without hope."

Meanwhile in Beijing, former philosophy professor Ding Zilin tries to keep the memory of the massacre alive. Despite her gray hair, she moves with agility and elegance. The 72-year-old is the most prominent of the "mothers of Tiananmen." Even today, she fights to hold back the tears when she talks about the events.

"Lived like a real man"

Ding, who lives in the northwest of the Chinese capital, is still permitted to receive visitors but is not always allowed to leave her apartment. She seems exhausted and is worried about her husband, who is ill. "On Oct. 26 of last year, the police suddenly raided our apartment. After that my husband had a heart attack and was in a coma for two days." An oil painting of her son Jiang Jielian hangs on the wall. He was a 17-year-old student when he died. A photo depicts him holding a sign in his hand that reads: "You will fall, and we will remain." A wooden urn containing his ashes stands beneath the photo. The father carved the characters on the urn, which read: "In these short 17 years, you lived like a real man."

On the evening of June 3, Jiang Jielian and few friends had ridden their bicycles to Tiananmen Square. Diplomats, journalists, police officers and professors had already joined the student movement by then, and it could no longer be characterized as a rebellion of youthful troublemakers, as the Communist Party continues to insist today.

Ding was still a committed party member at the time. But on June 4, when party officials refused to release the names of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths, she and her husband turned their backs on the Communist Party. "We want the truth. We want compensation. We want those responsible to be put on trial," she says. She has published three books, has meticulously documented the lives of many victims and, together with other mothers, has submitted petitions again and again to the party leadership.

"China's role in the world has become stronger in recent years," says Ding. Unfortunately, she adds, the government must now pay far less attention to criticism from abroad, especially since the patriotic education campaign begun in 1989 is now bearing fruit. Today's students, says Ding, declare their solidarity with the Communist Party when, as was recently the case during the Olympic Games, foreign criticism becomes particularly vocal. She is disappointed by the new generation. "They are self-involved and materialistic. They boycott Japanese goods, but they line up in front of the U.S. Consulate to obtain visas for America."

Intelligence agents loiter in front of her building. One of them, who videotapes visitors, is young and bears a slight resemblance to Ding's son. Perhaps he would have been among those standing on Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Andreas Lorenz

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