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Tiananmen Square Massacre 30 years on

Sabine Peschel eg
June 3, 2019

What were the goals of the Chinese student movement from 1989 and what is left of it in the country? Author Zhou Qing, imprisoned after the brutal crackdown of June 4, tells DW why he still has hope for China.

China Mann stoppt Panzerkolonne Tiananmen-Platz 1989
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Widener

DW: Zhou Qing, you were 24 when China was shaken by a wave of protests in the spring of 1989. You personally witnessed the protest movement in the city of Xi'an. How can it best be described: as a democracy movement, a student movement, a protest for better living conditions, or for more individual freedom?

Zhou Qing
Author and filmmaker Zhou Qing Image: Ai Weiwei/Zhou Qing

Zhou Qing: I think there are many aspects to consider. The students were still basically following the tradition of movements that were then perceived as patriotic, such as the May 4th Movement of 1919 [an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement which grew out of student protests in Beijing] and the anti-Japanese December 9th Movement of 1935 [another mass protest led by students]. Their movement had the same origins as the Communist student movement, including its patriotic approach.

In 1989, the students recognized the legacy of General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang, a politician who respected intellectuals. When he died in April 1989, it incited many people to start demonstrating.

Read more: Political art in China 30 years after the Tiananmen Square protests

China Flashgalerie Peking Tiananmen Jahrestag 19 April 1989
The funeral of party chief Hu Yaobang on April 19, 1989 contributed to launching the student movementImage: AP

The main target of their protests was corruption among officials. The dissatisfaction of other social groups — such as farmers, workers, and many more — also played a role. That was related to the economic reform: In 1988, the so-called dual-track pricing system was introduced [through which state-controlled store prices were to progressively adapt to free market prices]. Prices for goods exploded and that led to great dissatisfaction in society — and the protests were an expression of this.

And then there was a very small proportion of protesters who wanted to seize the opportunity to promote democracy and freedom in China.

How extensive was the movement?

It's a mistake to believe that everything happened only on Tiananmen  Square in 1989. There were protests in more than 200 cities. Besides Beijing, there was a lot happening in the cities of Xi'an, Changsha, Chengdu and Shanghai.

Zhou Qing right after his release from prison in 1992
Zhou Qing right after his release from prison in 1992Image: privat

You were arrested for participating in the demonstrations and kept imprisoned under cruel conditions for almost three years. What allowed you as a young man to nevertheless stay strong?

That's the way people are made; they can endure more than expected. I personally managed to stay quite stable up to this day thanks to my readings and my studies.

But you couldn't read while in prison…

The 1980s were a relatively free period of openness, during which many important Western works as well a few important books by Eastern European dissidents were published. Through these translations, we first realized that there was something quite different from what we were familiar with — that another social system existed. And we also learned about possibilities of resistance. That was really important.

Many of the books that appeared in the 80s are banned in China today. The Western classics published in those years had an influence on the 1989 movement that should not be underestimated.

Afterwards you spent years working as a journalist and a critical non-fiction author in China. You are now an author and documentary filmmaker living in Berlin. Can you return to China?

I still have a Chinese passport, so I could go back.

The crushing of the democracy movement in China shook the world in 1989, exactly 30 years ago. If you speak of "June 4th" in China today, do young people still recognize what it means?

There's a sentence that works very well here: Whoever controls the past, also controls the future. How the events are remembered is a struggle between the Communist authorities and ordinary people that is currently experiencing its peak.

The authorities are continuously trying to cover up the events of June 4, along with the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, and the even earlier Yan'an Rectification Movement [which Mao won in 1942 against other high-ranking Communist Party members — and allowed the consolidation of his position of preeminence in the CCP]. Covering the past is the method through which they can strengthen their power and continue to govern.

China Flashgalerie Peking Tiananmen Jahrestag 19 April 1989
Chinese students hold a banner calling for 'Freedom & Democracy Enlightenment' in front of a giant portrait of Hu Yaobang, a year after his deathImage: AP

Is the population in China generally aware of this anniversary?

There are days of official commemoration and traditional mourning days in China. The fact that June 4 could become a commemoration and mourning day makes the Chinese authorities extremely nervous.

Are the events being discussed online? Do people use codes to talk about the topic, as is sometimes the case with critical issues and terms?

The Chinese are always resourceful in this aspect. When the authorities prohibited "June 4" or "06/04" for example, whether in numbers or in Chinese characters, they started writing June 1+3 or May 35, or they use a picture of a house with the number 64 as their icon. People come up with all kinds of ideas, and very humorous ones.

Many Chinese intellectuals, writers, filmmakers and artists had to flee after June 4 and lived in exile for years. While they were abroad, they created works dealing with the crushing of the democracy movement in their works. Most of them have since returned to China. Are their works available in the country — whether online or in shops — and are they still influential?

I think that their influence is extremely low. Human life is short, and if you have no hopes of seeing the balance of power change, then you may be willing to compromise. Many of those who have returned to China have worked with the government. So there's nothing left that could have exerted influence.

Are there still writers or intellectuals addressing the events in their current work?

There are some, of course. If these people did not exist, then the Chinese nation would be in a very sad state.

Who are these people?

These are, for example, the "mothers of Tiananmen" or some of the famous elders who were there on June 4. Even more important are the people who were imprisoned for the June 4 events; who were attacked and unable to find work afterwards, and who later worked for non-profit organizations or NGOs. I have the highest respect for them. Such people give hope for China's future. They have sharpened their utopian ideals through concrete experiences.

Tiananmen Massaker China 1989
Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (3rd from left) was one of the "Great Elders" who supported the Tiananmen Square protests. He was ousted and kept under house arrest until his death in 2005 Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Are there perhaps even people among established politicians who secretly hope that the country openly deals with the past? 

I think that is extremely unlikely. Many people, especially China scholars from the West, make a distinction between the reformers and conservatives within the CPP elite — but I think that's speculative. They have no motivation to reform or to take a position on the Tiananmen massacre.

High cadres have all the privileges, including material ones, so why should they give that up? The June 4th events could be addressed if a group sees an opportunity to gain power in an internal party dispute. That would be an option.

Liu Xiaobo once wrote, "The future of freedom in China is civil society." How do you see the chances for a free Chinese society?

I believe that China is on its way to a democratic, free and constitutional society. I have absolutely no doubt about this. Most Chinese people have already experienced the bright light outside, and they will set out in that direction — at any cost.

Zhou Qing, born in 1964 in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, became known as a non-fiction author, political commentator, and documentary filmmaker. His 2004 book, What Kind of God: China's Food Safety  sparked controversy in his home country. It has been published in 10 countries and became an international bestseller. In 2006, he received the Lettre Ulysses Prize for his documentary work. In 2017, the dissident published a documentary about the Cultural Revolution. Zhou Qing has been mainly living in Germany since 2009, and now in Berlin.