It was twenty-three years ago today…

Twenty-three years ago, it was June 4, 1989.

I lived in Beijing through ten anniversaries, but the significance of the date, in what must sound, to those who didn’t live there over the past few years, odd, seemed to shrink over my stay. Until, however, I looked into yaogun’s history, and saw that the movement that brought thousands to Tiananmen Square was nourished at the same teet as was the passion for rock and the drive to yaogun. Citizens in the Square and yaogunners on stages were after the same thing: It was about possibilities. There was so much that was new, and there was a hunger to discover it all, and more. And there was so much hope.

A bit over eight years ago, I came home to Toronto on a visit. I’d been living in Beijing for four years at that point. I wrote, under a pseudonym – I lived in Beijing, after all, and who knows what “they” might think come visa-renewal time – a piece for NOW Magazine. Thought that it was reasonable to reprint it here, now.




It’s always a strange experience coming home to Toronto for a visit, but the strangest thing might be that it takes leaving Beijing to bring June 4 and the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen Square to the front of my mind. Had I been in Beijing, on that day, I might have taken time off from my day job to while away some hours in the vast square. But from what I learn from newspaper reports and personal contacts, June 4 was just another day in Tiananmen: tourists, mostly, and an expanded police presence. Sixteen people were detained – more than usual, yes, but people in Tiananmen are detained regularly, and at a certain point it ceases to be newsworthy.

In Toronto, meanwhile, 500 people gathered on May 30 in the OISE auditorium to hear some of the biggest names in Chinese activism discuss democracy and human rights.

Former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, now attending Harvard, heaps lavish praise on T.O. activism. “For the past 15 years, Toronto has held the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in the world outside of Hong Kong,” he says.

More recently, the Chinese government has taken to labelling Wang a Taiwanese spy in an effort to link the democracy movements in China and Taiwan.

Later, most of the forum’s attendees follow the speakers to the Chinese Consulate on St. George, where slogans are chanted and speeches read. The building is devoid of life, seemingly long abandoned by its inhabitants.

“It’s like this every year,” says Cheuk Kwan, president of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China and a long-time activist in both Canada and Hong Kong. “The Chinese government tries hard to make people forget,” he says. “Human rights violations continue unabated in China today. If Hong Kong’s position as a democratic and human rights front erodes, there’s not much hope for China.”

While 500 attendees doesn’t quite compare with previous events, Kwan is happy with the turnout. “We have to be realistic,” he says. “A lot of people worry about showing up.” His group, he says, is trying to recruit Chinese students studying in Toronto. Most students overseas only hear about the events of June 4, 1989, after they arrive in their host countries. China’s college kids are no longer abuzz with activism. “Imagine a 19-year-old entering Beijing University,” says Kwan. “He or she was only four years old in 1989 and has had no opportunity to learn about what happened.”

Lu Yang, a Chinese third-year U of T physics student, agrees. “There are a lot of people my age who are pretty laid-back about this stuff,” says Lu, who’s attending his first-ever June 4-related event. “They think China is a democracy. They just don’t get it.”

A report released by the Chinese government on the eve of this June 4 claims that “a majority of the 15,000 college students surveyed agreed that the present state leaders are trustworthy. In their mind, the leadership collective is very close to its people and thinks from the people’s view.”

I’m not surprised to hear of the survey’s findings. Most of the people I know in Beijing could care less about politics, despite being part of a demographic that traditionally encourages debate: culturally active young artists and musicians. Contrary to the impression of many from outside China, politics isn’t a part of most people’s lives. It just never comes up.

Which reminds me of a story a Canadian professor told me about how a Chinese student in her modern Chinese history class – the daughter of a military man – approached her in tears after a lecture on the Tiananmen crackdown. She demanded to know how the professor could lie to her class and talk about her father like that. He would never do such a thing, she insisted.


There is a recording that emerged a few years ago of Cui Jian performing at Tiananmen Square. He wasn’t the only one: Other bands set up impromptu gigs, but his was recorded. And by this time, May of 1989, he was already a star. It is a chilling thing to hear, even all these years later. There is a clip of it still up on Youtube: