It was a stand-off that captured the attention of the world. A single Chinese protestor, unarmed, placed himself directly in front of a row of tanks rumbling toward Tiananmen Square. When the lead tank moved to the left, the young man moved to the left. When the tank went right, so did the young man. For sixty excruciating seconds the showdown continued, a symbol of the larger confrontation between a new generation of Chinese citizens yearning for democracy and an old communist regime intent on crushing them. Although the lone protestor survived his face-off (horrified onlookers eventually raced onto the street and pulled him away), the Chinese government prevailed over the demonstrators. On June 4, 1989, the military opened fire on the peaceful crowd, killing many of them. Although the Chinese students had been emboldened by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's recent pro-democracy reforms, the spirit of the movement was also inspired by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the leaders of the demonstration was a student named Shen Tong, who escaped from China one week after the crackdown and now lives in the United States. On January 13, 1990, Tong was a featured speaker at a student conference honoring Dr. King's legacy in Atlanta, where he related the barbarity he witnessed in Beijing and described both the difficulty and the necessity of remaining nonviolent through the worst of it.
It is such a great honor to be speaking with you here today. I cannot begin to find the words which express how moved I am to be here surrounded by an atmosphere of Dr. King and his nonviolent teachings. And when I sat there I really feel you, you are the same age as my friends who are still in China. And I do want to do my speech, you know, without any paper, just like what I did in China, but because of my poor English, I should write down and read it.
To fight without fighting, that is the razor's edge of nonviolence. This is what I believe happened in the American civil rights movement. I am here to learn as well as to inform, so you must teach me. But I know that this definitely happened during the spring of I989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
My first encounter with the concept of nonviolence was in high school when I read about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. At the time this method of nonviolence seemed, to my superficial understanding, extremely logical and beautiful. Here was a method which would clearly win in the end, no matter how long the struggle may last. Although the process may take longer, you get the true result—a real and lasting change—not a fake result.
At the time, Dr. King's ideas seemed very idealistic to me from my simple understanding of his principles, just like the sense of nonviolence which Albert Einstein gave to me, which Gandhi gave to me. But that was the first step in my life, and that was the first step in the lives of many young Chinese seeking some beautiful way for China. We were exposed to the principles of nonviolence, and it gave us inspiration. It was something very pure, very idealistic in our minds.
There is one thing you must know, however, to understand China's nonviolent movement and the principle of nonviolence within the Chinese individual: China has suffered through more than four thousand years of violence and revolution. The Chinese people have suffered oppression and tyranny for over four thousand years. One dynasty after another was established and then violently destroyed. And always the people suffered. The most recent dynasty, with its most recent set of emperors, is the Communist Party. I say this without bitterness or ill will. It is a statement of fact. The Communist Party leaders have followed in the footsteps of all other violent, oppressive dynasties in China. And soon they too will fall.
This is where we took the second step towards nonviolence as we moved closer to the spring demonstrations. In the universities, the student organizations and salons studied and discussed the future of China—the culture, history, and psychology of the Chinese people. And we realized quite clearly that China cannot suffer any more. China cannot possibly live though any more violent revolutions or any more "national salvation." This myth of "national salvation" plays into the circle of dynasty after dynasty. Those who carried out the revolt knew only what they wanted to destroy, not what they wanted to achieve or build up. "Destroy the empire," they said, "and we will be saved." But saved from what? To what goal? The end result is violence and tyranny again, perhaps more terrible than the tyranny which was destroyed. Just look at Mao and the so-called Cultural Revolution, a grand name for the "national salvation" which jailed, persecuted, and terrorized a generation.
The "universal truth" for Chinese people is that government comes from a barrel of a gun. In the light of this Chinese reality, we had to find a good way for China, a good way to achieve true change. First of all, we came to the conclusion that individualism—the self-awareness which recognizes the value of every human life—this individualism was the only way for the Chinese to break out of the dynastic cycle. And I feel that these two are the same thing, nonviolence and individualism.
But this has also confused me. I'm still unclear. How can this nonviolence and this individualism come to some reality, to some practical skill or method in social revolution? It is still a question for the Chinese. Perhaps you can help me to understand this. So many nonviolent struggles succeed, like the civil rights movement and eastern Europe. But the question still remains for the Chinese youth: How? It is a time for us to really learn and practice the principle, to learn from the examples of struggles like yours.
But personal learning, learning through experience, came to us through our third nonviolent step, the actual movement itself. We knew that the one thing necessary to achieve real democracy and human rights in China was peace. China could suffer no more violence. Peaceful revolution was the only answer. Early on, we leaders were approached by several high-ranking military generals. They stated that they would support us and stand with us against the other part of the army. We knew this would lead to civil war. We knew that, so we refused to even meet with them.
We did not want to give the government any excuse to crack down on the demonstrators. So we tried to prevent anything from confusing our principles or our goals. We prevented not only violence but even people saying some bad slogans against the Communist Party. We tried to prevent this to keep our goals and our principles very clear. Even if people wanted to support us and join us, we said, "Okay, you can stand beside us and support us and cheer and protect us, but you cannot join our march." We wanted to be sure that the people participating were those dedicated to our goals and nonviolent principles with full understanding. And those people were primarily the students from Beijing.
And the more strict we were in this path, the more support we received from the people until automatically almost four million people supported us. And they began to have their own demonstrations. The workers, the intellectuals, the journalists, even the peasants, held their own demonstrations. It was beautiful and moving.
Also, we were dedicated to making this demonstration absolutely peaceful. We controlled the traffic, policed the square and surrounding areas to be sure no violence or crime would happen. Actually, during those months, the crime rate in Beijing dropped tremendously because thieves declared something of a strike to support our movement. They didn't want to give the government any excuse to crack down either....
[D]uring the small conflict before the massacre the students tried to persuade the citizens to hold back, to be peaceful. They shouted at the crowd, "Stop throwing stones, do not hurt the truck or the soldiers." And even during the night of the massacre, our students, the marshals, they tried to prevent people from hurting, from even killing the soldiers who shoot into the crowd, and protect the wounded soldiers and send them to the ambulance, send them to the hospital.
And at that time, I was in the Chang An Avenue, one mile west of the Tiananmen Square, in the most brutal killing field. And now the people in Beijing they call that part of Chang An Avenue the Blood Alley. And at that time me and the other students, we tried to organize a line to prevent Beijing's people to throw stones, bottles into the trucks rushing through the avenue, Chang An Avenue. I felt at that time really angry because the people lost—out of control, they lost their ideas, their original principle of nonviolence. They are too angry, they lost their brothers, lost their friends, lost their neighbors to shooting without any reason, and dead. So I understand they are angry, but the more they fight back the more they got hunted.
So at the end me and other students went to the middle of the road and talked with the soldiers in the trucks and said, "Do you know where you are? You are in the Chang An Avenue. This means 'Avenue for Peace Forever.' Even in I949, the year the so-called People's Republic of China [was] founded, there's no fight, no fire in the downtown Beijing. And our movement is peaceful. You're the army of the people, so don't shoot us." But at that time the officer of that truck hold his pistol, stand beside me and keep talking with one soldier who had seemed moved by her. But the officer shoot on, on her face and she died immediately.
And the most moving picture I have in my mind is that one of my schoolmates: He got a rifle, he held it in his hand and above his head, but the soldiers didn't listen to him. They hold billy club, begin to beat him. But my schoolmate, he kneeled on the ground, stil1 holding the gun above his head till the death. All this memory shows me that once you practice nonviolence it becomes rooted in your heart.
I do not full-y understand the theory of this nonviolence principle. But I feel I know its spirit. I know that it is the only way for China and the only way for the world if we are to survive. Our various communities struggle to achieve justice and equality, freedom and human rights. We must join our hands and stand as one. As Dr. King once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
We must learn from each other. All our communities must learn peace from each other. And there is much, so much, I must learn from you and from Dr. King. Please help China and the Chinese people find that crystal way which will lead to the crystal goal. And together, as one movement for human rights and peace worldwide, we will be able to look at the tyrants and oppressors of history and say to them, in Dr. King's words, "We have matched your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We have matched your physical force with soul force. We are free."
Considering the actions of Shen Tong, construct a hierarchy of his values. Compare your own hierarchy of values to the one you have constructed for him. Remembering that actions are the true measure of an individual's values, would you be willing to put yourself in harm's way to defend the value of freedom or any of your own values? Why/why not?
Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll, In Our Own Words (Kodansha International, 1999)
Mok C. Yu and J. Fran Harrison, Voices
from Tiananmen Square: Beijing Spring and the Democracy Movement (Black
Rose Books Ltd, 1990)