Tiananmen Revisited: My Interview with Exiled Political Reformer Yang Jianli
28 years after June 4, a date associated with trauma and bloodshed, I am left with more questions than history textbooks can answer.
Today, Chinese Americans represent the largest of minority Asian ethnic groups in America. The IIE recently reported that around 2 in 5 international students enrolled in American education came from China. Yet discussion about the 1989 incident among these Chinese youth groups continues to remain paltry.
After having independently discovered at age 17 the Tiananmen Massacre through Josh Azarella’s Tank Man reconstruction, I developed an interest in recovering memories of the Tiananmen struggle in America, where many exiles who narrowly escaped the killings now reside under US protection.
Yang Jianli is one of these thousands of Chinese activists who in 1989 took to the streets to protest for increased democratic reforms in China, and continues to face scrutinization from the Chinese government. Today, he runs Initiatives for China and travels around the world speaking for non-violent democratic reform.
Upon landing in DC to begin my photo project, I sat with Yang Jianli to discuss his current activities in America.
What is your connection to the Tiananmen Massacre?
At the time I was still studying in the US but had flown to China to participate in the protests. I will never forget the terror I witnessed in June of 1989. I and many students were at the intersection of Changan Street, where on June 3rd, the military began their killing spree. With my own eyes, I saw tanks run over students there. The military had received orders from above to open fire on the crowd. I witnessed one of my comrades get killed only a few feet away from me. I narrowly escaped death before returning to America.
Recently, I have been trying to petition for UNECSO’s Memory of the World Registry to accept the infamous picture of Tank Man. Everybody recognizes this photo. Even TIME has lauded it as one of the 100 Most Influential Photos of All Time. But the Chinese goverment does not want this photo to be circulated. They have been pressuring the Director General of UNESCO to reject this photo from their collection.
Why is it so important to memorialize this photo?
Everybody knows the one young man in the photo who stood against the string of tanks to stop them from entering Tiananmen Square. He is a hero in our eyes. But we often forget the second hero who was part of this story, the man inside the foremost tank who stopped and did not open fire to kill, despite executive orders. He, I believe, is the key to China’s future.
I want to re-define what it means to be a hero. On the day the infamous Tank Man was photographed, two heroes were born. The photo is evidence that the man in the tank, the supposed enemy, was in fact our friend. Only when the Chinese people recognise this and demand for non-violence, can the nation come to a peaceful reconciliation.
How do Chinese milennials feel about these events? Do they talk about it?
The reality is that many young Chinese people are disengaged or do not even know that the Tiananmen Massacre happened. And those who are aware of what happened do not know much detail about the truth. This is saddening because many youths in China do still have a strong sense of belief and justice. The bottom line is that the government killed many young people in an event not so long ago but this information is not clearly relayed to youths. Truth is truth, and people need to open their minds to what happened to really press for the government to reverse the verdict.
What does your support network in America comprise of?
We have many allies in the Hill and receive support from human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and organizations benefitting Tibetans and Uyghurs, whose minority status in China means they are constantly subject to discrimination. Each year around June 4, we come together to celebrate the events that occured in those bloody days. My only regret is that the events do not attract as many Chinese people living in America, even though they are the people we are trying to speak to.
That’s surprising. Why don’t many Chinese people, despite having a growing presence in America, attend these July 4th commemoration events?
I think it’s a result of many factors. Each has his or her own reason, but I find that too many people are focusing on their own lives in the present and not reflecting enough on the past. They don’t think history is that important. And with familial connections still in China, they are scared of potentially facing harrassment from the Chinese government. Many others do care, but they have, over time, become cynical. 28 years have gone by since the student protests and the Chinese government still strongly suppresses any discussion in the mainland. They don’t feel that they have made a dent in the larger political discussion.
I’m optimistic about our progress, however. I do believe that one day China will adopt a more liberal system which protects our basic human rights. Getting Tank Man into the Memory of the World Registry is our next big step.
Do you have any final points of remark?
I firmly believe that the Tiananmen Massacre still holds the key to the future of China. China has done all ways to prevent any open discussion and to suppress any remembrance of what happened, including silencing family members of the protestors who died in 1989. My hope is to fight for open discussion, especially for Chinese millenials whose demands are still at value today.
If people understand why these events happened and what violent actions China did in response to these protests, they will stand up and demand a resolution. Only so, can future leaders re-examine June 4 and open up for a more liberal system which will protect our human rights.
“I want to re-define what it means to be a hero.
On the day the infamous Tank Man was photographed, two heroes were born. The photo is evidence that the man in the tank, the supposed enemy, was in fact our friend. Only when the Chinese people recognise this, can the nation reconcile as a whole.”
Near the end of our conversation, Jianli gifted me a book of his poems, which he published shortly after his imprisonment in China, after attempting to enter the country for a commemoration event. Deprived of even a pen and paper during his solitary confinement, he trained himself to write and memorize each of these poems in his head. A Lamentation was one of these hundred or so poems. He wrote this on September 11, 2002, just a year after the 9/11 attacks:
Two huge new waves of glory crashed down,
Cast so cruelly into history, the towering twins.
Five-thousand ships, with sails full-blown,
Now scattered and thrown,
To the Four Winds.
Civilization wept and groaned.
Greatness fell down on her knees to pry.
The red setting Sun, all arrayed in light,
On the back of a Swan,
Turns into Dark Night.
A crystal tear falls, seed upon a pillow.
The Moon grows, rising up from the sea,
Cradles her face within both her hands
Looking down at the world,
For her abode of peace.
An Old Man smiles, face riddles with ripples,
Undulating, propagating, ripples on ripples……
Another year’s tears, dreams and emotions
Sink into the deep,
The deep, vast ocean.
And above the foam,
A white feather flies low,
Drifts to and fro,
Yang Jianli is president of Initiatives for China, fellow at Harvard University, and advisor to a number of human rights organizations. He is currently dedicating his time looking for the Two Tank Men.
Grace Wong is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator. She is interested in the potential for photography, writing and media to address humanity and human rights.