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June 4, 1989

June 5, 2011

Twenty-two years ago something big was culminating in China.  For weeks, all across the nation, students had gathered in protest against the government and for economic reform.  They were eventually joined by citizens from all walks of life.  From blue collar workers and farmers to doctors and lawyers who were fed up with their elitist and communistic leaders, they gathered by the millions to hold peaceful demonstrations.  Then, the order came from above that the rallies would end and the protestors would be dispersed.

Tank Man

After an initial failed attempt to take control of the city, resulting in an embarrassing setback, nothing would stop the government.  The military, armed with tanks, automatic weapons, and field ammunition began to push their way through the streets of Beijing until they eventually converged on Tiananmen Square.  All the way, they left a bloody trail of innocent civilians who had tried earnestly to keep the militia out of their city and continue their rally for reform.  Upon arrival to the square, the primary, iron-clad order to the soldiers was to have it cleared by morning – they did just that.  Forcibly removing and gunning down more civilians along with rolling over many of them with tanks in the dark of night.

By the time the morning mist began to clear, all that was left were remnants of destruction from a night of terror accompanied by columns of tanks and throngs of soldiers positioned in the square.  That next day evolved into even more bloody massacres of innocent civilians including aid workers, doctors, and parents trying to help those injured.  Although I was just five at the time and too young to know what was happening, one notable figure from my school books will be seared in my memory forever.  He is now simply known as “tank man” and was an individual that stood in front of an advancing column of metal giants.  He was most likely a common man moving about his day that was just sick and tired of all that he had seen.  Tank man would speak for the thousands that had been silenced the previous day, inspire millions across his country, and have a significant impact, not only on Chinese citizens, but on individuals fighting against communism throughout Eastern Europe at the time.

Hong Kong Protests Article

Now, over two decades after the massacre, Jen and I found ourselves in a small hostel in the middle of Hong Kong engaging in a broken conversation with two students from Beijing.  They had arrived shortly before us and were filled with excitement and anticipation.  They had spent the day traveling from the Chinese capital to Hong Kong, to participate in a ceremony that would commemorate what happened so long ago in their country – when they were just three and four years old.  Jen and I had no clue it was the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown but were immediately intrigued and knew we wanted to participate.

The crowds in the street

We checked into our room and began running Google searches that would give us more information on the demonstration (Google in China is a whole different conversation to be had).  We quickly found an AP article about the event including the time, location, and that over 100,000 people were expected to attend.  This further solidified the fact that we had to attend.  Hong Kong, being a part of China yet under different rule, would still allow such an event to take place on its’ soil, hence why so many traveled to the island to commemorate the day.  On the mainland there is absolutely no way such a happening would be permitted, let alone in Tiananmen Square where it is now immensely difficult to even take a video camera.

So, we eventually made our way out of where we were staying, grabbed a great local meal, and took the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island.  Once across, we began the walk to get to the park where the vigil was to take place.  Along the way, we started to question the news reports and whether or not so many people would actually show up.  We did not see really anybody on the ferry or in the streets.  In fact, as we walked further we began to question if it was happening at all or perhaps we got something wrong, there simply were not many people around.  Then, slowly we began to hear it.  Chinese being chanted over loudspeakers.  Small groups singing to the side.  Individuals asking for donations to the cause.  Before we knew it, we were walking down the middle of the street completely immersed in a sea of thousands out to commemorate what happened so long ago.

Following the flow of traffic we eventually made it to the park and were given a couple of candles to light in remembrance of the victims.  We joined thousands sitting on the lawn of this park, with the tall buildings of the Hong Kong skyline surrounding us, and listened to the speakers invigorate the crowd, the singers evoke emotions, and the leaders begin thunderous chants.  Of course it was all in Chinese, so unfortunately mostly lost on Jen and me, except for the emotion that came forth in everyone’s voices was ever present.  It was a beautiful thing to see the sea of candles out to do something that we often take for granted in America.

The program for the night

Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowds orderly dispersed into the streets and back to their homes, hotels, and wherever the night took them.  Jen and I made our way back to the port, took the ferry back across the water, and settled in for the night recanting all that we had seen in the past few hours.  At one time we were very unhappy to have to be changing hotels and moving all of our stuff but it allowed us to find out about something that we would have never known.  Instead of reading about it in the papers the next day, we were able to attend a moving demonstration for reform and peace first-hand and witness these Chinese pioneers.

No wonder we had such a hard time finding a place to stay in Hong Kong.  So many people wanted to travel from afar to this small island city to join in with thousands to commemorate the atrocities that happened twenty-two years ago.  As we all know now, urban China is now prospering economically by leaps and bounds.  The leadership made significant reforms to economic policies by doing such things as establishing special economic zones and allowing foreign investment after 1989.  While many people are still suffering, there is now a burgeoning middle class and striking economic growth, yet still no political reform and rampant issues with human rights.  Hopefully one day Chinese citizens will be able to enjoy such things as an independent press, open internet, and free speech.  As President Bush would say, they will get a taste of freedom and want more of it.

Now, I will leave you with this year’s statement from the U.S. Department of State:

Message on the Twenty-Second Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

Friday will mark twenty-two years since the violent suppression of protests in and around Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. The United States joins others in the international community in urging China to release all those still serving sentences for participating in the peaceful protests. We ask the Chinese government to provide the fullest possible public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, and to cease the ongoing harassment of those who participated in the demonstrations and the families of the victims.

We encourage China to protect the universal human rights of all its citizens, including those who peacefully express political views. We also renew our call for the release of all those detained, forcibly disappeared, or placed under house arrest in recent months as China has taken actions that are inconsistent with universally recognized rights. As Secretary Clinton has said, “when China lives up to [its] obligations of respecting and protecting universal human rights, it will not only benefit more than one billion people, it will also benefit the long-term peace, stability, and prosperity of China.”

Let Freedom Ring,

The future of freedom


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