By Mark David Blum, Esq.
I am stunned today to be reminded that twenty years have passed since the Tianamen Square massacre. Bearing witness to the brave souls who stood at the forefront of liberty and democracy and who were crushed by the weight of Chinese tanks those days in June still haunt me. It has been twenty years since I saw a single man stare down a convoy of military hardware. That single event became a part of my history; an event I swore I would never forget. Now two decades later, my heart still re-experiences that birth of a new nation.
Say what you will about China, there is no debate that the Tianamen Square protests impacted and changed Chinese culture. Coupled with the incorporation of Hong Kong a couple years later, the twin concepts of open society and free speech have become popular notions in Chinese society. There is a marked shift in their market policies and their moving toward capitalism has seen barriers that interfere with business be broken down. It still is an authoritarian and unfree society, but China changed significantly as a result of the June 1989 protests.
I was in law school when the students in China took to the streets. Every day for weeks, news was wall to wall coverage of the protests. More and more protestors came to the Square every day. It was the birth of a movement; one supported by tens of thousands. Protestors were students, the educated class.
In many ways the Tianamen protests were no different than any number of protests that I have ever seen. Indeed I saw firsthand a couple of protests and one riot while I matriculated at U.C. Berkeley and over the years, I have witnessed news reports on plenty others. At one level, the Tianamen Square protestors were not unique in behavior or attitude.
Yet I could not help but marvel that these protests were happening in China. At the time, a staunch Communist in theory, Authoritarian in nature nation that did not really seem to care if it got along with the world. The Chinese were experimenting with capitalism but keeping a tight noose around it. My undergrad years and Senior Honors Thesis were all about social change and control. It was of great personal interest to see happening before me all those things I had learned about just years prior. To see a fledgling democracy take its first steps was very powerful indeed and is imagery that remains with me to this day.
Then the tanks came.
If ever there was a photograph that captured a moment of worldwide significance, it is of the man standing before a line of tanks. The Chinese government sent their equivalent of the national guard to respond to the student protests. Thousands of soldiers and military machines moved in on and surrounded the protestors. One tank platoon was headed down a roadway toward the protestors when a man came out of the crowd and stood before the massive machines. The entire line of tanks came to a halt at the feet of the man. For several hours this single man held a column of Chinese tanks at bay. That image is one of the greatest photographs ever taken.
As remarkable and fascinating was it to witness the birth of the democracy movement in China, it was just as horrifying to see how brutal was the Chinese government’s ending the Tianamen Square protests. Soldiers from mostly the rural interior of China, were ordered to open fire upon the students and to take back the square. Satellite uplinks were suddenly severed and every news link to events went dead. Only cellphone technology, such as it was, enabled any real news to reach the West as to events in the Square.
Hundreds if not thousands, were killed and wounded by soldiers. Unarmed students were shot. They were run over by tanks and trucks. China intended to end the protests and take back the Square and they spared no bullet nor Yuan toward that goal. News reporters from around the world were detained and kept away from the assault by soldiers upon the Square. The incident still haunts Chinese soldiers who took part. In the 20 years since, China has never offered a full accounting of the crackdown, which government leaders refer to as a "political disturbance." An official silence has been maintained around the incident, with nothing written in school textbooks and public discussion virtually taboo.
What I experienced and witnessed was cruel, inhuman and an act of government that should never be forgotten or forgiven. I cannot forgive the Chinese government for its actions. No justification exists for a government to turn on its own citizens. What government that declares war against its own people can have any legitimacy? These were children, young adults that had been nurtured and who had grown and who had been educated in Universities. Summarily, they were slaughtered solely because they demanded the right to be heard. “Free speech” was at the core of the student protest and it was ground zero for the military response.
From the birthing of a new democracy to the shrill demands for free speech, I will never forget the images I watched on television back in June of 1989. My heart and my sympathies were with the “People” as they stood up to an authoritarian regime. I was impressed by the levels of their audacity and their numbers. My thinking at the time was trying to figure out how these protests were going to create change in Chinese society and government. Then suddenly I was witness to a slaughter and the horror that went along with the government assault. These moments are forever burned into my heart. I will not forget. I will not forgive.