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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Dealing with Tiananmen's legacy

By Louisa Lim
BBC Beijing correspondent

Qi Zhiyong's crutches creak as he slowly makes his way upstairs.

It has been 15 years now since he lost his leg. He was shot by a soldier on the morning of 4 June 1989, as he was trying to collect his bicycle from nearby Tiananmen Square to go home.

Qi Zhiyong on crutches
Qi Zhiyong lost his leg after being hit by a bullet fired by a soldier

"A soldier was crouching down, shooting," he remembered. "The sound - tatataaatata - was extremely clear. I wanted to run, but I couldn't. I was talking to a friend when a bullet hit me in the leg. I felt dizzy and lay down.

"I shouted 'Help! Help!' and the people who'd run away came back. They said 'There's a guy here who's still alive.' Around me were dead people."

The dead were the result of China's bloody suppression of demonstrations that had transfixed the world.

They started with a march by students in memory of former party leader Hu Yaobang, who had died. But as the days passed, millions of people joined in, angered by widespread corruption and calling for democracy.

After weeks of indecision, hardliners in the Chinese leadership won out and martial law was declared. On the night of 3 June, tanks rolled through the streets of Beijing, charged with clearing the square at all costs.

I couldn't believe the government could open fire like that... I realised that the Communist Party's power comes from the barrel of a gun
Qi Zhiyong

On the streets, even as gunfire rang out around them, people sang the workers' anthem, the Internationale. They seemed unable to understand what was happening.

Qi Zhiyong described how he felt.

"It's a crime to open fire on your own people," he said. "They were asking for change, because they felt a sense of responsibility towards their government and their country. There was a new atmosphere of hope.

"I couldn't believe the government could open fire like that. It changed my life and I realised that the Communist Party's power comes from the barrel of a gun."

No-one knows how many people were killed that night, but estimates say hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000. Fifteen years on, the government would like 4 June to be consigned to history, but Qi Zhiyong's maimed body is a living symbol of the state brutality meted out that night.

Today he finds solace in religion. He is a member of an illegal house church, a small group of Christians that meets secretly to sing and pray.

This is an act of defiance of state control in this communist, officially atheist, state. Indeed, many of those involved in 4 June, including those who in exile, have turned to Christianity.

Whatever you say, even in your sleep, you have to consider the consequences
Zhu Hong, former protester

For some it fills the ideological void after their confidence in the government was shattered. These new Christians still want to save their country, and they think religion is the way to do so.

Zhu Hong counts himself among them. A former journalist, his role in the protests lost him his job and led to tight surveillance.

He explained the factors that led to his conversion: "Everything you do is under surveillance. Whatever you say, even in your sleep, you have to consider the consequences. You're living on the periphery of society, and it's basically impossible to build intimate relationships.

"Under these very lonely circumstances, people need a spiritual or emotional sense of belonging."

For others, that sense of belonging comes from shared grief and a common sense of injustice.

Choosing silence

Ding Zilin's 17-year-old son was killed on 4 June,1989. Ever since, she has co-ordinated the Tiananmen Mothers, a group consisting of family members of those killed and injured.

They want the government to reassess the protests and label them a "patriotic movement", rather than "counter-revolutionary turmoil". But Mrs Ding acknowledged that it was an uphill struggle.

Advertising hoarding at Beijing's Peking University, 02 June 2004
Students today worry more about prospects than politics

"I have to admit that the Chinese Government's behaviour has, from their point of view, been successful. For those Chinese people who understand what really happened and for people in Beijing, no-one can forget 4 June. But most people have chosen silence," she said.

Today's students were little more than toddlers 15 years ago. They are the direct beneficiaries of the government's post-Tiananmen strategy - to win people over, or maybe buy them off, by pushing forward economic reforms and improving their lives.

Herry, a 21-year-old student, is sympathetic.

"I can understand the action of the government at that time," she said. "If our government didn't do that at that time, maybe China will become mess, and maybe we can't enjoy the life today like now we have."

Another student, Zhang Xin, said priorities have changed since then.

"Students now are more secular, more practical. They want to improve their English, they want to go abroad, they want to get rich, make money, get good jobs. Some years ago it wasn't the case. They were ideal(istic.)"

Today's undergraduates look inwards at their own lives rather than outwards at the life of the nation. The party has succeeded in marginalising those who disagree with it, and in rewriting the history of 4 June within China.

But economic reforms and the scars left by its actions mean that few people actually believe in Chinese communism any more.


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