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The Tiananmen Massacre: 25 Years Later, Three Students Tell What They Saw

16 minute read

Corrections appended, June 4, 2014

On June 5, 1989, Jonathan Chan arrived at Beijing airport with two swollen bumps visible on the back of his head. In a line of tired and weary student demonstrators, eager to slip out of the capital if not the country, the 24-year-old slid his hand into his pocket, fingering the single roll of film he had rescued moments before his camera had been smashed by Chinese soldiers. A journalist standing next to him took notice, quickly explaining how he might break open the roller, overexpose the images, and protect himself if he were stopped by airport immigration. Then Chan walked to the front of the line and waited for the inevitable question.

“Were you on the square?” the immigration official asked.

“I was,” Chan said, expecting to be detained.

Frowning, the official leaned in.

“Then go and tell the world,” the official said softly, before waving him through.

For the past 25 years, that’s exactly what Chan, Lam and Lee have tried to do. As leading student activists from Hong Kong, they played a vital role in the protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, not only as fundraisers and couriers of supplies for their fellow protesters, but also as emissaries of information, able to evade Communist Party censors by returning to Hong Kong — then still administered by the British and enjoying a vigorously free press and communications regime — to share their stories.

They arrived in Beijing in late May 1989, eager to join the call for a more open, representative and prosperous China. But they left, 10 days later, wearing clothes still stained with the blood of their friends, and with the images of the injured and dead still fresh in their minds. In the quarter-century since, seeing the “dark side of humanity,” in Lam’s words, they have actively fought against a growing amnesia surrounding the massacre at Tiananmen, instigated by a Chinese Communist Party desperate to erase from the history the hundreds, possibly thousands, of dead and wounded.

“Every year I have to remind myself that I have a job to do,” Lee tells TIME. “I was rescued by the people of Tiananmen Square and they have an expectation of me.”

‘If We Don’t Cry Out, Who Will?’
In the spring of 1989, thousands of students were taking to the streets each day, calling for government action on reforms that had been promised since the country had begun opening up in the late 1970s, but which had not been delivered. For a heady moment, it looked like the communist state might be forced to concede, and onlookers in the then British colony of Hong Kong took notice. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) was one of the first groups to assist. For weeks, the group hosted fundraisers and collected donations. The group also helped organize Hong Kong’s largest protest in support of the Tiananmen movement, drawing between 600,000 and a million people onto the streets in late May.

“We all wanted to do something for the movement,” Chan tells TIME. In 1989, he was No. 2 at the HKFS. The group had been sending small delegations to Beijing to gather information on the ground. “If we couldn’t be at the very heart of the protests each day, we hoped to provide some kind of back-end support.”

On May 25, 1989, Chan; Lam, who was then aged 20; and Lee, 26, boarded a plane to Beijing with 20 other students in tow. Divided among them were 300 tents and nearly a million dollars in cash donations — a staggering sum that demonstrated just how desperate Hong Kongers were to show support. Their plan was to split into two groups: the first would distribute supplies to the tens of thousands of students in Tiananmen Square. The second would consult with student leaders in the square and help share information as the movement continued to grow.

“People were disappointed in the government. They thought, If we don’t cry out, who will?” says Lam. “It was the most beautiful message.”

The protests had begun April 15, after the death of Hu Yaobang, a reformer within the Communist Party who favored economic overhaul and political liberalization. These positions earned him praise from the country’s youth, and his unexpected death drew thousands of students and intellectuals to the streets in a gesture of mourning that was, at the same time, a demonstration of reformist fervor. On April 26, however, an editorial condemning the protesters appeared in the state-run Peoples Daily. In the piece, the government alleged that the movement was “a planned conspiracy … to fundamentally negate the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and to negate the socialist system.” But casting the students as enemies of the people only raised the stakes.

“If the students were going to be judged as members of these so-called mobs,” Lee says, “there was no way they could return to their normal lives.” As seasoned NPR reporter Louisa Lim writes in her book, The Peoples Republic of Amnesia, the weeks of student protests were “a Rubicon that, once crossed, transformed [students’] lives forever. The preordained career paths that ordinarily would have been theirs — the government posting, the academic career … were gone.”

In May, many of the students pledged a hunger strike unless granted a meeting with government officials. With temperatures exceeding 30°C (86°F), thousands suffered dehydration and exhaustion, drawing more than 1 million citizens to the square in support on May 19.

“The people of Beijing really felt united,” Lam recalls. “Preschool children, officials from government offices, grandparents, even members of the Communist party. They were so moved by the students’ message. At that point, we couldn’t imagine the government would attack its own people.”

Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square
Kenneth Lam (left), Liane Lee (right) and another activist (name unknown) pose in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in April 1989.Jonathan Chan

On May 20, as the government declared martial law, mobilizing seven army battalions to converge on the square, groups of laobaixing (the Chinese term for commoners), formed “dare-to-die squads” devoted to obstructing military trucks, tanks and the troops themselves. Soon, workers’ groups and picketers joined in, citing frustration with the laggard speed of government reforms, rampant government corruption, and ever-stricter limits on press freedom. A U.S. embassy communiqué, sent to the State Department on June 3, noted a prescient conversation overheard on the streets of the capital: “One should not be surprised at the night’s events, since throughout Chinese history, whenever rulers have no solution for problems which they themselves have created, they do very foolish things.”

‘Tell the World What Happened Tonight’
Just before 9 p.m. on June 3, 1989, Lee, Lam and Chan took the elevator down to the lobby of the Beijing Hotel. There, a small gathering of journalists warned them of conditions in the square, telling them it was too dangerous to leave the building.

The three hurried back up to their rooms, burning sensitive records in the room’s tin trash can and smashing the fax machine, which they had used to send reports home, by picking it up and dropping it repeatedly. After dividing up the rest of the donations, storing the cash securely in their pockets and backpacks, they placed a call from a hotel phone to the HKFS headquarters. Friends and colleagues, who had been listening to reports, told them to stay in their rooms. Lee, unswayed, called her pastor in Hong Kong. She told him where she was and that she was planning to join the students in the square. “Please say a prayer for me,” she said, before hanging up.

On the 15-minute walk from their hotel to Tiananmen Square, little was said. Rumors about military movements had bubbled up all day, and protesters were monitoring army units approaching from the outskirts of town. Chan, Lee and Lam set off for the National Museum of China, on the east side of the square. Standing arm in arm, they joined about 50 other students and workers, waiting nervously as soldiers massed on the steps of the building. To the soldiers, protesters sang The Internationale, an anthem of the socialist and leftist party as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s. Lee remembers the surreal scene, especially the sight of a young boy reading a book in the glow of the streetlights. “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt us,” he said. “We just have to stay calm and peaceful. Who on earth would shoot us?”

Then Lee heard gunfire. She and Chan recalled hearing a shaky male voice come over a loud-hailer: “I’m holding in my hand the bloodstained shirt of my classmate,” someone was saying above the din. “They are starting to kill us. What are we going to do now?”

With increasing frequency, the injured and the dead appeared, carried towards the makeshift aid station run by the Beijing United Medical College. Around 11:30 p.m., Lee heard a scream: a young boy was running after an ambulance. “My brother, my brother!” he shouted, as Lee caught him midstride. “They killed my brother,” he said, collapsing in her arms. Within minutes he was up again, running after the ambulance, yelling for his brother before vanishing around the darkened corner. Lee then fainted. On regaining consciousness a while later, she saw the boy again. This time, he was the one being carried into the square, and he was lifeless.

By 12:30 a.m., Lam lost contact with both Lee and Chan. The military was advancing from all sides, and the student leaders who remained were divided over their next course of action. They had listened to the government’s warnings over the loudspeakers all day, and were now witnessing the beaten, battered and broken converge on the square. Around 1:30 a.m., Lam watched as an articulated bus struck a column of soldiers. As the driver was pulled from the vehicle and beaten, an enraged worker broke from the line of protesters, throwing the glass bottle he was carrying toward the soldiers. Lam heard two gunshots, and saw the worker fall to the ground.

Lam said he watched the blood pour from the worker’s wounds onto the road. “It was like a water tap had been turned on,” he said. “I just turned white. This is when I knew they wouldn’t stop. They were prepared to kill.”

Nowhere was this fact clearer than in the emergency medical tent. There, volunteer doctors treated the wounded as best they could, ferrying their patients into circling ambulances destined for the nearest hospital. Chan had carried Lee there after she fainted, and when she came to, she said, “I saw people dying beside me. I wanted more than anything to help.”

Chan, in the interim, had risked his own life in an attempt to document what was happening. Walking purposefully up to a line of troops he dared to raise his camera and was quickly swarmed by six or seven soldiers who struck him with their batons. Fellow students, recalling the moment later, believed the camera saved his life. “I think they thought I was a journalist,” Chan said.

In the medical tent, Chan and Lee assisted as best they could. “It was so dark in the square,” Chan said, “but we tried to stay focused on what was right in front of us.” Minutes later, an ambulance arrived, imploring any Hong Kong students to get in the vehicle immediately. Lee refused, telling the driver to tend to the injured first. But when a second ambulance arrived, the driver issuing the same call, a female doctor pulled Lee aside and told her: “Please, get in the ambulance. You need to leave the square safely. You need to get back to Hong Kong. You need to tell the world what happened tonight — what our government did to us.”

Lam, separated from Chan and Lee, meanwhile returned to the Monument to the People’s Heroes. As chaos swirled around them, witnesses noted the relative calm among the few student leaders who remained. Many had simply climbed the stone steps, finding a quiet place to sit. There, they sang songs, the words of The Internationale interrupted every so often by the sound of nearby gunfire.

Just past 4 a.m., the remaining lights were briefly turned off, casting the chaotic square into darkness. Some believed this was a sign of the military’s final strike. Minutes later, bright spotlights were illuminated, casting into relief a terrifying array of armored personnel carriers, tanks (some ablaze) and columns of soldiers in front of the Great Hall. Slowly, troops and tanks converged on the monument. Then student leaders pushed Lam down the steps, shielding him as they went. “You have done enough here,” Lam remembers them saying. “You must get back to Hong Kong alive.”

As he looked over his shoulder, he could see soldiers making impromptu pyres of the tents he had brought from Hong Kong just days ago, their black acrid smoke billowing into the sky.

‘It’s Time to End the Old Regime’
On June 1, 2014 — almost 25 years to the day — Lam and Chan join a march in Hong Kong to commemorate the victims of Tiananmen. Under Hong Kong’s brilliant blue summer sky, they stand at opposite ends of a 12-ft. black banner that reads: “The truth cannot be distorted.”

But the great fear, of course, is that it can.

“When we marched 25 years ago, you still thought that things would be better,” Chan says, the afternoon sun in his eyes, sweat gathering on his brow. “Everyone was so hopeful then.”

Today, he works as a social worker, serving ethnic minorities in Hong Kong’s suburbs. His friend of more than a quarter-century, Lam, is a local solicitor, specializing in labor rights. Lee, unable to attend the commemorations this year, now lives in the U.S. and has devoted her life to publicizing the truth of Tiananmen. Last month, she spoke at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

Tiananmen Square 25 Years Later
Kenneth Lam carries a sign that reads: "The truth cannot be distorted" during a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on June 1, 2014. Lam witnessed the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.Adam McCauley

In the months leading up to this year’s anniversary, authorities have detained, disappeared, or put under house arrest dozens of Chinese activists, according to human-rights groups. Last month, five of 14 individuals who had gathered for a June 4 Commemoration Seminar in Beijing were also arrested for creating a “public disturbance” — despite hosting the event in a private home.

“All of these [incidents] reveal just how scared China’s leaders are of their own history,” says the author Lim, whose book addresses the Chinese government’s campaign to erase and distort memories of Tiananmen. “Given the party’s strenuous attempts to excise the memories of June 4, it is important for the issue to be revisited before it is too late. Some of the principal players are growing old and their stories risk being lost forever.”

Younger generations of mainland Chinese aren’t even aware that there was a student-led protest. “It sounds incredible, but the Communist Party has been more successful than one could imagine at imposing this collective amnesia,” says Willy Lam, a professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “About half of my students are from the mainland. They are master’s students who did their undergraduate degrees in China and most of the students had no idea of June 4.”

Ignorance continues, in part, because of educational decrees have outlined clear limits on the topics allowed in university classrooms. Last August, the issue of educational censorship received international attention after a leaked document, known as Document 9, listed “offensive Western ideals” that could not be discussed in the classroom. These topics included issues such as the separation of government powers, multiparty political systems, universal suffrage and a publicly accountable military.

“Document 9 is a sign of the government’s paranoia and suggests a great deal of internal insecurity,” says Jeff Wasserstrom, chancellor’s professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a sometime TIME contributor and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. But China has traditionally been a country of contradictions, he adds. “Fifteen years ago, people would say that the contradiction would be the fact that they were a communist country that clearly endorsed capitalism. Now, the biggest contradiction is how the Communist Party could appear so strong, but also so worried.”

In her book, Lim tells the story of Zhang Xianling, a co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers group, which includes relatives and friends of victims, and democracy activists, as well as the mothers and fathers of those who died in the square. Zhang’s 19-year-old son was killed at Tiananmen and her investigation into her son’s death raised the ire of the state, prompting a police escort anytime she visited her son’s grave. Now, a closed-circuit television camera is kept trained on the spot where her son is buried, awaiting her return, Lim says. “Such a great, glorious and correct party is afraid of a little old lady,” Zhang told Lim. “It shows how powerful we are, this group of old people, because we represent righteousness. They represent evil.”

As Kenneth Lam and Jonathan Chan and other demonstrators march through the streets of Hong Kong, they are subjected to harangues from small gatherings of pro-China groups, who have staked out territory on the route. Their signs, rightly, note that soldiers and police were also harmed during the events of June 4, but the refusal of Beijing’s supporters to accept the legitimacy of the 1989 protests, or the fact that Tiananmen was an entirely unequal contest between tanks and unarmed students, quickly sparks tensions. As voices rise amid a rush of finger-pointing, Lam reaches into his backpack, cues a song on his phone, and then begins to broadcast The Internationale from a small speaker, the words drifting through the crowd:

We see through their disinformation:

Designs to turn us into war.

But soon, the soldiers in formation

Will break ranks and fight no more.

And if those cowards think it’s their right

To sacrifice us to their dream,

They’ll see the power of our own might;

It’s time to end the old regime.

“I once had this belief that the world could be better,” Lam says. “But June 4 is an incident that can cause the collapse of belief. We are here today to make sure we don’t lose the truth too.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the age of Liane Lee. She was 26 at the time of these events. It also misstated the significance of The Internationale in China. It is the Chinese Communist Party’s anthem.

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