Tiananmen Square crackdown

Reflections on Tiananmen: how the bloody events of 25 years ago shaped lives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 9:52am

The fateful day of June 4, 1989, when the central government sent tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square to crush the student-led pro-democracy movement, changed many people's lives forever.

A quarter of a century later, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, now 49, veteran journalist Gao Yu, 70, and 67-year-old retired philosophy professor Xu Youyu remain profoundly influenced by the events of that period. Recently they reminisced on their own experiences in the movement, as they have often in the intervening years - unaware that they were soon to become targets of the latest round of government suppression of dissent.

Pu and Xu were criminally detained on the charge of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" after attending a May 3 seminar marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Gao disappeared for two weeks before state media announced she had been placed in criminal detention on April 24 for allegedly leaking a confidential Communist Party document, and state television broadcast her confession.

Pu, Gao and Xu recounted recently how the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and its aftermath altered their fate but also bolstered their beliefs.



In an old photograph, Pu Zhiqiang, then 24, dons a brown paper vest emblazoned with the slogan - "freedom of the press, freedom of assembly" - as a student demonstrator in the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement of 1989.

"Thanks to a mysterious twist of fate, this has become my life's mission," he said, referring to his career in fighting for civil rights.

Pu said his whole life was "inextricably linked" to the Tiananmen crackdown. A student studying for a master's in history, he took part in protests and hunger strikes and stayed in Tiananmen Square until the last moment before troops moved in in the early hours of June 4. With memories of that time still fresh in his mind a quarter of a century later, he said the crackdown felt like "a war".

Pu was later investigated over his involvement in the movement. But, unlike many people who confessed that they had been "misled" by "anti-Communist Party" forces, Pu insisted he had done nothing wrong and that the government should not have opened fire.

"That was definitely not what they wanted to hear," he said.

As a result, he was not assigned a job upon graduation and had to work at a wholesale vegetable market in Beijing.

With the help of former teachers, Pu eventually got a teaching position at a college and qualified as a lawyer in 1995.

Pu said his "June 4 experience" only strengthened his beliefs and led him to a career fighting for the rights of others.

Pu's clients over the years included liberal writers Zhang Yihe and elderly journalist Dai Huang, after books they wrote were banned from publication on the mainland. He also defended Tan Zuoren , an activist jailed on subversion charges for blaming the government for the deaths of thousands of pupils whose shoddily built schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

For Pu, many of his own generation are living "tragic lives" after abandoning their ideals following the crackdown.

"The most shameless people today are the officials, who always tell lies … but they are people of my generation... I experienced 1989, didn't they?" he asked.

"The event left many people thinking that being concerned about politics is dangerous. [As they see it] don't ever get on the wrong side of the Communist Party, just go with the flow."

Pu said his experience only made him hold on to his values more firmly.

"When you're rich you should not succumb to indulgence, when you're poor you should not compromise your principles," he added, quoting the early philosopher Mengzi.

You need to know the truth … This issue cannot be avoided; it will be forever a wound

"These convictions have formed the way I live and the way I think and no one can change that, not even the police and state security agents," he said. "I never abandoned my dreams, but when one dream is shattered, I will have new dreams."



Gao Yu, one of China's most respected journalists, paid dearly for holding up her beliefs. She was one of the first intellectuals to be arrested during the Tiananmen crackdown and since then has spent a total of seven years in jail for her political writing. But that experience only spurred her to probe more deeply into the country's affairs, she said.

"You can change mountains and rivers but not a person's nature - seven years in jail did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for news," she said, adding that jail sentences have scared many journalists into changing their careers.

On the eve of the Tiananmen crackdown, she was picked up by security agents and locked up for 15 months. Her family thought she was dead. Her husband heard nothing for three months while her brother looked for her body in hospital mortuaries.

In Beijing, then mayor Chen Xitong's official report on the suppression of the protest movement named a pro-reform article by Gao as the "political programme for unrest and rebellion".

In 1993, Gao was arrested again over her political writings and sentenced to six years in jail for "leaking state secrets".

By the time she was released in 1999, she had few prospects. As a politically sensitive person she could not work for state media so she started writing for Hong Kong and overseas publications and websites.

"The only thing I could do was to pick up my pen and continue gathering news," she said. "After I was released, I considered going to the US, but then I thought: China needs me."

Gao said the Tiananmen crackdown "completely smashed my belief that democracy can be achieved through the market economy".

She witnessed how inequality and corruption accompanied unrestricted economic development without checks and balances on government power.

She said she made it her mission to write about the lowliest people who pay the price of the country's growth. While she wrote about the widening wealth gap and official corruption, it was her cutting political commentaries on the leadership that earned her a reputation. A state security agent once told her: "It's your pen that we're afraid of".

Earlier this month, state media reported that Gao had been detained for criminal investigation for leaking an internal party document - although many speculated that it was her own writing on sensitive political issues that landed her in trouble.

Her televised confession earlier this month shocked many who knew her as a strong-willed person. She wrote in her book My 4th of June that while still in prison in 1997, state security agents also tried to extract a confession from her, but she refused.

Twenty-five years after the crackdown, Gao lamented that the government was still resisting political reform.

"The Tiananmen 'wall' has obstructed the democratic wave," she said.

"Whereas the Berlin wall was knocked down, the Tiananmen 'wall' just became more sturdy."

She added: "If you carry out reforms then you have to hand over your power, and [the party's] core interest is [upholding] the one-party regime." She noted that the party recently stated its rejection of Western-style multi-party democracy and separation of powers.

Gao said the hardline measures to maintain stability - the detention and arrest of government critics and the increased control of ideology in the press and on the internet - would only intensify conflict in society.

"They want absolute stability … the pressure is getting higher and higher - but a pressure cooker will eventually explode. This is the law of nature," she said.

"You must have a dialogue with the people … If you stand in the way of people's pursuit of universal values, democracy and freedom, you won't succeed."



Professor Xu Youyu, who was a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1989, said the crackdown prompted many Chinese to lose faith in the party.

Xu tried to persuade students to leave Tiananmen Square prior to the crackdown. But he said they refused to believe that the army would use force against ordinary people.

"Up until the last minute, people still couldn't believe the soldiers were opening fire. They thought rubber bullets were being used, until they saw blood. Then they cried: 'My God, it's real!'," Xu said.

Before the crackdown, many people griped about the party but believed it would continue with reforms, he said.

"[The crackdown] was the watershed. Before then, intellectuals and students believed in the legitimacy of the party but after the army opened fire ... the hope that things would improve under their leadership was shattered," Xu said.

After the crackdown, Xu was investigated for his sympathy towards the students. His refusal to admit guilt became a stigma to his career: he was stripped of the directorship of his research centre and was never again promoted. Until his retirement, he could not supervise postgraduate students and was denied funding for research projects.

Xu said the June 4 crackdown abruptly interrupted China's gradual progress towards enlightenment and prevented a peaceful transformation to a democratic society.

"It made China's development more uncertain," he said.

Instead of continuing to avoid the Tiananmen issue, both Xu and Pu said the authorities should address it by opening the official archives and allowing people to explore the historical facts.

Xu said it was not so important whether the authorities reversed their verdict that the movement was a "counterrevolutionary uprising", but he thought ordinary people should be given the chance to get to know the truth.

Pu said this was a pre-condition for reconciliation in the country. "You need to know the truth before you can talk about forgiveness," he said.

"This issue cannot be avoided; it will be forever a wound."