Rose Tang was stunned when she saw videos last week of crowds in China chanting in Mandarin, “Give me liberty or give me death.” It was a phrase the Brooklyn resident had last heard more than three decades ago, when she was one of the student leaders at the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
It took her back to the afternoon of 3 June 1989, when she spotted military convoys rumbling toward the protest camp. She threw on a black outfit and rode her bike into the square, determined to defend it. But nothing could have prepared her for the massacre that followed in the early hours of 4 June as the soldiers started shooting and killing the young protesters, including one of her friends. She remembers climbing over a tank to survive.
“We wanted the Communist party to introduce democracy, but we didn’t want the Communist party to leave China,” Tang says. So today’s protests are “really the first time we’ve seen such a demand in public on such a large scale”.
Today, Tang, 53, remains an activist. She’s part of a small contingent of Chinese former democracy leaders in de facto exile – who say it’s been emotional to watch mass protests erupt in China anew. Zhou Fengsuo is a 55-year-old former Tiananmen student leader now living in New Jersey who tells me he wept when he saw videos of the protests spreading across multiple cities. “Freedom in China is precious,” he says, “and it’s been postponed for so long.”
Since the Tiananmen massacre, the activists have despaired as the Chinese Communist party’s grip over society has appeared to become absolute. Tang says she became “hopeless and depressed” over the years as she watched the regime crush one protest after another – especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where ethnic minorities have struggled to resist Beijing’s colonization, and Hong Kong, where years of pro-democracy uprisings have ended in defeat. She felt especially gutted when some of her old friends started supporting the regime – including a former Tiananmen Square participant who posted online that “the government did the right thing, so that we can have stability and prosperity in China”, she recalls.
But the tide could be turning. Protesters across the country are unleashing years of pent-up frustration over the hardline pandemic restrictions ordered by leader Xi Jinping, who elbowed out rivals to seize an unopposed third term last month. Under Xi’s restrictions, workers have been locked in factories and forced to keep pulling long shifts amid flagging economic growth that’s left as many as one in five young people unemployed. Residents have their doors nailed shut, sometimes without sufficient food or medical care. In September, a bus taking residents to a quarantine camp overturned on the highway, killing 27 people. But what sparked the current protests was a building fire in the Xinjiang region last Tuesday, in which 10 people died after emergency personnel struggled to reach the victims due to lockdown measures, according to local accounts.
Beijing’s dominance of the country’s communications, and the heavy penalties it doles out for dissent, make it difficult to know how China’s residents really feel about their leaders. That’s also what makes the present demonstrations so remarkable. Protesters, while broadly opposing Xi’s pandemic policies, have also called for democracy, freedom of speech, Xi’s resignation and the end of the Chinese Communist party itself.
That’s inspiring for Alex Chow, a 32-year-old activist who helped organize Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy mass protests as a student leader. During that movement, Chow attempted to fly to Beijing to appeal to Xi Jinping directly, but he was stopped from boarding his flight and later imprisoned. He now lives in exile in Washington DC, where he chairs the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. Many in Hong Kong had assumed “nothing will change” in China, he said – “so it’s really a surprise to see the protests spreading.”
Chow says he’s “energized” by the creativity of the young protesters, who have used cheeky tactics to evade authorities, such as holding blank pieces of paper, or slogans sarcastically praising the government. But Beijing and its supporters have already begun accusing protesters of being puppets of foreign powers – which means overseas activists like Chow also have to think carefully about how to best provide support: “whether our voice should be strong and steadfast, or more strategic and cautious”. At the very least, he says, the protests should “open up space for diasporic groups to talk about China and the new dynamic there”.
The protests have already produced some unexpected encounters. In the last few days, Chow says he’s heard accounts of Chinese people in the United States reaching out to their Hong Kong and Taiwanese counterparts to apologize for not previously supporting their movements, a sign “there might be some room for reconciliation.” Activists are also hopeful that the protests will help build bridges between Han people – referring to the dominant Chinese ethnic group – and Uyghurs, who have faced severe state repression in their native home of Xinjiang, where the deadly fire erupted last week. Tang says she’s been especially moved to see videos of Han protesters calling Uyghurs “comrades” instead of “ethnic minority friends” – the belittling term often used by Chinese government officials.
But the protesters face an uphill battle. Xi still has “immense power in controlling the media, the military and the public security system, so we’re in a fluctuating and fluid state where everything could happen”, says Chow. He hopes demonstrators will have the “mental space” to think through how they would respond to a possible military crackdown.
That’s something Tang’s been thinking about now for 33 years. “It’s OK to not be a Tank Man,” she says, referring to the Tiananmen protester who blocked a military convoy – because simply speaking out is already a triumph. “The seeds of this moment were planted in 1989 and have been struggling to sprout through the hard soils of China. But the young people in China inspire the old people like me. And we really are on the right side of history.”