Children of Tiananmen

Coming to terms with 1989 as a young Chinese – by Catherine Wang


For a long time, the only significance 1989 held for me was that it was the year when I was born, in the coastal city of Tianjin. By the time I went to university, I had heard about the other thing that happened that same spring. The term used for it when I grew up was not “June 4th”, let alone “Tiananmen square massacre”, but more simply “the student riot”.

“When did our youngest son get married again?” my grandfather would ask my grandmother, when he was flicking through the family photo album.

“The year of the student riot,” grandmother would reply, as if it was just another incident to mark the passage of time.

As a child, I didn’t take it too seriously either. To me, the student riot sounded no different to any of the other old stories from the elder generation’s memory box. That box is full of painful stories that a little girl gets bored with quickly, and learns to ignore.

As I grew older, I sensed that there must be more to the story. The difference was obvious – people were relatively eager to talk about things like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, but very hesitant to answer any questions I had about the student riot. “A special year indeed,” a family friend once said to me. “You are the generation of 1989.” But just when my curiosity was piqued he would stop the conversation, or simply say, “You’ll understand when you grow up.”

I went to my mother. “What happened that spring?” I asked. But she was just a woman from a small town, and had never been to Beijing when she was young. If Beijing underwent an earthquake that spring, she only experienced an aftershock – but the aftershock was still strong enough to frighten her out of talking about it.

A few months after I was born, in May, my mom took me to visit her big brother, who worked as a lawyer on the outskirts of Tianjin. When the bus was on the street in front of a government building, it stopped. The street ahead was occupied by demonstrating students from a local secondary vocational school. Through the window, my mother saw the words “Democracy” and “Freedom” on their signs – notions she didn’t think about much – along with “Anti-Corruption and Pro-Equality”, which she sympathized with more readily.

My mother was so scared of me being hurt in the fray that she held me tight and dared not leave her seat until the crowd moved away. At that point, she didn’t realise that the same thing was happening in many cities across China. That she was witnessing a watershed that would divide China into two eras – one era for her generation, and another for the baby in her arms, to whom what she experienced that spring would be hid for years to come.

“We weren’t clear about what was happening,” my mother said. “But I remember we could always see news of the students demonstrating on Tiananmen square on TV, and the tone of the news was quite sympathetic with the students. Then overnight, everything changed. I think you will learn it all in your history class.”

When I was 16, I finally took the class “Comprehensive History of Modern and Contemporary China”. My teacher Ms Xiong told us, “This is the most important class. Most of the exams will focus on it, because it is the history of the humiliation that China went through, and how the Chinese Communist Party ended that humiliation and led China to rejuvenation.”

I opened the textbook, looking for the chapter about 1989, but was disappointed. There was nothing there. Later Ms Xiong told me, “Don’t be disappointed, maybe it’s not a bad thing. I experienced that year. From my point of view, it’s better not to learn about it from the teaching books. It can’t be fair.”

Ms Xiong used to call us “the generation who grew up drinking wolf-milk”. She believed that what we learnt from our school books could never compare to what her generation learnt in the vibrant 1980s. “Don’t stick too closely to the history books,” she told us. “When you grow older, try to read as much as possible to tell what is right and wrong.” She tried to describe to us an idealistic era of dreams, philosophy, art and poems when she attended university in the 80s. There was an eagerness in her eyes to tell us more, to inspire us, but she was also reluctant to explain too much. She was like a dancer in chains. The space for her to move in was limited.


In the autumn of 2008, I went to Beijing to attend university. Since most of the majors in my university were related to foreign language or culture, we had more foreign exposure than other college students. Sharing a campus with teachers and students from other countries, I felt I had got into heaven, finally with a window to look out of the narrow world I was living in.

Whenever I had free time, I would go to the reading room where I could find copies of The New York Times, Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. I took every opportunity to talk with students from other countries. Four classmates and I formed a lunchtime conversation group where we discussed culture, society and politics with foreign teachers in English. For much of the knowledge I take for granted now, when I first learnt it back then I was shocked, and the story of June 4th was the most shocking of all.

The teacher I chatted with most often was Mike, an American in his sixties. One day over lunch, we compared current university students with earlier generations. He was curious how socially responsible our generation was. “I even doubt if anyone in your class knows about June 4th,” he said.

“I know!” I blurted out, and told him what I had learnt about June 4th – my curiosity from a young age, the scraps I had heard from my family, and the official government verdict that it was a “counterrevolutionary incident by counterrevolutionary elements who took advantage of the students.”

Seeing Mike’s expression, I instantly regretted what I had said. Later I found out that every foreign teacher at the university was warned against talking about June 4th and other sensitive topics. After a few minutes silence, he just said, “Why not explore different voices from overseas websites?”

As June 2009 approached, I was told that all universities in Beijing were under intense pressure to manage their students, and make sure that nothing happened to mark the 2oth anniversary. Student Party members were told to “stand in the right line” and were encouraged to observe other students “for their own good”. So were student cadres and student union members, including me.

“I think you are all clear about how devastating it could be if you do anything wrong at this specific time,” warned our supervisor. “And don’t feel bad to stop any classmate from doing something wrong, because you are helping them.” There was a rumour that some students were planning to wear white tshirts to show their silent rebellion, so the supervisor told us that he didn’t want to see any white clothes that day.

On the 4th, foreign newspapers and websites gave a lot of space to the anniversary, and on Facebook people commemorated those who died. But on campus, everything was quiet. When I logged off from Facebook and looked out the window, I saw student clubs giving out fliers for weekend events on the square, with titles like “How to Choose a Stable and Promising Career” and “How to Get a High Score in the GRE”. I felt my supervisor’s worries weren’t necessary at all – nobody cared what today was.

All afternoon, I sat in front of my laptop using a VPN to read reports on foreign websites for the first time, and watch videos of what happened twenty years ago, including of the “tank man”. Even the most hard-hearted person would have been shocked at what I saw. With tears in my eyes, I couldn’t stop searching for more images from that night.

I still have the photo from 1998 when I first visited Tiananmen square. I was nine years old, smiling, with PLA soldiers standing behind me. I was so proud of the national emblems everywhere, of the slogan “Long live the PRC” above the gate of the Forbidden City, and of the soldiers with guns which are supposed to protect the nation and its people. But now it all changed. My tears were not just for those who died on June 4th, but also for myself. It hurts when the world you have built up in your mind for twenty years collapses.

That evening, in my dormitory, I couldn’t bear it anymore and raised the topic.

“Do you girls know what day is it today?”

“Thursday, June 4th.”

“Anything else?”

“I know what you mean,” said the girl whose bunk bed was under mine. “It’s the anniversary. But what can we do?”

Yes, what can we do? I asked myself. Am I as brave as the students who demonstrated in 1989? No matter what they wanted to achieve, or whether their plan was mature enough, they put their necks out and demanded their rights. But among my generation, we closed our eyes when we saw anything unfair, and learnt how to play the game rather than protest against the corrupted rules. From our first day in primary school, we had been taught to be opportunists.

At 11pm, electricity in the dorm was cut off as usual. In the darkness, me and two other girls, Dong Hui and Zhou Yun, carried on talking. They both grew up in central Beijing. On the night of June 4th, a bullet shattered the window of Dong Hui’s grandparents’ house in the hutongs south of Chang’an boulevard. Her grandma, who had earlier sent food to both the students and the young PLA soldiers on the square, was terrified. “She told me she didn’t even dare to whisper,” Dong said. “The soldiers and the students were the same age, but one group was pointing guns at the other. Some students were killed, and so were some soldiers.”

Zhou Yun told me that her father used to be an idealistic young man in the 80s, who listened to rock music and had long hair. “But he changed after 1989,” she said. “He warned me before university started, ‘never get involved in any political movements.’ He told me he would try to protect me no matter what, but there were some things that he could not do anything to prevent once it was too late.”

I remembered I had met Zhou’s father on the first day of university. He was a middle aged businessman, and I could hardly tell from his face, which looked tired and worn out by alcohol, that he had once been a young and handsome man who joined in the movement. According to Zhou, now her father’s only goal was to make money and send his daughter abroad. Last year, when I heard he was having an extramarital affair with a young girl of his daughter’s age, I wasn’t surprised.

As I delved deeper into the history of two decades ago, I uncovered a hidden world. I also found out a secret about my family that I didn’t know before.


In the days before the PLA was ordered to clear the students out of Tiananmen square by force, one of my uncles, then a 29 year old lieutenant working at a PLA military compound in northwest Beijing, was assigned to keep charge over a stockpile of guns and ammunition, and use them “if the riots rush in” to where they worked and lived. His compound also hosted one of the main PLA units from Nanjing that marched on the square a few days later, to perform their task.

“Beijing was in anarchy at that time,” my uncle told me. “The rioters, I guess few of whom were students, rushed in anywhere they could to destroy things or hurt people.” He told me he was in charge of keeping his compound safe that spring, but he still refuses to tell me whether he used the guns and bullets or not.

When I told him what I watched online and how confused I was, my uncle argued with me. “I understand there is a dispute about how the military could shoot its own people,” he said, “but have you ever seen in the so-called balanced reports how many young soldiers were beaten and burnt to death by the rioters? They didn’t strike back until the very end. Do you really believe that all the people on the square were innocent students? It’s not as simple as you think.”

When I started to talk about democracy and freedom, my uncle was irritated. “So what I worried about finally came true,” he scolded me. “You think you know more just because you’re studying in a foreign studies university and you know foreigners.”

In my family’s eyes, I had always been an obedient girl. It was the first argument between me and my uncle, who was sent to military college when he was 16 years old, joined the Party there, and worked in the system all his life until he retired. I shut up, and over the next two hours he lectured me about all the pains China had suffered without a “strong and powerful” Party that united the country against foreign powers. He said how an independent legal system and democracy would lead to an unstable society, the biggest nightmare of his generation.

I thought I knew my uncle well. He is an honest and genuine man, a loyal military officer, a kind and loving father and a filial son. But when I was confused and trying to find a way to build a better China, in my uncle’s eyes I was fomenting rebellion and betraying my country. He believes he loves China truly, and I do as well. But our opinions on what is good for China are very different. Who’s to say who’s right, and who’s wrong?

No doubt, most of my family members have benefitted from a stable China in the past twenty six years. A family who were all farmers before the reform era now has lawyers, PLA officers, journalists and teachers in its ranks, and most of its youngest generation hold university degrees. My grandfather used to tell me how desperate life was when he didn’t know where to find enough rice for tomorrow’s meal, or how the army recruited soldiers to fight off Japanese invaders during the war. He loved the Chinese Communist Party, and insisted that we should all appreciate the peace and stability they brought about.

But that is not the whole picture I see. Every time I go back to my old home, I hear people complain how corrupted the local officials are, how the local elections are rotten with bribery, how the land is sold illegally to factories, and how the factories pour pollutants into the water residents drink every day. One elderly neighbour asks me the same question every time he meets me. “What is happening to China? Is this still the socialist country I was taught to fight for?”

Whenever I try to praise the government’s efficiency, or the stability that benefits its people, I am always disappointed by the fact that so many people are forgotten and left behind. The success and happiness of some is based on the loss and pain of others. I can’t help but think, what if I was born in a poverty-stricken area, and my family couldn’t afford me an education? Would there be anybody to help? If China is a high-speed train, the government provides all the fuel it needs and stops anything from blocking its way. The thing is, only the rich and powerful can be passengers, and the rest are left behind.


A few days after the 20th anniversary of June 4th, our student supervisor called on us to apply to participate in the parade for the PRC’s 60th anniversary on Tiananmen square that autumn. At most five students would be selected from each class, and only the luckiest would have the honour to join the parade.

There was no competition to be among the chosen five. None of the students in my class applied, and nor was it better in other classes. As the deadline for application drew close, the supervisor became worried. He first gave pressure to the student cadres, then to students who had applied to join the Party, and finally to those who lived on scholarships or who were at risk of flunking out. As a student union member, I was also called in for a chat. I felt sick about the way he tried to solve the problem, so I refused his offer to add extra scores to my annual performance assessment.

At last, under this carrot and stick policy, some students applied. And of course, others students did so because of their genuine love for the country and Party. They spent the whole summer holiday practicing how to march in unison, and how to shout patriotic slogans as they were one voice.

On October 1st 2009, China’s national day, I watched the military and student parades at Tiananmen square on TV with my mother. “The Struggle Full of Blood,” “The Story of the Spring,” “March into the New Era,” said the slogans held by students passing by the square, while the country’s leaders smiled from above them.

The patriotic propaganda was powerful. Seeing such a scene, with thousands of young people out on Chang’an boulevard, walking with the same steps, chanting the same slogans, it was easy to be moved. But suddenly, I had a vision that what appeared in front of me became the blood-stained crowd in the videos I had watched a few months before.

I wrote in my diary that day, “When Tiananmen is flooded with laughter and chanting, decorated with flowers and pigeons, a regime celebrates its success. But it has no right to force its people to erase their memory. Behind the laughter, the flowers, the chanting and the pigeons, another group of people of the same race who tried to build a better future and paid for it with their blood, tears and lives, are forgotten.”

Catherine Wang is a writer in Beijing. All names are pseudonyms, including the author's