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Tiananmen protestor
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'Struggle for democracy
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An Indian eyewitness
New Age art of protesting

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Outlook Money
Frontline

Tiananmen revisited

20 years on, a massacre in Beijing continue to haunt China.

Venkatesan Vembu

On most spring days, Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, the world’s largest city square, hums with high-decibel life. Tourists from all over China and many other parts of the world pose for pictures, adorable Chinese children fly kites or race around shrieking joyously, pesky salesmen peddle Mao Zedong memorabilia – and con artists size up prospective victims to ambush.

But for seven weeks in the spring of 1989, Tiananmen Square held the attention of a riveted world not for its tourist attractions but for being the epicentre of one of the largest, most explosive and spontaneouos demonstrations of “people’s power” that very nearly toppled the Communist Party regime that has ruled China since 1949.

1989 was a year of intense economic turmoil in China, which was still adjusting itself to the consequences of post-Mao economic reforms: that year, inflation ran at over 30% and over a million factories closed down because of severe austerity measures.

Simultaneously, winds of change were blowing in the erstwhile Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had ushered in a programme of economic reforms and political openness. In China, students who craved similar freedoms began a movement to commemorate a reformist leader, occupied Tiananmen Square, and demand speedier economic freedom and action against corruption. But such was the widespread popular disaffection against the government that their actions set off a prairie fire of protests in over 400 cities, and triggered demands for democracy.

“It was a national uprising by a great many people who had different agendas, but many of them wanted to get rid of the Communist Party - and with good reason,” recalls journalist Jasper Becker, who reported on the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989.

The Communist Party was paralysed into inaction by internal division between conservative hardliners who pushed for a crackdown of the “counter-revolutionary riot”, and reformist-minded leaders who sought to open a dialogue with the student demonstrators. In the end, however, the hardliners won the day, and on the night of June 3-4, martial law troops forcibly evicted the students from the square. An estimated 2,500 people were killed that night in the area around Tiananmen Square, many of them Beijing residents who had put up roadblocks to thwart troop advances, and bystanders.

With blood on his hands, with the Communist Party’s legitimacy shot to pieces, and facing international condemnation for the massacre, China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping embarked in 1992 on a bold economic reform that would transform China economically over the next 15 years. “It’s inconceivable that the Communist Party would have launched reforms if not for June 4,” reasons human rights researcher Robin Munro.

But 20 years later, although China has changed economically and socially, the ghostly memory of Tiananmen continues to haunt China’s authoritarian rulers. “Everything that happens in China today has the ‘Tiananmen effect’ written into it,” says China labour activist Vincent Kolo.

And the basic weaknesses in China’s party-state system that were revealed by Tiananmen “are still built into the system,” says Andrew J. Nathan, China scholar and co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers. “Whenever it hits a crisis, it can easily lose public support quickly since it doesn’t allow channels of dialogue with society.”




‘Our fight for democracy continues’

A Tiananmen student protestor looks back


Venkatesan Vembu

As a 21-year-old student leader in a Beijing university in 1989, Chen Yong (name changed to protect identity) organised protests on campus and in Tiananmen Square; after June 4, he was arrested and jailed for seven months. Today, he heads a multimillion dollar business empire in southern China, but is still campaigning – beneath the radar – for “economic and political freedom”. In an interaction with DNA, he explains why he won’t give up on his dreams of democracy although he’s profited from China’s economic boom.

Memories of 1989. It was a time of great optimism. I’d read many books on democracy and freedom, and I (and other students) wanted to change China’s political and economic system for the better. Yes, we failed, and paid a price. But our fight for economic and political freedom continues.

Why democracy matters. Since 1989, China has grown economically: I myself have profited from that boom. But we can do even better. This one-party system works only for some people: a few people have everything – money, power, fame – and say the system works fine. But it doesn’t work for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. Only greater freedom for everyone can address those social issues.

Do Chinese people want freedoms? When people’s interests are affected by the Communist Party, they realise they want freedom. And the number of such people affected is growing. From Communist Party cadres to businessmen to government officials – everybody wants to get rid of one-party rule. Even people in government don’t like it because they have no freedom to speak their minds. I meet many government officials and they admit it in private. They go along with it, milking it for money and power.

On his political involvement now. I cannot openly participate in politics, so I support the democratic movement in China from the outside. Our organisation doesn’t even have a name (it would be banned), but we share ideas online, and meet occasionally to take it forward. Fear of government repression. Yes, I have a lot to lose, and so I’m very worried. We do face intimidation from the government. If they want to kill me, it’s very easy (laughs). So why do I still do it? Because the heart has its reasons, which reason know nothing about!

End goals. First, we want economic freedom. Today, the Communist Party government owns virtually everything, from banks to hotels to phone companies. Private business doesn’t stand a chance. Next, we want political freedom: freedom of expression, freedom to form associations, and organise meetings. Finally, we want free and open elections – but that may be a long way off. And we want to achieve all this harmoniously, with the power of ideas, not by force.

Realistic expectations of change. We know our struggle is very difficult. The Communist Party is very powerful and has vast resources. It has no incentive to give up power. But we are not lacking in resolve. Eventually, I know we will prevail.



An Indian eyewitness to history

The only Indian journalist in Beijing in 1989 recalls those heady days.


Venkatesan Vembu

As the only Indian journalist in Beijing in 1989, N. Jayaram had an up-close look at history as it unfolded in Tiananmen Square that spring. In an exclusive interaction with DNA, Jayaram recounts his experience of witnessing the student-led movement through to the bloody finale.

I arrived in Beijing as the Press Trust of India correspondent in August 1988, barely five months ahead of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit to China. All foreign correspondents in Beijing had to live in one of four diplomatic compounds; I was in the Jianguomen compound, which was the closest to Tiananmen Square, and to its east.

The earliest stirrings of the movement were felt following the death on April 15 of reformist leader Hu Yaobang. Students used that occasion to call for democratic reforms and an end to corruption; they made Tiananmen Square the focal point of their protests, camping there in plastic tents put up over nearly three-quarters of the square.

I’d go over to the square almost daily, and walk in between the tents, savouring the atmosphere. Students would hold impromptu rallies, and Beijing residents would drop by to listen. Even in real time, one sensed that one was in the middle of something historic.

My view of the student-led movement, however, vacillated. Even when I saw it as a democracy movement, I wasn’t sure how spontaneous it was. On occasions, I also felt the students were being a little extreme. Some of my ambivalence was reflected in my reportage at that time.

In those days, transmitting reports meant cutting a teleprinter tape and running it through the Xinhua machine at home. When that failed, as happened often, I would pedal down to the telegraph office (bicycles had right of way) and despatch my reports.

After martial law was proclaimed on May 20, there were rumours of an imminent crackdown: virtually every night, Beijing braced itself, but nothing happened, although troop movements were sighted. On the night of June 3-4, I saw armoured cars and tanks on a flyover near our compound. People had swarmed around the tanks. I witnessed all that, but when nothing more happened to the east of the square, I returned home well past midnight. Meanwhile, massive violence was unfolding to the west of the square. On June 4, I got up at 4 am and headed out for the square. There had been broadcasts asking people to stay indoors, so I sensed a denouement was near at hand. The streets were eerily empty, except for some burnt-out vehicles. Knots of people stood around, dumbstruck. Closer to the square, armed guards blocked our path. Suddenly, there was a gunshot, and the person in front of me fell to the ground. There was a rush of activity, with people carrying away bodies and injured persons in flat-bed carts.

For days after that, Beijing remained a paralysed city. There were no signs of a government in control; slowly, after three or four days, the leaders resurfaced in the official media. A revolution had been averted, but nevertheless it was a defining moment in contemporary Chinese history.



The New Age art of protesting

The Post-80s generation keeps the memory of Tiananmen alive with art.


Venkatesan Vembu

The first time Effy Sun chanted pro-democracy slogans was as a three-year-old girl in Beijing in 1989, at the height of the Tiananmen Square protest movement.

“I was too young to know anything,” the Beijing student of film-making, who now studies in Hong Kong, told DNA. “But my mother recalls that whenever she took me to Tiananmen Square, where student demonstrators gathered and Beijing residents went to watch, I would repeat their slogans.”

But growing up in mainland China, where Communist Party propaganda has blinded an entire post-1980s generation to that defining moment in China’s contemporary history, Sun says she “never heard anything more about June 4”, the day when troops crushed a nationwide uprising against authoritarian rule.

Last week, in Hong Kong, Sun walked into an exhibition of a post-1980s generation’s artistic commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the student-led movement. It was, she acknowledges, “an eye-opener… When I was in Beijing, I used to think that Chinese society is perfect. I now realise that my country isn’t perfect… In a sense, being in Hong Kong has made me politically conscious.”

For Kobe Ho Ting-ting, 27, that’s the kind of response that validates the art initiative she and her peers have started up. “When we were young, we didn’t understand what happened in Tiananmen,” says Ho, who co-founded ‘P-at-riot: June 4th Cultural Festival of Post-80s Generation’. “But now we’re about the same age as the student protestors were 20 years ago, and we want to remember the students’ ideals and their courage to ‘speak truth to power’.”

But rather than go through the annual ritual of June 4 ‘candlelight vigils’ in Hong Kong, P-at-riot members are organising a series of events - rock concerts, art exhibitions, movie screenings, street action, and reading sessions - that hold greater appeal for the post-80s generation. “We don’t want to bear the burden of the students’ death; we want to celebrate their lives and ideals,” says Ho.

At the art exhibition, curator Lee Chun-fung, 25, points to an exhibit that uses Lego ‘building bricks’ to depict an “alternative, happy ending to the Tiananmen protests by imagining what might have been if the government had not responded with force.” Here, Chinese military tanks aren’t knocking the statue of the Goddess of Democracy that students put up in Tiananmen Square: they’re dusting and preserving it. And students aren’t going on a hunger strike, they’re having a “pizza party” along with Chinese troops!

“For us youngsters, June 4 isn’t a complicated concept, and we’re expressing our understanding of it from an alternative perspective,” says Lee.

Just then, a Chinese couple, with their young son, walks into the art exhibition. The child, of about three, runs straight up to the eye-catching Lego exhibit. Holding him in her arms, the mother explains in simple terms what happened on June 4, 1989. Even if concepts like “democracy” are too complicated for a three-year-old to absorb, one thing is for sure: the memory of the Tiananmen movement is being passed onto another generation…

© Venkatesan Vembu 2009