In June, 1989, I vividly recall watching the newsroadcasts of the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. There was much I did know know then about the factors beind the protests but the image of a lone Chinsese man staring down the barrel of a tank was seared into my memory. He became known as “Tank Man” and his act of defiance is still one of the most moving images in history. The picture truly does speak a thousand words. The protests began on April 15, 1989 and ended on June 4, 1989. However, in order to bring the protests to an end, army troops employed a range of tactics including the firing of live ammunition resulting an a still unclear number of deaths. Estimates ranges from several hundred to several thousand. To those of us in the west, the protests were the result of years of oppression by the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) and incompetent officials who had closed China off to most of the world. However, there was far more to the story than many realized then. And to understand what was happening and why, we must take a look behind the scenes to see what life in China was really like in the years leading up to the summer of 1989.
At the start of the protests, author Anna Wang Yuan was an employee at Canon Beijing, a sub-division of the Canon Copier Company. Her boss at that time, Mr. Murata, asks her to take pictures of the demonstrations. And although she is not a protestor herself, she does provide a first-hand account of what was happening on the ground and why the students had refused to leave. The memories she has compiled, show a China struggling to remove the failures of the past and confront a changing world and younger population with no interest in the constricting ideology of the CCP. Wang sums up the ideology in this simple statement:
“The official narrative of the Communist Party of China is that Chinese history is divided into two eras by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The two periods are referred to as the new society and the old society, or heaven and hell.”
It could be said that China continues to sturggle in maintaining the “new society”. The protests in Hong Kong and tensions with Taiwan have shown that the will to resist Beijing’s rule remains alive and strong.
As I read through the book, I soon realized that the story is not solely about the protests. In fact, it is in large part an autobiography. It should be noted that the book is not intnended to be a full analysis of the protests from start to finish. Wang is telling her life story which coincides with one of the most important events in China’s long history. Westerners might express dismay and confusion at her early family life. And while I found the events that took place to be quite surprising and also sad, there are lessons she learns along the way that she never forgets. The anchor in her early life is undboubtedly her grandmother. However, their relationship is tempermental and goes through challenges of its own before the book’s conclusion. What I did notice is that her parents seldom make an appearance and we learn early on that they live in another city called Tianjin with her younger brother Wang Yi. Yuan relies heavily on friends as she grows up and the most important in the book is Zhi Hua who plays a prominent role in the protests. Their lives would continue to be interconnected years after Tiananmen.
On April 15, 1989, former General Secretary of the Chinse Communist Party Hu Yaobang (1915-1989) died in Beijing. As explained by Yuan, Yaobang was a supporter of reform and more transparency in government. He stood in contrast to hardline conservatives within the CCP. As news of his death spread, students began to organize the protests that would later grip the entire country. The students eventually drafted what was called the “Seven Demands” based on Yaobang’s ideas. This manifesto helped lay the groundwork for the reforms sought by students and other activists. And it is at this point in the book that the story picks up in pace.
Yuan continues to work with Mr. Murata and Ms. Kawashima, a native of Japan. Yuan’s position within the company allowed her to see the complicated relationship between China and foreign countries when it came to economic matters. In fact, she provides a good explanation of China’s financial policies and international standing at the time of the protests. Of particular interest was the label of “most favored nation”, a status prized by the CCP but put into serious jeopardy by the events at Tiananmen. The fallout from the protest had long reaching repercussions that went far beyond satisfying student demands. And complicating things further, was the decision by party leaders to enforce martial law. This is by far the darkest part of the book and we can only guess as to how many people were killed as the army cracked down on protestors. The actions of the military are chilling and it is clear that to remain on the streets is risky and possibly deadly. As a counter measure, the students engaged in a hunger strike and Yuan serves as the voice on the ground, explaining their condition and how the situation played out.
In the wake of the protests, she eventually leaves her employer while Mr. Murata and Ms. Kawashima return to Japan. Yuan moves from job to job and eventually makes the decision to move to Canada. This is the start of the final phase of the book in which she, her husband Lin Xiao and their two children embark on a long journey to find a final place to call home outside of China. Her journey takes her down under and finally to North America. It is a interesting account of the many ways people employ to navigate immigration systems across the globe. The process from one place to another often seems endless but Yuan never gives up and her will to continue puts the finishing touches on an already incredible story. And although this is not a memoir or glamorization of the “American Dream”, it does show the ideological and pratical differences between the East and the West.
After finishing the book, I felt as if I had a far better understanding of Tiananmen and how it looked to some people on the front lines. Tiananmen will always be one of the most remember events during the 1980s and the tank man cemented his place in the annals of history. Sadly, China continues to struggle with freedom of speech, expression and the demands of the students in 1989. Time will tell in the younger generation can change the ways of the old conservative guard. The CCP is determined to maintain its grip over China but as we have seen throughout history, the will of the people can never be ignored. If you are looking for a good story about life in China following Mao’s death and a discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests, this is a good read.