‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing Public Security Bureau ordered me—“controlled” me, in police lingo—to go to the Fanjiacun police station in the Fengtai District of Beijing. This “practical action” of the Chinese government, although it violated basic human rights, was taken in support of the “stability” that the violent suppression at Tiananmen had brought about.

I recall the early hours of June 4, 1989. The few thousand students and other citizens who refused to disperse remained huddled at the north face of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square. The glare of fires leaped skyward and gunfire crackled. The pine hedges that lined the square had been set ablaze while loudspeakers screeched their mordant warnings. The bloodbath on outlying roads had already exceeded anyone’s counting. Martial law troops had taken up their staging positions around the square, awaiting final orders, largely invisible except for the steely green glint that their helmets reflected from the light of the fires. It was then that I turned to a friend and commented that the Martyrs’ Monument might soon be witness to our deaths, but that if not, I would come back to this place every year on this date to remember the victims.

That comment somehow turned into a vow—one that I may need to be fulfilling indefinitely. So far, I have. Every year on the evening of June 3, I have come back to Tiananmen to linger for a while. My wife and I join a few good friends—and beginning in 1995, have brought our son—to gather at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument and spend some time in reflection.

For me these visits have also aroused guilt feelings. The government’s pressures to forget June Fourth have caused the day slowly to erode in public memory: each year the Tiananmen Mothers seem more isolated, and the massacre seems more a topic to be avoided in daily conversation; even singing “The Internationale,” as students did that night, has become vaguely embarrassing. A certain lazy comfort attends this forgetting, and that is why I feel guilt. If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered “rioters” of seventeen years ago? And if everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres? Our Tiananmen generation is now in middle age; we are in positions where we can make a difference. Do we not want to? At a minimum, my guilt feelings cause me to telephone Professor Ding Zilin, a leader of the Tiananmen Mothers, every year on June 3 from Tiananmen Square. It allows me to feel that I am bringing greetings to this white-haired mother from the spirit of her dead son.

I know that I am…

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