Remembering Tiananmen Square: Time to say ‘no’ to tyranny

The voices to topple the Chinese Communist Party have become louder than ever.

Chinese paramilitary policemen stand watch over visitors during the flag-lowering ceremony on the eve of the June 4 anniversary at Tiananmen Square in Beijing [AP]

That overcast morning seems like yesterday. The deafening noise of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square still rings in my ears. The Goddess of Democracy, a statue the protesters erected, collapsed, but we students weren’t scared. “It’s a war!” we gasped excitedly. But soon after, we had a brutal awakening as soldiers bludgeoned us with long iron bars and wooden sticks. I trampled over several bodies. Caught between a tank and the stampeding crowd, and unable to breathe, I climbed onto the tank and crawled over the treads, with machine guns hovering above me.  

For 25 years, I didn’t allow myself to remember or feel the pain. But recently, I broke down in front of a therapist. It was my first time I allowed myself to remember the feel of the tank treads. It had been tearing me apart all these years. But massacres in China have never truly stopped.

One such massacre started decades before the 1989 Tianamen Square killings: 14 of my relatives died from starvation, execution and suicide after the communists took power in China in 1949. My parents and grandparents were jailed or persecuted. But I only discovered the deaths a year ago, as I interviewed relatives for a book on China. No one wanted to talk about the past. At least 50 million people died in the Great Leap Forward, wrote journalist Yang Jisheng, in his book, ‘Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962‘.

The Tiananmen massacre has been haunting China like a ghost. Every year in the lead up to June 4, the government puts dissidents under house arrest or drives them out of Beijing. They may have washed the blood stains off and patched the bullet holes, but they cannot erase the past.

Beijing started the crackdown early this year. Since journalist Gao Yu was arrested in late April, more than 70 people have been criminally detained under the “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” charge. They include prominent lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, activists and a Buddhist monk. This year’s crackdown is the most severe since the late 1990s, according to, a Chinese human rights NGO.

Reminiscent of Nazi Germany

The current crackdown is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution and Nazi Germany, with a new excuse – anti-terrorism. Some 130 Tibetan self-immolators have been branded terrorists. And as a spate of violent attacks in cities such as Kunming and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, shook the nation, Beijing was quick to call the Muslim Uighurs “religious extremists” and “separatists” in state media – the only news source on such attacks. 

Tiananmen Square has become a site for suicide protests: Late last year, a dozen petitioners swallowed pesticide; an Uighur man crashed his car with his wife and mother on board near Chairman Mao Zedong’s portrait in front of the square. Ironically, Tiananmen means the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” in Chinese.

Photo of Rose Tang at Tiananmen Square, taken on May 21, 1989 – the day after martial law was declared [Rose Tang]

Zubayra Shamseden, a Chinese Outreach Coordinator of the Uyghur Human Rights Project based in Washington DC said: “It’s getting worse. The Chinese government never listens to people, they keep cracking down.” 

Tiananmen over the last few decades has seen little peace but plenty of violence and paranoia.

The square has been off-limits at night and there are airport security-type checks at all entrances. Some 150 armoured vehicles with SWAT teams have been patrolling Beijing’s streets since mid-May, recently joined by 650 police dogs and 850,000 volunteers. These volunteers are mostly elderly ladies with red arm bands, dubbed in the Chinese media as “anti-terrorism Big Mamas”. China has become a police state and a theatre of the absurd. 

And the Chinese Communist Party has become the world’s biggest terrorist organisation. Footage locals post online shows how the police clubbed and shot at Maoming residents in Guangdong province who were protesting in April against a planned chemical plant. In late May, Chinese police fired at Uighur women protesting the ban on them wearing head scarves.

Domestic strife aside, Beijing has been “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan about overfishing and oil drilling in disputed islands and in the surrounding waters.

Meanwhile, western governments have either been silent or falling over each other to kowtow to China. Norwegian government leaders refused to meet the Dalai Lama who was in Oslo in May to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The Belgian government banned Tibetan flags on the streets in March when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s motorcade passed by. In Bruges, he gave a speech to an audience which included EU politicians, saying that a multi-party system did not suit China. 

US President Barack Obama has largely been mute on China’s thuggish behaviour. I voted for Obama in 2012 – it was my first time voting in the US – but now my precious ballot paper seems to be stained with the blood of Tiananmen Square’s victims. I’m utterly disappointed in Obama. Seeing how he conducts foreign policy is like reading the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. It may be easier sending Navy SEALS to Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden than criticising the Chinese president.

In the end, it’s all about the money: Western governments and multinational companies choose to believe in the Chinese superpower myth touted by Chinese state media and some mainstream western media. Such appeasement and cultivation of Xi could be catastrophic for the world. World War Three may not be looming, but China is damaging the world with political, economical, environmental and spiritual pollution.

More environmental awareness 

China’s environment is in crisis: its food, air, water, soil are toxic. And the destruction has spread overseas. “The mining of coal and unconventional oil and gas, or fracking, across the US, Canada, and Australia, leads to pollution and health problems for the local people. Mountains are blown up in Pennsylvania and gas fracked in Ohio, for example, partly to fuel the world’s second largest economy, a large percentage of the fossil fuel products getting shipped to China,” writes the editor of Earth News Online, Julian Gearing.

The good news is, Xi and his cronies are paranoid, as people in China are waking up. Mass protests involving all sections of society, including army veterans and children, happen on a daily basis. The critics who’d like to topple the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have become louder than ever. Protest leaders may have banned the shouting of “down with the Communist Party” in 1989, but people in China are gradually realising that the party itself is at the very root of the problem, and it is futile waiting for the regime to reform itself. The students of Tiananmen wanted to have a dialogue with the CCP but the CCP replied with a massacre.

Commemorating the massacre’s anniversary in Washington DC, Chinese dissidents and Tiananmen survivors called for continuing the legacy of Tiananmen protests and putting an end to the communist regime. Wang Juntao, jailed after the massacre and now the co-chairman of the Chinese Democratic Party, declared at a press conference on June 2: “The Chinese Communist Party has been sentenced to death and we’re the firing squad!”

A 20-year-old college freshman in Shandong who was in police detention for sharing software to get around China’s Great Firewall, an internet surveillance programme, told me on Facebook: “The Chinese Communist Party won’t be able to hide lies. If you guys didn’t fear death in Tiananmen, I’m not afraid of this.” 

It’s the party members that are fearful. Lies and violence are their weapons. Truth and compassion are ours. Chinese, Tibetans, Uighurs, Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos, Americans, South Americans, Europeans, people of the world, it’s urgent that we unite and say no to tyranny.

We shouldn’t wait for government leaders to save us. If some politician says, “Yes, we can!”, he may be able to, but probably won’t. But we can, and we will.

Rose Tang is a Chinese-born writer, artist and activist based in Brooklyn. She works on China’s human rights and the Tibetan cause and has been a frequent speaker in mainstream media and at events. Tang’s activism stems from her survival from the Tiananmen incident as a student protester. She was awarded the Champion for Freedom of Speech by the Visual Artists Guild in May.