Cover Story

The Tiananmen generation

"The Tiananmen generation" Continued...

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

But trouble already loomed: Troops began to move toward the city, and Fu remembers waking up during the night at his campsite in the square to the sound of students calling for help building blockades to the approach of the city. Fu didn't go. By May 29, his girlfriend (now his wife) grew sick from lack of clean water, and the couple left Beijing.

Meanwhile, disagreements roiled communist leaders debating how to respond to the student demonstrations: The party's secretary general, Zhao Ziyang, expressed sympathy for the students. In response, his fellow leaders ousted Zhao and placed him under house arrest. He lived in forced seclusion for 16 years before his death in 2005, but he recorded hours of testimony about the weeks leading up to the crackdown. Zhao said the growing student numbers swelled communist leaders' determination to end the demonstrations, even if it meant violence and death.

Back in the square, Zhou (the Chinese activist now living in San Francisco) spent days helping to organize medical stations, food supplies, and traffic control in the crowded square. Since students were scrambling to manage the unexpected crowds as they arrived, Zhou volunteered to help. But he also grew sick and returned to his university to rest on May 23. On the morning of June 3, he heard sobering news: Masses of troops were organizing near Beijing. The still-exhausted student climbed on his bicycle and pedaled four hours back to Tiananmen Square: "I knew this thing was about to turn."

He arrived in the evening and spent the night near the People's Monument in the center of the square. By 2 a.m., Zhou heard gunshots ringing. News from the outer edges of the 100-acre square began filtering to Zhou and his friends as ­soldiers began gunning down students.

From other vantage points in the square, the violence was even starker: Witnesses and foreign journalists reported that some 10,000 troops descended on the square, firing AK-47 rifles at unarmed masses. Other soldiers drove out students with the butts of guns. Buses exploded, students cowered on the ground for cover, and tanks rolled into the square: Some of the most brutal accounts reported tank operators plowing over civilians.

By dawn, soldiers had largely emptied the square, and Zhou pedaled past dazed and bloodied protesters. As he glimpsed dead bodies at the hospital, Zhou said his shock deepened: "For me, that was the first time I began to think, 'Is there anything we can believe in?'"

The protest wasn't over. The next day, with the military in complete control of Beijing, a lone Chinese man would deliver the most lasting image of the demonstration: The unidentified man carrying shopping bags stepped into the path of a column of four massive tanks near Tiananmen Square in a breathtaking act of defiance.

When the tanks tried to move around him, the man stepped in the way again. Bystanders were shocked as the man climbed onto the tank and talked to the driver. As the tank operator turned off the engine, an unidentified group of people whisked the impromptu protester away. Though speculation has swirled, the man's identity remains a mystery and his fate unknown.

Chinese authorities forbid the publication of that image in China even today. Censorship is common and is particularly fierce on the internet, creating what experts call "the great firewall of China," where authorities work to block user access to sites critical of the government using a sophisticated filtering system.

In a Freedom House report, China tied Cuba for last place out of 15 countries studied for online access. The report said the government often blocks foreign sites, but it notes other sites like Google have agreed to self-censor to satisfy government demands in China.

But even if Chinese officials censor images like the lone man facing the tanks, the moment was sealed in 1989: The world had witnessed the desperate defiance of a muted people against a crushing system.

For Zhou, the desperation was just beginning. While watching state-sponsored news in his mother's home two weeks later, Zhou saw his name on the government's list of the 21 most-wanted leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations. His impromptu volunteerism in the square led to a one-year stint in a crowded prison packed with other students, with no formal trial. After his release, authorities sent Zhou to the border of Mongolia for another year of "reality education"-but mostly kept him in isolation.

In 1995, Zhou escaped to the United States to work with dissident Chinese, putting his hope in democracy. He soon grew disillusioned, finding that bitterness and personal ambition pervaded American communities, too. On June 4, 1995, feeling downcast on the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Zhou wandered through San Antonio, Texas, alone. He wound up in a church service: "And that's the first time I heard the gospel."


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