World China

When spring became winter

Ten years after Tiananmen, China’s activists still suffer

Tom Fennell June 7 1999
World China

When spring became winter

Ten years after Tiananmen, China’s activists still suffer

Tom Fennell June 7 1999

Sheng Xue separates out two large colour photographs of a baby-faced Beijing schoolgirl named Zhang Jin. “It’s so sad,” Sheng murmurs as she tenderly places the pictures of Jin on the dining room table in her small apartment in suburban Toronto. In one, 19-year-old Jin leans smiling against a taxi, bundled against the first cold days of autumn in a heavy red sweater and long black scarf. In the other, Jin’s chubby face is ashen, her brown eyes closed forever beneath the ragged red hole that a soldier’s bullet left in the middle of her forehead. “Jin,” says Sheng, folding her arms across her chest and gazing at the picture of her fellow protester, “died in my husband’s arms.”

Jin, like thousands of students, workers and academics who faced the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, had been swept up in the pro-democracy movement that transformed the capital that spring. The demonstrators wanted freedom, but after nearly 50 days of mounting protests that threatened to spread beyond Beijing, the country’s hardline leaders responded with tanks and guns—and left up to 3,000 people dead. Sheng (her surname) and her husband, Dong Xin, stood with the students during the bloody massacre. And last week, as Chinese police kept the square sealed off and continued their crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents, the couple prepared to join thousands of people around the world in a candlelight vigil marking the 10th anniversary of the uprising. “Tiananmen was the last chance for democracy,” Sheng said as she prepared a meal of shrimp, fried oysters and fish in her apartment. “We never had it before and we will never have it again.”

Sheng, 36, is now the Canadian correspondent for Radio Free Asia, a U.S.funded network broadcasting into China. Husband Dong, 42, works as an electronics technician. They met while working on a film in Beijing extolling the virtues of China’s one-child policy. The two became fiercely opposed to the Communist leadership, yet their political backgrounds could hardly have been more different. In fact, the paths that led the couple to the square in 1989 intertwine with the history of China itself.

Dong’s father had embraced communism from the start, joining Mao Tsetung’s revolutionary army when he was just 13. He eventually became a senior police officer in Beijing and constantly reminded his son of Mao’s maxim that all good flowed from the state. Sheng’s father, by contrast, was an academic who was branded a spy when the Communists came to power in 1949. To “purify” him, he was forced into nearly 20 years of manual labour. Though just children, Sheng and her sister were branded subversives and beaten up by their fellow students. “I grew up knowing there was something very wrong with Chinese society,” said Sheng.

Even so, her cynicism seemed to melt away in the spring of 1989. The whole city, she recalled, appeared to be caught up in the spirit of reform. Demonstrators danced to the music of rock bands and students kissed in the sunshine. Nothing seemed impossible. Strangers would suddenly engage in political debate and even a gang of humorous thieves in Sheng’s neighbourhood put up posters saying they were going on “strike,” and went off to join the festivities in the square. “It was,” said Sheng, “something quite amazing.”

But the Communist leadership, dominated by an increasingly angry Deng Xiaoping, had mobilized the army in Beijing’s suburbs. On June 3, as Sheng was eating dinner with her family, troops began streaming by her home near the square. “I ran to the window and saw the army was in the city,” she recalled. “I started to cry.” She rushed into the street where she found hundreds of people fighting to stop the soldiers’ advance. “We picked up stones and threw them at the tanks,” said Sheng, “but what can you do? You can’t block it.”

She returned home at 3 a.m. on June 4, but a few hours later she went back into the street and for the first time realized the full extent of the violence. “On my way to the square I met people carrying bodies,” said Sheng. “I could see in their eyes that they were very, very angry.”

Sheng’s husband, who worked in a store near the square, watched more than 20 people die, including one man who stood on the front bumper of a troop truck and was gunned down. Others played a sometimes deadly game of chicken with the troops. “We would yell ‘Nazi fascist,’ ” said Sheng, “and then they would fire at us.”

The doomed teenager, Zhang Jin, had also come down to the square. “She was standing in front of our store when we heard gunfire,” said Dong. “She fell and we opened the door and carried her to the backyard.” Jin was still breathing but would soon die. “She had a friend with her,” recalled Dong. “He was upset and grabbed a knife and wanted to go out and fight with the soldiers.” Angry, Dong returned to the front of the store where hair, bone and blood from Jin’s head was still stuck to the door. “I stood there,” he said, “and told the people going by what had happened here.”

The number of people killed in the streets near the square and beyond is still uncounted; some activists suggest 1,000, while foreign diplomats have put it at around 3,000. Close to 3,000 were also arrested. The most prominent student leaders, including female firebrand Chai Ling and cerebral theorist Wang Dan, who addressed a rally in Toronto last week, have been released and are living abroad, mostly in the United States.

Amnesty International, however, says as many as 2,000 dissidents remain in prison, including hundreds—241 are documented—from Tiananmen. Sheng, who came to Canada in 1990 on a student visa, says she is deeply worried about them, and produces four large sheets of paper she says were stolen from a Beijing prison. Down the sides are printed the names of the jailed protesters, and their purported crimes. “Life for setting a fire,” said Sheng, pointing to one of the names. “Fifteen years for robbery,” she said of another. There are also reports that dissidents were executed in the period after the crackdown.

China has never allowed public protests to take place on the June 4 anniversary. This year, the square remains blocked off, ostensibly to prepare for the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949. The crackdown on dissidents has never stopped. The fledgling China Democracy Party was hit hard earlier this year when three top leaders got lengthy jail sentences. Several Tiananmen veterans were picked up in May.

But despite lingering memories of the 1989 carnage, most Chinese now seem much more focused on the booming economy than on politics. As a businessman named Chen put it to Macleans as he passed Tiananmen Square last week: “The students today are only interested in earning money and getting ahead.” Or joining the occasional authorized protest. In early May, the government carefully orchestrated demonstrations by students angered by the U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. Many analysts saw the rallies as an opportunity to take steam out of the looming Tiananmen anniversary.

Ren Wanding, one of the few major dissidents who is still free in China, told Macleans it could take generations before democracy comes to China. “But everything,” he said, “starts from a small basis and by small groups of people.” Canada’s Sheng is far more pessimistic. “The Chinese government is very tough,” she said. “It’s over.”