On June 4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party ordered tanks and soldiers to fire at its own people gathered at Tiananmen Square, which is located in the heart of Beijing. Three decades later, the shots fired still reverberate today.
The bravery of a lone man confronting a row of Chinese tanks became a symbol of the night of resistance between the people of China and the hard-liners of the Communist Party that ordered the army action. His identity remains unknown. But there were many others who joined him in resisting and who have spoken out.
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Among the thousands of student protesters was Peking University student athlete Fang Zheng. He dreamed of one day representing China as a track-and-field Olympic athlete. He, too, like tank man, stood in front of a tank on the night of June 4.
Poisonous gas released by the army on the streets clouded Fang’s vision and a classmate fell dizzy to the ground. He ran toward her, trying to get her off the street. That was when Fang noticed tanks quickly bearing down on him. By that time, it was too late to run and he lay there helplessly as a tank ran over his legs.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he told VOA in Mandarin. “Other students were completely crushed by the tanks and did not survive.” Today, Fang lives in exile in the United States. He says the events of June 4 still haunt him.
“For us survivors, the Tiananmen incident is not something of the past. The Chinese government has not done anything to fully recognize or apologize for the crimes and so I feel a responsibility to remind people to not forget what happened 30 years ago,” he said.
Attack the people, retain power
The bloodshed in Tiananmen that night was a culmination of tension that had been building for months.
The movement swelled into a nationwide effort with millions of citizens across China marching freely and peacefully for weeks, seeking democracy and an end to government corruption. At Tiananmen Square, protesters propped up a 10-meter-tall “Goddess of Democracy” statue that resembled the Statue of Liberty.
But the movement did not last.
The Communist Party’s use of its military, the People’s Liberation Army, to attack its own people demonstrated to the world the extent to which the government was willing to go to suppress democracy and freedom of speech.
“The Chinese military going against the Chinese people has huge symbolism,” said Michael Davis, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. “A lot of militaries, including the one in the United States, is geared towards external threat, but in China the PLA is very much geared towards internal threat and that’s still widely used today.”
Currently, the PLA’s suppression of its own people is manifested in Xinjiang and Tibet, Davis said. Recent reports have surfaced from Xinjiang that an increasing number of Uighurs are being held in political indoctrination camps, which the Chinese government has described as “re-education camps.”
Since that night of the crackdown, China has not witnessed dissent or uprising anywhere similar in scale. In that way, the Communist Party has been successful in developing the economy at all costs. Davis describes the current democracy movement in China as “virtually nonexistent.”
Yet the Chinese government continues to grip firmly onto its power censoring information on not just on the Tiananmen protests but also on sensitive topics that question the government’s legitimacy.
Ahead of June 4, the government again has ramped up efforts to mute dissent.
Authorities have detained dozens of people and taken down social media accounts talking about the massacre — part of a pre-emptive crackdown on those who are trying to commemorate the protests. Davis says Xi Jinping’s continuing obsession with censoring any talk on Tiananmen reflects the growing insecurity of the leadership.
“I think the leaders know that as a society becomes richer, there’s an incentive to change the form of government to make it more democratic, more open,” Davis said. “I think under [President] Xi Jinping, the evidence is very clear that he feels that any relaxation of the grip of the Communist Party would be a threat.”
As a result, the Chinese government has successfully created a society and a new generation of students that does not dare to question or openly debate the government and its flawed history.
“Once my classmates and I learned about what really happened at Tiananmen, we simply chose not to talk about it. I think we’re a generation that does not like to debate, especially about these sensitive issues,” said Qu Yige, a former college student in China who secretly watched a documentary on the Tiananmen protests that was passed on to him by an older classmate.
‘A full public accounting’
Official figures of how many were killed 30 years ago remain ambiguous as the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge and officially document the massacre. The international community and political activists like Fang have repeatedly called on the government to take responsibility for the crime it had committed on its own people.
“The U.S. has called for, and we will continue to call for, as have others in the international community, a full public accounting for those killed, detained and missing,” said State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus during a recent press briefing. “We shouldn’t forget this — this is a full-on massacre.”
This week at an international dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe again repeated the official line when asked about the crackdown, saying it was the “correct” policy to stop the “turbulence.”
Despite China’s repeated attempts to rewrite history and repress commemorations of the June 4 massacre, cities across the world have demonstrated that they have not forgotten.
More than 2,000 people marched on the streets of Hong Kong to mark the 30th anniversary last week, and cities across the United States — including Washington and Boston — are holding rallies and candlelight vigils throughout the week.