Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Students died with their bicycles near Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. (Associated Press)
Students died with their bicycles near Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. (Associated Press)

Tiananmen dream: Dead in one generation Add to ...

"Nobody wants to challenge the authorities," said a 22-year finance and economics student who nervously observed a man - who seemed too old to be a student - lingering nearby in the Triangle as she spoke to a foreign reporter. "It's a very risky thing to talk about this question."

Still seeking answers

Seventeen-year-old high school student Jiang Jielian was among the thousands gathered on Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, 1989, when the tanks rolled in.

That evening, the state-run television station had broadcast a warning urging Beijingers not to leave their homes. Defying his mother - a strait-laced philosophy professor at Renmin University and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party who was urging him not to go to Tiananmen - Mr. Jiang locked himself in the family bathroom and climbed out the window to go join his friends on the square.

Outside, he met up with a classmate and they bicycled together toward the city centre. When they arrived around 11 p.m., a tense standoff was already under way between the protesters and the army. Eventually, the troops were ordered to open fire.

When a bullet struck Mr. Jiang in the back, he initially told his worried friends that he thought he had been hit by a rubber-coated round. None of them believed the soldiers would use live ammunition to break up a peaceful demonstration. He was one of the first to die in the crackdown, just after 1 a.m. on June 4.

"My son didn't want to be a hero. He was just a participant. He wasn't doing it for himself, but he was totally devoted to it," his mother, Ding Zilin, said. "His was an idealistic generation."

At first, Ms. Ding kept silent about what had happened, even as she frequently contemplated suicide. It wasn't until 1991 - after then-premier Li Peng told a press conference that the government wouldn't publish a list of those who had died on June 4, 1989, because the parents of the dead didn't want the names released - that she decided to speak out. She couldn't tolerate the suggestion that she was somehow ashamed of her dead son, whose portrait hangs in the living room above an urn containing his cremated remains.

Ms. Ding began meeting with other parents of those who had been killed on Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers, as the group became known, defied government surveillance and pressure to painstakingly gather the names of 195 students who died that day. Ms. Ding, now 72 and still leading a campaign to get the government to reveal the full truth, believes the real number is higher but that it won't be known as long as people are scared to talk about it.

Twenty years on, Ms. Ding is well aware that the cause her son died for is almost dead itself. She says today's students are more materialistic and practical than her son's generation, something she blames on a successful government "brainwashing" campaign that has kept discussion of Tiananmen Square out of the media and the classrooms.

"It's a cruel reality that today's young people don't know the truth. They say what happened 1989 wasn't necessary, and the people who were involved in the movement died for nothing. Today's students would never have given their lives. They think [their]life is most precious," she said bitterly in an interview at her apartment, where she still lives under constant watch.

She acknowledges that improving economic conditions have played a role in dulling students' desire for change, and says parents - who remember all too well what happened on Tiananmen - have also contributed to raising a generation that is almost completely uninterested in how their country is run, or why.

"Parents don't want to see their children get hurt, so they try to keep their children far away from politics, because Chinese politics are so terrible. There are no guarantees about your life if you get involved."

Single page

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular