Twenty-five years ago the China People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed or injured on the night of 3 and 4 June 1989 as tanks rolled into the square to quash one of the biggest pro-democracy movements in history.
In the aftermath of the bloody crackdown the authorities published the names of those “Most Wanted” for their role in the protests. Besides the student activists who led the movement, those singled out by the authorities also included ordinary workers and others who felt inspired by their struggle.
In the first of a two-part series, two of those “Most Wanted” told Amnesty International their extraordinary stories and shared their hopes for China today.
Shen Tong: ‘We didn’t believe the government would commit such a horror’
Shen Tong was a reluctant leader of the 1989 student protests. Despite only being 20 years old, he was considered a veteran activist by many of his peers at Peking University.
“The vast majority wanted reform not revolution. We really felt we were patriots. We believed we were actually helping the government,” Shen Tong explains from his home in New York where he now runs a successful media company.
When the government declared martial law on 20 May, support for the students who had been protesting in Tiananmen Square grew among ordinary workers.
“The arrogance of the government was the main source of the acceleration of the protest. More and more people came out. Some Beijing citizens managed to stop troops moving to Tiananmen then. There was an incredible spiritual uplift. We felt invincible. We had defied the government on their first attempt to end the protests.
“The troops were trapped in and around Beijing. Old ladies, mothers with children in their arms, workers, would give daily lectures to soldiers on what the movement was about and why the troops should leave.
“That was the atmosphere before the massacre. We were all exhausted but as alive as anyone can be.”
On the night of the crackdown, Shen was staying at his family home in Beijing. He had returned to be with his mother as his father was seriously ill in hospital.
“My father being sick probably saved my life. I felt compelled as a son to stay with my mum. Otherwise I would have been in Tiananmen.
“My neighbourhood was off Chang’an Avenue where most of the killing took place. That’s why I saw the start of the massacre -soldiers opening fire at protesters.”
“At first we thought they were rubber bullets. We didn’t take the live ammunition claims seriously. We didn’t believe the government would commit such a horror.”
But the soldiers’ weapons were fully loaded. They had strict orders to clear the square of protesters by 6am on 4 June.
“When you have rows and rows of tanks moving together, the ground shakes.
“Then it finally sunk in. I saw people with bloody shirts; people being carried on rooftops to safety so they could go to hospital. It was not safe on the road with stray bullets flying everywhere.”
Shen carries a heavy burden from the horrors of that night: “I know it’s irrational but I do feel responsible for those casualties. This has been with me for 25 years.”
He has analysed over and over again what the students could have done differently.
“Looking back we were too naive. Such a protest in a police state is a paradigm shift. There’s no telling where the line is. We were redefining the line.”
Immediately after 4 June, friends and strangers helped Shen to hide from the authorities. Despite being on the “Most Wanted” list, he was able to leave undisguised from Beijing Airport on 11 June. He boarded a flight to Tokyo, and then on to Boston, USA.
He continued his studies and at the same time campaigned tirelessly for human rights in China.
In August 1992, Shen decided to return to Beijing. He was detained and spent two months in jail before being returned to the USA.
“The Chinese regime today is the largest, most brutal mafia structure known to mankind. The 1980s held much more promise. As horrible and terrible as it was, it was less brutal than today.
“I don’t care if the official account changes or not. We know what happened. We did an effective job of telling the world.”
Lu Jinghua: ‘One body fell by me, then another’
In the spring of 1989, Lu Jinghua made her living selling clothes at a small stall in Beijing. Each morning on her way to work, the 28-year-old mother would pass Tiananmen Square and see the students protesting.
“I became interested and would visit them to ask why. I really supported their call for an end to corruption. So I brought food and water for them,” Lu Jinghua recalls in her clear and commanding voice.
A few days after martial law was imposed, Lu joined The Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation in Tiananmen Square. It was a decision that changed her life.
“I volunteered to be a broadcaster because of my voice. I would stand in Tiananmen Square and share the latest news over the loud speakers. At night I would sleep in a tent at the square.
“I would go to the factories to make special announcements, to urge the workers to come and support the students. I really enjoyed those days. I was happy. The movement changed my life.”
But then, on 3 June, the day after her daughter’s first birthday, the army began their assault to clear Tiananmen Square.
“I was really angry at the government. I announced on the speaker: ‘The Chinese government is trying to kill us.’ I saw people getting killed and injured. When the tanks approached the square at about 2.30am on 4 June, I told the students: ’You need to leave. If you stay you will be killed.’
“With the army approaching we had to leave. I heard bullets whizz past and people getting shot. One body fell by me, then another. I ran and ran to get out of the way. People were crying out for help, calling out for ambulances. Then another person would die.”
For several days after 4 June, Lu was overcome by sadness: “I could not believe the government had tried to kill us.”
When the government published the “Most Wanted” list, she was the only woman among the six workers who were singled out.
The army descended upon her family home. They kicked down doors and searched every room. They shouted at her mother and father and even put a gun to her sister’s head.
But Lu was already in hiding. A week after the crackdown she had left Beijing and travelled to Guangzhou in south China.
“I was going to stay in a hotel but I found out my picture from the ‘Most Wanted’ list was posted in the reception. I hid for two months. I called contacts in Hong Kong, pleading for them to help me. I was confused about whether I should leave or stay. If I didn’t try to escape I would be in danger, but my daughter was only one year old. I hadn’t seen her for months. It was an impossible decision. But I needed to save my life and that’s why I accepted I had to go.”
Lu’s contacts in Hong Kong helped her to plan her escape. In the dark of the night, she and five others swam up a river to a small boat. They were then transferred to a speed boat and out to sea.
She made it to the safety of Hong Kong and in December that year she flew to New York, where she was granted refugee status.
“I was able to have one telephone call with my mum and daughter. I cried on the phone. I hadn’t seen my daughter for six months. I told my mum: ‘I will work so hard to make a good life for my family, for my daughter’.”
Her voice cracks as she recalls the pain of being separated from her family.
In 1993, she attempted to return to China to see her family: “When I got off the plane the authorities stopped me. I could see my mum holding my daughter on the other side of the gate but the police wouldn’t let me talk to them.
“All I wanted was to say hello. The police took my arm and kicked me. They took me away and sent me back to the USA. I never got to see my family.”
She would have to wait another year to be reunited with her daughter, who was able to join Lu in the USA on 16 December 1994.
When her mother died in 1998, and her father a year later, the Chinese authorities refused to grant Lu visas to attend the funerals.
In New York, Lu continued to campaign for workers’ rights. She became a representative for a garment workers’ union, before becoming a real estate agent.
Twenty-five years on, she is proud of what the Tiananmen Square protests achieved.
“We will never forget what happened. It was the right thing to do. I was young, doing something. I still believe in this. I still fight for human rights in China.
“I was just a 28-year-old woman riding past Tiananmen Square on my bicycle. Nobody respected me but afterwards people wanted to hear what I had to say.”
And Lu is clear in what she wants the Chinese government to say.
“What I want is for the government to say it is sorry. To apologize for what they did in 1989. They need to give us an apology.”