Remember in Tiananmen, 20 Years Later
By Ling Chai
Twenty years later, I still remember the sun rising behind the Chinese History Museum, shedding its bright light onto the Square. It is the morning of June 3, 1989 and the Student Headquarters broadcasting center has just begun its newscast. A gentle female voice says, “Our peaceful sitting has entered its 20th day, and twenty more days remain before the National People's Congress meeting, where we hope the representatives will carry out our request, lifting the Martial Law according to the Constitution. We believe that liberty will rise like the sun, arriving in the long suffering land of the East.”
We, the student leaders, and the others slowly awake in our tents. On the Golden Bridge in front of the Forbidden City, a line of soldiers marches towards a flagpole. Above the salutes of soldiers, the five-starred red flag rises smoothly into the sky and all the people in Tiananmen, including the students, stand up to salute our national symbol. For a beautiful moment, the soldiers, the students, the communing workers, and the newly built Statue of Democracy all seem to be in a state of peace and harmony. Nobody knows that it will all come to a tragic, bloody end that very night.
As I sit here twenty years later, living in exile with little hope of ever returning to China, I feel compelled to remind people of the brutality shown by the leadership then in control of China – mainly Deng Xiaoping, as most of us believe it was his sole decision. I am also compelled, in the name of our democratic movement and on behalf of those living in totalitarian China today, to call on the current Chinese government to bring freedom to my homeland, and have the courage not to be held captive by the actions of their predecessors on June 4, 1989.
That night, the world knows, the Chinese government sent massive forces and tanks into the Square with orders to shoot to kill, crushing our peaceful demonstration and erasing any hope that they would reasonably consider our request to further China’s economic and political reforms led by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. We had been there for 50 days of calm protest and hunger strikes, and were prepared for a crackdown like 1976, when the police came in and beat up people and arrested leaders. We never expected a brutal massacre; Beijing City was outraged and the world was shocked.
The shooting started around 10 pm, and by 2 am we were surrounded by the army. Two to three thousand defenseless students, workers, and Beijing citizens were killed. We held one last vote and decided to leave the Square, our withdrawal permitted by a last minute agreement forged by intellectuals close to the government.
Each of our survival stories are different. Two-thirds of the 21 most-wanted students were captured and served jail terms. Others managed to escape from China after varied lengths in hiding and came to western countries. Despite being #4 on the Most Wanted list, I was fortunate to succeed in hiding inside China for ten months, with the help of over 200 members of underground rescue groups, and eventually escape to the U.S.
Today, those of us who have lived and experienced the freedom and opportunity provided by democracy, now appeal to the leaders of China to do the following:
- It has been 20 years, and the current leadership bears no direct responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre. Acknowledge the massacre and begin a dialogue with those who suffered; release from prison the political prisoners from June 4, 1989; repeal the blacklist and arrest warrants still in effect; and create an impartial citizens committee to publish a truthful history of the massacre.
- Revisit the hard-line approach toward political reform. Studying the successful model of Taiwan and other places, it is clear that reform does not have to lead to chaos and civil war. Start with permitting freedom of the press, free local elections, and opposition parties.
China's current leadership need not fear the well-being of themselves and their families if they embark on reform. The Tiananmen Students’ beliefs are grounded in non-violence and rule of law, and the Truth and Reconciliation process used in South Africa and Taiwan are models that could easily be followed.
In 1989, I hoped the Chinese government would realize and understand that different opinions can exist together peacefully; that transparency and public participation were reasonable and beneficial. My hope and the hope of my fellow students was met by tanks and machine guns; death and maiming; blacklists and imprisonment. My hope twenty years later is that today's leaders will demonstrate the courage to change. The world is remembering Tiananmen and watching.
Ling Chai was Commander-in-Chief of the 1989 student-led democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. She now resides in the United States and is President and COO of Jenzabar, Inc.