Monday marks the 29th anniversary of the Chinese military’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, during which hundreds—perhaps thousands—of demonstrators were killed. While a massive candlelight vigil was held to mark the event in Hong Kong, as it is every year, public discussion, much less commemoration of the “June Fourth Incident,” is prohibited in mainland China.
Last week, I spoke to a survivor of June 4, Fang Zheng, who was a 22-year-old university senior at the time, at the Oslo Freedom Forumannual human rights conference in Norway. (I was attending as a guest of the Freedom Forum, which paid for my travel.) Both of Fang’s legs were mangled and later amputated after he was crushed and dragged 30 feet by a tank while helping another demonstrator out of the square. Although the identity of the iconic “tank man” has never been discovered, Fang’s story is a reminder that the scene was not an isolated occurrence that day.
“There has been a ‘selective forgetting’ of this event,” says Fang, discussing how the event is regarded in China today. “Right now the memories of the Chinese people have been influenced by the authorities, which do not allow any open discussion.” Adding to the sense that the events are passing into history, this year is also the first commemoration since the July death in state custody of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer and dissident who had been the most well-known participant in the demonstrations outside China.
Before Tiananmen, Fang was a promising sprinter with Olympic ambitions. After he lost his legs (the official story is that Fang’s injuries resulted from a “traffic accident”), he transitioned to discus, winning two gold medals at the All-China Disabled Athletic Games in Guangzhou in 1992. But in 1994, he was blocked from taking part in an international competition in Beijing for what he believes were political reasons. He was also prevented from traveling to Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics but was finally given a passport after years of trying to obtain one. He moved to the United States soon after.
“Before the Summer Olympic games, people were hoping that China would finally join the family of the world,” Fang says. “The whole world was fooled by China. Nothing changed in terms of human rights abuses. After the games, the persecution of dissidents didn’t relent.
The Chinese government only exerted more pressure.”
In 2022, China will again host the Olympics—the winter games, this time—and Fang says that this time, “the international community should respond.”
Pointing to the increasing crackdowns on dissent and the recent removal of term limits for President Xi Jinping, Fang says that if conditions don’t improve, “other countries should boycott. The same thing that we did to the Moscow games in 1980.”
This year’s Tiananmen commemorations in Hong Kong are taking place amid concerns that Beijing is increasing its political control over the territory, which currently enjoys far greater freedom of speech and civil liberties than mainland China does. Fang was even allowed to travel to Hong Kong in 2012 to take part in the candlelight vigil.
Fang thinks fears of Hong Kong losing its independence are overblown. “People in Hong Kong are used to freedom. If the Chinese authorities really tried to exert influence on Hong Kong, they would pay a big price,” he says. “Young people are very resistant and aware of what’s going on. They are inspiring people in China to get the freedom that they deserve.”
Nonetheless, he concedes, “Thanks to its economic power, China is exerting its influence on other countries,” making foreign governments less willing to criticize Beijing. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did put out a fairly strong statement on Monday commemorating the incident, calling on Beijing to end the harassment of Tiananmen participants and release a full accounting of those killed and injured.)
Fang says he is not very optimistic about significant political change coming to China any time soon: “Unless there is some kind of economic collapse or chaos in China, we probably won’t have much of a change.”
On the other hand, Fang says he has seen a change among the activists and dissidents remaining in the country since Xi’s recent crackdowns. “I have seen resistance that’s different than in the past,” he says. “People don’t have any dreams or hope about this government. They are even more determined and courageous in their resistance. That’s my only hope.”