Thirty years ago, I was days from a college degree when I visited the southern Minnesota newspaper at which I soon would begin my first full-time job in journalism. It was a small paper, emptied out on the weekend, and this was an era without TV screens at every turn, yet the editor who received me was energized by breaking news from China. The government there had viciously cracked down on students who had been demonstrating for weeks in and around Beijing’s pre-eminent public square. Many would die.
As it turned out, 1989 was a momentous year to have begun a career in news. Though the democracy movement in China was ruthlessly stifled, such movements bloomed elsewhere, leading by year’s end to the disintegration of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and, most prominently, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I took it all in as stories and photos came over the wires — with a strange awareness of what would prove to be one of the persistent idiosyncrasies of working as an editor in a newsroom: that of being connected to events, but from a blurred distance, safely insulated.
The events that took place between April 15 and June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square were fully palpable, however, to Wang Dan. He was a student leader during the protests and ultimately spent years in prison. In a commentary for the New York Times, he discusses the students’ surprise at the government’s response, the responsibility he feels for the lives lost and the reasons the movement failed:
“We never believed that the leadership would use force,” he writes, “because we had been pushing for the Communist Party to improve itself, not to surrender power.”
He also discusses his hope that the current trade war between the U.S. and China can have constructive outcomes:
“As the United States-China trade war unfolds, I see a tremendous opportunity to make political reform a part of the negotiations. In the 1990s, when Washington linked the granting of China’s most favorable trading status with human rights, the Chinese government bowed to the pressure by relaxing its political control and releasing me and several other dissidents. But once trade and human rights were delinked, the situation there deteriorated drastically. …
“In a perverse way, President [Donald] Trump’s tough stance against Beijing, despite its unpredictability, is proving effective. Through this trade war, I hope Washington will show the Chinese leadership that the West will not tolerate the use of technology for spying and controlling ordinary citizens.”
Wang is hopeful; others aren’t. For further context on the Tiananmen protests and their aftermath:
• The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper, reports that “some 400 intellectuals, students and officials became exiles in wake of the June 4 crackdown, settling in Europe, the United States and Taiwan,” and interviews several of them. While once they were “determined to remember events of 1989 and promote democracy from overseas,” time has led “to disarray and infighting in the ranks.”
• In the business publication Quartz, Italy native Ilaria Maria Sala recalls the events up to and following the crackdown from her perspective as a Beijing Normal University exchange student. “In many ways,” she writes, “China hasn’t ever recovered to what it was before the crackdown, when debate and speech were as free as they have ever been under the Communist Party.”
• Also at the New York Times, Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” examines how the views of China’s young people have shifted. Recalling a challenge from a Chinese student at one of her lectures who doubted that discussion of the events could be helpful, she writes: “I’ve often heard Chinese students defending the government’s behavior as necessary. But this argument was different. The student was deftly sidestepping her government’s act of violence against its own people, while internalizing Beijing’s view that social stability trumps everything else. At the end of the talk, a second Chinese student came up to ask whether the very knowledge of June 4 could be dangerous to ‘our perfect society.’ ”
“Forwarded with comment” is a periodic, online-only feature of Star Tribune Opinion. The idea is to share and discuss interesting items we encounter in our daily reading but are unable to republish in full.