The spring of 1989 saw one of the most sensitive moments of Chinese history unfold. Students began leading demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and experienced widespread support from surrounding residents. On June 4, Chinese troops armed with assault rifles attacked student demonstrators, killing anywhere from hundreds to thousands in a bloody crackdown. But in recent years, new stories of the events of Tiananmen Square have come to the surface, and they draw a more complex picture.
By June, student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had entered month two. Chinese leaders were unsettled, and army commanders were called to pledge loyalty and commitment to the possibility of military force to crush student protest. Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian refused to do so, and declined to lead troops into Beijing.
The protesters, Xu believed, were a political issue that required negotiation, not military force.
Xu’s defiance is just one example of a complicated and resistant military reaction to Tiananmen Square. One soldier of the 39th Group Army held genuine fears of having to fight Xu’s 38th Group Army as rumors of the general’s actions spread. But the commander of the 39th Group Army never even made his troops enter the square, faking communication problems. Another soldier, seventeen years old at the time of the crackdown, shared experiences of bonding between his unit, stationed in Tiananmen Square for days, and the students who had brought them there. Tears were shed upon the unit’s departure prior to the events of June 4, names and addresses exchanged.
Military documents prior to the crackdown speak just as loudly. A former Communist Party researcher reported that a petition existed at the time that was aimed at withdrawing troops from Tiananmen Square. It was signed by seven senior Chinese military officers, and sported language of service to the people: “The people’s military belongs to the people and cannot oppose the people.”
These stories tell a tale of Chinese soldiers largely unwilling to fire on a Chinese civilian population. They tell a story of Chinese government pressure met with Chinese military hesitance. But they are stories only rising to common knowledge outside of China.
A lot has changed for China in the 25 years since the crackdown: diplomatic isolation ended, China hosted the Olympics and the country made great strides in its space program. 1990 saw China’s first entrance into the stock market. Where products were hard to find for Chinese consumers before, they are now in abundance, and Chinese college graduates now compete for jobs they want instead of leaving college to be assigned a workplace.
The sensitive commemoration of Tiananmen Square, though, remains largely static. This year, celebrations included playing cards, show tunes and confetti.
The events are a representation of political activism buried. Activist groups make attempts each year to pay respect to those killed in the crackdown and call attention to the real events of the Tiananmen Square protests, like the stories of Maj. Gen. Xu that find life outside, but not inside, China. These attempts have yet to succeed.
This is not stopping anyone from trying to get the voices of the past heard. One activist group created a website this year called backtotiananmen.com. It asked simply for people to come to the square, gather and sing or hum a well-known song from the musical Les Miserables: “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Wen Yunchao, one of the organizers of backtotiananmen.com, pointed out that simply coming to join the group, even without singing, would be a powerful way to commemorate those killed 25 years earlier.
Wen organized the group from New York City, spreading publicity by editing a leaked pornographic video to spread the message to gather and sing. While censored immediately, the video, Wen reported, was still downloaded thousands of times.
Another suggestion for activism was tossing white paper from the skyscrapers of Beijing in the hope that, perhaps, these small, raining scraps would remind China of the lives lost at Tiananmen Square many years ago now. Whatever the method, attempts at remembrance and knowledge are alive and well.
– Rachel Davis