FILE--A Chinese man blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. after Chinese forces crushed a pro democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)
Updated: July 5, 2014 6:18AM
June 4. The Fourth of June. 6/4. There are many ways to express it, and in the United States we are free to say them all. We can even be more specific: June 4, 1989. The day that Chinese Communist troops slaughtered protesters who had camped out for weeks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy.
Protests had begun in mid-April, with students calling for freedom and an end to corruption. Unrest grew. On May 20, Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing.
No one knew what would become of the gathering chaos. For days, the army was trying to reach the square, where 300,000 students and supporters had gathered. But Chinese citizens blocked the troops — at times with their bodies, as in the iconic image of a man facing down a line of tanks.
It seemed the country was about to change into something freer, more open.
Never happened. China cracked down. The red dragon flicked its tail.
“Bloody Beijing” was the headline of the Sun-Times on June 4, 1989. Soldiers shot protesters, they killed Red Cross ambulance drivers. Beijing Radio reported “thousands of people” had been killed. Later in the day, that announcer was gone, the party line returned, the scrubbing process begun.
Having crushed dissent, China’s leaders methodically tried to stamp out all memory it had ever existed. Two years ago, when the Shanghai stock exchange fell 64.89 points, censors suppressed the figure. The date itself is banned, but in a testimony to the human spirit, protest continues. Think of the power of the date 9/11; now imagine you were forbidden from saying it. So 6/4 is sometimes referred to in China, by strategy, as “May 35th.” Or “63+1.”
It’s easy to decry repression elsewhere. We also should remember that, over the past quarter century, Americans have generally failed to speak up the way we should. Worried about the economy, about placating our trading partner, we chose politeness over our supposed ideals. What’s sticking up for freedom when you’ve got a chance to sell gizmos to 1.3 billion Chinese?
Maybe that’s prudent. Maybe we are being smart, and time will nudge China in the direction those students wanted it to go. Maybe prosperity is better than freedom.
But that isn’t something to be proud of. Not everyone ducks their responsibility. In Chicago, for 23 years, Naperville musician Fengshi Yang held a concert to mark June 4.
“That day has changed the world,” she told me Tuesday. “It has to be remembered in the world’s heart, for our children, our children’s children. We need to continue to remember this day, to promote freedom.”
Yang was a student at the University of Chicago on June 4, 1989; like many, glued to the television. “We watched TV every day,” she said in 2001. “We prayed and hoped for a better China. When the tragedy finally happened, that took so many innocent young lives, we all cried.”
This year, the 25th anniversary, her daughter — Tiantian, 2 — will keep Yang from holding a concert in Chicago. “I had my first baby,” she said. “I didn’t have the time to do it this year.”
So instead she and her family are in San Francisco, where she is set to take part in a concert during a candlelight vigil before the Goddess of Democracy, a statue created there in honor of the “Goddess of Liberty” statue built by students at Tiananmen Square and torn down June 4, 1989.
“China is not free,” she said. “We need to remind people that China is not a free country.”
Yang has paid a price. She became a U.S. citizen in 1996, but because of her activism, China would not give her a visa to visit her ailing father, whom she had not seen since visiting in 1993. He died in 2012.
What does she think of China now?
“Things are worse, because people act like, ‘Oh, it’s so open now,’ ” Yang said. “No. Underneath, it is very, very tough. They think they are powerful. They think they can do anything.”
Our attitude seems to encourage them.
“Doing business is more important [than promoting freedom],” she said. “People keep silent because they don’t want to hurt their business. I feel so sad about it.”
We hope that China will become like us; we should worry that we’re becoming like them. Or worse. In China, people don’t know about June 4 because of government repression. Here, those who don’t know or don’t care have only themselves to blame.
As the world grows smaller and our fates intertwine, we must recall 6/4 as a code, a talisman, to be sure that it is they who inch toward freedom, and not us who inch away.