June 4 is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen student protest of 1989, also known as the “incident,” “disturbance,” “massacre,” or “democracy movement,” depending on whom you talk to. Younger generations may not know much of the history, as it is not covered in schools in what Louisa Lim called “the People’s Republic of Amnesia.”
I haven’t forgotten it. I was a high school senior that year, busy preparing for Gaokao, the college entrance exams. In the days leading toward June 4, political winds shifted between democratic (we called it liberal) reforms and hardline ideologies.
Many of my generation still have fond memories of the late 1980s (except ‘89). Press and speech control was light, partially due to political uncertainty. Student protest was accompanied, if not encouraged, by subtle in-fights between reformist and conservative leaders.
There wasn’t a consistent message from the propaganda department as we have today. Newspaper editors and TV anchors took liberty in choosing sides, and for that, some paid prices later. For instance, Du Xian, a very promising news anchor then for the CCTV, reported June 4 wearing a black mourning dress. She was demoted to mostly obscure roles for that posture. Others lost jobs or went to prison.
That was before the Internet for us. While things were stirring up, our main source of information was the newspaper. In front of our classroom building, there was a long corridor displaying major newspapers from the country, province, and county. In those days, it was hard to squeeze for a spot in front of any display window, as everyone was thirsty for information.
In the evening, we listened to the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast one of our biology teachers played with a shortwave radio that must have been enormous, as all of us in the dorms could hear it. VOA’s Chinese program covered the developments probably 24/7.
Worried About Talking, But Still Talking
As high schoolers, we could only watch as things unfolded. It seemed to be something for the big boys and girls at college. Our school didn’t allow us to participate. We heard that a few students from the nearby teachers’ school left for Beijing to join protests, only to be intercepted by parents and sent back. Sometimes worried parents came to dorms, warning kids to stay put and not to do anything stupid.
During breaks teachers sometimes gathered at various locations on campus, talking at length, but little was shared with us. One of our courses was simply called “politics,” so we were eager to hear how the teacher of this course thought about the puzzling developments.
He did not say much until Zhao Ziyang, the pro-student chief of the Party, was removed from his post. “He was a cunning one,” said our teacher, “trying to get away from his responsibilities.” He was referring to Zhao’s comment implying Deng Xiaoping was behind the scene calling shots on important issues, and so blood would not be on his hands if anything would happen.
I wondered why our teacher said that. If he had been so sure about Zhao’s personality, why wouldn’t he say anything sooner? In retrospect, I think he was probably as disoriented as we were, until Zhao’s fall helped him regain his footing in the more familiar, traditional rhetoric (which Zhao did not represent) he was supposed to teach.
A Country Hit by a Tank
That was May, when things were taking a downward turn in the hardliners’ favor. They were mobilizing the country against protesters. Newspaper editorials were written to lament the chaos students were creating.
TV stations showed burned corpses of soldiers, which we heard were done by “thugs” who blended among unsuspecting students to commit violence and vandalism. The scenes on TV were brutal. It became increasingly clear that some major action was coming if so much mobilization was going on.
It did come. What happened next was history. It was shocking. It was as if the country was a person hit by a truck. Yet in the months to follow, there was endless propaganda defending government action. We got sick of it.
After a long summer, we went to college. In the few years we were in college, measures were taken against college students as a whole, ranging from retaliation to discipline to light warnings.
The graduating students, many of whom had been involved in protests at the local level, were hit the hardest. Most got humiliatingly downgraded job assignments compared to their predecessors or simply couldn’t find suitable jobs. Reports were written in their files that harmed their job searches.
Some active protesters were denied the opportunity to get into graduate school. Admission packages included some kind of political evaluation form, and these activists’ evaluation wouldn’t pass even if their scores were high for tests in their field of study.
I remember meeting at the English Corner, an extracurricular club helping people practice English, a guy who had led student protests at the university. When things calmed down, he said, he dreamed of becoming a journalist. He passed all tests for graduate school with flying colors, but it didn’t matter. His personnel files were not straightened out. He was stuck where he was. I remember his brilliance, humor, and optimism. Yet he couldn’t go anywhere.
Weird Military Drills at College
We were the first post-Tiananmen college students. Since we hadn’t been involved, we were only marginally affected, considering many others’ fate. One direct change was adding mandated military-style training that lasted a month after entrance into college.
For top universities such as Beijing University or Fudan University, which had produced the greatest number of protesters in ‘89, students received one year of such training. Mine was a teachers’ college, and the training wasn’t nearly as bad. It was mostly learning to walk goosesteps in various formations on school playgrounds. There was also lots of singing of old military songs such as “I Am A Soldier” and “Return from A Shooting Range.”
We English majors were assigned to the same “company” with music majors. We got to hear them sing with their bel canto voices these rather simplistic songs. It was weird. The whole thing seemed like an extended Boy Scout camp.
All this “training” under military officers did not make much sense, especially after what just happened between students and soldiers. Perhaps it was a way to bring the two groups together to ease the tension. Perhaps it was to show the power of the military to warn potential “troublemakers.”
The training was eventually over. During the regular semesters we had to have political meetings every Wednesday afternoon. That was just a hoop to jump. After the highly competitive Gaokao we were the lucky ones to get into college. It was supposed to be fun. So we ended up with class leaders (classes had leaders called “monitors”) reading newspapers to us while we sat there reading other books or dozing off.
The Year China’s Youth Lost Idealism
In the years to follow, China joined the World Trade Organization, continued to grow its economy, and became an economic superpower. Many of my peers and younger students subscribed to the notion, without government brainwashing as people in the West sometimes think, that restoring order was the right thing to do.
1989 will probably go down in history as the year China’s youth lost their idealism. People lost interest, or perhaps hope, in politics. Money is now the name of the game. Professor Qian Liqun of Beijing University famously coined the term “elegant narcissists” to describe today’s youth, a Chinese way of saying entitled little brats.
People are no longer fighting to install democracy in China. Many vote with their feet. Given their helplessness after 1989, you couldn’t blame their pragmatism.
Disappointment in activists also fed this shift of mindset. After all their war cries to fight with the government, their classmates believed them and died. They fled to the West, presumably living lives of comfort and prosperity. Some student leaders went on to become successful businessmen or businesswomen in their new countries.
Chai Ling founded Jenzabar, an educational technology company. Li Lu was rumored to be Warren Buffett’s successor. President George H.W Bush signed into law the Chinese Student Protection Act in 1992 that gave green cards automatically to all Chinese students and scholars. These cards were called “June 4 Blood Cards” among Chinese, as other people’s deaths led to them gaining permanent resident status in the United States. Today, “democratic movement activists” has become a derogatory term in the Chinese discourse, almost synonymous with opportunists.
Hiding Tiananmen Behind the Great Firewall
After a couple of years, leaders became quiet about the whole event and didn’t want anyone to say anything. Censors managed to drive out all topics related to the movement from public discussions. June 4 the date, 1989 the year, Zhao Ziyang, Tiananmen—all became “sensitive phrases” that vanished on the Chinese Internet.
Instead, there has been silence, which says a lot. It shows maybe the masses didn’t support Chinese leadership’s decisions, as some have claimed. After all, no goal is really worth killing for.
To the older generation of leaders, what happened in 1989 was probably seen as a sh-t hitting the fan situation. Some tried to create the impression that things just got out of their control. Li Peng, Chinese premier at that time, even dismissed his involvement in his book, but fortunately to no avail. People hate the guy. People hate everything about him and his family.
It doesn’t help that his children were among the wealthiest in China. Li’s daughter, Li Xiaolin, was recently exposed in Panama papers for her secret accounts. As a top executive for a state-owned enterprise, she wasn’t supposed to be that rich.
What 1989 Did to China
I often think about what 1989 did to China. Is the country really getting the better deal in the failure of the movement? If protesters had succeeded, would China be like Taiwan or Libya now? If they had succeeded in making China a democracy, would we be seen today as a country respected by neighbors and other countries, instead of a bully?
Could there be some middle ground, of changes being ushered in without blood being shed? If yes, how? Or do any of these even matter? Questions abound.
Knowing its divisive nature, few people raise these questions to us Chinese, lest we be offended one way or the other. Indeed where we stand on Tiananmen says a whole lot about us as individuals. We are doomed to fall short, whatever we say, because the topic is gigantic, defying simplistic perspectives.
Yet I believe what happened at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 is to China what 9/11 is to the United States in political significance. It is sad that it is treated today as if nothing had happened. I deeply respect those who fought for their ideals that year.
I don’t think anyone died in vain. After them, and the death of Deng Xiaoping, belief in old ideologies died together with their youthful idealism, although nobody can bury it yet.