China’s Grief, Unearthed


Copyright The New York Times
June 4, 2008
FOR three days last month, China’s national flag flew at half-staff in Tiananmen Square to honor the victims of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China has publicly commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.
Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has risen to nearly 70,000, the earthquake has shaken the nation back to life. The Chinese people have rushed to donate blood and money and join the rescue efforts. They have rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.
Their grief, shock and confused solidarity recall the hours that followed the Tiananmen massacre 19 years ago today, when the Communist Party sent army tanks into Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement organized by unarmed, peaceful students.
The protests had been set off by the death of the reform-minded party leader Hu Yaobang. College students had camped out in the square — the symbolic heart of the nation — to demand freedom, democracy and an end to government corruption. There they fell in love, danced to Bob Dylan tapes and discussed Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man.”
The city had come out to support the protesters: workers, entrepreneurs, writers, petty thieves. After the tanks drove the students from the square in the early hours of June 4, 1989, nearby shop owners turned up with baskets of sneakers to hand out to protesters who’d lost their shoes in the confrontation. As soldiers opened fire in the streets, civilians rushed to the wounded to carry them to the hospital.
But even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee, the party was rewriting history. It branded the peaceful democracy movement a “counterrevolutionary riot” and maintained that the brutal crackdown was the only way of restoring order. As leaders of the movement were rounded up and jailed, people who had donated food and drink to the students during their six-week occupation of the square began reporting them to the police.
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