A Student Leader on Tiananmen: 'Collective Memories Can't Be Killed'

"There really is no tradeoff needed between civil liberty and human dignity, and being fed," Shen Tong says.
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Chinese police monitor a march by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in southern China, on May 22, 1989. (Reuters/Andrew Wong)

On June 4, 1989, Shen Tong, then a 20-year-old biology student at China’s best university who had spent the last six weeks organizing protests in Beijing, witnessed what is now known as the Tiananmen Massacre. From the doorstep of his mother’s apartment, a few miles west of Tiananmen Square, he saw a man bleed to death in a doorway. A young woman next to him was shot in the face; a line of tanks ran over a group of hunger strikers from behind as they were walking away from the square.

Before the bloody crackdown, he and his peers had reveled in the sense of possibility for reform. “’89 was for China, back then, not a tragedy. It was a carnival, a celebration. It was the first time that a popular protest very firmly subscribed to the nonviolent principles and it was a reform movement,” he said in an interview.

Today, Tong is a businessman living in New York City. He remembers the protest movement with a complicated mixture of guilt and hope, and sees similarities between his generation and the young people of China today.

Lily Kuo: What is June 4th like for you every year?

Shen Tong: There’s usually a media cycle. It’s a little more intense this year. I think it’s both encouraging and sad. How much else can we do? China has taken such an unfortunate path since the massacre. Still, this is encouraging that at least there are some Western media [paying attention], and in Hong Kong and Taiwan there are people who choose not to forget an inconvenient truth.

Journalists approach Shen Tong (Shen Tong)

LK: What will you be doing this June 4?

ST: On the actual anniversary day, I will be alone, lighting a candle on Bear MountainOne thing that will live with me, even though it’s not rational, is I feel morally responsible for people who died and were injured during the massacre and the following days.

LK: How can that legacy and principle of non-violence be remembered when information about the protests and crackdown is so suppressed?

ST: [Former Chinese Premier] Zhou Enlai once said to [Henry] Kissinger regarding the French Revolution, we’re still too close to it. Now, we’re 25 years from 1989. The significance of the spring of 1989 is still, for many years, to unfold. We’re still way too close to understand and even feel its lasting impact.... It’s going to continue to transform China. There’s no denying how tragic it is. History has not been kind to China.

LK: Are you worried people will forget?

ST: For years, I worried about this. I spent a lot of time going around giving campus speeches, writing in English and Chinese, all of that to keep the memory alive because I was so worried that such powerful systemic lies would put such a legacy away. But I stopped worrying about it five years ago. Even though we can’t discuss it and have different opinions, those collective memories can’t be killed. I’ve seen time again, both inside and outside China, that an apathetic general population develops fervor for change very quickly.

LK: Why is the legacy of Tiananmen important today?

ST: 1989 and the June 4th massacre symbolize the continual struggle throughout modern history—can an ancient civilization and culture and polity transform itself with only military, or technology, or economic advances, or can it take a more humanistic approach with balanced development that includes civil liberties, democratic institutions. ’89 established a firm and visible nonviolent principle. Such a large-scale protest can not only can happen, but it happened from within. It wasn’t from outside. It’s similar to movements after ours: Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and also Occupy Wall Street, which changed national dialogue.

LK: How does the youth of today compare with that of your generation?

ST: Actually, they’re quite similar. The five trendy things then were taking the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language], romance, mahjong, and having the time of [our] lives. People were in college but doing business. Political concerns were not pervasive, were not on the minds of my generation. It was the death of Hu Yaobang that aroused tension and sorrow. [The April 15th death of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang, who had been dismissed by party leaders, is believed to have prompted the beginning of student-led protests in 1989.]

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Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.

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