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Tiananmen Square, 25 years later: U.S. Congress hosts witnesses for anniversary

Beijing residents load a wounded person on a rickshaw flatbed shortly after Chinese soldiers opened fire on a crowd in Tienanmen Square in this June 4, 1989 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP- Liu Heung Shing

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Beijing residents load a wounded person on a rickshaw flatbed shortly after Chinese soldiers opened fire on a crowd in Tienanmen Square in this June 4, 1989 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP- Liu Heung Shing

WASHINGTON - Yan Xiong recalls fighting through a crowd to witness China's democratic dream being violently erased.

He'd heard something on student radio about shots fired in Tiananmen Square, on the evening June 3, 1989. So he and a friend hopped on bicycles at the Beijing University campus and rushed there.

He said he felt a duty to join that crowd, given that he'd been among the leaders of the student protests prompting the crackdown.

He saw lines of students holding hands as he arrived at the Forbidden City, with its iconic red walls and portrait of Chairman Mao gazing eternally upon the square.

They'd erected human barriers to keep others from entering the danger zone. Xiong recalls being told, "Don't go, don't go, they will kill you."

He dropped his bike and forced his way through one human wall, then another.

The subsequent scene remains seared into his memory, a quarter-century later. He recalls the tanks, and soldiers with AK-47s.

"(They) were randomly shooting at the protesters as they chanted slogans and tried to hold their ground," Xiong recalls.

"The sound of the bullets, shooting, crying and the tanks — (all) blended in together...

"As we continued to move forward, we saw a horrific scene of students, citizens, who were ... wounded, dying. Few knew First Aid. I remember having feelings of helplessness, as the people cried out for medical assistance."

Throughout the night, and into the early morning, he used a public phone to call updates into the student radio station. He was eventually placed on the list of 21 most wanted student leaders, got arrested, and spent almost two years in prison.

Xiong eventually immigrated to the U.S. in 1992, became an American citizen, converted to Christianity and now works as a military chaplain. So the Tiananmen Square dissident is now U.S. Army Maj. Yan Xiong.

He was among five witnesses invited to testify last Friday at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where a historic democratic protest ended with hundreds dead.

Members of the congressional committee expressed sadness, even anger at successive U.S. administrations for their hands-off approach to the Chinese leadership. California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, blamed George H. W. Bush for a weak response at the time and said things would have been different if Reagan hadn't served out his final term four-and-a-half months earlier. The New Jersey congressman chairing the meeting, Chris Smith, said the 1989 demonstrators would someday be recognized as national heroes.

For now, however, they remain national pariahs.

The only witness of the five still living in China described being arrested, in 1990, for attempting to commemorate the first anniversary. Chen Qinglin was then arrested again in 1992, 1997, 1999 and 2009. He said that upon landing in the U.S. during this trip, he learned some of his friends had been detained again, placed under house arrest, or warned not to do anything to mark the date.

References to those historic events are scrubbed from the Internet in China. One witness testified that the first thing many Chinese do when they travel abroad is open up a search engine, and seek answers about 1989.

Americans haven't forgotten, either. Attitudes toward China have never fully recovered from the massacre.

The Gallup polling company shows that American opinion of China plunged almost overnight in 1989 — from 72 per cent to 34 per cent, and the unfavourable view jumped from 34 to 54 per cent. Today, the favourable view remains stuck at 43 per cent and the unfavourable one at 53 per cent.

But the two global superpowers have a complex relationship. It goes way deeper than any one event, or dispute, including the new spying charges against five members of the Chinese military.

A Pew Center poll shows respondents in both countries offering seemingly contradictory answers —the Americans calling the Chinese untrustworthy in one breath, then saying relations are good in the next. The Chinese, meanwhile, had a slightly unfavourable view of the U.S., but expressed admiration for American values in that 2012 survey.

Tellingly, respondents in each country described the other as the world's leading economic power.

China-U.S. trade has increased about 4,000 per cent since the massacre. Bilateral trade was only US$13.5 billion in 1988 — less than one-10th of what the U.S. traded with Canada that year. By 2013, two-way trade was $632 billion with Canada, and $562 billion with China.

One of the witnesses said Americans who invest in Chinese companies are complicit in the kleptocracy of the ruling party. Zhou Fengsuo suggested a few ways the world could help: Fund anti-firewall Internet technology; reject travel visas for those involved in the 1989 crackdown and more recent abuses; and encourage Western media companies to stand up to the Chinese government when told to censor content.

Yang Jianli said things are getting worse.

Now a Harvard PhD in political economy, the 1989 protester testified that the Communist party is exporting its behaviour beyond China's borders. As the country's clout grows, he said, it has begun bullying neighbours and telling foreign media organizations what they can't write or show online.

He tabled a document purportedly issued by the Communist party. Known as Document 9, it lists threats to the party's continued rule. According to a New York Times report, the seven listed perils include "Western constitutional democracy"; promoting "universal values" of human rights; media independence; staunch pro-market “neo-liberalism"; and "nihilist" criticisms of the party’s past.

"There was a chance 25 years ago for political reform, and a peaceful transition to democracy within the Chinese Communist party," Jianli testified Friday.

"But (with President) Xi Jinping's total rejection of universal values and democracy, and his denial of free thought, the opportunity is now gone."

He and another witness called a democratic China a prerequisite for a stable world.

If the global superpowers are both free, Fengsuo said, they'll spend the 21st century competing to build the best cars and computers; otherwise, he grimly predicted, this will be an even bloodier century than the last one.

He chooses to believe in the democratic outcome. Just like he did, in 1989.

"It was a festival of hope and freedom," Fengsuo said.

"That's what I will never forget. I firmly believe that when the history books of the 21st century are written, these protests will be seen as a major step in bringing China freedom and democracy. I know it will come."

Whatever the outcome, it won't fix all the damage.

When Xiong calls home to speak to his mother, he says, she doesn't recognize him anymore. She's lost her memory. Now, the army chaplain prays that one day they'll be reunited in heaven.

In those prayers his mom hugs him, and remembers his name.

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