Melanie Verwoerd

Tiananmen Square 30 years on: SA has a lot to be thankful for

2019-06-05 17:00

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In the early hours tanks rolled towards the square. The students tried to block the entrance. A stand-off pursued. Then the tanks fired, mowing down row after row of students, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Thirty years ago I was living in Oxford. My then-husband and I befriended some Chinese students who were studying at the university. During the early parts of 1989 a movement had started in China. Worried about the economy and one party state, students did – what was previously unheard of in Communist China – they started to protest.

For weeks groups of students came together on Tiananmen Square and gradually the protest grew. It was estimated that eventually up to one million young people congregated on the square, calling for democracy, press freedom, freedom of speech as well as greater government accountability.

By in early May 1989, a number of students embarked on a hunger strike. This in turn sparked protests across many cities in – and outside of China. The world became captivated with the media reports as the protests spread to over 400 cities.

In Oxford our friends started to get anxious – and they were right to be.

Towards the end of May, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party elders decided that the protests had become a political threat and they declared martial law. Three hundred thousands soldiers were ordered to Beijing. That still did not deter the students and they continued to convene peacefully in Tiananmen Square.

Then came the night of June 4, 1989.

In the early hours tanks rolled towards the square. The students tried to block the entrance. A stand-off pursued. Then the tanks fired, mowing down row after row of students. Official numbers of the dead have never been released. However, Western journalists who were there estimated that thousands of students were killed that night.

Among all the chaos there were extraordinary acts of bravery. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was the paper's Chinese correspondent at the time. In a moving piece he recalled seeing men on rickshaws desperately trying to get injured young people to medical help.

Kristof wrote: "I particularly recall one burly rickshaw driver. He had a couple of bleeding people on the back of his cart and was pedaling furiously, his legs straining. He saw me and swerved toward me so that I could bear witness to his government's brutality. As he passed, he pleaded with me: Tell the world! And tears were streaming down his face."

He told another story of a truck driver who parked his truck across the road to stop the advancing tanks. The soldiers pointed a gun against his head and told him to move. He threw the keys of the truck into the bushes where they could not be found.  

The image that will stay with me forever, was that of a young man, who would become to be known as "Tank man". On June 5, 1989, a CNN camera crew captured the actions of this courageous man from a distance. A row of tanks rolled down the road, when suddenly a young man dressed in black pants and a white shirt, walked into the road and faced the tanks.

Clearly unsure what to do, the tank in the front stopped – forcing all the others to do the same. At first they tried to manoeuvre around the man, but every time he moved into the path of the tanks.

Eventually the tanks came to a complete standstill. With machine-gunfire clearly audible in the background, the young man climbed on top of the tank at the front and tried to engage with the heavily armed soldiers. After a while he got down and the tanks again tried to drive around him. Yet, the young man kept moving so that they could not get passed him while furiously waving at the drivers to turn back.

The man has never been identified and no one knows what happened to him. Internationally, "Tank Man" or the "Unknown Protester", as he became known, became a symbol of bravery. In China, due to the strict censorship laws, he has been erased from history.

Twenty-three years later, I was privileged to meet one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protest, Wu'er Kaixi, in Dublin. Wu'er Kaixi now lives in Taiwan out of fear of persecution. He quoted a Chinese poet who said in relation to the protesters: "They moved God, but failed to move the Emperor."

Today is the 30-year commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It made me reflect on the fear our Chinese friends in Oxford felt all those years ago. A year later we went back to a very different South Africa – they had to go back to increased oppression in China.

There is a lot to be critical of in our country. Yes, our politicians have messed up big time over the last few years. However, despite all the political dramas, our media remains free to report on the scandals surrounding the politicians. Our courts have stayed independent and have often ruled against our leaders without any rebuke from government. Most importantly, our students and citizens are free to protest, without the fear that they will be mowed down by tanks.

Perhaps we should pause for a moment today and be thankful for that.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    china  |  tiananmen square
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