Reflections on Tiananmen Square, 20 years later

Dead civilian bodies in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Protests Massacre, 4 June 1989.

The following is from an article published on 30 May 2009 in the New York Times that was written about Tiananmen by Yu Hua, a Chinese author who was there in 1989:

This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

But most important of all, I realize now that the spring of 1989 was the only time I fully understood the words “the people.” Those words have little meaning in China today.

“The people,” or renmin, is one of the first phrases I learned to read and write. I knew our country was called “the People’s Republic of China.” Chairman Mao told us to “serve the people.” The most important paper was People’s Daily. “Since 1949, the people are the masters,” we learned to say.

A rickshaw driver ferries two dying students on the morning of June 4, 1989.

In China today, it seems only officials have “the people” on their lips. New vocabulary has sprouted up — netizens, stock traders, fund holders, celebrity fans, migrant laborers and so on — slicing into smaller pieces the already faded concept of “the people.”

But in 1989, my 30th year, those words were not just an empty phrase.

Protests were spreading across the country, and in Beijing, where I was studying, the police suddenly disappeared from the streets. You could take the subway or a bus without paying, and everyone was smiling at one another. Hard-nosed street vendors handed out free refreshments to protesters. Retirees donated their meager savings to the hunger strikers in the square. As a show of support for the students, pickpockets called a moratorium.

China is a nation where over a billion people don’t have basic political freedoms and human rights. This denial of basic rights was maintained by the murder of Chinese citizens by the Chinese government. These are the defining facts of modern China.

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