How Chinese Students Shocked the World with a Magnificent Movement for Democracy and Liberty that Ended in the Tragic Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
Relive the history with this blog and my book, "Standoff at Tiananmen", a narrative history of the movement.
Relive the history with this blog and my book, "Standoff at Tiananmen", a narrative history of the movement.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Standoff at Tiananmen: Prologue
Sunday, June 5, 1989, was a clear day in Beijing. The early summer sun was casting a layer of warmth over the streets of this ancient capital of China. Yet the city looked amazingly empty. There were none of the buses, bicycles, or pedestrians that made up the usual weekend traffic. The emptiness was particularly profound along Chang'an Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the city. This magnificent boulevard was designed to carry eight lanes of vehicular traffic plus two wide lanes dedicated for bicycles. There were little signs of life. It was a gigantic slab of gray concrete flooded by uninterrupted sunlight.
There were traces of black smoke in the distant sky. Along Chang'an Avenue, burnt buses and other debris dotted the roadside. Bloodstain could be spotted in some areas, a contrast to its recently cleaned surface. Occasional sights of tanks and armored personnel carriers indicated that this was not a normal morning for this city.
A column of tanks slowly emerged from Tiananmen Square. On the wide and empty Chang'an Avenue, the tanks cruised right in the middle of the road. One block east of Tiananmen Square, however, the column came to an abrupt halt. A lone and slim figure appeared from nowhere and stepped right into the path of the lead tank. Upstairs in the nearby Beijing Hotel, foreign reporters crowded into several balconies overlooking the street. They could not believe what they were seeing but kept their video cameras rolling and took still photographs with their long lenses.
The reporters saw the man from his back. He was wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He was holding a jacket in his left hand and a small plastic bag in his right. He was probably about twenty years old and appeared to be a typical college student or a young office worker. But there he was in the middle of Chang'an Avenue, standing alone and still, facing a column of advancing tanks.
As the lead tank stopped right in front of his body, the young man whipped his right arm in a forceful gesture as if to tell the tank to get out of the way. A tense pause ensued as the man and the tank stared down each other. Smoke emerged behind the lead tank as it started its engine again. The tank moved gently to the man's left. Without hesitation, the man stepped over to block the path. The tank then turned to the man's right. Behind it, the entire column of tanks were also veering left and right like a long snake. The man moved along. He was not yielding an inch.
As the tanks stopped again, the man made his boldest move yet. He climbed on top of the lead tank. He looked up and down the turret trying to find a way to see the soldiers inside. He was not successful. So he climbed back down. Just then, several civilians rushed in and dragged him away to the sidewalk. The column of tanks continued on their path without further incident.
Nobody knew who that man was. His age indicated that he was a member of the generation that had staged one of the most dramatic historic events of the nation which eventually ended with the tanks being in the streets of the capital. Less than two days earlier, in the evening of June 3, hundreds of thousands of troops armed with automatic assault rifles and machine guns and accompanied by heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers had shot through crowds of civilians to take over the city. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students and residents lost their lives to their own army.
Most likely, this man had received his elementary and middle school education in the 1970s. Undoubtedly he had been drilled on a particular impending threat to his country during his school years. The American John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower, had predicted the demise of communism by its own "peaceful volution." He said, as all pupils in China were repeatedly told, that by the third or fourth generation, the children of communism would lose their ideological zeal and turn against the system. That meant the generation of this man who stood in front of a column of tanks.
By the year 1989, the doctrine of preventing "peaceful evolution" had already faded into history. Yet a "peaceful evolution" almost happened, perhaps unexpectedly and inadvertently. In that spring, tens of thousands college students marched on streets to demand freedom and democracy or simply an equal dialogue with their own government. On May 13, hundreds of these students staged a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, the holy center of the nation, that lasted an agonizing week. Martial law was declared on May 20. Yet its enforcing troops were blocked at the outskirts of the city by residents. The students continued to occupy Tiananmen Square until that bloody evening when soldiers finally fought into the city with tanks and machine guns.
Nobody knew if the man who stood in front of a column of tanks had been a hunger striker himself, or one of those who placed their bodies in front of military trucks during the night of martial law, or had witnessed the senseless killing of unarmed civilians during the night of June 3 and the day of June 4. It was clear that he had seen enough, heard enough, and felt enough to make a stand of his own.
The foreign reporters in Beijing Hotel scrambled to hide the valuable footage they had just captured. It would take a couple of days before they were smuggled out of the country and headlined through the mass media all over the world. This scene of one man against tanks would become the most recognized symbol of the 1989 student movement in Beijing and what became known as the Tiananmen Massacre. It was a fitting symbol of an unyielding standoff, a story that had not yet been fully told and understood.
In the meantime, some of the reporters could not help to wonder what had transpired during the few months in this magnificent capital. Or a few years before it---for just a short decade ago, the city and the country was a place of hope and new beginnings.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Remembering Tiananmen Massacre in Roman Numerials
The Roman numerals above read "8964," as June 4, 1989, yet another way of bypassing censorship in China.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Standoff at Tiananmen: Table of Contents
1. The New Generation
In the early 1980s, a new generation of students entered colleges in China without having to suffer the misfortunes of their upperclassmen. But it was those who experienced the turmoil of Cultural Revolution who showed the young kids a different facet of campus life. Hu Ping, Wang Juntao, and Chen Zimin were heavily involved in the grass-root movement of "Democracy Wall" and the campus election campaign of 1980.
2. The "Bourgeois Liberalization"
Throughout the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping's reform brought both economical success and social discontent. The new generation of students started to find their own voice, influenced by liberal-minded intellectuals such as Professor Fang Lizhi. In the fall of 1986, a wave of demonstrations culminated in Shanghai and the street protest brought the city into a standstill.
3. The Democracy Salon
In Beijing, students assembled at Tiananmen Square on New Year's Day, 1987. Dozens of students were detained but then released under students' pressure. Party Secretary Hu Yaobang was sacked for refusing to suppress student movements. After Fang Lizhi was expelled from the Communist Party, Liu Gang engineered a campaign in Peking University to elect his wife Li Shuxian as a local representative. In the spring of 1988, Liu Gang organized the "Democracy Salon" and hooked up with younger students such as Wang Dan and Shen Tong.
4. The Funeral
The unexpected death of Hu Yaobang ignited a new wave of student activism. Thousands of students launched a daring overnight occupation of Tiananmen Square to be a part of Hu Yaobang's funeral. When three students staged a dramatic kneeling-down plea for their petitions on the stairs of the Great Hall of People, emotional students found themselves to be on the other side of their own government.
5. The Autonomous Federation
With students organizing their own independent unions, Liu Gang called a clandestine meeting to launch the city-wide Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. Wang Dan did not attend. Wuer Kaixi narrowly lost his bid to become its first president. But the two would eventually become the public faces of this new organization.
6. The Demonstration
Students' hope that their actions would be recognized as patriotic and well-meaning was smashed by the publication of a People's Daily editorial. Under tremendous pressure, the president of the new Beijing Students Autonomous Federation canceled a scheduled march at the eleventh hour. But amid the confusion, the largest student demonstration erupted anyway. On April 27, an estimated half million students marched through Beijing by pushing through many police barriers.
7. The Hunger Strike
As various dialogues between government officials and the masses underway, students were ignored. Impatient, Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, and Chai Ling launched a hunger strike. With her emotional speeches, Chai Ling is emerging as a new leader for the movement.
8. The Dialogue
Yan Mingfu, a seasoned bureaucrat on the government side reached out to students to find a way out of the confrontation. A formal dialogue between Yan Mingfu and the students' Dialogue Delegation opened amid strenuous circumstances. The session came to an abrupt halt when hunger striking students found a promised broadcasting of the session did not materialize.
9. The Confrontation
In a last-ditch effort to defuse the crisis, Premier Li Peng held an unprecedented public meeting with some student leaders. An emotional Wuer Kaixi dominated the scene, turning the critical meeting into a public scoff. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang made a tearing personal appearance in Tiananmen before disappearing from public scene.
10. Martial Law
Disaster was looming. Students finally called off the hunger strike barely hours before martial law. In a shocking turn of events, martial law troops were blocked at the outskirts of the city by residents. The student movement entered a new phase, calling for the end of the Li Peng regime.
11. The Standoff
Tiananmen Square became both a free public forum and a psychological ward for the emotional students who continued to occupy it. But the standoff was taking a heavy toll on the leaders. Wang Juntao attempted to reorganize the fragmented leadership, but his efforts collapsed when a withdrawal plan was aborted at the insistence of Li Lu and Chai Ling.
12. The Massacre
On the night of June 3, 1989, thousands of soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles and accompanied by tanks and armored personnel carriers shot through the ancient capital from three directions. In the midst of heavy casualties and mayhem, intellectuals and student leaders engineered a peaceful exit of the hundreds of students remaining at the Monument of People's Heroes.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Standoff at Tiananmen: Book Cover
This excellent cover for my new book is designed by my friend Alfredo Ocampo and his wife Alma Oliva
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
A Soldier's Nightmare of the Night of the Massacre
But the story has now made into AP news wire, accompanied by a picture of the soldier by the name of Zhang Shijun (张世军), who had also written an open letter with his real name and contact information. Here is an excerpt from the AP story:
On June 3, their orders came: Drive through to the square and get it cleared.
Heading east toward the square, Zhang and his comrades abandoned their vehicles as bricks and rocks flew at their heads and bullets were fired at them by unknown shooters from upper stories of apartment buildings. Members of his unit fired over the heads of civilians as a warning, according to Zhang, who said he was serving as a medic and was unarmed in the final assault.
Zhang said he knew of no deaths caused by the troops of the 54th army — a claim impossible to disprove as long as official files on the events remain closed. Most of the post-crackdown reports pinned the hundreds, possibly thousands of deaths among civilians and students on two other units, the 27th and 38th group armies based outside Beijing.
By daylight the next morning, Zhang said his unit established a cordon along the square's southern edge between a KFC restaurant and the mausoleum of communist China's founder, Mao Zedong.
Zhang said other details were still too sensitive to tell, suggesting atrocities such as the shooting in the back of unarmed students and civilians. While other eyewitnesses have made similar allegations, they remain impossible to independently confirm.
Standoff at Tiananmen: the Book
The book is a narrative history of the 1989 student movement in Beijing. The compelling story of a group of students rose against the tyranny of their own government with a movement that experienced glorious joy of mass demonstrations, sorrow of a prolonged hunger strike, disillusionment with their own rank and file, and a tragic end, is being told in English language for the very first time.
In the coming days, weeks, and months, I will be gradually transforming this blog to something resembling a web site for the book by adding contents related to the book.
Anyone interested in reviewing the book, please contact me.