Zhou Fengsuo was a top university student when the first protests broke out in the heart of the ancient imperial city of Beijing, set off by the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989.
But he threw caution to the wind as students marched to Tiananmen Square before Hu’s funeral. Tens of thousands of students like him from across the country, professors, blue-collar workers and passersby joined in the following months. Often dubbed the “student democracy protests,” those who assembled in Beijing and elsewhere across China didn’t just want democratic reform. Among other things, they demanded labor bargaining for workers, a free press and an end to party corruption.
But by May, officials who were sympathetic to the student protesters lost out to factions led by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who ordered that the demonstrations be put down. On the night of June 4, tanks rolled in to the square and began shooting. Violent crackdowns in other Chinese cities followed in the next few days. No authoritative death toll exists, but historians estimate it to be in the hundreds to as high as 10,000.
Over the past three decades, the ruling Communist Party has systematically attempted to erase the memory of Tiananmen through a combination of high- and low-tech methods: extensive online censorship, and brute intimidation of dissidents and victims’ families.
Survivors of Tiananmen are doing their best to fight this political amnesia.
This month, the images on this page are finally being shared with the public for the first time, according to Zhou. They were donated to Zhou’s advocacy organization, Humanitarian China, by Jian Liu, 50, who took the photos and was one of the student protesters in Tiananmen. He now lives in California.
The photos evoke a path not taken — an alternate reality in which the spontaneous gatherings and freewheeling, open-air political debates captured in them that spring were still possible today.
Instead, several waves of political tightening have only further restricted China’s civil society. Zhou, 51, interviewed here recently before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, is a rare activist who has been both lucky and stubborn enough to continue his work since then. After serving jail time and hard labor in China, he moved to the United States in 1995.
How did you get involved in the 1989 protests?
I was very interested in pushing for democratic change in China, and I was able to organize a free election in 1988 of the student union. Even though it was only for the [physics] department, it demonstrated our desire and ability to self-govern.
Who took these pictures?
They were taken by Liu Jian, another [former student protester] who now lives in San Francisco. [The photographer has asked NPR to follow the name ordering Jian Liu.] He knew it was a historic picture, so he took pictures from the very beginning, starting with Hu Yaobang’s death. There’s actually a picture of me offering a wreath to Hu Yaobang on April 16.
Tell me a bit about your upbringing. What made you step up as a student leader in 1989?
The contradiction in me was that I was a really good student. I was No. 1 in all subjects. On the other hand, I grew up in a village in the suburbs of Xi’an [the capital city of the northeastern Shaanxi province]. That means I was part of the nongcun [countryside], the peasants. So we were second-class citizens. The desire to make my life better as well as transform society into a better one, a more just society, was an important one. That was there in me from very early on.
Was there a moment that changed your life?
April 21. There had been police brutality the day before, the 20th, and the next day, April 22, was the day of Hu Yaobang’s memorial. A lot of students gathered at Tsinghua University on April 21. We were echoing the call to rally at Tiananmen Square for Hu Yaobang’s memorial the next day. There were thousands of us gathered near the crossroads at No. 10 dining hall [on Tsinghua University’s campus]. But there was no one to stand up.
I realized most people were just like me: We want to do something but on the other hand, we are also kind of afraid. We want other people to take the lead. So eventually out of my own duty, I took the lead.
What was the atmosphere at Tiananmen Square like during the protests?
It was very tense in the night because we were expecting police action. It was always rumored they might clear the square. And it was cold. We were hungry. We couldn’t find a bathroom because there were just so many people. So we tried to encourage each other. We tried to stay awake by singing the national anthem because we believed we were patriotic. The top two popular songs that we were singing were The Internationale and the national anthem. That kept us going until the morning.
In the meantime, it was just so hectic. On the spot, people who never knew each other were able to form some consensus. For example, we proposed a petition with seven demands. The most important were press freedom and the disclosure of the assets of government officials.
When I came back from the square, I realized I had trouble hearing people simply because we were chanting so loudly during the protests.
Where were you the night of June 4, when they cleared the square?
I was in Tiananmen Square at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. … It was like a war zone. The whole night. We were like at the eye of the storm. We heard gunshots from all directions … and I saw armored vehicles rushing on the square, troops pouring in. We were surrounded.
I actually tried to give a speech to the troops, but they threatened to kill me. I was trying to appeal to their human side. I was asking this question, “Why do you work for Beijing in such a fashion, killing people? Do you have family?” I just couldn’t understand why they would do that. It was a peaceful protest in Beijing. We had overwhelming support.
After I left Tiananmen Square, I went to Fuxin Hospital, where I saw about 40 bodies on the ground in a bicycle shed. Apparently, the hospital was overflowing with the dead [and] the injured so that they are just putting people’s bodies on the ground outside.
Where did you go after June 4?
I went back home in Xi’an. I tried to organize some protest on the local university campus. We used the students’ amateur radio station to broadcast, and we also had a meeting with local school authorities to ask for protection. Eventually it became obvious that whoever was associated with us would all be in danger. About 10 days later I saw my name on the most-wanted list broadcasted on national television.
The police eventually found me and came with my sister and brother in law. They claimed that my sister and brother had reported me, but it was actually by accident. They had been trying to help me, but because they lived in a military complex, my situation inadvertently became known [to the authorities].
What do you think the legacy of Tiananmen is today?
China today, politically, is a result of the Tiananmen massacre. Once they use their own troops to kill Chinese people, there’s no stopping. There’s no limit to their human rights abuses in particular today, because their totalitarianism is aided by technology and globalization.
Over the past 30 years there has been so much done to erase the memory. On the other hand, every year people risk a lot to commemorate Tiananmen. For example, Pastor Wang Yi at the Early Rain church in Chengdu [in southwestern China’s Sichuan province] insisted on openly commemorating Tiananmen every year. He was arrested with his wife last December. Nobody has seen him since.
But most importantly, the legacy of Tiananmen shows how Chinese people love freedom and they want democracy. They were willing to sacrifice for it, even during and after the massacre.
So I think the fight is still going on for China even though it’s very difficult for people like us who are still trying to keep the memory alive because the younger generation, the college students today, they have pretty much grown up completely under the shadow of the great firewall.
But you also see the legacy of Tiananmen being expressed in other examples of activism and democratic advocacy after 1989, don’t you?
Right. For example, the [2014 Hong Kong] Umbrella Revolution. I was there for a week on the street camping with the students. I was so touched. It was like the reincarnation of the Tiananmen protests.
And for China, the generation of the protesters and the people who were influenced by Tiananmen have been the backbone of the civil society movement ever since. The Democratic Party [of China] in 1998 and later the Rights Defender movement. A lot of them were inspired by the Tiananmen movement — including the 709 lawyers, Xu Zhiyong, Liu Xiaobo and the Christian house church movement.
What motivates you after 30 years of activism?
First of all, I am a survivor. So many people died for such a great hope, for a better China. I have to carry on. It’s mostly lonely work. Most of the people [like me] are living in isolation. But on the other hand, over these years, I was able to know of so many amazing stories of these people. It’s like you’re walking through the dark. You don’t know where the light is. But all of a sudden you see someone else who was struggling and was carrying on the same ideals as you.