In 2008, I made my first trip to China as a journalist. I had come to report on the grand preparations underway for the Beijing Olympics that broke the “Iron Curtain” of China. I landed at the then dazzlingly new Beijing Airport, an architectural marvel full of natural sunlight and hundreds of young and conscientious women staffers (as found all over China – in toll plazas on the highways, the long distance train from Qinghai to Lhasa, and other airports), days before the great games would start on August 4, 2008.
Another architectural beauty, the Olympic stadium called the Bird’s Nest, was being given last-minute touches at the time. China was peaking, stimulated to score the highest number of gold medals, finally beating the United States in their own homeland. The slogans were utopian: “A country of dreams. One world, one dream. Civilization and harmony.”
I reached my hotel in the heart of a decked-up Beijing, dumped my suitcase, and walked down the road, as if possessed, solitary and one-dimensional. Having witnessed and been part of protests at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) two decades ago, I had to pay my silent homage to the students of Tiananmen Square: those who were killed in the massacre of June 4, 1989, in addition to the hundreds of those who disappeared, who were tortured, jailed, and hounded.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Even as sharp-eyed armed People’s Liberation Army soldiers hung around, I stood in the midst of the square, across the Forbidden Zone, opposite the huge portrait of Mao Zedong. I stood in silence amid the throbbing crowd, country folks, and the tourists, without folding my hands so as not to draw attention. I shut my eyes.
For a moment, it was like I was in a flashback. I could see the tanks moving in, along with 200,000 soldiers. I saw thousands of students in tents and under the blue sky, taking part in a mass, nonviolent Gandhian fast. They fasted and were peaceful; they were not violent when they demanded more freedom and democracy. They refused to move when the first tanks rolled in, when the first bodies started falling at the square.
One student from Hong Kong, who had come to Beijing in solidarity, tried to save a young boy from the tanks. She was soaked in blood but she refused to get into the ambulance. Another had his legs crushed. And suddenly, one solitary young man came from nowhere and stood alone in front of a row of tanks in magnificent nonviolent defiance – in what is a classical image of resistance against a totalitarian regime.
I saw the images pass by rapidly like a stream of consciousness, imagining a river soaked in young blood. I also heard the sounds, cries, and a collage of chaos. I heard the music on two loudspeakers. So, what was the music the students had put up on the loudspeakers even when the tanks rolled in? “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, and “The Internationale,” the working class song celebrated across the world on May Day, and forever.
In Delhi, on that fateful day, I was a scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has been under siege since 2014 by the ultra-right-wing regime in Delhi. The students’ union at the time was led by the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which backed the Tiananmen Square Massacre and glorified the Chinese regime led by Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng. They termed the students as “CIA lackeys, juvenile delinquents, and bourgeois reactionaries,” among other clichéd communist abuses. They even claimed that the massacre and the clampdown simply did not happen: that it was all manufactured, a figment of biased imagination of the Western media.
They were basically blindly toeing the Chinese government’s line. In China, there was total censorship around the events of that day. Even mothers and fathers were not allowed to mourn the death of their young sons and daughters. Two TV reporters dressed in black read out the official version with mournful faces; they were sacked. Editors who dared to tell even the partial truth were removed. The “massacre is a myth” was the party line, the government line, the media line, all while pictures and stories from Hong Kong and the Western media started leaking out, flooding the world with outrage and shock.
In JNU, students reacted like angry and caged animals against their own students’ union, which backed the massacre. The students made a parallel collective: Committee in Solidarity with Chinese Students. Almost the entire campus signed a strong petition against the Chinese government, in support of the democracy and freedom movement, against the killing and imprisonment of students, and seeking full freedom of expression for citizens and the media.
We marched in the hundreds to the Chinese Embassy in the high security diplomatic enclave of Delhi. The cops surrounded us as we marched to the gate and shouted slogans such as, “Chinese students’ movement long live! Dengist-Pengists down down!” as the foreign media swarmed the place. This was the first international protest held in solidarity with Chinese students after the bloody crackdown.
I remember sticking a petition of several sheets on the gates of the Chinese embassy. The images – at the time there was no social media or mobile phones – became viral on international television and radio stations. Solidarity messages started arriving from London and Hong Kong to JNU.
The top CPI-M leader at the time, Sitaram Yechury (currently the general secretary of the party), appeared in JNU for a speech. He came armed with a crass Chinese propaganda film that branded the students yet again as “CIA stooges and bourgeois delinquents.” The students boycotted the film, gave him time to finish his speech, and then told him that he should answer each and every question that students had no matter how long it took. Yechury was held back almost all night in the hostel mess in a packed, sweaty hall and made to answer questions on the massacre, even as students wore black badges, distributed pamphlets, and held huge posters depicting the blood and gore at the Tiananmen Square. He was made to leave only in the early hours, even as a mass procession was held in the campus with solidarity slogans renting the air: “Freedom freedom long live! Chinese students’ movement long live! Down with the Chinese totalitarian regime!”
The JNU elections were usually held in October those days; what happened next therefore was called the Great October Revolution. Months later, in the students’ union election held in JNU, perhaps the most famous among all university campuses in India for its high intellectual and political level of debate, the CPI-M’s students’ wing was decisively defeated. The main election issue was the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the idea of freedom, justice, and democracy, and the true meaning of an egalitarian, socialist society.
An independent, non-dogmatic students’ collective became victorious. It was called Solidarity, deriving its name from the Gdansk Shipyard uprising of workers led by Solidarnosc in Poland, then under a military dictatorship backed by Soviet Russia.
Significantly, I was elected the president of the JNU students’ union in October 1989, led by the students’ collective Solidarity. Hence this mini-memoir, as a tribute and homage to the dead and living students of Tiananmen Square. This year on June 4, therefore, I once again remembered the uprising in China and the solidarity movement in JNU with deep mourning.
Amit Sengupta is a senior journalist with StoriesAsia.