Former Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fenglock convenes a Tiananmen-themed room on Clubhouse
At 5:30 a.m. California time, before dawn, Chen Tianshi took his phone and hid in the master bedroom bathroom so as not to wake his sleeping wife. Clicking on the Clubhouse icon on his phone, three hours apart on the East Coast, a room discussing the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement was already open.
“Where were you today in 1989? What did you experience?” Since April 15, at 8:30 a.m. EST, 8 p.m. BST, this room on Clubhouse has been gathering a group of people every day to discuss the movement that changed the fate of many Chinese people and the direction of Chinese politics.
On this day 32 years ago, Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, died in Beijing after a long illness. The death of this reformist within the Chinese Communist Party sparked a movement that lasted more than 50 days and swept through more than 400 large and small cities in China calling for democracy and freedom. The movement ended with a bloody crackdown by the Chinese government, using live ammunition, armored vehicles and tanks.
No one knows how many lives were lost on that spring and summer night of ’32. Some scholars count that the armed repression may have resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. The post-massacre sweeps and arrests had left tens of thousands more without freedom.
The wounds of history never heal
After attending a discussion in the Clubhouse room on the first day, Chen Tianshi went to deliver a package 10 miles away.
“I shed 10 miles of tears right there on the highway, and it was hard to hold them back because I remembered the sacrifices my classmates made for the pro-democracy movement and the heartfelt wishes we had when we were together,” he said, choking back tears. “This movement ended in tragedy, it ended in carnage, and for us, this historical wound, the blood is dripping from our hearts. It’s never gotten better.”
Like many of the participants in the room, Chen Tianshi was a pro-lifer and survivor of June 4, 1989 . The movement changed many things in his life, including his name.
Chen Tianshi is not his real name; in 1989, he was Zhang Bao, a senior in the Chinese Department of Beijing Normal University. This young man, who came to Beijing from the remote mountains of Guangxi, had witnessed the cruelty of the Mao era, experienced the huge gap between urban and rural areas and the injustice brought by the status system. His study of history and painful reflections made him realize that the education he had been taught was full of lies and deception.
During the academic movement, he volunteered to be the propaganda director of the Beijing University Student Self-Government Federation and actively participated in the movement. After the June 4 shooting, Chen Tianshi began to flee. He found a hair salon and tried to change his appearance through makeup. The hair salon used fake and shoddy products, and after he was arrested and put in Qincheng prison, his hair began to fall out in large quantities.
“Without Hu’s death, I still might have joined the state party and government agencies, higher education institutions or studied abroad after graduation, like many of my classmates,” he said. “Then I went to jail and spent a year in Qincheng. After being released on bail, I was again assigned to residential surveillance. I was a Chinese language student at the Northern Normal University for five and a half years. They wouldn’t even issue me a certificate of completion of a single subject in order to crack down on me.”
After leaving prison, Chen Tianshi went into hiding, hoping to make a living by his own efforts. Like many political prisoners who had been jailed for Tiananmen, they are still harassed by police from time to time years later, and their livelihoods are often cut off by the authorities. Such a situation was particularly acute in the years before he came to the United States in 2017.
“I was on the mainland for 28 years before I got out, and I hadn’t had much freedom,” he said. “This massacre has continued from 32 years ago to today. The massacre of tanks and machine guns is a massacre; the deprivation of our freedom by the stability maintenance system, the suppression of us is also a massacre; this official narrative, the official version, the blockage of network news, it is also a massacre.”
Scattered candlelight reunites
Former Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fenglock is the initiator of Room 89 June 4 on Clubhouse. The U.S.-based voice-chat social media app exploded in popularity earlier this year. But it was soon blocked by the Chinese government after a series of topics that touched on Beijing’s red lines sparked heated debate in the Chinese-speaking world.
The app hadn’t been “walled” when Fenglock first landed on Clubhouse. He never forgot the novelty and excitement of his first visit. After 32 years, the opportunity to speak directly to an audience of thousands (many from mainland China) gave him an unprecedented feeling of being back in the square.
“After so many years, there are many people, especially those inside the walls, who are having the opportunity to talk about this for the first time, and the kind of commitment they have, whether it’s this pain or the kind of excitement they had at the beginning, it’s very rare in the middle of Chinese life experiences, and that kind of tear-jerking moments are especially abundant,” Zhou Fenglock told Voice of America.
The shared experience 32 years ago brought together a group of 89 pro-lifers from home and abroad – from former student leaders on the square such as Feng Congde, Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, to ordinary citizens – civil servants, intellectuals, workers and high school students – who were caught up in the movement across China back then …… . In their memories and narratives, the truth of that movement and the original face of history slowly unfold.
“The torches of ’89 are scattered everywhere, but like candles they still burn sporadically,” Zhou Fenglock said. “Regrouping and coalescing, that’s a very important theme for us.”
He was particularly struck by the account of netizen HH, who witnessed the details of the tank chase that rolled through the city during the students’ retreat from the square in the early morning of June 4, 1989. He relayed, “After the tanks chased them to the Sixth Exit, they turned in place and ran over people in the process of turning left, that is, to the south. After they ran over people, they used guns to shoot them.”
Zhou Fenglock told Voice of America that these accounts are highly consistent with other people’s recollections, and also contrast with the research of some scholars, such as a 19-year-old girl named Gong Jifang, who was killed at Rokubekou. She had a very large gunshot wound on her arm, not from a normal bullet, which today seems likely to be the result of a tank strafing.
“It’s the first time he (HH) has had the opportunity to tell about these things in so many years, and for many people who were there, it’s been so long that many people have forgotten, but he remembers it very vividly,” Zhou Fenglock said. “He was very close to the tank at the time. He himself escaped this simply because he chose to go north when he fled and the tank was to the south.”
Breaking the taboo “Lao Tzu speaks everywhere”
Su Yutong, one of the room’s moderators, a journalist and activist living in exile in Germany, tearfully shared the experience of a Tiananmen mother: on the afternoon of June 4, 1989, Xu Jue and his wife, who had been waiting all night to find their unreturned son, arrived at Beijing’s Fuxing Hospital. There was a long line outside the bicycle shed, where people were crowding around the bodies of the dead. There, she saw a list of names, and first in line was her son, Wu Xiangdong. “Which hospital bed is my son in?” She shouted. No one said a word. A young man said, “All the people on this list are dead.”
Pu Zhiqiang, a former prominent Chinese rights lawyer, joined the room from “inside the walls. He was also an eyewitness to the 89 Tiananmen Movement and one of the participants in the hunger strike in the square. When he left the square in 1989, he made a vow to come to the square every year on this day to pay his respects. He has done so for many years since.
Thirty-two years later, when Pu heard that a student at Peking University had never heard of June 4 and didn’t know what May 4 was all about, he was deeply committed to documenting history.
“There are some things he should know that he does not know, on the one hand, is his problem, more importantly, we, the people who experienced it, did not go to speak – no opportunity to speak; no work to speak; no courage to speak. I think we need to speak the truth,” Pu said from the room.
“If there is no lesson to be learned from such a great national tragedy and social tragedy as the June 4 Incident, future generations will not know what happened. I think the responsibility is not so much on the Party leadership, but also on those of us who are too resentful, too cynical, too irresponsible,” he said.
Pu believes that the 1989 generation should do what they can to record history and present their experiences as they are. He cites the famous quote by Wuhan doctor Ai Fen during the New Crown epidemic as his concluding remarks: “It’s OK for the old man to talk everywhere, right?”
It’s like standing in the square back then
In addition to the 80s and 90s generation, the Clubhouse room was also filled with younger generations, some of whom were still children and some not yet born when that movement broke out.
One young audience member from inside the walls said, “What touched me the most was the sharing of many ordinary people. These real-life stories I found to be the most powerful.”
She said her greatest fear was that a movement for democracy as dramatic as 89 would end up as a mere sentence in a history book, just as the 10-year Cultural Revolution was only passed over in textbooks.
“We don’t know the historical details and there is no flesh and blood, but the sharing of your predecessors fills in a lot of real, detailed experiences toward the one sentence we read in books and magazines. Your struggle, your reflections, I think are very meaningful to us all,” she said.
Guan Yao, a Beijing native born in 1983, said, “I listen to Room 89 June 4 on Clubhouse almost every morning, and this platform brings the pro-lifers and the listeners closer together.”
Guan Yao was a first grade student when the Tiananmen Movement broke out. He still can’t forget the sound of gunfire he heard that night in ’89.
“Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, the sound of gunfire like a firecracker. I was still sleeping with my grandmother. I asked my grandmother, “What’s going on, is there no more war?”
The images of the protesters beating and killing the PLA were repeatedly shown on national television’s “News Feed,” and the charred bodies terrified him. When he raised questions with the adults, they always scared him: “Don’t ask any more questions, if you say anything more, you might be arrested.”
After 32 years, Guan Yao, who came to the United States, was moved by the righteousness of the brothers, the affection between families, and the friendship between teachers and students as he heard the stories of those who lived through Tiananmen Square in his room at the Clubhouse.
“Sometimes it gives people the illusion that they are standing in the square back then, and every person’s voice is particularly warm, completely overturning the previous feeling of watching texts and videos to understand June 4,” he said. “I think this movement is very simple, even rich in human light, and it is this human light that is missing in Chinese society now.”
A few years ago, when Chen Tianshi was driving an Uber in the United States, he also met a young man from Beijing. When the young man learned that the older driver was a student on 89 Tiananmen Square, he left a tip twice the fare. When he got out of the car, he told Chen Tianshi, “Although I can’t say it at home, no one has forgotten.”