June 4th, 2014
08:51 AM ET

What Tiananmen taught me

By Trini Leung, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Trini Leung is director for East Asia at Amnesty International. The views expressed are the writer's own.

I'll never forget the morning of June 2, 1989. I was living in Hong Kong and, together with a few fellow activists, we decided there was nowhere else to be but Beijing, near Tiananmen Square. It was a decision that changed my life.

We took a flight to Beijing, and within hours found ourselves surrounded by thousands of Chinese men and women, young and old, activists, students and workers – all making history in Tiananmen Square. They were there defying one of the world's most powerful governments, armed with nothing but words, courage and determination to stand by the students who had for weeks been demonstrating for more open and accountable governance.

The atmosphere in the square was electric – unlike anything I had ever experienced – as groups of students, workers and other ordinary citizens engaged in lively debates about corruption, freedom, their rights and the country's leadership.

There was a huge cheer when the students placed their written declaration for democracy in the square. This was a moment of truth for me, one that truly won me over as for the first time in decades, ordinary people placed their own symbol in the People's Square. I'd never seen such sparks of hope, pride and fizz of idealistic energy.

But just 24 hours later, things started to turn ugly, and then terrifying, as the crackdown by the authorities began.

I remember seeing hundreds of people running along Chang'an Avenue after government forces moved in. Some were pushing carts carrying injured men and women, looking for a safe place, shouting for help. I saw blood – lots of blood, much of it from peaceful demonstrators who only the previous day had been in an almost festive mood.

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As the evening drew on, the chorus of cheers had been replaced by the sound of gunfire as the army moved towards Tiananmen Square. I remember the ground beneath our feet seemed to shake due to the sheer number of tanks approaching. At around 10 p.m. I headed to the Workers Autonomous Federation tents in the square. The organizers were in a desperate mood, frantically trying to clear away documents with names of supporters and anything else that, in the hands of the authorities, could put people's lives in danger.

"How can they do this to our students?" I heard some people cry. The mixture of panic, rage and fear among protesters was palpable in the night air. By midnight, as troops moved from the outskirts of Beijing into Tiananmen Square, we found ourselves among tens of thousands unarmed, ordinary citizens who were pushing towards the area where the students were in an effort to shield them from the troops who were closing in.

Warnings circulated the crowd that those heading toward the square might be placing themselves in danger. Still, waves of people continued walking in the opposite direction from us, towards the approaching army in defiance of the warnings. As we headed away from the area, we could here automatic rifles being fired. As the night went on, we were greeted by images of wounded protesters, fired upon or crushed as armored vehicles and troops moved in.

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I was deeply saddened by what I saw – the scenes that were to be seared into my memory to this day – and I felt awful guilt, guilt because I couldn't do anything to help stop the bloodshed.

I had never in my life witnessed violence on this scale, nor shots, and screams of pain and anguish. As the sun rose on June 4, I sat on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel, in front of Tiananmen Square, surrounded by activists and journalists from Hong Kong who were as desperate as me to figure out what was happening. Yet confusion still reigned, as bullets continued to pierce the early morning air.

With martial law still in place, it was difficult to travel home from Beijing back to Hong Kong. There were now huge numbers of troops scattered across the city, with checkpoints at what seemed all the key intersections. We were helped in our efforts to leave by yet more courageous citizens defying the martial law.

"We want you to leave China alive to tell the world what happened here. We will fight our struggles here, but we won't be able to tell and show it to the world. That is what we want you to do for us, and that's worth risking my life for," I remember one person telling us, tears running down his face.

Sadly, a quarter of a century since so many Chinese risked their lives for change, it is difficult to discern much progress in my country. Discussion of the incident is banned on the mainland, meaning that many students now the same age as those who died know little, if anything at all, about the sacrifice that was made on the same streets they walk today.

As one of those who witnessed firsthand the brutal crackdown, I'm often asked what I have learned from those events. And for me, there is really only one answer: We must continue the fight for justice and freedom. And the authorities must never be allowed to expunge the events of that day from the pages of history. ​​


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Topics: China

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Emeka Nwosu

    Though the activists are gone, but have you observed that the people express inward jubilation whenever an official is being prosecuted over corruption  

    June 4, 2014 at 9:41 am |
  2. Jian Teng

    I am one of them and survived. Now I am living in the US. I am very disappointed for the way I had been treated. When I applied for a visa to study in the US, I was yelled by the officer in the US embassy. They are rude and unprofessional. When I applied for a greencard, I need to wait for years.....

    June 4, 2014 at 9:57 am |
    • banasy©

      You are disappointed at the way you've been treated in the United States?

      June 4, 2014 at 10:26 am |
    • chinese american

      What did you expect from a country that has spent the past 50 years listening to the international community chant "Death to America"/ It doesn't matter if its just politics, if the world is gonna chant "Death to America" like its a mantra, Americans are eventually gonna chant "Death to the international community"

      June 4, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  3. Chinese Jack

    It was good to crack down the incident, and earn China a stable 25 years with quick development. Well done, China.

    June 4, 2014 at 11:44 am |
    • Frank Anderson

      Good posting, Chinese Jack. I totally agree!

      June 4, 2014 at 6:46 pm |
  4. Peter mabas

    Democracy is freedom to choose and also take responsibility for such choices, but the problem is that there is so much irresponsibility in the world, that makes democracy incomplete.

    June 4, 2014 at 12:43 pm |
  5. Joseph McCarthy

    I guess that we're going to spend.the next week or so hearing a bunch of right-wing blah-blah- over what happened at Tiananman Square back in 1989 and all phony outrage over what happened to the "protesters" there. Had the people succeeded, China's economy most probably would have imploded soon after just like Russia's did after the election of Boris Yeltsin.

    June 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Ferhat Balkan

    Tiananmen Square... A place designed to fit at least 2 million people. The square was full of people protesting against corruption, for democracy & free press. What they got instead was the iron hand of Communism. A massacre that shook the world. I still remember that day watching the events unfold on television... It is hard to forget what took place. Communism is a plague on Earth.

    June 5, 2014 at 12:36 am |
    • greg

      More right-wing blah-blah-blah from another Tea partying nitwit. This never stops!

      June 5, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    China can't erase the Tiananmen massacre from history. But it is banking on the generation of Chinese born after 1989, who has other goals and interests in life than more democracy. It hopes that the event will be forgotten as time goes by. Yet the country has to come to terms with this dark chapter of history sooner or later. Or else the world will remind China of it every year to mark the anniversary.

    June 5, 2014 at 8:43 am |
  8. rupert

    ^ this is my real icon. I am rupert

    June 6, 2014 at 11:40 pm |
  9. Mac Gudinas

    construction jobs are on the rise again these days because the recession is almost over,


    December 20, 2020 at 7:18 pm |

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