“I was waiting for a Canadian student’s VISA. I used to stay in Beijing, very close to Tiananmen Square, then. It was just 5-6 minutes’ walk. I was working for a publication house, and was generally attracted to social movements. In those days, I nourished great hopes that China would soon embrace democracy as was happening around the world then.”
Toronto-based, Sheng Xue or Reimonna Sheng is the pen name of Zang Xihong, a Chinese-Canadian journalist and writer, and human rights activist. Sheng Xue grew up in Beijing and moved to Canada soon after the Tiananmen Square protest on June 3, 1989. She is a member of PEN Canada, and also a member of The Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC). She is the Canadian correspondent of Radio Free Asia, and the North American correspondent of Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany).
Sheng Xue was about 27 when the massacre at Tiananmen Square took place; on the 27th anniversary of the tragedy, she recalls in an interview;
“On that day, around dinner time, I saw troops marching from east to west toward Tiananmen Square. I was curious to see if they were marching to the square where students had gathered in large numbers, and moved in that direction along with people who had gathered around. But we were blocked till midnight. Troops could be seen marching; it looked like there was some kind of a war going on. And until 4 in the morning, groups of people who had gathered at the south-east corner of the Square raised slogans, and I was mummy to a group.
“By around 6-7 in the morning, Tiananmen Square had turned into a battlefield. Tanks, with their barrels raised high, lined the streets, and soldiers with their fingers on the triggers of their rifles, stood menacingly, staring at the pedestrians. For a moment, there was volcanic silence, then the tanks charged at the crowd. People were screaming, and in trying to escape the onslaught, they fell over each other. Tanks then closed in, and retreated a few steps, and before people could steady themselves, soldiers fired on the crowd. Two youngsters got shot in their legs and fell. I rushed toward them, and saw fist-sized wounds in their legs. They were rushed to the hospital.
“And there I stood among the wreckage where the battle had ended minutes before.”
She was a dissident always:
“While I was in China, I was one among the millions who never believed in the Chinese Communist Party. For me, the feeling was something personal, something that had been there in me throughout my existence because of what my family had gone through after the communists had gained power in China. My grandfather was a government official before 1949. Once the communists took over, my grandparents and four of my uncles and aunties left China and went to Taiwan. My father and mother too never trusted the communists.
“Twenty days after I reached Canada, I participated in a pro-democracy demonstration there, jointly organised by various overseas organizations. I haven’t looked back since. Today, I’m one of the most active activists.”
She did try to go back:
“I tried to re-enter China in 1996, on the day of the Moon Festival, to be together with my mother. I was arrested while at the customs counter in the airport, and was interrogated for 24 hours. They didn’t allow me to rest or to sleep, and even accompanied me to the rest room. I was calm throughout, but when they told me I was an unwelcome foreigner, I cried, because I’m for my people, for my homeland. Had I considered myself to be a foreigner, I wouldn’t have bothered about China, would I have? They then asked me to sign an apology letter and promise that I would never again participate in democracy movements, or talk of human rights, etc. I declined to do so. They then decided to send me back to Canada.”
Q & A
There’s always been confusion in the world media about the number of people who died at Tiananmen Square on June 3, 1989. How many died on that day?
It must be over 1,000 (dead). It was a great tragedy. The world still doesn’t know how many were actually killed or injured, and persecuted. In the last 27 years, nobody has been able to verify how many had actually died. The number will always remain a mystery as even the families of those who had died are scared to reveal the truth. Many of the parents of those killed on that day too have passed away. It would be a shame if the world is still unable to find out the truth.
Do you believe the CCP has learned any lessons from the incident at Tiananmen Square?
Since the massacre, democracy has taken root and flourished in many parts of the world. Many dictatorial regimes have yielded space to democratic movements. But in China, where over a 1,000 died on that day, there hasn’t been any change politically. This is a very sad situation.
Today, most people in China believe they have a chance to become rich. It’s a jungle out there. Everyone is an opportunist, scanning their surroundings for resources and opportunities. Inside China, the situation is very dangerous. People trust only money. The environment is being degraded, there’s pollution everywhere. It is a huge crisis.
What kind of a life is it when you have money, but no rights, democracy, good environment, or safe food? If you have money but nothing else, what’s that money worth?
But the tragedy is that the Chinese people don’t realize that they are passing through a crisis. The whole world will have to pay the price!
It is 68 years since India gained independence and started functioning as a democracy. And in the last two decades or so, many nations have taken the path of democracy. Do you think there will be some kind of a democratic transformation in China? Are the Chinese people in any way aware what a democratic transformation can do for them?
Of course, yes! Standing up for freedom and human rights is the basic nature of most human beings, and the Chinese aren’t different. Of late, more and more Chinese people have started to hear, learn and feel what democracy, human rights and freedom are all about. More and more people are coming out into the open seeking their rights, and freedom. This gives hope that one day China will become a democratic country. The social media is doing much here.
What does development mean to China? Do human rights play any part in its concept of development?
Any further development will be tough in China. Not because the CCP is huge and evil, but because it’s in power by brainwashing the people. Most of the Chinese are now incapable of thinking or acting independently. Sometimes I think the very nature of the people there has changed. And in such a scenario, it’ll take some time for people to regain normalcy and think like human beings again. It could hence take some time for the country to turn truly democratic. It’s not about the political system, but about history and culture, as well as about a people regaining the lost ground as human beings.
Is the current generation in China aware about what happened in Tiananmen Square? What do they know about the incidents in 1989?
The new generation has Internet, the social media, and hence it’s a hundred times easier for them to know the truth. But it’s tough at the same time, because the Chinese regime controls everything, censors the content. The government feeds the young a sufficiently huge amount of false information. Hence, the new generation is sadly confused, and divided.
Why were the activists not able to take the democracy movement forward in China after the incident? Does it still exist? If so, in what form?
The Chinese Communist Party is an evil force. They took many lives. The situation is getting worse. They are continuing to kill dissidents to stay in power.
During the Tiananmen movement, most of the students had delusions about the communists. They only wanted the Communist Party to curb corruption and jail the corrupt. Those students hadn’t realized that they could not hope for democracy under a one-party dictatorship.
Moreover, at that time, none in the top rung of the CCP dared to come out in support of the students and people to overthrow the tyrants. And though many believed Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party General Secretary, supported the students, he did not have enough courage to assume responsibility. And the students had no idea how far they could push the democratic movement. They, however, did not expect the CCP to use machine guns and tanks to crush the movement.
After the Tiananmen incident, the CCP unleashed such harsh repression on the people that the movement was crushed to its very core. And the repression is continuing to date.
In the meanwhile, the Communist Party opened its doors to economic reforms, and the people embraced the fruits of the so-called development with both the arms, without realizing that the path that the communists had opened would lead them to a savage jungle where human values and freedom would have no place. The majority of the Chinese people have been desperate for survival since then.
Written by Varghese Koshy and Venus Upadhayaya.
Varghese Koshy is a senior journalist with around four decades of experience with various Indian newspapers. Venus Upadhayaya is a young journalist writing on issues of democracy, human rights, participatory governance, and Asian geo-politics.