They faced down the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Now they want their children to forget it

Updated 8:26 PM EDT, Mon June 3, 2019
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(CNN) —  

Thirty years ago, in the heart of the Chinese capital Beijing, Dong Shengkun threw two flaming, gas-soaked rags at a military truck after a night of bloody violence in the city. It was a move that would ruin his life.

Then a 29-year-old factory worker, Dong was given a suspended death sentence on arson charges and spent 17 years in prison. It changed his family forever – his father died and his wife divorced him while he was in jail. Dong’s son was just three years old when his father went away.

But despite the impact it had on their lives, Dong has never discussed what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, with his son, now aged 33.

The brutal massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesting citizens, workers and students in Beijing shocked the world. For China, it marked a turning point away from the prospect of greater freedom and towards authoritarian oppression.

Tiananmen convict, Dong Shengkun, in 1989 before he was imprisoned by the Chinese government.
Tiananmen convict, Dong Shengkun, in 1989 before he was imprisoned by the Chinese government.

But Dong would prefer to have his son think he is just a regular criminal, at least in the current political climate in China, than be potentially put in danger by learning of his father’s political past.

“It is for his safety,” Dong said. “I worry that I might influence his thoughts if I started chatting to him about those things.”

Other former political prisoners have expressed concerns about talking to their children about the massacre, for fear of putting them at risk.

Fellow Tiananmen survivor Fang Zheng, 53, said he doesn’t blame Dong, and other former activists, who want to shield their children from politics. Fang, who lost both his legs in the massacre, blames the ruling Communist Party.

“That’s the fear and horror that the regime has brought to everybody,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese gather on June 2, 1989, in Tiananmen Square around a 10-metre statue of the Goddess of Democracy,  demanding democracy despite martial law in Beijing.
Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese gather on June 2, 1989, in Tiananmen Square around a 10-metre statue of the Goddess of Democracy, demanding democracy despite martial law in Beijing.

Massacre erased

Dong said he believes his son is not alone in his relative ignorance of the dramatic events of June 4, 1989.

Three decades after the Chinese government declared martial law and unleashed the military on unarmed students and worker protesters, the bloodshed has been largely erased from the nation’s collective memory.

The Communist Party-led effort has created a generation who are mostly unaware of the Tiananmen massacre, Dong said. School textbooks don’t mention it and students won’t find photos or stories of June 4 on China’s heavily-censored internet.

The crackdown followed weeks of protests in Tiananmen Square, a massive plaza fronting the Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People. Demonstrators called for greater political openness, including freedom of speech and democracy, to match the country’s growing economic liberalization.

After fierce debate at the top levels of the Chinese government, the hardliners won and called in the military. The death toll from the protests in Beijing may have been in the thousands, according to some estimates.

“I saw a few students were trying to climb over the fence and evacuate from the square, and a tank went straight there and crushed them to death,” Dong said.

No public memorial or commemoration ceremonies will be held in mainland China to mark the 30-year anniversary on Tuesday. On the country’s internet, monitors will work overtime to delete any mention of the massacre – part of a decades-long government effort to erase memories of Tiananmen.

Several popular video streaming websites have been ordered to close their live commentary functions in the lead up to the anniversary.

Anyone who dared in the past to publicly commemorate or even mention the events of summer 1989 was silenced.

People who tried to light candles where protesters died along Changan Avenue or near Tiananmen Square were arrested. Former protesters who had experienced June 4 and tried to speak to media about it were stopped, warned and monitored by the police.

Soon, people stopped talking and started forgetting. According to Dong, they did it for their own good.

“In those days, many people received severe punishment for little things,” Dong said.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe described the Tiananmen protests as “political turmoil that the central government needed to quell.”

“The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence, that was the correct policy,” he said.

Dong Shengkun (center) and his two fellow former prisoners, Zhang Maosheng and Zhang Yansheng, at their reunion in February.
CNN
Dong Shengkun (center) and his two fellow former prisoners, Zhang Maosheng and Zhang Yansheng, at their reunion in February.

’They’ve got no choice’

Ahead of the anniversary, Dong and his friends, Zhang Maosheng and Zhang Yansheng, met at a restaurant in Beijing for a rare reunion to commemorate those who died that day and to seek comfort from each other for their own losses.

The three joined the rallies separately when they were in their 20s, and still young and idealistic.

In the final days, both Dong and Zhang Maosheng tried to set fire to military vehicles while Zhang Yansheng destroyed a police videotape that showed civilians blocking military vehicles from moving into the square.

Dong said he joined the thousands of students in the square because he wanted an end to corruption, even though he didn’t understand what “democracy” meant.

But he and his friends have paid a heavy price – along with Dong, Maosheng was given a suspended death sentence while Yansheng was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Like Dong, Maoshen and Yansheng were released after serving 17 and 14 years in prison,