Settling Tiananmen's accounts

Sun Journal

Protest: For some, the uprising seems all but lost in material gains

for others, the struggle launched a decade ago isn't over.

June 04, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Ten years ago today Song Bin stood with thousands of protesters as soldiers and tanks closed in to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement under the cover of darkness.

By the time he left the sprawling expanse of concrete around 12: 30 a.m., unarmed citizens who had built barricades to protect him and the student demonstrators lay dead more than a mile away where soldiers had bayoneted or shot them.

Song, then 24, was a journalist with People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper. Covering the protests on college campuses that spring, he became swept up in the cause.

"At the beginning, I was just an objective reporter," Song recalls. "But as I interviewed more and more people, I was moved and became a participant."

Since those heady days when it looked as though the world's most populous nation might turn toward democracy, Song and China have changed drastically. Simply put: Both are much wealthier, but still enjoy little in the way of political freedom.

Back then, Song wore blue jeans, lived in a government-owned dormitory and rode a green Flying Pigeon bicycle. Today, he carries a cell phone, drives an Acura Legend and runs a private company with interests ranging from real estate to garbage processing.

"Ten years ago I was purely idealistic," says Song. "Now I'm a pragmatist, but I still appreciate the same values."

Song's words could serve as a motto for a generation of young, urban Chinese who came of age in the Beijing Spring of 1989. After failing to bring about democratic change, most abandoned political activism, embraced capitalism and focused on improving their livelihoods.

How the Communist Party managed and facilitated this about-face after killing its own people is a testament to the power of repression, propaganda and the economic policies of the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The protests began to take form after April 15, 1989, following the death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party chief who had been sacked for not dealing more forcefully with student demonstrations several years earlier.

Student mourners poured into Tiananmen Square, using Hu's death as an opportunity to praise him while criticizing more conservative leaders such as Deng. As the crowds swelled -- eventually reaching an estimated 1 million -- students called for reforms, including a free press, free speech and an end to corruption.

When then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for a summit in mid-May, the international news media followed. The image of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators brazenly taking on China's Communist Party galvanized the world.

Having failed to enforce martial law, party leaders sent in the army to retake Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. In the hail of bullets that followed, the dead numbered at least in the hundreds.

With the capital back under control, the regime launched a nationwide manhunt for the demonstration's leaders. Some received long prison terms. Others fled into exile.

The state-controlled media began a campaign to recast the popular uprising as a "counter-revolutionary" riot. Disillusioned with the authoritarian system and denied the right to organize, people gravitated toward a new opportunity that the regime encouraged: making money.

Although students failed in their demands for basic political rights, the government met many of their more practical ones, creating an atmosphere of greater personal freedom and unprecedented prosperity.

Ten years ago, officials assigned jobs to graduating students -- a system they despised. Today, students can choose where they work, including the thousands of foreign joint-venture companies where salaries are many times higher than those at state enterprises.

Like some Beijingers, Song looks back on the spring of 1989 as a dangerous period when a well- intentioned movement nearly plunged the nation into chaos.

"I agree with what Deng Xiaoping said: `Let history judge it,' " says Song, who served four months in jail after the crackdown. "As a manager and a citizen, I hope China will be stable and develop gradually. If democracy had turned out like Russia, I would prefer not to have it."

Song, who left Tiananmen Square early June 4 to meet his brother, survived and prospered. Jiang Jielian, a 17-year-old high school student, did not.

Despite his mother's pleas, Jiang went out with the crowds the night of June 3. About 11 p.m. he was shot dead at the Muxidi intersection in West Beijing, where thousands of citizens tried to stop the troops as they advanced toward the square.

Jiang's mother, Ding Zilin, a retired philosophy professor, is not waiting for history. She is trying to make it.

She and members of other victims' families are slowly building a criminal case against the government officials, including former Premier Li Peng, whom they blame for the death of their loved ones. In a request that is sure to be rejected, they have asked the government to conduct a criminal investigation of the massacre.

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