June 4th, an ordinary day for people of this country and around the world, extraordinary yet politically unspeakable in my native country, People's Republic of China.
Twenty-two years ago this day, I was attending a friend's brother's wedding in a Northern Chinese city. By the time the ceremony ended, and the wedding caravan entered in the heart of downtown area, the town's traffics came to near-stops. Throngs of people were piling into the avenues, many more streaming into the streets, mostly anxious-looking college students. One of them was up in a tree speaking to spectators into a bullhorn. His words were interrupted by shoutings issued by his fellows students with raised arms. We weren't close enough to hear what they were saying but we knew right away that something had gone bad. Just a few weeks ago the Army had arrived in the nation's Capital with armed men and tanks but hardly anyone believed they would open fire on students and citizens, who had been occupying the Tianmen Square protesting corruption and demanding free press since April.
After we inched back to my friend's house, we changed into street clothes and walked back to downtown to find out what had happened. When we got to the entrance of an underground mall, we saw pamphlets and hand-written posters announcing that the People's Liberation Army had started firing at students in Tianmen Square in the wee hours of that morning, killing many. My heart was beating wildly as I took a pamphlet from a young man passing by, my eyes fixed on the haunting black characters written in brush and ink on stark white paper. People around me were all looking around in confusion and anxious to know more.
Early the next morning I took a taxi to the train station to head back to where I lived. It was raining and when the taxi was stopped by some men near the train station, I realized that the streets looked different and strangely empty except for a few people moving about in hurried pace. There were buses and tires blocking all of the main entrances and intersections. I got out with my bags to walk the rest of the square toward the terminal. I stopped to ask someone passing by what was going on. He told me that students and bus drivers were setting up road blocks and some were taking the train to Beijing to support fellow students and protest the killings.
As soon as I got back to my dorm I threw off the bags and turned on Voice of America. I did not own a TV and even if I did, I could not believe a word the official media said. A mere decade before, getting caught listening to VOA would have meant prison time. But since the late 1980s the government loosened its grip on people's private activities, and I had used VOA to learn English. When the students' protests deepened the government took total control of the State media (there wasn't any other kind), I had to rely solely on VOA to get the truth. With what had transpired in the past 30 some hours, I knew I would have to take my listening underground very soon.
It was a massacre.
In the following days my VOA was scrambled almost non-stop.
Terror took grip of the country. Posters of twenty-one most wanted student leaders were plastered everywhere. Official TV was showing a charred body hanging from an overpass, allegedly burned by the students, hour after hour, day after day. Beijing was under martial law. Foreigners were taking the earliest flights out of China. Students were still taking to the streets in various cities but were immediately cracked down by armed police. I huddled over my little radio and through scrambled waves heard students speaking to foreign journalists just before or on their way into hiding or fleeing the country. There were sobbing and wailing, recordings of gunshots and shouting and screaming amid rescuing activities.
Time of sorrow. Time of snuffed-out hope.
My two nieces were born in that year, 1989. They are twenty-two now. They know nearly nothing about what happened in that year, in the Capital city.
Oh My People.