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The June Fourth that I Saw

June 4, 2009

Gao Wenqian

In spring 1989, Gao Wenqian was a historian in the document research center of the Chinese Communist Party. The protests and the government crackdown on June 3-4 that he witnessed were life- and career-changing for him. He resolved to tell the world the truth about the Communist Party through the story of Zhou Enlai and the Cultural Revolution. His efforts resulted in the critically acclaimed book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, a book banned in China.

Time has passed in a flash. It’s been 20 years since the Chinese government cracked down on the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. For me this is a weighty and emotionally charged topic to write about. The mere mention of June Fourth still triggers memories of a brutal, bloody, and terrifying night. What happened that night constitutes the darkest chapter in contemporary Chinese history and one that is etched forever in our memory. The bloody suppression has changed the lives of many Chinese, including mine.

At the beginning of 1989, the situation in China was ripe for a political storm. As the Chinese saying goes: Turbulent wind heralds a rising storm in the mountains. The economic reform initiated by senior leader Deng Xiaoping had reached its tenth year. It was moving forward like a crippled duck, having already produced mounting social conflicts. Moreover, the government’s failure to contain inflation caused by the relaxation of price controls the previous year had led to widespread public discontent. In the spring, former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang passed away in despair.1 Hu was the last idealist within the Chinese Communist Party and was revered by many Chinese. Soon, the commemorative activities started by university students expanded into a large-scale nationwide protest movement.

At that time, I worked at the Central Committee’s Research Center on Party Literature. The majority of my colleagues and officials at other government agencies stood on the side of the students, whose demands for clean government and calls for further democratic reforms in China represented the voices of ordinary people. Many of my colleagues would sneak out onto the street during regular work hours and watch the student demonstrations. I remember that on April 27, when a large-scale demonstration was being organized, I arrived at work quite early. I had heard that students were planning to take to the street again. The armed police and public security officers had set up several road blocks in the Zhongguancun region. A bloody collision seemed likely. All morning, people at work talked about this, many worrying about the students’ safety. At noon time, we learned that student protesters had broken through the blockade and were marching toward Tiananmen Square.

I remember several white-haired professors from Tsinghua University marching in the front row of their group. They held up a big white banner, which read: “Having knelt for so long, we have stood up to take a stroll.” This was black humor, incorporating all sorts of flavors and emotions. When I read those words, I felt a jolt in my heart, and tears ran down my face.

I rushed out of my office building immediately and stood on the overpass in Fuxingmen, watching an endless parade of protesters from north to south. The line stretched as far as the eye could see. Students and professors from Beijing’s major universities filed past. I remember several white-haired professors from Tsinghua University marching in the front row of their group. They held up a big white banner, which read: “Having knelt for so long, we have stood up to take a stroll.” This was black humor, incorporating all sorts of flavors and emotions. When I read those words, I felt a jolt in my heart, and tears ran down my face. I understood the meaning of these words, felt their weight and tasted their bitterness: they were the loud cry from the hearts of those who had risen from the purgatory of psychological abuse and torture.

At that very moment, I felt a sense of spiritual liberation. Having been subjected to years of totalitarian rule, the Chinese people had been cowered by politics, their human nature distorted, and their conscience devoured. Even more, the intellectuals’ backbone had been broken; they trembled with fear and dared not take even one step in the minefield. The fear of politics had seeped into the blood of our people and had become an instinct. People were afraid to talk about politics and avoided it like a plague. This psychological dark cloud had haunted ordinary Chinese like a nightmare that wouldn’t go away.

My childhood years were spent in constant fear. When I was six years old, my father was branded an “alien-class element” for opposing Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,”2 and was forced to join the army and then banished to Tibet. During the Cultural Revolution, my mother was accused of being an “active counterrevolutionary” and was thrown into the Qincheng prison in Beijing. The sufferings of my family helped me see clearly the brutal nature of the Communist dictatorship. I knew that those in power were bound to settle scores with anyone who challenged their authority. Despite what I knew, I could not stop thinking and worrying about the students, especially after they started their hunger strike. Everyday, before and after work, I would circle around Tiananmen Square on my bike, trying to follow the news of the day. I tried to persuade the students not to take extreme measures and give themselves enough leeway for negotiation, and hoped that the situation could come to a peaceful end.

May 18 marked the sixth day of the students’ hunger strike. Every now and then, a student who had passed out was sent to the hospital. The ambulance sirens tugged at the hearts of every resident. At the same time, the cold-blooded indifference displayed by the authorities was pushing public sentiment to the tipping point. It was under these circumstances that I led a group of employees in our department out on the street to support the students. I also drafted an open letter in the name of “a group of voluntary petitioners from the Central Committee’s Research Center on Party Literature,” addressed to the Party’s Central Committee. In the letter, I urged Party leaders to retract the editorial in the People’s Daily that characterized the student demonstrations as “turmoil”3 and to acknowledge that the protest was a patriotic democracy movement initiated by students. I also called on the Party to “clean up corruption starting from the top leaders and punish their family members or relatives who had abused power.”The open letter was later posted on a bulletin board of the organizational department of the Central Party Committee and became a major target of investigation in the post-crackdown period.

After martial law was declared,4 residents in Beijing spontaneously organized themselves and successfully blocked the troops who were to enforce martial law from entering the city. For a while, the atmosphere hung heavy like clouds before a storm. But it became increasingly clear that the authorities were going to regain control, even if it meant bloodshed. On the morning of June 3, when I passed by Liubukou on my way to work, I saw that residents had seized a military truck filled with bayoneted guns, steel helmets, and other military supplies. That afternoon, I heard that troops that had amassed inside Zhongnanhai5 were dispatched there and had taken back the truck and military supplies. Upon hearing the news, I immediately got on my bike and rushed to the scene. The troops had just finished their operation, and I could still smell the tear gas in the air. Several residents had been beaten up. The dark red blood on their white undershirts was particularly glaring in the sunlight. This was the first time I saw blood after students had started their hunger strike. My heart tightened.

After dinner that evening, I went with my wife to Tiananmen Square again. The situation had become very tense. You could even smell the stench of blood in the air. It was stifling. As a researcher of history, my instinct told me that a tragic episode was about to unfold in China’s modern history. I decided to remain at the square, to bear witness. My wife was absolutely against it and tried to drag me home. I became very emotional and argued with her ferociously. I was determined not to leave. In the end, my wife convinced me with this: You are a student of history. You can’t just die here. More important things are waiting for you to do. You can use your pen to record history.

I decided to remain at the square, to bear witness. My wife was absolutely against it and tried to drag me home. I became very emotional and argued with her ferociously. I was determined not to leave. In the end, my wife convinced me with this: You are a student of history. You can’t just die here. More important things are waiting for you to do. You can use your pen to record history.

In those days, I lived near Shatan, not too far from Tiananmen Square. After I got home that night, I could hardly sleep. I got up and stood on the balcony of my apartment and stared in the direction of Tiananmen Square. I could see flames in the distance. When darkness came, sounds of gunshots could be heard clearly.

                         

At dawn the next morning, I rushed toward Tiananmen Square. At the intersection of Nanchizi Street, I saw with my own eyes how government troops were slaughtering Beijing residents. Soldiers with loaded guns lined up at the gate of the Public Security Ministry were shooting at protesters. About five or six residents were shot on the spot. The soldiers were on a killing spree and wouldn’t give up. They chased fleeing residents into the side streets and kept shooting.

I followed the crowd and managed to hide inside a small lane, squatting at the foot of a wall. I could hear the gunshots from the street, “tat-tat-tat-tat.” My heart was beating fast. An old man next to me was a flatbed tricycle driver. He looked like he was in his late sixties or early seventies and had seen a lot in his times. He didn’t seem as nervous as I was, but his face was shrouded in gloom. He couldn’t contain his anger and was trembling with rage. He said to me: Even when the Japanese invaded Beijing, they didn’t kill people like this. What sins! The Communist Party—what an utterly immoral lot!

On the afternoon of June Fourth, I rode my bike to go to my mother’s, crisscrossing the devastated city. What I saw on the road made my hair stand up in anger. When I arrived, I turned on my radio and anxiously listened to Voice of America’s news program, which was broadcast hourly. At the same time, I listened repeatedly to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.

On that day, the Voice of America featured an interview with Nien Cheng, the author of Life and Death in Shanghai. As a mother who had lost her daughter during the Cultural Revolution, Cheng was talking to other Chinese mothers who had lost their children during the bloody crackdown. She understood the pain of losing one’s children. She showed her empathy and tried to comfort them. The tone of her voice was that of sorrow and tenderness. I listened and cried. I felt as if my heart was bleeding.

Afterwards, I wiped my tears and got ready for the upcoming post-crackdown investigation. My mother dug out some of the self-criticisms that my father had written in the 1950s during his persecution so that I could prepare myself psychologically. As I leafed through the yellowed pages, all sorts of feelings welled up in me. It was hard to believe that father and son had fallen to a similar fate.

I spent the rest of the summer in extreme depression and terror. Martial law troops patrolled Beijing’s streets and alleys carrying guns. Public security officers and armed police were arresting people in the middle of the night. On state-run television, we saw scenes upon scenes of “thugs” being arrested and hauled to the execution ground.

At the same time, internal purges were being conducted in every government agency. I was a key target in my work unit. During those days, I would stay inside my office for days with the excuse that I was reflecting on my mistakes and writing self-criticism. In reality, I was examining my career and the role I had played as an official historian, and exploring the relations between the Cultural Revolution catastrophe and the June Fourth crackdown.

I was intrigued by an important question: Why was it that, despite the government’s campaign to “thoroughly reject the Cultural Revolution” that was launched in the early 1980s, the logic and language of the Cultural Revolution reappeared immediately after the tanks had rolled into Beijing?

My research focused on the Cultural Revolution, and I had contributed to the official “Biography of Mao Zedong” and “Biography of Zhou Enlai.” I was intrigued by an important question: Why was it that, despite the government’s campaign to “thoroughly reject the Cultural Revolution” that was launched in the early 1980s, the logic and language of the Cultural Revolution reappeared immediately after the tanks had rolled into Beijing? I reached a conclusion: The Chinese political system, which was responsible for the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, had been kept intact. It had remained, as the Chinese saying goes, the same medicine though the water has been changed. I was determined to share with my fellow countrymen the truth about what the Cultural Revolution had wrought. This was the time I first conceived of the idea of writing Zhou Enlai, the Last Perfect Revolutionary.

                                               

After I came to the United States in 1993, upon the recommendation of a friend, I was able to work as a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center, and my dream of writing this book thus became a reality. The Chinese authorities got wind of my project soon after it was started and attempted to talk me out of it through various private channels, using tactics both soft and hard. First, they tried to buy me off. Then, they sent me messages through a third party, such as: “Your mother suffered tremendously during the Cultural Revolution. I’m sure you don’t want to see her suffer more in her final years.” This was a naked threat. I did not budge. Then, they put pressure on Harvard University, which eventually cut off my funding. The threats and intimidation in fact strengthened my resolve to finish the Zhou Enlai book.

Afterwards, I stayed home and devoted my time to writing the book, while my wife supported me. My own mother also gave me tremendous moral support. She wrote me and said: This is a task assigned to you by the lord in heaven. You must tell the ordinary people the truth about the Cultural Revolution.

After five years, the book, Zhou Enlai, the Last Perfect Revolutionary was finally published. The Chinese government banned its distribution in mainland China. Officials there knew very well that the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union began with the declassification of historical archives. Reassessment of historical events and figures is bound to destroy the very foundation of totalitarian rule.

The question of June Fourth has become an intractable problem that stands in the way of social transformation, crippling China’s efforts over the past century to move toward a constitutional democracy. This is the sorrow and misfortune of the Chinese people.

During the last century, Chinese intellectuals and the general public were eager to save China, hoping to build a stronger nation. They came under the spell of the Communist Utopian fantasy and embarked on a wrong track. As a result, China became a testing ground for Communism, an unprecedented catastrophe that engulfed the Chinese people. After a century of blood and strife, Communism has long lost its illusory aura, and has revealed its true face: brutal, evil, hypocritical, and inhuman. After the ideological bankruptcy, the Chinese authorities are resorting to blatant, violent suppression and lies to maintain their rule.

                                

Twenty years after the June Fourth massacre, the historical wounds still have not healed. Instead, they continue to fester. The social conflicts that triggered the protests continue to intensify under the one-party system. Bad habits die hard. At this very moment, China is on the eve of another historical change—the country faces the challenges of transforming from a totalitarian state to a constitutional democracy. The question of June Fourth has become an intractable problem that stands in the way of social transformation, crippling China’s efforts over the past century to move toward a constitutional democracy. This is the sorrow and misfortune of the Chinese people. However, one thing is certain: without resolving the question of June Fourth and without granting justice to those who were killed, China will never be able to stand respected on the world stage.

Translated by Wen Huang

Editor’s Notes

1. Hu Yaobang was Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1981 to 1982, and its General Secretary from 1982 to 1987.He was forced to resign on January 16, 1987, in the wake of a series of student demonstrations that took place in late 1986. The party hardliners accused him of being too lax on “bourgeois liberalization” and too empathetic towards China’s liberal intellectuals. He was submitted to humiliating “self-criticism.”

On April 15, 1989, the day Hu Yaobang died, people started bringing wreaths to the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square to mourn him, expressing sympathy for his political is fortunes and discontent with authorities.

From April 17 on, the mourning grew in scope and quickly became a demonstration of public anger against government corruption, demanding reform and triggering the nation-wide 1989 Democracy Movement. ^

2. Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward campaign (1958–1961) in order to catapult China from an agricultural country to an industrialized one, overtaking Britain and the United States. The campaign, which emphasized steel production and even required families to melt their pots and pans, devastated agricultural production and resulted in a great famine, during which at least 20 million people died. ^

3.“Bixu qizhi xianmingde fandui dongluan” [必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱] {It Is Necessary to Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances}, People’s Daily [人民日报], April 26, 1989.^

4. Martial law was declared on May 20, 1989. ^

5. The vast compound, just west of the Forbidden City, that houses government offices and the residences of the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. ^

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