By a listener in China, name withheld
1989 should have been a year for celebration. Reforms were already under way, and people were beginning to feel at a personal level that the government was heading in a good direction. Changes were beginning to happen in areas that today's youth would find unbelievable. For example, you no longer needed an introductory letter from your work unit to stay in a hotel if you went on holiday elsewhere in China, to leave that work unit to go to university, to go overseas to visit friends, to resign, or anything else. Why did they care what you were doing? In the past, all of this needed the approval of the work unit. Things were getting a lot livelier socially and life was getting a bit better. But the best thing of all was that my wife was pregnant. I didn't care whether the baby was a boy or a girl. I would be very happy either way.
But life always throws a lot of unexpected things in your path. The May following the December birth of our daughter, my wife started to have pains in her stomach, as a reaction to the pregnancy. There was nothing for it; she had to go into hospital. I was going to the work unit hospital twice a day at that time, and I wasn't really in the mood to pay attention to anything else. But then, matters forced themselves on my attention anyway.
Every morning, there were a lot of demonstrators out on the streets. They would go up to the trolley-bus drivers and try to persuade them, because they wanted to disconnect the trolley-buses by taking the contacts (the bars on the top of the bus connecting it to the power supply) off the power line. Most drivers would either allow them to do that or would get up on the roof and detach the contacts themselves. This meant that more and more trolley-buses were being brought to a halt and this had the effect of paralyzing the traffic.
At this point I had no choice but to continue on foot, and I saw the "action" all along my route. Once at the hospital, I would talk to the other visitors on the ward about what we'd seen and heard on the way there. Most of the protesters were students holding high the banners of their respective universities. The strange thing was that female students clearly outnumbered male students in these groups, who called out to the passers-by in a way that moved them, saying, if the whole country is doing this, then why shouldn't we join in too? Let's start our own action, on behalf of our country, and on behalf of the people!
The passers-by stood and stared. They listened, and they sympathized, and they were moved. They started donating money and throwing flowers! Then there were protesters representing the [officially approved] democratic parties, and various social groups. The leaders of all the organizations and work units dispatched people out to keep watch at key points in the city, with the aim of preventing further involvement. But they turned into spectators too and became part of the crowd lining the streets. The residents of Beijing were very tolerant of this disruption to their daily lives, believing that this expression of mass anger was for the good of the nation. It didn't occur to anyone to think that these people were rioting, or causing "turmoil."
Then, all of a sudden, the people watching the evening news every night began to detect a serious shift in mood. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who had been pictured with his white hair speaking so patiently to guide the students, was nowhere to be seen. Then, with the airing of those horrific scenes of young People's Liberation Army soldiers being burned to death, the tide turned, and the people and events of June 4 were fixed forever. Rumors began to circulate about what had happened to the students who took part in the demonstrations, about which families had kids studying at Beijing universities, about people who had been informed they they had died. And so on, and so on.
In Shanghai, there was a dramatic announcement that "troublemaker" Ma Gugu had been executed. Now, the Shanghainese have a habit of referring to something that wasn't perfect as "Ma Gugu." And there it was, in black and white, in the announcement, the nickname of this person who was said to have been executed. This wasn't something dreamed up by the people. It was in the announcement, that Ma Gugu had committed actions that meant he deserved to die, and he had been executed. In private, everyone took this as extraordinarily black humor!
And in those days between the fire getting hot and the ice freezing over, my daughter was still falling over and crying. In the blink of an eye, she is now a beautiful, grown young woman. These days, we still hear about students who are refused permission to return home. We hear about someone who has to bottle up their grief at losing a child. Because 1989 went down in history as the year of the "great tragedy."
Economic reforms and opening up were a huge step forward in China's progress, and the authorities were trumpeting the need to fight corruption all the way. So what did those who called for these things, who gave their lives, that year do wrong? When are we going to untie this knot in our history? Do we not need political reform? Would such a thing have happened under a different political system? It probably wouldn't.
It's hard to get kids like my daughter to care about things like this. But I want them to care. Because if you don't care about your country and the fate of its people, then it doesn't matter what skills you acquire: They don't really amount to much in the scheme of things.
If my essay wins a prize, I hope—ha ha—that it may draw the attention of my daughter. That is my modest wish. Thank you.
RFA’s Mandarin service asked its listeners in China to submit essays of up to 500 words related to the Chinese government’s deadly June 4, 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These are some of their recollections.