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Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images

The Tiananmen generation

Out of post-massacre despair, Chinese demonstrators learned not only that communism is crushing but that democracy alone cannot save

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Type "Tiananmen Square massacre" into the Chinese-language version of the popular Chinese search engine Baidu, and the first link leads to a video with this title: "The Myth of Tiananmen Massacre." A subhead describes the massacre as "a popular Western myth," and the video features a Chinese man claiming he saw no government violence against civilians in Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989. Zhou Fengsuo tells a different story. The Chinese activist now lives in San Francisco, but he remembers the night he spent in Tiananmen Square with thousands of other university students gathered to demand freedom from Communist oppression during the spring of 1989.

With the 20th anniversary of the student uprising, Zhou soberly recounts the gunfire, tanks, and blood in the early morning hours of June 4 as the government-led People's Liberation Army flooded Tiananmen Square and opened fire on thousands of unarmed students. The attacks by government soldiers killed unnumbered thousands and left thousands more injured.

Zhou witnessed the carnage firsthand as he fled Beijing on his bicycle after dawn. Many of the dead, both students and non-students, actually were outside the square, mowed down along street approaches to Tiananmen as the army tried to crash barriers to enter the square. At a nearby hospital, Zhou glimpsed dozens of young bodies piled outside. In the early morning light he recognized the face of a friend, and despaired. He never thought it would come to this.

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"We were just numb," says Zhou from his office in California. "In the capital of China in the year of 1989. It was such a massive killing in front of everyone. And the world was watching."

Though the world watched-with the image of a lone man staring down a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square becoming one of the iconic images of the 20th century-the Chinese government denies that it ­happened: Even 20 years later Chinese officials call the bloody crackdown of 1989 "a political disturbance" of "counter-revolutionary hooligans" and claim civilians incited the violence. They offer no official death count but claim that deaths were few, and they never released an official total of arrests. Human-rights groups estimate officials arrested tens of thousands of protesters and dissidents around the country in the massacre's aftermath.

Chinese textbooks don't mention the event. Chinese censors block internet access to much information on the massacre. Government officials forbid state-run media from reporting about it. And in recent weeks, Chinese officials have jailed at least one dissident for speaking out against the military's actions at Tiananmen Square-a common fate for outspoken opponents of the government.

Despite modern technology and the benefit of time and research, it's possible that today's Chinese students know less about the historic event than those of 20 years ago, when word of mouth spread news of the massacre like wildfire.

But if Chinese officials hope that Tiananmen Square's significance will dim with time, human-rights groups are reminding the world of the massacre and outspoken eyewitnesses remain.

For Chinese Christians present at the Tiananmen Square massacre, the anniversary carries an added meaning: They remember one of the worst days in modern Chinese history as the turning point for the one of the most exciting trends in China: the unexpected growth of Christianity.

Bob Fu didn't expect the student protests in 1989 to lead him eventually to Christianity. Now president of the Texas-based ChinaAid, an advocacy organization for Chinese Christians, Fu grew up in a grindingly poor family in the Chinese countryside. Though Fu says he wasn't an atheist, he didn't believe in the God of the Bible-few Chinese people did. Instead, Fu put his faith for societal change in a system: democracy.

He was enamored with Western ideas about freedom and undertook a bold plan to oppose communism: by becoming a communist. Fu says other students and intellectuals did the same thing. Some wanted to change the Communist Party from within. Others wanted to kill it.

By April 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations were sprouting up at universities around the country, and some students were already streaming to Tiananmen Square. The protests had begun after the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader ousted by party officials two years earlier. Hu had been sympathetic to political reform in China, a legacy students wanted to continue. Before the violent end, thousands of students would spend seven weeks in Beijing, peacefully calling for an end to Communist Party corruption and pleading for greater freedoms. Fu decided to join them.

The English major led the first protest in his university town and then led a group of a dozen students on a 12-hour train ride to Beijing. Arriving around May 22, Fu helped distribute food and water to the swelling crowds in Tiananmen Square and participated in a five-hour walk around the capital city. Fu says citizens-young and old-met the students with water and ice cream and words of support: "I was very, very moved."


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