Thirty-one years ago in Tiananmen Square, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the people. Blood and tears were shed on a soil well loved. Perhaps too loved.
It started on April 15, 1989, in Beijing with a student-led protest calling for greater accountability and a higher degree of tolerance of political participation from the government. Two months later, the movement had spread to some 400 cities. As it developed, the protestors led a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, blocked traffic on Chang’an Street, and vandalized public property. When June came, Tiananmen Square, the symbol of Chinese political power, was filled with makeshift tents and angry and exhausted students. Then, finally, in early morning on June 4, 1989, the government ordered the military to clear the square. Troops with assault rifles and tanks fired at anyone trying to block the its advance into the square.
“It was the first and only time I’ve seen a tank in real life,” my mother said. “I still remember how fast they were when they drove toward you. And the soldiers, sitting on the pavement on Chang’an Street, in their beautifully new uniforms. Some of them might have been younger than me.”
“Mo tan guo shi.” (Don’t discuss state affairs.) My father hushed our voices, shaking his head lightly.
On June 4, both of my parents were in Tiananmen Square. Yet, till this day, what exactly happened that night remains memories in their heads—memories that I still have no access to.
Over three decades later, I read about Trump’s response to protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd. The President threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, sending in the military to quell disturbances and violence.
I cringed as I imagined what America would be should that happen: Unleashing military forces against civilian protestors has happened before in China’s history, and when it did, it left long-lasting consequences—consequences that went far beyond the loss of human lives. Generations would be deprived of their belief in civic identity, and in its place political apathy would creep in. Soon there would be less citizen participation in the political realm, not because people were afraid of dying, but because they became convinced that being apathetic was the only reasonable way to engage politically.
A similar threat of military violence was broadcasted through loudspeakers over the skies of Beijing in 1989. A few days later, it was realized. The crowd disappeared; the immediate danger of China’s humiliation on the global stage disappeared; the violence disappeared. But hundreds of lives who once lived to bring about the prosperity of their homeland also disappeared: men and women who loved the soil beneath their feet so much that they entrusted it with their lives—a generation that had only started to comprehend the cost of freedom.
“Did you hear? The government said it would send in troops to clean the square. Should we retreat?”
“They won’t. How can the People’s Liberation Army be used to eliminate the people?”
These were some of the last words of those who chose to stay in Tiananmen Square. The next morning, it became apparent how great of a burden mankind is for man.
Something was lost in China on that day, something beyond the lost lives. You see, on the night of June 4, 1989, millions of Chinese lost their identities as citizens. When guns that were being used to protect the citizens of China pointed toward their heads, the protestors suddenly came face to face with the realization that it was them that the country was being protected from. That evening, they were citizens of nowhere.
So, when they ran away, their civic identities remained perpetually in an empty Tiananmen Square.
The generation whose youth was paralyzed on that evening did not grow up to be citizens of China. Their community-driven, public-loving, patriotic civic identity remained hollow. What was left was pure apathy. And as they became parents, they saw no meaning in joining any political protests. “You are still naïve,” they would say to their children lovingly. “You will understand one day that protests do not matter. Why would you go die for nothing?”
As my mom put it, overnight, boys and girls became men and women. Apathy was maturity.
An African-American friend once told me: If you have been shot by the police—whose job is to go after the bad guys—you no longer believe in the distinction between good and bad. Witnessing what has happened in China since 1989, I know that once you have been pursued by the military—whose job is to protect your country—you no longer believe in the meaning of civic identity.
Tocqueville lauded the exceptional sense of civic identity he found in America: “[A]ll men feel that they have duties toward society and that they take a share in its government.” That sense of civic identity is the necessary condition for democracy to work, and apathy is its biggest enemy. And with a people that is occupied by apathy, the state can do whatever it pleases. This is the origin of totalitarianism.
Some might say that my identity as a Chinese person does not guarantee me a unique perspective in judging the domestic problems of the United States. It really does not. However, it does give me a commitment to those who have borne or will bear the weight of authoritarian domination, and it is in such spirit that I write this op-ed.
On June 4, 1989, both of my parents were in Tiananmen Square, but they were not actually together. My mother was inside Tiananmen, within the Gates of Heavenly Peace, hiding from the crowd outside; my dad was on the other side of the gates, raising his fists and shouting to end the corruption inside the walls that protected my mother.
They are both quiet on the matter now. You see, send in the military, and there will be silence.
The writer is a member of the UChicago community, and asks to be published anonymously to protect their identity.