The Unsung Heroes of Beijing, 1989: Remembering The Civilian Resistance

2019-05-30
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A group of June 4 veterans visit Zhang Yansheng(center, who served a 14-year jail term with hard labor for his role in the 1989 democracy movement that was crushed by China's People's Liberation Army, in undated photo.
A group of June 4 veterans visit Zhang Yansheng(center, who served a 14-year jail term with hard labor for his role in the 1989 democracy movement that was crushed by China's People's Liberation Army, in undated photo.
Sun Liyong

Three decades after China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) put an end to weeks of peaceful protest on Beijing's Tiananmen Square with live machine-gun fire, bayonets and tanks, little is known about the ordinary citizens who tried to shield the students from the worst of the violence, and who paid a heavy price for their actions.

When then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping first ordered troops of the PLA's 38th army into Beijing to crack down on the student-led protests, its commanding officer Lt. Gen. Xu Qinxian refused to lead the crackdown, and the 27th Army was ordered in to finish the operation. Xu later served a five-year jail term, and his disgrace affected many officers who served with him.

Diplomatic archives declassified by the U.K. government in 2017 described troops of the PLA's 27th army as being ordered to "spare no-one" as they used dum-dum bullets, automatic weapons and armored vehicles to carry out mass killings in Beijing.

The documents also describe pitched battles between "enraged" but unarmed civilians and fully armed troops in the western suburb of Muxidi, and Shilipu, to the east of the diplomatic quarter in Jianguomenwai.

"On the evening of June 3 [1989], these civilians basically poured onto the front line [to defend the students]," exiled activist Sun Liyong told RFA, adding that the ruling Chinese Communist Party had pursued large numbers of them in the aftermath of the massacre, targeting them with punishments ranging from prison terms to execution.

Among the forgotten heroes of 1989 were Zhang Yansheng, Zhang Maosheng and Zhao Suoran, said Sun, who was among the civilian resistance, and who took up exile in Australia in 2004.

Sun has published a book in Chinese detailing the cases of 108 unsung heroes of 1989, titled "The June 4th Civilian Resistance," as well as founding a group to support veterans of the 1989 resistance, the Chinese Political and Religious Victim Support Association.

"They were the grassroots resistance, and the largest group that paid the heaviest price for 1989," he writes in the book's preface. "These ordinary people were no longer able to lead ordinary lives; they paid with their lives and their youth in order to block the advance of the incoming martial law forces and protect the students."

Sun told RFA: "After the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist Party started to retaliate, and large numbers of Beijing residents were arrested and handed harsh sentences. "They were also subjected to unbelievable suffering while they were serving their sentences, and yet they have never been the focus of any effective advocacy."

"It's always the high-profile characters who go down in history; but these ordinary people who did the real fighting have been totally erased," Sun said.

Sun said the students and intellectuals at the heart of the student-led movement on Tiananmen Square and other major Chinese cities had done little to show support for these unsung heroes.

"As a grassroots activist myself, I want these ordinary resistance fighters to enter the public eye," he said.

'Every kind of hard labor'

Former resistance fighter Zhang Yansheng served a 14-year jail term for his role in 1989, during which he was mistreated and neglected, he told RFA in a recent interview.

"In the end, I got 14 years of every kind of hard labor," Zhang said. "Gradually, it totally destroyed my health; I suffered a great deal."

"When I got out, I was left to my own devices regarding income and medical treatment, and nobody would dare to hire me when I tried to find work," he said. "I have had to get by doing odd jobs."

Yet Zhang says he has no regrets.

"There was nothing wrong about what I did," he said. "I was on the right side, so I'll always be able to hold my head up high."

Zhang Maosheng was a regular worker at a machinery factory in Beijing when he heard the sounds of gunfire on the night of June 3, 1989, he told RFA.

He said he witnessed the PLA firing on unarmed civilians, and even kill an eight-year-old child.

Enraged by the sights of that night, he set fire to a military vehicle, for which he received a suspended death sentence that was commuted to an eventual sentence of 17 years.

"Things didn't get much better after I got out," Zhang Maosheng said. "People like us were all tainted, and it was pretty hard for us to get a job, and pretty much nobody cared what we had been through."

But Zhang Maosheng says he has now achieved a certain mental equilibrium.

"I have a sense of calmness and acceptance about it now," he said. "We all want a reasonable explanation from the government, and I hope future generations won't have to go through the same thing."

Beijing artist Wu Wenjian was just 17 at the time of the 1989 student-led protests, that were dubbed the "Beijing Spring" at the time.

He served a seven-year jail term for "counterrevolutionary crimes" for his role in the protests, from which he was released in 1995.

Pay more attention to ordinary Chinese

Wu called on the international community to pay more attention to the role of ordinary Chinese citizens during the Tiananmen massacre.

"I wish the international community would pay more attention to everyone who was jailed as a result of June 4," he said. "Why is every article published overseas about the elite, the student leaders?"

"Why don't they talk about the people at the lowest echelons of society? Their part in the story shouldn't be ignored: it should be restored as a historical source," Wu said.

The last known prisoner to serve time in a Chinese jail for involvement in the 1989 student-led democracy movement that ended with a bloody military crackdown has been incommunicado after reportedly being released on Oct. 15, 2016.

Miao Deshun was to have been released from Beijing's Yanqing Prison after being granted an 11-month sentence reduction from a suspended death sentence commuted to jail time, the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation said.

The former worker from the northern province of Hebei, which borders Beijing, was handed a suspended death sentence on Aug. 7, 1989 for "arson" after he allegedly threw a basket at a burning tank amid popular resistance to the PLA.

Sentenced alongside four colleagues, Miao was just 25 at the time, and never appealed the jail term. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1991 and further reduced in 2012 and 2016, according to the Dui Hua Foundation.

Miao had refused to admit any wrongdoing, and suffers from hepatitis B and schizophrenia, and had spent time in a ward for sick, elderly and disabled prisoners.

The group cited an official record as saying that a total of 1,602 people were jailed across China for their part in the 1989 protests and subsequent crackdown, which weren't confined to Beijing.

"Many more were held in detention centers for long periods, or sentenced to re-education through labor," the group said in a statement on its website in May.

"The foundation continues to seek information on individuals who were sentenced to death with two-year reprieve who remain unaccounted for," it said.

China has yet to make any official statement regarding Miao's fate.

According to unconfirmed Hong Kong media reports at the time, some 20,000 people were arrested across China after the June 4 crackdown.

Among them, 15,000 were sentenced to "counterrevolutionary crimes" and more than 70 people were sentenced to death or handed suspended death sentences.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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