TORONTO—Twenty years ago they stood in Tiananmen Square, singing the songs of the Communist Party they earnestly hoped to reform. These party-loyal activists, students mostly, didn't imagine the tanks would roll in. On June 4, they learned the lesson their parents were afraid to tell them: their great party was a killing machine.
Twenty years later the seeds of dissent that began that summer have begun to sprout anew, and the Chinese Communist Party no longer has the fervent adoration of the young, many of whom went abroad and became hard-line anti-communists.
Like author and journalist Sheng Xue, who moved from Beijing to Canada soon after the massacre and has won multiple national journalism awards for her work in her adopted country.
Ms. Sheng says she never really believed in the ruling Chinese Communist Party but most of those who gathered on Tiananmen Square twenty years ago Thursday certainly did.
“Most of those Chinese students really wanted to help the Chinese government to have more progress,” she explained. “They wished China to be better and have less corruption and they wanted to show their loyalty to the country.”
The students hoped to accelerate reforms already begun under Secretary General and then-leader of China Zhao Ziyang.
The protest began as a public demonstration of mourning on April 16, marking the death the day before of former Chinese leader Hu Yaobang. That reform-minded, pro-democracy leader had been purged from the party for his democratic tendencies two years prior and his death became a rallying point for students who wanted a better China.
Zhao, too, was purged from the party directly after the Tiananmen crackdown and spent the rest of his life under house arrest for his democratic ideals and sympathy for the Tiananmen Square protesters.
Many of the students gathered in Tiananmen from mid-April to June 4 could be heard singing propaganda songs extolling the virtues of the party. When three students threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in Tiananmen Square, other students turned them in to the authorities where they were handed sentences from nine years to life in prison.
The students saw themselves as patriotic protesters, recalls Xu Youyu, a professor and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences whose recent speech on the topic delivered in Beijing was translated and posted online.
Xu says the regime had branded itself as a revolutionary yet loyal party and that the students had naively believed their actions would be welcomed. With many of the protesters having only been born during the Cultural Revolution and information about the regime’s past atrocities being sharply censored, few knew what the party was capable of.
Few imagined what was to come.
One evening of June 3 the assault began, not with rubber bullets and tear gas, but with troops armed with machine guns and bayonets and armored personnel carriers that fired indiscriminately ahead and around themselves. In the bloody night and day ahead, anywhere from 300 to 7,000 were killed, some of them soldiers, the vast majority of them students. The Chinese Red Cross put the number at 2,600 on the morning of June 4.
"It was a military operation,” said retired U.S. military colonel Larry Wortzel, who was in the Beijing at the time and witnessed the attacks and spoke recently at a forum in Washington, D.C. “There were phase lines. The levels of force that were to be used at different phases of the operation were to be dictated.”
Unarmed students fleeing the square were not allowed to escape. Many were chased down, some run over by tanks.
In a matter of hours, the tens-of-thousands-strong democracy movement had been crushed, but along with it was many students’ faith in the party to reform itself.
“It is quite different now,” says Sheng. “In 1989, most Chinese students were very passionate, much more passionate than now, they had a great wish for a better future for China, and they want to participate and contribute for a better future for China.”
Today, says Sheng, the party is sustained by those who’ve benefited the most from economic reforms.
But there are a growing number with grievances, and many of them no longer hold faith in the party’s ability to address them.
As the regime prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary it does so when public demonstrations and riots are at an all time high. In January, China's state-run Xinhua news agency published an article saying this year will be the peak period for “mass incidents.”
Official reports of “mass incidents” in China, including riots, protests, and other mass causes, grew by more than seven times over ten years to 74,000 in 2004. Since then, officials have been tight lipped about the details of unrest in China, but many suspect it has continued to increase.
Rising unemployment has crushed the promise of a better life that brings migrant workers flooding to China's cities. The upcoming graduation of students in July is expected to push tensions even higher, says the report. The Chinese Acadamey of Social Sciences put unemployment at double the regime’s estimates earlier this year.
But worst of all, the party has lost its faithful.
Rather than idealism, Sheng says Chinese today follow the party under a social contract: a better standard of living for continued support. Those naïve protesters of 1989 have been replaced by a generation looking out for number one and an older generation that is bearing the scars of too many injustices. A massive Chinese diaspora has also seen life abroad and knows what a society without communism feels like.
“So many many more people have started to criticize the Chinese government because they know it is a shame to China, a shame to the Chinese people, to have a dictatorship into the 21st century,” says Sheng.
Wang Dan, a former student leader in the Tianamen Square movement who was imprisoned and later moved to the U.S. told reporters in Toronto that this year the attention to June 4th was far beyond his expectation. "We have thought that the commemoration of the 20 anniversary would be more than the past, but did not anticipated the world wide media's high attention on it."
An unusually high number of mainland Chinese also showed up at an annual candle light vigil at the University of Toronto on Sunday to commemorate the massacre.
An organizer told the Epoch Times that in past years most attendees were from Hong Kong. But this year, he said there significantly more Mainland Chinese among the 400 strong crowd.
Further, the consequences Chinese citizens have paid for having that dictatorship have made it easier to envision a new kind of China.
“More and more people can imagine that China would run better without the Chinese Communist Party since more and more people have been tarnished, have been persecuted have been assaulted, have lost their rights, been wrongfully treated or have some problems and they know that there is no justice in China and it is not fair.”
“Most have had the experience of unfairness, so more and more people think 'Why is that, why do we have to live like this?'”
Sheng points to the case of a young waitress who killed one of three government officials who were trying to rape her. The incident has caused outrage across China.
“We couldn't image people would be so active and angry before. I think that people said that thousands maybe millions are very angry about this case. They want the CCP to punish the officers and release the girl. That is very encouraging, and a lot of people are signing their real names to petitions to support the girl.”
Other efforts include support groups and lawyer groups. Chinese bloggers have even issued a call to take their denouncements from the web onto the street.
The new surge in dissent appears to have communist leaders wary. The regime’s censors blocked access to popular social networking websites Hotmail, Twitter, and Flickr just two days before the sensitive anniversary, media reported.
“We could have change in one day,” says Sheng. “So many people are so unhappy with the regime and so many people are very hopeless in China and they want to make change, so many people wish for change every minute but they need to have a chance.”
Additional reporting by Gary Feuerberg in Washington, D.C.