CAMBRIDGE — During a Harvard University conference Saturday marking the 25-year anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, students stood, gave their names, and posed questions to a panel of former protesters.
But one young woman, a freshman from China, would not give her name.
“I took this class because I am the generation that’s being brainwashed,” she told the packed auditorium. “Everything I knew about June 4, 1989, was the fragments I heard from my dad.”
A quarter-century after tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into Beijing to suppress a student-led prodemocracy movement, fear persists. The Chinese government has only minimally acknowledged its crackdown, which killed hundreds of the protesters and possibly thousands, and heavily censors media references and Web searches related to the 1989 protests.
“I wanted to know more about this part of history that was hidden from my people, that was a taboo for decades,” the student said, explaining why she enrolled in a class on the Tiananmen uprising.
The freshman seminar is taught by Rowena Xiaoqing He, who was involved in the movement outside Beijing before eventually fleeing China to attend the University of Toronto.
In teaching about Tiananmen Square, He hopes to both combat the fear of Chinese students and educate US students born after Tiananmen.
“Twenty-five years later, our Chinese students [still] don’t feel comfortable talking about” Tiananmen, He said. “That makes it more important that we’re here today.”
He captivates her students, many of whom turned out for Saturday’s conference several years after taking the course as freshmen. Some presented papers and songs they wrote in honor of the Tiananmen victims.
“I honestly knew nothing at all when I started the class,” said Stephen Kim, a Harvard junior who appeared at the conference to play a song he wrote in honor of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of Chinese activists who have demanded official recognition of their childrens’ deaths.
“I found it to be still a very relevant topic,” Kim said. “It matters because it has loose ends that have not been tied. There’s no closure.”
The day’s panelists included Western journalists who covered the protests and crackdown. But it was the former student leaders, some living in exile, who brought attendees to tears as they recounted the events of 1989.
“I’m very reluctant to tell what I saw and experienced,” said Liane Lee, a former student journalist who traveled from Hong Kong to Beijing to document the protests. “But I don’t think I have a choice, because I was rescued by those people. They are so courageous, so brave. They are good people.”
Lee spent nearly an hour describing in vivid detail her experiences in Tiananmen. She recalled trying in vain to restrain a hysterical, bereaved protester who wanted to attack soldiers he said had killed his brother. Lee later fainted when she saw the man later being carried away, suffering from a severe gunshot wound.
She also recalled being shepherded into an ambulance by an insistent doctor as Chinese Army units firing guns moved into the square.
“She told me, ‘My child, please get in the ambulance and leave the square safely. Go back to Hong Kong . . . tell the world what our government has done to us,’ ” Lee said, as another panelist wept.
Also at the conference was Jeff Widener, the photographer who captured the iconic image of a Chinese man standing in front of a column of tanks. Widener shook his head as he listened to Fang Zheng, a student whose legs were crushed by a tank as he tried to lift another protester to safety, describe how Chinese officials tried to use the photograph as evidence that tanks would not have run over protesters. The officials were warning Zheng, a paralympian, not to tell Western news media outlets how he sustained his injuries.
He said Chinese students generally know less about the Tiananmen Square protests than their American peers, having grown up hearing little besides official denials. They often become the most eager students, she said, although some avoid the course.
“Other students tell me they [Chinese students] didn’t even want to take the course because they think I’m a liar or a national traitor,” she said. “For Chinese students, it’s an act of courage to sign up for this class.”
He said some of her students drew parallels to the Boston Marathon bombings last year, which occurred on April 15, the same date the Tiananmen protests began in 1989.
“They felt like they could identify, understand what it was like to lose legs,” she said.
As He watched television coverage of memorials for Marathon bombing victims this month, she lamented that China never had a similar opportunity to mourn and reflect.
“People here got the counseling. They can openly talk about it; they can mourn together,” she said. “I felt like, why didn’t we get a chance to heal?”
Panelists lauded the conference as an opportunity for veterans of the movement to reconnect, and especially to pass the truth on to a new generation.
“The government, they bribe you, they threaten you to tell a lie,” Lee said. “But you [students], you can keep truth alive.”
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