A recollection of the 1989 student movement in Tianjin
Many people are interested in the events happened on the Tiananmen Square. While undoubtedly it was the epicenter of the 89 student movement, we should not lose sight that large scale demonstrations happened in many other cities too. To almost any college student at that time, 1989 was a life changing year. Previously Eugene recalled his experience as a student in Shanghai. Here is an observation and reflection from a student in Tianjin (天津), the closest major city to Beijing. This post was emailed to me by kui (thank you very much!). I took liberty to modify the original text slightly. I hope more people of the ’89 generation will come forward and share his/her experiences and thoughts.
I was 21 years old and studying in a college in Tianjin in 1989. When I first heard that the student protest in Beijing had escalated to hunger strike, I was shocked that such extreme measure was taken. Hunger strike is not without health consequences. What if the government refuses to give in? But it did not even take me five seconds to decide that I should support it. Almost every student in our college supported it. We decided to boycott classes. Very few students who had different opinions still went to library to study and I saw them confronted by other students.
Some students were frustrated by the slow response of our college. University of Tianjin and Nankai University had already protested on the streets! Finally an all-out protest was organized. Roughly there were 2000 students participated in the protest. It was a bit disappointing that our teachers did not participate. We marched on the busiest commercial streets of Tianjin such as Anshan Street. We were against corruptions and we demanded democracy and freedom. I remembered some popular slogans such as “save our nation via democracy” (民主救国)”, “down with corrupted officials” (打倒贪官污吏) and one of Sun Yat-sen’s quotes “one cannot resist the trend of the whole world; whoever follows it will rise, whoever opposes it, will perish (世界潮流，浩浩荡荡，顺之则昌， 逆之则亡). We marched twice in Tianjin. Although we did block the traffic, overall our protests were peaceful. Many ordinary Tianjiners lined up the street to show their support but I did hear some negative comments from the crowd such as “the more chaos, the better” (越乱越好), “another cultural revolution is coming” (又文革了), “students only know how to mess around” (学生就会瞎闹). The response from Tianjin local government was interesting; the police force was in nowhere to be seen.
We decided to go to Beijing. Back in 1989 it was a two hour trip by train from Tianjin to Beijing. So the entire college marched again to Tianjin station. We were given a free ride to Beijing. There we joined a much larger protest. We Marched on Changan Street. There were factory workers demanded better pay and work conditions. Restaurant workers protested against luxurious dinner parties paid by public funds. Workers from Beijing Steel protested in support of the students… It was spectacular and exciting. We met with other students mainly from colleges and universities of Beijing on the square.
There were lots of activities going on. Musicians came to entertain students. We received free meals. Some famous people from all sorts of backgrounds came to the square to show support. We shouted slogans and we sang songs. However there was very little communications between the students and student leaders. We tried to visit the students who were on hunger strike but were stopped as excessive visiting might exhaust them further. There were loud speakers set up on the square by students. The hunger strike was in a prolonged stage. Sirens of ambulances could be heard constantly. One night, I heard a female voice spoke to paramedics in loudspeaker “please do not take all of our hunger strike students to hospitals.” There was a chill went down my spine when I first heard of that. I felt very uncomfortable with it. If all of these students need to go to the hospitals then they have to go. The same voice made the same statements again and again and I then got use to it. Some students said that was Chai Ling’s voice.
After spending 2 days on the square we were exhausted. A group of students including me decided to go back to Tianjin. We were told that we should keep the student number up on the square. And that was the direct request from the University Autonomous Association (高自联). We all agreed that we would be back to the Square after a hot shower and a good night sleep.
The Beijing station was chaotic. The station was packed with students from other provinces. Some had just arrived and some were trying to leave. Ordinary travelers and students had no idea when and on which platform to catch their trains because there was not a functioning schedule. The railway workers were trying to manage the crowd instead of selling or checking tickets. Finally we got information from other students and found a train that was heading to Tianjin. The platform was packed and the train was packed. Some students were trying to get onto the train through windows. Before the train departed one of my roommates suffered a panic attack. We managed to get her off the train and she recovered after resting in a staff room of the station.
The trip took much longer than two hours because the train traveled slowly and some times it had to stop. I was exhausted when I finally reached my dormitory. The campus was almost empty and surprisingly my father and younger sister were waiting for me outside the building! They looked tired and worried. They asked me to go home with them and I did. I had the worst argument with my parents in my 21 years when they stopped me from going back to the square. It was insulting to hear my own parents saying things like “Another culture revolution will not save China”. I have to admit now that they had more political acumen.
My father said to me, “the CCP was arisen from mass student movements, it will in no way allow you to confront the government indefinitely” (共产党就是靠学生运动起家的，绝对不会由着你们这样没完没了地闹下去). When my parents told me that a heavy-handed crackdown was imminent I thought they were trying to scare me off. Probably it was their teary eyes that finally calmed me down. They took turns to keep an eye on me.
Then came the CCTV ‘s announcement of an “antirevolutionary riot”. I remember that morning I saw buses traveling around with messages painted in red. “Brutal government bloodbathed the Tiananmen square!” “Tens of thousands students killed on Tiananmen square” “Down with the Communist Party”. I was so angry. I cried my eyes out.
After lots of begging and crying, my parents escorted me back to the college. My roommates and classmates were all safe and well. The college did not try to resume classes. We were sent home for extra long summer holiday. When the new semester started we were given a form to make a statement about our actions during the student movement. I remembered hearing a whisper when I received the form. “Do not admit anything.” I struggled a little bit when I wrote down “Did not participate”. Is this lying? Am I scared of possible consequences? I handed in the form ashamed but later on found everyone else did the same. No one in the college was punished no matter what they did.
I tried to find victims on day one of the new semester, starting from my own class; I expanded my search to other classes, staff and faculty members. There was no one killed or injured. Other students also did similar searches. In fact, we could not even find a student from our college who was on the square that night. They all came back when the atmosphere became very tense on June 3.
At the beginning it was all about anger towards the CCP. Then gradually there was some doubt kicked in about what exactly happen on 4 June. I started to question the “tens of thousands students killed” story line. CCTV had shown the bodies of burned to death soldiers and another video in which a soldier was stoned to death. There was no discussion about this among my friends but I have found it hard to forget. I expanded my search to other universities and colleges in Tianjin through my high school ties but only managed to meet one student who was on the square that night. According to him the students moved out of the square before the PLA moved in. Had nowhere to stay they headed toward Beijing station and came back to Tianjin. We graduated in 1991, 2 years after 6.4. My classmates and I had not been able to locate one single student who was killed, injured, or witnessed the killing on that day. Tianjin was the third largest city in China in 1989 and it is the closest city to Beijing. Compared to other cities and provinces, Tianjian provided the largest number of outside students coming to Beijing. If tens of thousands had been killed then by chance there would be casualties among Tianjin students that I have known or heard of.
Apparently we were not really traumatized or we were very resilient, life moved on. We settled down and continued with our study. We dated, found our loved ones, and many sought to go abroad. By the time we graduated there was almost no discussion about the student movement and we no longer listened to the VOA.
One thing I have been kept thinking was the role of the VOA. Many students were the fans of the radio station before, during and shortly after the student movement. Even when we were on the square many students were listening to their programs as if only they could tell us what was going on. I remember at one stage it said the PLA stationed in Beijing was in a defensive position and then it asked some questions such as “Who are they waiting for and why are they in a defensive position?” I immediately drew a conclusion that there was a rebelling PLA force coming to support us!! Until I double checked with my cousin I realized how stupid I was to draw that conclusion.
My cousin joined the PLA when she was only 17. She was posted to Tangshan and survived the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. She received some sort of reward for helping the injured, safeguarding a bank and became a CCP member. She was in Beijing working for a PLA newspaper at the time. She got into trouble because she and a dozen of her co-workers protested in support of the students. They marched without wearing army uniform, but still she was immediately suspended. As the only female officer participated in the student movement from the PLA, she was made “to retire” from the army. All her male counterparts were discharged from the army straight away. She went through long-term unemployment.
When I asked her whether the student movement had any support from the army, she said “No”. According her she was among the very few “crazy” ones that would take action to support the student movement. My second question was how could the PLA soldiers shoot at their own country men? She looked at me with some sadness and said she almost did the same when she was given the task to guard a collapsed bank after the earthquake. This was the part that she had never told me before.
Why did I participate in the student movement? I remember visiting my auntie’s family during school holidays in my early high school years (early 1980s). My auntie’s husband (we called him uncle) was probably one of the leftist hardliners and there were always fierce arguments between him and his two sons at the dinning table every night. It was about Capitalism vs. Communism and my uncle was losing. My auntie always tried to stop them from arguing. According to my auntie, my uncle was getting sidelined by “Deng’s people” at work (he was a high rank army officer) and getting “bullied” by his own sons at home. Probably that was all too much for the poor old soldier, he passed away early. The same argument also happened at school. Back in those years one of the compulsory subjects at high school was “Politics”. We were taught about the Marxist theory. We asked many hard questions during the class. I remembered very clearly one student asked, “China was in a complete turmoil during the ROC time and capitalism was not given any chance to develop. If the capitalism is one of the developmental stages of Human society then how can China almost skip the entire developmental stage, jumping from a feudal society to socialism?” The teacher was often red faced and could not answer our questions.
By the time I got into college it looked like a drastic reform was about to unfold. Living standard had improved but there was lots of uncertainty and dissatisfaction too. Those unemployed were the first group to start their own small business and they immediately became richer than professionals. Back then all college students enjoyed free accommodation, 100% healthcare coverage provided by the government, and were guaranteed with a job upon graduation. It was said college students were going to loose all these privileges when further reform kicked in. It looked like the pending reform would make things worse to many.
In late 1980s there were few reports about western countries and from what I could recall there was no negative reporting (Maybe there was but it was filtered through my brain and discarded into the CCP propaganda bin). The Voice of America introduced democracy and America to us and we loved the life Americans had, free, rich, and happy. To us at that time the America was the model country of the world. Today after 11 years living in a democratic country I have to admit that I knew very little about democracy. All I knew was a beautiful words plus a belief that democracy will fix up all the problems for China.
My family emigrated to Australia in 1998. The old scar of Tiananmen was then reopened again and again. From Australian high school textbook I found that “thousands killed by the communist government”. The number varies from one source to the other. There is no doubt the killing happened, but why is it exaggerated so much? Good teaching material? I have grown a strong nauseated feeling towards this kind of distortion over the last 10 years. The students were pushed against the PLA like an egg was thrown to a hard rock; surely the rock broke the egg but shouldn’t the one who threw the egg be also held responsible? Adding to my suspicion is the behavior of those student leaders we once followed. They have drifted apart from my friends and me when they mixed themselves up with separatists, FLG…
What did we want to achieve? A Great Leap Forward to western democracy? Did we know that in a democracy a protest does not result in “everything we want”? When western public see their governments using their tax money to start a wrong war they protest but then they go home. Did we have the slightest consideration of the stability China needed to develop? Painful, so painful to reflect on all of these! We had the best intention for our motherland but did we really know what was good for her?
To the students, Beijingers, and soldiers who died on June 4th, rest in peace. Although I have never met with you, my heart goes out to you. I am pleased to let you know that China is now on the right track.
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