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.

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.]

Today’s generation thinks we were very different—that we were more traditional, concerned about national ideals. We were none of that. We were very egotistical. People talk about the youth of today, how they don’t care. To this extent, the youth in 1980s didn’t care either.

A photo of Tong (bottom right) and other demonstrators (Shen Tong)

LK: Do you think you’ll see another protest movement like that of 1989 in your lifetime?

ST: History repeats itself, but history never repeats itself in the same way. The conflicts and anxiety of Chinese society is much greater today than [in] the late 1980s. I’m not concerned about whether there will be major political changes—it’s only a matter of when. I’m more concerned about how. Can we do it in [a peaceful] way. Not, nisi wohuo—"you die, I live."

LK: What do you think about China’s future?

ST: I’m a little concerned with all this anger, all this disparity, despair in Chinese society and extreme polarization of wealth, not just migrants and elite but within the elite. Eight revolutionary families control 25 percent of [the] Chinese economy.

LK: You’ve talked about the Chinese regime’s “Beijing Consensus”—the Communist Party’s political and economic system that’s seen by some as an alternative model for economic growth—as deceptive. Can you explain that?

ST: We pretend there is such a thing called the Beijing Consensus—and that is the emperor’s new clothes. The current Chinese regime’s version [of June 4] is that the students broke the law. Another line is that the loss of lives and such a public display of violence is unfortunate, but without that we would not have had the Chinese economic miracle.

Tong, center left, speaks to journalists (Shen Tong)

But when you think about the Chinese miracle, there’s a very interesting period that was very conveniently forgotten: a period of stagnation in the economy from the summer of 1989 to 1992. [The government] had succeeded so thoroughly that they suffocated not only civil liberties, but economic development. So Deng [Xiaoping] had to use his personal charisma—he launched his Southern Tour soon after—to launch nationalism, government-centered patriotism, and macroeconomic reform. And the government made a pact with the elite population in China: ‘We know we don’t have political legitimacy, but allow us to achieve economic legitimacy. Let’s all get very rich, very quickly.’

LK: So do you think that without the crackdown and loss of political legitimacy, China wouldn’t have been as ambitious about economic reform and development?

ST: On the contrary—if, of all the options in 1989, China had not chosen the worst, China would be a lot better [and would have more] balanced development. There really is no tradeoff needed between civil liberty and human dignity, and being fed. In fact, those often go hand in hand. The Beijing Consensus invented this idea that there has to be a tradeoff.

LK: What do you miss most about China?

ST: I stopped trying to go back about seven, eight years ago. China is a police state, and there’s a blacklist and I’m on that list. I used to really miss Beijing. But now, if I could go back to China, I may not want to. I just can’t stand the thought of why China got the short hand of history. Why don’t we deserve better, [to be] an example for mankind? The opportunity of having this discussion in Chinese, in China, is what I miss.

This interview has been condensed and edited.