Mumbai June 3 1989. I had just come in on the night train from Ahmedabad, and was going to Pune for a few days of down time.  Work was tough, and I had a lot going on in my life, not least of which was the fact that I had not seemingly settled down to domesticity like a number of my friends. I was not yet past my twenties but getting closer to the big hump. One of my closest friends who was the most bohemian of them all, had found love and a home. I was not sure where I was headed. My life had not changed that much, ever since I got out of business school. My job did not pay well. What I thought was the love of my life had ended up a bust. What did my future hold? Around me was a country that seemed frozen in time – the noise, the bustle, the vast numbers of people, the ramshackle infrastructure – all of them seemed to indicate that I was in a static world slowly gathering mould, as was my own existence.

I looked around me at ordinary people in the bus with that sense of discombobulation that young people have. My friendly Sony Multiband Radio was in my backpack with headphones to my ears. My favourite station, BBC World Service, was on. It was morning. And what I heard astonished me.

Through the ether came the voices of radio broadcasters telling the world that young men and women in China were doing an incredibly courageous thing. They were asking for the right to live fully free lives, free to say what they want, live where they want and be who they want. They wanted the Party to butt out of their lives. They were willing to fight for these rights, and if needed, to die for these rights.

It’s easy to dismiss these as mere clichés. But on the radio, the sounds of the passion and intensity of protest were loud and strident and very, very real. As was the gunfire and the shouts of kids dying as the State finally decided on a bloody end.

Today, images of Tien An Men crowd the media, especially that of the young man in front of the tanks.  Sitting on the bus, headphones stuck to my ears, the words that I heard seemed to convey the sense of a brand new beginning taking place in one of the oldest countries in the world.

Tensions had been building up since the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. China was then experimenting with letting economic freedom develop while trying to keep strict political control under the Communist Party.  Scarce eight years before, Deng Xiao Ping had enabled Chinese people to break free of the economic shackles of the Party.

The students had been in occupation of Tien An Men for a few weeks, demanding liberty and political freedom. When the crackdown came, it came on the orders of Deng Xiao Ping, who took the opportunity to side-line (and later exile internally) his great rival Zhao Ziyang who appeared sympathetic.  People’s Liberation Army soldiers in tanks and armoured cars poured into the Square, firing into the crowd and killing and wounding thousands.  As we all know, the State never fell and the revenge of the Chinese state was swift.

I did not realize then, that a scarce three years later, I would find myself standing on Tien An Men Square. All traces of those events three years ago were wiped clean. However, not all the scars. The big buildings surrounding the Square, on what is Chang’An (Long March) Avenue, still carried bullet holes from the machine guns that day,  These were pointed out to me by the young Chinese computer programmers I was hiring for my company to work on automation.  I asked them what really happened.  They would go silent, shake their heads and tell me “Many people died”.  Nothing more was said.  The book shop at the Shangri La Hotel had a Chinese Government publication on sale that went by the title of “The Truth About June 3 1989”.  I still have a copy. It had pictures of dead and dying youth, all labelled as Party activists and unarmed soldiers, who had been brutally massacred by the counter-revolutionaries.  All said with a straight face.

Anyone who has spent some time in China will tell you that they are the nicest people, very friendly and eager to learn and make something of themselves. They are also fiercely proud of being Chinese. They have had the most horrible transition from an ancient Empire to a modern State.

And yet it is amazing that these kids still trust and believe in the idea of a strong Chinese state to get them back to the great nation they once were. The State has become more and more authoritarian as the Chinese Republic rapidly becomes wealthier and more powerful by the day. The Party knows it has the people with it as long as they keep delivering wealth and stability and a tiny bit of freedom,  but is not taking any chances. Every June 3,  the old men at Zhongnanhai remember how close the state came to collapse and prepare to head off any more threats to the State. Preventive arrests, a further clampdown on the press, threats to foreign media – the usual formula. Like this year.

In his book “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, Milan Kundera talks of how the Communist State would make an “un-person” of a person in order to remove him from public memory.  June 3 1989 will not be forgotten.  At some point the Chinese State will come to terms with what happened. But not any time soon.

Listening to archives of some of those broadcasts brings those memories back. It was heady to listen to those events, and also incredibly sad. At the same time, so empowering that young people always want to change the world for the better.  The BBC was right in front.   In China – and to me – shortwave radio was indeed the window to the world,. Listen to this broadcast from Radio Beijing, dated June 3 1989. The announcer later spent several years in a Re-education Camp.  And to this.

I have to ask myself if India should have had it’s own Tien An Men moment. When young people came out to ask for change, to ask for the status quo to be demolished. For the State to be more responsive. Beneath the garb of democracy the Indian state can be just as venal. Are our youth too compliant, too passive, too accepting of the many ways used by politicians to make them blind to what would be blindingly obvious – the lack of jobs, of prospects, of real change?

I remember that day on the bus so vividly. Full of hope, and sadness.





9 thoughts on “Remembering June 3 1989

  1. Oh Wow. I should have, on hindsight, expected this post from you. You were one of the first of us to actually live in China and probably one of the very few who saw China at the most crucial years of transformation. I followed in your footsteps a full 15 years later. A very different China, nowhere near the seminal moments when you were there.

    Nothing has given me a greater difficulty in forming a view point than the events leading to the Tiananmen Square “event”. Actually, the entire period from the death of Zhou Enlai (the first Tiananmen event), the rehalbilitation of Deng Xiaoping, the leadership of Hu Yaobang and the events that led to his sacking, his death, and of course the months of April and May 1989 leading to June 4th (the firing started on the night of June 3rd but concluded at dawn on June 4th and it is the latter day that is more considered as the anniversary date).

    I heartily recommend the classic book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel. Its a long biography of Deng, but goes into great detail about the events leading to June 4 1989. Ezra also offers all the views for and against with the benefit of hindsight. It’s an incredibly complex event that, even now, cannot be neatly analysed and opined on.

    Of course it was a tragedy. But not so obviously just the story of an evil leadership killing unarmed citizens. Deng made a mistake being very hard on the protestors in April, under the egging of Li Peng. The situation in the Square quickly got out of hand. The “leaders” of the protest lost control early in May and after that the protesters in the square were more anarchic and there was no clarity as to what were the demands. What was the “solution” ? Deng ordered martial law in May and asked the troops not to hurt anybody – that totally failed with the protestors blocking the army completely. The power struggle between Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang intensified . Once the situation went out of control during Gorbachev’s visit in end May, Deng was left with little choice. The future of China was at stake. If the Communist Party had fallen then, there was almost nothing to take its place. There are many scholars who believe that a greater tragedy could have befallen China if control had been lost then. Who is to say ?

    So I am deeply ambivalent to the events of 1989. I can see all sides to the arguments and hence I have the greatest difficulty in stating a clear opinion. I had never imagined that a dictatorship firing on its own citizens would leave me struggling to take the “obvious position” that they were evil. No historical event has given me greater trouble than this one.

    With the benefit of hindsight, we can compare what happened in China with what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. If we compare Russia and China in the last 30 years, can we really say China went totally wrong ?

    On one aspect, I am totally clear and completely with you. China airbrushing 1989 from its history is a great mistake. It would have been far better to have let it be known, discussed and analysed by its people . Its quite probable that many Chinese today may come to the view that Deng did the right thing then. But no Chinese today knows anything about what happened. It has been completely erased from collective memory. When I lived in China, almost nobody seemed to know anything about 1989 at all. People who forget history are condemmed to repating the mistakes again and again.

    Love your blogging regularly now. You can judge my delight from the length of my comments !


  2. Thank you for leaving a detailed and encouraging comment, and that too from an old China hand like yourself. I would like to submit a rant here that not enough is being done in India to understand China, and it is something we should do something about. So its a pleasure debating these things with you!

    I read the translated transcripts of the meetings between Deng Xiao Ping, Li Peng, Zhao Ziyang, Yang Shangkun and Bo Yibo (inter alia) reproduced in the policy journal “Foreign Affairs” by the American sinologist Andrew J Nathan in 2001. These have just been updated in the upcoming issue of “Foreign Affairs” for July 2019, and a whole collection of articles on this event from the magazine’s archives were released in PDF form to subscribers. I would be very glad to send you a copy.

    The big insight from these papers are that the hard-line response, which actually went terribly wrong when the crowd attacked the army with stones, need not have been necessitated at all. There were not that many ideological differences between Zhao and Deng. Indeed Deng’s reforms were working but many people in the party were afraid that the dichotomy between economic freedom and political freedom was bound to come to the fore at some point. The rumblings in the USSR that were beginning to be heard in 1989 beginning must have been heard by the leadership.

    But Zhao did not want to open the State to a multi-party democracy or undo the monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party on the levers of the State. He claimed the Party could trust the people, allow some freedom of the press, and enable some dialogue with civil society. He thought these changes would make the party stronger.

    But the Party took a different path. Ziang Zemin was the beneficiary of the house arrest of Zhao Ziyang. As Nathan says “Today it has a regime that is stronger on the surface than at any time since the height of Mao’s power, but also more brittle.”

    Would China have been any different if the army had let the protests dissipate after some time? After all, the power of the Chinese State was huge and there was no internet or social media to spread dissent. Hard to say. But certainly, it has put a belligerent and insecure set of rulers in power. If you read William Taubman’s brilliant biography of Gorbachev (an ideal companion volume to Vogel’s book on Deng!) it is quickly apparent that neither did Gorbachev ever intend to disband the Soviet Union or surrender the Party’s monopoly on power. “Events, dear boy, events” as Harold Macmillan once said. They have a way of producing unintended consequences.

    China would have had a better go of it had they gone the Zhao way, is my view. China was not a Union of Republics, it was 95% Han Chinese (so no pesky big minorities), and the party was in total control. They could have had a slightly kinder China, and may slightly less wealthy. Who knows.


  3. I am least interested in the political story that surrounds Tianenmen as I am unashamedly bored with politics, politicking and politicians and leave it to people like you and your cohort to sort out the whys and the wherefores, which I might add you are certainly more than qualified to do so. Your blog, however, rekindled a poignant memory of young people – university students – standing up against the mighty Chinese government and the bloodied pavement of Tianenmen Square and it is the human story that fascinates me. I am sometimes puzzled as to why people do what they do and what drives them. What could have angered these youngsters so much and to such an extent that they dared to dream that they could bring about a change? What were they thinking? How did they think that they could pull it off? Had they gone bonkers or did their anger obliterate all rational thought?

    However, despite my incredulity, I have to say that I also have a deep sense of respect for the courage of such people. Despite knowing that they were walking into the lion’s den, they advanced nevertheless because they believed in bringing about a change for the betterment of their people and they believed in justice and in freedom and they believed that they could at the very least rattle the powers to be enough for them to know that if they stepped out of line, they will be challenged.

    So, I am grateful and also humbled by the likes of the Tianenmen Square protesters who question and demand accountability for the actions of those that rule over the rest of us, so that we, the more ordinary folks can have a better life. It also reinforces what I always reiterate to young people – that their voices are the most powerful in this world, and when they speak, governments and leaders are compelled to listen and they are in actual fact the change makers of today. So if anything, I will talk about Tianenmen Square to the young people who cross my path just to let them be aware of the power they wield.

    Were they right in their actions? I really don’t know enough as a quick read of the events tells me nothing. I understand that the cover up was brutally efficient and anyone who so much as voices a ‘peep’ , are swiftly silenced. Ominous indeed! However, it shows that those young voices of thirty years ago continue to rattle and cause an element of unease and maybe they fear that there is a time bomb ticking somewhere, just waiting for the right time and the right trigger to explode. Maybe, just maybe…..its a riveting thought!


  4. You hit the nail on the head, Metilda. The reason why Tienanmen 1989 is poignant to all of us is because young people, without fear of consequences, dared to take on a mighty state. There was a lot of idealism and hope in their actions – there was a lot of foolishness as well – but youth and foolishness go hand in hand. It was not a bunch of disgruntled army men who mounted a coup d’etat. The young dare to dream and dare to hope, and dare to believe they can change the world. Theirs’ are the voices that have consistently spoken loud and clear. These voices need to be celebrated and encouraged, not suppressed


  5. my only advice would be that if a young person (such as myself) were to read this, they might find it rather heavy weather. i would suggest using a touch of humour as it otherwise reads like a textbook excerpt. then again, not all young people are the same, but i feel it would spice up your blog a little.


  6. Thank you Daya! I will keep this in mind. In general, you are right that humour helps.

    The Tienanmen massacre is a very serious event. Hundreds of lives were lost, and a great Republic was close to collapse. The brutal response preserved the Republic but destroyed many lives. To make it more relatable, I used a tiny part of my own life to start the dialogue on this sad episode.

    I could not find a way to introduce anything light-hearted in it. So use what I wrote for information?

    Bless you for reading my blog. I am so proud it caught your attention!


    1. i understand that in this incident, it is not possible, in fact it is disrespectful to introduce any humour. i otherwise thought your post was very informative and i liked the little window into your own life at the time. thank you!


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