Twenty years ago on June 4, I was awakened by the dreadful news that the Chinese government chose to use force in stopping the non-violent student demonstrations, June 4, 1989. I had just left Beijing and was in Hong Kong when the BBC announced that tanks and armed forces were sent into the TianAnMen (Heavenly Gate) Square on Chang’An Road (Road of Eternal Peace).
Just days before this I had walked among the students in the Square and later at Nanjing. Not once did I hear a word about overthrowing the government. All the students wanted was less corruption and more democracy in their People’s Republic of China. There was extreme joy in the crowds. Seminary students in Nanjing marched too. They set up a table and served water with the sign: “Living Water.” As the students walked through the streets in huge numbers, storekeepers, workers and shoppers all stopped to applaud them. Huge banners hung from skyscraper windows that once had streamers saying, “Long live Chairman Mao,” now said, “Long live the students.”
It all began months earlier when students were not allowed into the memorial service of Hu Yaobang, a well-liked Communist party leader with China’s young people. Not allowed to express their grief they camped in the Square. The Premier at the time, Zhao Zhiyang, was sympathetic to the students and was demoted and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. When he died a few years ago there was no mention of his death and no service honoring him.
Injustice upon injustice has been the tale of China in the last couple of centuries. When the Qing dynasty finally rotted away, the new Republic of China (1911) had little power and no plan. They were overthrown in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s Communist peasant armies, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. (Strange how dictators like to name their countries as “the people’s country,” when they are anything but.)
At the time the impulsive nature of the young radicals clouded their ability to realize they were winning, they pushed too hard and fast. Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who had earlier said it was good to be rich, finally ordered the troops in. He caved to men like Li Peng rather than a patriot Zhao Zhiyang.
During those weeks of demonstrations there were many visits I had with Beijing pastors. They were not taking sides — officially. They were old enough to have seen enough of how those who got out of step were treated. One pastor rode his bicycle through the square every morning on his way to his office in a near-by church. The church people had but recently been allowed to get their property back and the freedom to worship. So they were careful to not be shut down again.
Now another generation has grown up, with little experience, other than what they have been told by parents and loved ones, of those days. There was no mention of it in public in China. It never happened as far as the government goes. Only in Hong Kong was a demonstration allowed marking the 20th anniversary of one of China’s darkest days.
It was a month later before I could enter China. In Beijing I spoke with the manager-director of CCTV (Central China Television) and others there. One newscaster who made mention of the demonstrations on air had been demoted to lesser duties on Radio Beijing. (We met when she sang Amazing Grace at the end of our 1985 documentary, “China, Walls And Bridges” — Learned some years later she was in a rock band in Beijing — how times change.)
But the lid on the jar of China’s expanding freedom is not secure and in time justice will prevail and a really new China will emerge — not as our enemy, but friend.
Britt Towery is a former missionary, freelance writer and published author of “Carey Daniel’s China Jewell, story of the Gal from Buffalo Gap.” His columns are published in the Bulletin on Fridays. He welcomes reader feedback at email@example.com. Other columns are available on his Web site, www.britt-towery.blogspot.com.