Students in Wellesley’s sociology course “Tiananmen Movement in China” (SOC 289) organized a panel on Oct. 29, in which two survivors of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing told their stories.The two speakers — Fang Zheng and Liane Lee — were invited by the course’s instructor, Professor Rowena He of the sociology department from Harvard University. Around 30 Wellesley students, professors, and people from the greater Boston area attended the panel in the Pendleton Atrium.
Fang Zheng, one of the panel speakers, was run over by a tank during the massacre, which led to the amputation of both of his legs. For our private interview, Mr. Fang rolled his wheelchair by himself from the Wang Campus Center to Clapp Library. As he sat quietly at a round table in the Knapp Multimedia Center, there was no bitterness in his voice or expression. He told his story with calm, grace and dignity.
In 1989, Fang was a senior who majored in biodynamics at Beijing Sports College. Around 11 p.m. on the fatal night, Fang remembers, students were running around with bloodied shirts and carrying the wounded, shouting, “They are shooting with real guns!”
By 12:30 a.m., the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surrounded the square with tanks and AK-47 assault rifles. At 4 a.m., the PLA forcibly cleared the Square of the demonstrators. When Fang and other students had already evacuated peacefully from the Square to Western Chang’an Avenue, tanks drove up behind them and ran over an unknown number of people.
At the time, a woman from Fang’s college fainted from the sound of a gas bomb that exploded behind them. He and several other students were helping her get to the side of the road so that she would not be run over by the tanks.
“The tanks were not proceeding in a single file,” Fang said. “There were several rows of them and that took up all the space on the Avenue. They didn’t slow down at all, so I didn’t have time to get off the road.” After the tanks were gone, a journalist took a photograph of him hanging onto the road railings, with his lower legs a mangled bloody mess.
According to Fang, the government wanted him to say that he lost his legs in a car accident. After he refused to lie, he was denied his graduation certificate.
A Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member before the massacre, Fang said that many people in the 1980s held hope and optimism for the direction the CCP was leading China. In many ways, 1989 was a rude awakening for Fang.
“The CCP often places the benefits of the party over the benefits of the people and the nation, and Tiananmen was a demonstration of that,” Fang said. “For China to go forward, institutional reform must happen.”
During the panel, Fang spoke in Chinese, and Professor He translated.
“I had complicated feelings when I was translating for Fang Zheng at the panel,” He said later. “Fang Zheng should have the opportunity to share his testimonies in Chinese, his native language, in China. Instead, he could only speak through my translation, far away from home.”
Liane Lee was 26 in 1989 and was in Tiananmen as a representative of Hong Kong Student Union, the same organization currently leading the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. A nurse from an ambulance convinced her to get in after learning that she was from Hong Kong.
“Leave alive and tell the world” is what the nurse said, according to Lee. As she told her story, Lee was evidently still shaken from the haunting night and verged on tears at several points. Many audience members were also moved to tears.
In our private conversation, hope lit up in Lee’s eyes when she discussed the Hong Kong student demonstrators.
“The Hong Kong students have already won in that they don’t live in the wishful thinking [of the Tiananmen students] anymore,” she said.
Ningyi Xi ’17, an organizer of the panel, expressed her admiration for the speakers.
“Neither of them tried to represent anyone else but only told what happened to them,” Xi said.
Xi’s fellow organizer and classmate, Tina Xu ’17, said her class read the testimonies of student leaders and dissidents from the June Fourth Movement. Although these words were powerful, hearing survivors tell their stories face to face made an impact on a whole other level.
“To hear Liane Lee choke back tears as she talked about her experiences really reaches us on a more raw and emotional level,” said Xu. “To contrast, Fang Zheng’s stony face as he cracked light jokes about losing his legs shows us the resilience of his spirit.”
Xu said that through this experience, she was able to feel how real the massacre was to people back in 1989. Even now, she says, people are struggling to live with the memory and keep it alive.
Similarly, Professor William A. Joseph, chair of the political science department and one of Wellesley’s China specialists, explained why it is so important for young people to understand the June Fourth Movement by quoting philosopher George Santayana’s oft-repeated admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“Dictators try very hard to control how people ‘remember the past’ and to write their own version of history,” Joseph said. “It’s so important not to let the Chinese Communist Party go unchallenged in its efforts to suppress and distort the truth about what happened.”
Though Joseph, as a China specialist, already knew the facts of the movement very well, he was deeply moved by the personal stories of survivors and witnesses.
“It’s sobering to think that there are thousands of other stories to be told but can’t be because of the silence imposed by the CCP,” Joseph said. “If anything, the talks reinforced the anger and sorrow I feel about the Beijing Massacre.”
Haining Li, a first-year graduate student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, came to Wellesley to attend the panel because he felt compelled by a duty to remember the past.
“It’s a sense of responsibility to keep the truth alive,” Li said. “Hearing their stories, I failed to prevent my tears from falling.”
Similarly, Ziyu Wang ’18 was moved to tears several times by the personal stories of the two panelists.
“The Tiananmen massacre seemed so distant, but [it] felt so incredibly close to me during the panel. It’s a feeling I’ve never had before,” she said.
Professor He illustrated the importance of keeping history and memory alive by describing a talk she gave at another college the day after the panel.
“A Chinese student challenged me during the Q&A that I was lying about people being shot and tanks running over citizens in 1989,” He said. “So the day before, I was translating details about how Fang Zheng’s legs were crushed by a tank, and the next day I had to face such a challenge.”
Still, she described herself as a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist.
“History is on our side,” He concluded.
Headline photo courtesy of Pamela Wang ’17
Editor’s Note: Fang Zheng and Liane Lee are not from Harvard University. The article has been updated to reflect this change.