Twenty years from Tiananmen
The Northwest Progressive Institute extends its heartfelt thanks to Yuki Cheng for allowing us to share her story with our readers.
June 4, is a fateful day for me. It was a turning point in my life’s trajectory.
On this day 20 years ago, the gun shots near Tiananmen Square challenged my principles, and in turn put my life on a new course.
It was a cloudy day. An invisible hand was squeezing me, made it so hard to breathe that I felt like I would burst any moment. Only the day before, I had met some senior students from the class I was teaching, at the east gate of our university.
"Miss. Cheng," they told me, "We are going out to flatten the bus tires to block the path of Army. We don’t want autocracy with guns! We want freedom of speech! We want to end corruption!" At that time we still had hope.
I knew they were taking a big risk. I told them "If you see anyone peeking at you from around corners, turn away from him. Turn your back, so they cannot identify you. Be careful!" I worried, because if a soldier saw them, they could be killed. I kept praying in my heart that they would be safe.
At 1pm, the next day, I was called to the department office. My department head told me "We received some information from the Public Security Bureau. We suspect some students from your class damaged public property. Go and figure out exactly who did it. Report back as soon as possible!"
An hour later, I had a meeting with my students. 241 people were dead in Tiananmen Square, and over 7000 wounded. My students were lucky. All thirty people were sitting in my classroom. We were all stunned by what had happened in Tiananmen Square. Half of them had blank faces, their eyes focusing on some faraway place. The other half only looked down, so I could only see their black hair. It was as quiet as an empty room. I looked at them, one by one.
These were my students. My friends. They had trusted me.
I said "The Security Bureau thinks some of you damaged some public property. They want me to report on you. Well, I think it is almost the end of the school year. I know you are all working hard to earn your credits for graduation. So I believe everybody must be too busy with your final projects, or preparing for exams. I don’t believe anyone would have time to do anything else. Besides, I don’t remember seeing anyone go off campus. This is what I think. If any of you, or somebody you know in this classroom went off campus and illegally damaged public property, please raise your hand and report to me. Right now."
I slowly scanned the room. The class leader, who talked to me yesterday at the east gate, was looking back at me. Uncertainty flickered in his eyes. Then he blinked it away and said, "You are right, Miss Cheng. We are all too busy studying. Do we still have exams?" Nobody could talk about what happened the day before, but everybody knew what he meant. Would exams be canceled because of the massacre? "Everybody still wants to graduate. We just want to go back to our hometowns safely. Everybody agree?" He looked to his classmates for confirmation.
Everyone nodded. I said, "Since nobody raised a hand, I will report that no students in my class did any illegal activity. I am proud of you! Now, get back to your studies!"
Next day, my department party secretary handed me a photo. It showed a flag with our class logo beside a bus, and some students’ backs. there were no faces in the picture. I looked back blankly at the secretary.
I told him, "I confirmed it was no one from my class. Anybody can make that logo. And I cannot recognize any person in this picture. I will be happy to work with you if you can provide more specific evidence."
I felt numb for all of Summer break. I went back to school in the fall, but the normal classes were cancelled. The first month was arranged for pure political document study. Since the senior students I was in charge of had graduated already, I was appointed to lead a new freshman class.
The first day, I told the students "Today our task is reading one piece of news from Voice of America. We know nobody died in Tiananmen Square, so obviously Voice of America is lying. Study the truth provided by our central government, and write an essay to criticize the malignancy of America Imperialism."
Next day: "Today our task is reading one piece of news from BBC, and then analyzing the lie according to the truth provided by our central government."
We did this for the whole month.
My country is dear to me. I was born there. I grew up there. But I don’t want to continue living like this, hiding something that I know, being forced to say something that I don’t believe.
Now, I live here, in America. One year ago today, I received my U.S. Citizenship. So June 4th is the day my life changed course forever, both 20 years ago, and one year ago. America is not perfect either. But I appreciate the most important thing I learned from that day 20 years ago: freedom. I hope you also treasure it.