WASHINGTON—A Chinese man stood quietly by himself at the Victim of Communism Memorial at dusk on June 2. It’s that time of the year again; a candlelight vigil commemorating the students who died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, was about to start.
James Wang, a survivor of the student democracy movement that ended with bloodshed in Tiananmen, left the square on the night of June 3, 1989, after military loudspeakers warned students who had occupied the area for weeks that soldiers were about to “clear the field.”
Shortly after, the slaughter began. By the early morning of June 4, tanks and troops had cleared the area, and hundreds, if not thousands, of students had been killed.
"James Wang" is an alias he uses for his safety. When he joined the movement, he didn’t expect that he and other students would become criminals in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Instead, he had hoped that the CCP, particularly the reform-minded Party chief Zhao Ziyang, would move China in a direction that would eventually yield democracy and that the protest would provide a push in that direction.
Zhao, who expressed sympathy for the student protestors, was put under house arrest for 16 years, until he died in 2005.
Now, Wang said, he doesn’t think the CCP will ever bring democracy to China. He doesn’t even want to call for the CCP to restore the reputation of the students who died in Tiananmen Square. “The CCP is bad, and the students are the good people,” he told The Epoch Times. “How is it possible for bad people to restore the reputation of good people?”
He said that June 4 signifies the Chinese people’s yearning for democracy and freedom and that the wish for a better China still burns in his heart.
‘Equal Opportunity Persecutor’Frank Wolf, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and former Virginia congressman, told The Epoch Times that remembering the Tiananmen Square massacre is “very significant” because the CCP’s oppression of the Chinese people “really began with the crackdown in Tiananmen."
"It's a big deal, and the American people feel strongly about it,” he said.
Speaking to vigil participants, he called the CCP an “equal opportunity persecutor of faith,” referring to its persecution of Christians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Falun Gong practitioners.
During his visit to the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Prison in 1991, Wolf learned that the facility housed 40 inmates who had participated in the Tiananmen Square protest in June 1989. The prison factory subjected detainees to labor such as making socks for export.
He called for the Biden administration and Congress to ban any lobbying activity on behalf of the CCP in the United States. “From the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan Administrations, it would have been unthinkable for any reputable firm to take on the Soviet Union as a client,” he said at the vigil. “Yet today, untold profits are being raked in by lobbyists and law firms representing the Chinese communist government and Chinese-controlled companies, whitewashing the abuses and aims of the CCP.”
‘Keep Ideals Alive’Yang Jianli, president of the advocacy group Citizen Power Initiatives for China, saw the spirit of the 1989 student democracy movement continue in the white paper movement late last year. A deadly fire at a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region, triggered the November protests. Residents blamed the CCP’s draconian COVID-19 lockdowns for delaying emergency personnel from responding to the fire, leading to further deaths; many also believe the death toll is much higher than the official tally of 10.
People held blank sheets of white paper to protest the pandemic controls and the lack of freedom of speech. More than 19 cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, saw breakouts of demonstrations to honor the dead and to express discontent.
“Just as the students in Tiananmen Square did decades ago, today’s young activists are demanding transparency, accountability, and political freedoms,” Yang said at the event. “The white paper movement echoes the spirit of Tiananmen; it serves as a powerful reminder that the fight for freedom and democracy is ongoing in China, and the ideals of Tiananmen still resonates deeply within the heart of Chinese people.”
Takahiro (an alias used to protect his family still in China) came from China last year to study at a university in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and was in the audience.
The candlelight vigil was his first time commemorating in person those who died in the Tiananmen Square massacre. He said he joined the event with “mixed feelings.” “China’s destiny is filled with tribulations,” he told The Epoch Times, adding that the significance of the vigil is to “keep the ideals alive.”
In his opinion, the international society isn’t sufficiently alert to the harm the CCP causes.
“As a Chinese passport holder, I’m somehow conflicted,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted the United States to do about China. “Too much international clampdown on the CCP will affect me. However, if the containment is not strong enough, it won’t work.”
The student democracy movement happened before he was born. He said he admired the students who stood up for democracy in China and thought they were too naïve in believing that the CCP would listen and make changes. However, he acknowledged that the social climate might have been very different in the 1980s.
Brian Kern, an American who was in China in 1989 and in Hong Kong during the pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, still remembers the China of June 1989.
Kern, a member of Washington-based advocacy group DC4HK, was teaching English at a university in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province in central China. He said most of his students took part in the democracy movement by protesting either locally or in Beijing. As a result, some were killed in Beijing, and many received retaliation afterward by being assigned to work units in remote areas upon graduation, he said.
“For me, June 4 is to remember the beautiful China of 1989 and that time of promise and hope, and the beautiful young people who loved their country in a very pure, non-violent, non-nationalistic way,” he told The Epoch Times. “And where is that China? I would love to see it again.”