Tiananmen Survivor Looks Back At China's 'Lost Opportunity'
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This week marks 25 years since the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In 1989, Chinese security forces conducted a widespread crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds — some say thousands — dead. But months before the standoff, protesters saw no sign of coming violence.
Shen Tong was a 20-year-old biology student at Beijing University that year. He never considered himself political, but he and his classmates were lobbying the government to change some of its policies on scientific research. They eventually joined with the non-violent demonstrations centered in Tiananmen Square.
Tong says he expected pushback from the government, but he tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he never could have imagined the massacre that would unfold on those first few days in June, 25 years ago.
"I had no clue," Tong says. "Of course I expected inevitable crackdown, but not to this extent."
Tong says he and the others in the protest movement had hoped for gradual reform with a focus on freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. He says never for a moment was the main body of the protest fighting against the government or for regime change.
"We really considered ourselves patriots and we [thought] we could help the government to reform further," he says. "How naïve we were."
Tong was not in Tiananmen Square when the massacre broke out; he was at his mother's apartment just a couple miles to the west. Even so, he says, he still witnessed at least a dozen killings.
Following the violence, police hunted down leaders of protest groups. Tong's name was on the list. Most of his colleagues escaped through southern China, but Tong stayed. He didn't get out of the country until seven days after the killings, leaving on a Chinese plane bound for New York. He managed to get a visa through U.S. universities and stayed in America.
Looking back, Tong says there was an amazing opportunity — not just for China but for the rest of the world — for a more balanced development.
"Instead, it has this monster of a combination of an extreme police state with an extreme form of early capitalism," he says. "While we're making a few more dollars, our environment, our children's future and our individual dignities and human rights have [to suffer]. There's no reason for that."
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This week marks 25 years since the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In 1989, Chinese security forces conducted a widespread crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds, some say thousands, dead. But months before the standoff, protesters saw no sign of coming violence.
SHEN TONG: 1989 may have started from a few campuses and was student led, but eventually spread so widely in the whole country that you becomes over 400 cities with prolonged demonstration of somewhere between 100 to 150 million people on the street. Even government departments and the military unit's police academy were on the street in support - it was more a festival and a carnival. It wasn't a angry protest.
MARTIN: That was the voice of Shen Tong. He was a 20-year-old biology student at Beijing University in the spring of 1989. He never considered himself political, but he and his classmates were lobbying the government to change some of its policies on scientific research. They eventually joined with the nonviolent demonstrations that were centered in Tiananmen Square. Shen Tong says he expected pushback from the government, but he never could've imagined the massacre that would unfold on those first few days of June, 25 years ago. Tiananmen Square survivor Shen Tong is our Sunday conversation.
TONG: I had no clue. I mean of course I expected inevitable crackdown, but not to this extent. And also, with the hindsight, we know what's really going on inside the government. Even the government later shows that more than half of the military of the ministries - within the government, of course - in support of the students and the street protests. And it's really just a smaller part of the government and party that usurped the power and the use of force. Even though it's widely reported, I mean, there's still some facts coming out that the kind of violence such as running over students from behind - those kind of things clearly were planned beforehand and meant to really shock, not just to pacify, the protest.
MARTIN: What did you and the other people in your movement - what did you realistically think you could achieve? What were you hoping would happen as a result of these protests?
TONG: We were hoping for gradual reform. And we were focusing on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of travel and freedom of press. Never for a moment the main body of student protests thought we were against the government or asking for a regime change. We really considered ourselves patriots, and we think we could help the government to reform further. How naive we were, but that's what we were thinking.
MARTIN: Where were you when the massacre started to happen?
TONG: Incidentally, I was with my mother because some family friends, they told me a secret the family has been keeping from me that my father had leukemia. That happened to be the afternoon of June 3. So I rushed back to my mother's apartment, which is about a couple miles west of Tiananmen. And that night of the massacre, morning of June 4, most of killings took place on the western part. So even though I wasn't in the square, I happened to witness killings - probably about at least a dozen.
MARTIN: After those days - June 3, 4 when the massacre in Tiananmen happened, police hunted down the leaders of the movement and your name was on those lists. How did you manage to get out of the country at that point?
TONG: Most of my colleagues, the other key activists actually escaped through southern China. And I stayed. So I ended up - seven days after the massacre, I walk through the airport of Beijing, boarded a Chinese plane and went to New York. So meanwhile, there are two groups of people went to my dorm in Beijing University. And the other went to my mother's apartment on the same day, around the time I was at the airport to capture me.
MARTIN: And you went to the United States and sought asylum or you already had a visa secured? How did you get in?
TONG: That's another bizarre thing that I was - because in 1988, I applied to transfer to come to the United States to Brandeis University, actually, to continue my study of biology. And by the spring of '89, I actually got admitted to six universities here. And I just didn't feel like - I didn't have time to do anything about it. So it was my family who got my passport.
And after U.S. embassy shut down a day after the massacre - there's just another - it turns out, eventually, I find a Brazilian businessman who was visiting Beijing - took my passport from the rescue the group, went to the U.S. Embassy and got me a visa and some of that passport then find back to me, and that's how I left.
MARTIN: When you look back on Tiananmen Square, how do you see its legacy? How did it change China? Did it?
TONG: Twenty five years ago, we had this amazing opportunity, not just for China, but also for the rest of the world that we could have had a more balanced development. We could have a much more peaceful, negotiated way of moving forward and that - but the inconvenient truth is China has this amazing moment to move forward in a balanced way.
And it lost that opportunity. Instead, it has this monster of a combination of a extreme police state with extreme form of early capitalism. Well, we're making a few more dollars. Our environment, our children's future and our individual dignities and human rights has to be suffered. There's no reason for that.
MARTIN: Shen Tong - he is an entrepreneur and he was a student leader during the protests in Tiananmen Square which took place 25 years ago. Thank you so much for talking with us, Shen Tong.
TONG: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.