20 years since the “incident” at the Gate of Heavenly Peace
Thursday was the anniversary of what the Chinese government calls “the June 4 incident.” That nice bit of understatement describes the killing of somewhere between 241 and 2,600 protesters by the People's Liberation Army.
The first is the official government figure. The second is an early estimate by the Chinese Red Cross, which they now deny they ever said. Really. You must be confusing us with somebody else.
The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 followed the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, former Secretary General of the Communist Party of China and prominent advocate of reform, from a heart attack. Hu had been forced to resign by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and humiliate himself publicly in a “self-criticism” session.
A demand for a reversal of the verdict against Hu was the focal point for a growing demonstration in the 100-acre square in the heart of Beijing by Chinese students, workers, disillusioned Party members and masses of people who felt the longing people in communist countries had for anything resembling a normal life.
Protesting students erected a statue of the Goddess of Democracy, modeled on the Statue of Liberty with a Chinese face.
At the time I was a grad student at Oklahoma University, and helping a couple of Chinese students defect.
I'd gotten involved by helping Tang, an archeology student in our department, by proof reading his papers. I actually don't know how he'd gotten in, his pronunciation was horrible and his written English needed a lot of editing. And to give you an idea of how naive he was, he told me his original destination in the U.S. was Harvard, but a friend had talked him into coming to OU with him.
One evening at a party I was making small talk about history and made some off-hand remark about the good fortune of our country in having such a wealth of natural resources.
Tang burst out, “No! Here you are rich because you have freedom!”
“We've got to talk,” I said.
In the course of conversation, it turned out Tang desperately wanted to stay in America – and was an overstay on a J1 student visa.
The J1 visa allows one year of study in the U.S., after which the student must return to his home country and must wait two years before he or she is eligible to return. At the time, we had about 40,000 Chinese students in the U.S. on J1 visas.
It also turned out that Tang had been rather free with his pro-democracy sentiments and admiration of America, and had just discovered his room mate was an informer for Chinese Security. He found out when he got the phone bill, and saw the record of a few hundred calls to the Chinese consulate in Houston.
I couldn't help but laugh, “Tang this girl can't have been a professional if she didn't know all long distance calls are itemized on American phone bills. A real pro would sneak down to the pay phone on the corner.”
I introduced Tang, and his new fiancee Ying, to my housemate who was Director of Hispanic Student Services at the university, on the assumption he might know something about immigration problems.
All this time, the tension was building in Beijing at Tiananmen, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” We saw on TV that heroic, unnamed youth standing in front of a line of tanks, and making them back off.
Then the killing started and we all saw the face of a protester on the cover of Newsweek, lying on the pavement his face covered with blood.
The next day, the Chinese students on campus held a demonstration, and crossed their own Rubicon by signing a petition condemning the killings. I saw them on the oval carrying the American flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner.
Since the Vietnam war, the national anthem had left a bad taste in my mouth when I remembered young barbarians burning the American flag, and old scoundrels wrapping themselves in it. I hadn't sung the anthem myself in a long time, and here were all these Chinese kids singing their hearts out.
They were, in a word, awful. It's a difficult song at best and they were so off-key they needed a search party to find it. And in the middle of it I realized I was crying.
The rest is history. The protests were crushed, and a number of protesters tried and executed. But reportedly only workers, no students or intellectuals. The statue of the Goddess of Democracy was demolished. George Bush Sr. solved my friends' problem by unilaterally abrogating the visa treaty, and we got 40,000 new Americans.
But I came across the goddess years later, while out walking in Washington, D.C. There she was at the intersection of Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues and G Street, NW, within view of the U.S. Capitol. She was chosen as the appropriate symbol for the Victims of Communism Memorial. There people from many lands lay flowers and light candles at her feet in memory of their own dead.