In late May and early June, 1989, students and workers took to the streets to protest the Chinese’s government and push for democracy and better-secured human rights. Thirty years after the immortalized protest, a Chinese-American protester who was there, and who wishes to remain anonymous for personal and security reasons, reflects on the protest, China’s improvements, and how far the country has to go. Interview with Paulina Enck. Here are her words:
At the time, almost everyone went on the streets. It was this general feeling that there was too much corruption, too much economic imbalances, and for students, it was for a semblance of democracy, more representation of people’s will. Political and economic aspirations are what brought us to the streets.
It was massive. The whole city of Beijing was paralyzed. The daily life was … they all stopped. The whole Tiananmen Square, even the streets nearby, were all clogged with protesters. It was not just Beijing residents. People from all over the country had come. Actually, the railway staff let you ride for free if you told them you’re going to Beijing to protest. The whole country was mobilized.
For some time, there was a brief period of less censorship. The state-run media published articles in support of the student’s demands, for a very brief period. My understanding is the staff, the people who were responsible for printing those were punished by one way or another. It was very encouraging, because, usually, you only saw government propaganda, but for a month or so, there was true reporting, journalism, and it was just so different than what we normally saw.
At the time, just about everyone looked up to the United States. There was this statue, called the Goddess of Liberty; it was not a replica, but inspired by the Statue of Liberty, made by the students of the Central Fine Arts Academy. The United States was very much on everyone’s mind. The student leaders all spoke the language of freedom, democracy…
I think U.S. media presence during that time, and foreign media in general, all the major media outlets had a massive presence there, and students were very eager to tell their story in the language that was very western democracy. At the time, the United States had a 100 percent positive image with the Chinese. They all looked up to and wanted the country to be like the United States.
On China Now
As I grow older, I realize that idealism can only get you so far. You have to acknowledge that, in terms of economic development, China’s government did deliver a lot. Still, I believe that in terms of what China can achieve, it’s way below its potential. I always say that the Chinese economy developed in spite of the Chinese government, not because of the government.
I think that, probably, the Chinese people are the most industrious people in the world. They’re so motivated, they work so hard, and they all want to get rich, but the system is really not helping, especially ordinary individuals. People who have gamed the system have definitely gained a lot more than honest, hardworking, ordinary citizens.
In general, I think that life’s better; living standards nowadays are so much higher than when I left China. I always tell people, in the early 1990s, China was just like North Korea. You cannot believe the difference. Every time I go back home, I don’t recognize my hometown or the city where I studied and lived. Everything is just completely changed. People are generally much happier with their lives.
I think the political restrictions are actually, if you compare with what China always had, not just under the Communist Party, there are giant improvements, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. Unfortunately, this most recent government, Xi Jinping, has been pedaling back, that’s very disheartening. People like me, who’ve left the country, and have cheered the development ever since, are very stressed by what we’re seeing nowadays, because, under Xi Jinping, the political front is really getting worse than under previous administrations. It is not very encouraging.
In general, I still applaud what has happened in China. China deserves some credit for lifting so many people out of poverty. On the political side, certainly there’s a lot more things to do, but I think the west definitely shouldn’t be lecturing. In that way, I actually think it’s counterproductive. I think there are better ways.
For example, the Chinese students studying are a great force to bring back not the technology but the ideas and the behavior of a citizen of a society with rule of law. It’s kind of stupid, what the American government is doing nowadays; they are closing the door. I wish China could do a lot more on the political front. I believe in the ultimate drive for a better society is there, when everyone has their rights fully, and can make their own decisions. China is far away from that.
Every country has an obligation to speak out against injustice and arbitrary abuse of power by the government. Especially for countries like the United States, world leaders, they have an obligation to uphold the values and standards. How you go about to do these things is an art. I always believed in diplomacy and mutual dialogue instead of antagonism or threatening. Those sort of things can be very counterproductive. Nowadays, with trade war, etc…
As a Chinese American, I’m an American citizen, but I still have a very strong attachment to China, and it pains me to see. America has a brand, and almost all Chinese looked up to the U.S. as the ideal society they want to have, but unfortunately this has been eroded. Bullying is not the ideal way to propagate American ideals and values; it creates a lot of backlash, and it’s eroding the American soft power.
And, for a government like China, they need to learn to speak the language, the international language. I believe dialogue and cooperation instead of a clash of civilizations, which is very dangerous and not very helpful for anyone.