Interview: 'Tiananmen Didn't End in 1989'

Chinese society has been carrying a 'deep wound' in the 25 years since the crackdown, a scholar says.

Protesters gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 2, 1989.

Rowena Xiaoqing He grew up as a member of the "Tiananmen generation" in China, before moving to Canada to gain a PhD. She currently teaches a course on the 1989 student-led democracy protests on Tiananmen Square and the subsequent military crackdown at Harvard University, and has just published a book titled "Tiananmen Exiles: Voice of the Struggle for Democracy in China." She spoke to RFA's Mandarin Service on the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 bloodshed:

Q: Why are democracy activists in exile marginalized and demonized?

A: One reason is the lack of transparency. The Chinese official media treat them as traitors and hostile foreign forces. In the last part of my book, I talk about the betrayal of loyalty, about how the students took to the streets in 1989 not out of hatred or despair. Wang Dan says this too, that they took to the streets in '89 out of love and hope and out of a sense of responsibility towards their government. They thought that they wouldn't be suppressed, that the government was willing to implement political reforms. This wasn't about a counterrevolutionary attempt to overthrow the government.

Q: Wang also says that while the Chinese people may be richer in material terms, they haven't gained any mental or spiritual wealth. Why do you think that is?

A: Since 1989 we have seen the rise of materialism and nationalism, which has a lot to do with the wider situation at that time. As soon as the troops opened fire in 1989, everyone decided that they couldn't afford this love for their country, so they turned to loving money instead. There was also a rise in nationalistic education after that. The party and the state remained fused, and there was still no mention of any of the huge disasters of the post-1949 era. But students having started thinking about all of this again during the past few years.

Q: Was that because they found out about the succession of democratic movements in other countries via the Internet?

A: It wasn't just the Internet. The Internet is a double-edged sword. I think there are a lot of different reasons. For example, I was told by some of the students I interviewed that they had gone to Hong Kong to attend the candlelit vigil, and that this had had a huge impact on them. They had never really understood what happened up until that point. Actually we have seen Chinese students overseas face up to this, and then change, to some extent, because of the huge impact that facing up to this has on them.

Q: Many people in China are still afraid to talk about June 4; even human rights activists are unwilling to give interviews about it. Is there a better way to make sure more people know the truth?

A: I think that fear is very instinctive, but at the same time it is the right of the powerless. Everyone has to work within their own capabilities and situation. We still see a lot of people pay the price for June 4, year after year. That's why I often say that Tiananmen didn't end in 1989. Chinese society has been carrying around this deep wound for the past 25 years, and it has never been healed. Of course the government hasn't forgotten. Milan Kundera once said that the face-off between humanity and coercive political power is one of memory versus forgetting. We are keeping these memories alive, and the collective memory of June 4 continues to influence Chinese society. I believe in the power of the powerless. You can see it every year at the candlelit vigils in Hong Kong: that hope stays alive, and I think that spark is still alight in China too, and could burst into a prairie fire at any time.

Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.