Rose Tang, then a student protest leader, discusses with Bitter Winter those terrible hours and their implications for the current situation.
by Marco Respinti
“I was born in Guiyang, capital city of Guizhou province, without him,” she tells Bitter Winter. “I grew up with my artist mother in Chengdu, Sichuan. My father was released and reunited with us in 1979 in Chengdu, when I was 11. I left home when I was 14 and went to study art at the Attached High School of Sichuan Fine Arts Academy in Chongqing.”
Rose’s perilous journey was just beginning. In 1989, she was in the belly of the dragon, in Tiananmen Square, along with thousands of students who peacefully demonstrated in name of democracy and freedom only to be slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s tanks in a massacre that shocked the world, whose memory is still with us.
An iconic photo portrays her on May 21, 1989, the day following the declaration of the Martial Law that precipitated events and brought to the carnage. She had led an all-night sit-in outside Zhongnanhai near the square, a former imperial garden in Beijing’s Imperial City, near the Forbidden City, that served as the central headquarters for the CCP and the State Council, the chief administrative authority of the People’s Republic of China. “One of the students I met that night,” Rose explains, “was shot by the PLA during the massacre. He was a science college student. His name is Wang Qiong. He was 19.”
A survivor from a nightmare, Tang now lives and performs in New York as musician, journalist, and activist, but she cannot forget. Her engagement for democracy and liberty in China is her way of honoring the memory of Tiananmen.
“My background? During the three years in the art school, I organized and participated in numerous underground rock/disco parties and was the captain of an all-girl soccer team,” she recalls. “Our disco parties were frequently raided and shut down by school authorities. Rock music endorsed and encouraged my rebellious spirit. At the art school between the age of 14 and 17, I also started to explore the idea of democracy and read Daoism, Buddhism, classical Chinese philosophy, Western philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, George Wilhelm Hegel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud, etc.”
Art, philosophy really shaped you. What about religion?
I got involved with an underground Catholic church (the priest being a middle school math teacher) in Chongqing briefly and nearly converted. It was 1985, I was 17. At age 18, I nearly became a Buddhist nun as I wanted to follow in the footsteps of artist-turned-Buddhist-monk Master Hong Yi (弘一法師 1880–1942) who was a national sensation in the 1980s. Later, I realized I am interested in all religions. I am spiritual, but not religious. The spiritual leader who has had the most profound influence on me is the 14th Dalai Lama. It was through His Holiness that I learned the importance of kindness, tolerance, and compassion, which have been in acute shortage in contemporary China, especially after the Tiananmen Massacre. To this day, there is still no Mandarin word for “compassion” in Mainland China, though it is a common Mandarin word in Taiwan.
So, Tiananmen. How old were you when the protests started?
I was 20, a first-year student at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, majoring in English. I was one of the three student protest leaders of my university: the only woman and the youngest.
What brought you at the Square in those fatal days?
It all started out with curiosity, on April 22. I was shopping with my roommates near Tiananmen Square. We heard that students had been marching to the square following the death of Hu Yaobang (1915–1989), the former General Secretary of the Chinese Community Party, a week earlier. Westrolled there, and saw policemen locking hands to form human walls in front of the protesters. At the western edge of the Square, there is the Great Hall of the People, used by the government and CCP for legislative and ceremonial activities. Atop of the steps, three students were kneeling side by side holding a scroll above their heads. They reminded me of petitioners in ancient times pleading before the emperor.
I did not know what the students were protesting about. My father had always warned me to stay away from politics, saying it would be dangerous. I had thought politics was boring anyway because it meant propaganda indoctrination.
As days passed, more students took to the streets. Universities started boycotting classes. Our university already had a bad reputation as a party school, indifferent to national affairs. But one day a few students blocked entrances to classroom buildings, so naturally all classes were suspended indefinitely. I had been skipping classes as I did not agree with learning from textbooks, so I whole-heartedly embraced the boycott.
I joined the picket line in the square when thousands of students and civilians went on a hunger strike, I was outraged that the government was silent for days when protesters only wanted a dialogue. The blazing sun was hard to bear. I lost my voice from shouting slogans through a bullhorn to lead the crowd. I tore a piece of red flag to make a headband, and decorated it with signatures of fellow protesters. That was a protester’s license.
What happened on the night between June 3 and 4?
The Martial Law, declared on May 20, was a turning point. As hundreds of military trucks and tanks pushed into Beijing, many students and civilians blocked them. Armed Police beat up numerous students in the streets, including some of my schoolmates. I led an all-night sit-in outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound near Tiananmen Square. June 3 was another balmy sunny Saturday, and I was back on my university campus, playing tennis in the afternoon. Several students ran past the sports ground, shouting: “They are smashing military trucks!”
Tennis racket in hand, I rushed to the scene and climbed on a truck, begging the soldiers to retreat. The troops, jammed like sardines in the back of the trucks, were silent, their faces innocent and frightened. Probably younger than we. They avoided eye contact.
The sun was setting.
People were talking about something big was going to happen that night. I wrote my last wishes in a short letter and asked a roommate to pass it on to my boyfriend Guang if I did not return the next morning. I rode my bike all the way to the square. It was like going through a war zone. Burning buses and trucks scattered around, people were re-arranging roadblocks preparing to stop more troops. But to my surprise, it was very peaceful inside the square, many locals were strolling around, just like any other summer evening.
After midnight, a burning tank, chased by rock-throwing crowds, rattled into the square and bulldozed roadblocks in front of the Great Hall of the People. A few thousand students sat in front of the monument. Some speakers urged us to fight to the very end, others made equally impassioned pleas for us to leave. We distributed wet towels in case of tear gas. Soon bullets whizzed over our heads; we thought they were rubber bullets because we were always told People’s Liberation Army troops were people’s “children and brothers.” Wounded students were carried into the square. A young woman held up a blood-stained white shirt and told us of the killings outside the square.
How were you able to survive?
All lights went off, Tiananmen was like a giant dark stage backdrop lit by burning tanks. Suddenly, droves of soldiers scuttled out like ants from under the Great Hall of the People. All the lights were turned on at the same time, followed by the deafening noise of tanks thundering toward us from three directions. We gasped at the tumbling of our Goddess of Democracy, the statue that art students had erected in the Square a few days before.
The tanks neared, crushing the tents. Soldiers carrying enormous sticks emerged from behind the tanks and surrounded us. “This is real military action. Just like the movies!” we yelled.
A group of soldiers dashed onto the stairs of the monument, shot the loudspeakers and aimed at us. Their bayonets shone in the bright lights. I felt a sharp pain thrusting my chest.
After a brief stand-off, Taiwanese pop star Hou Dejan announced that he had persuaded a captain to let us leave “peacefully.” We walked slowly towards a narrow pathway between the tanks at the southeastern corner of the square.
Soon the soldiers started to bludgeon us. I was pushed and pulled, carried by the stampede. Amid screams and thuds, my chest was squeezed, my glasses smashed on my face. I could only see blurry streetlights above the black silhouettes of people around me. I suddenly regretted coming to the square and wished there were a God to save me.
Terrible, and sad…
I trampled over a few bodies, none of them moved, perhaps dead. I was dragged along by the mob that was moving like a huge ball of ants. I tumbled to the ground, a soldier kicked me and wielded his enormous wooden stick, but the stick only grazed my head as he loudly abused me.
I scrambled back to the “ant ball” but was pushed against a tank. I was stuck between the hard cold steel and the stampede. I could not breathe. Without thinking, I climbed up the tank and crawled over the tread. The tank’s turret lid was open. A soldier was aiming his machine gun at the crowd. He did not turn his head as I crawled past him under his gun barrel. I then jumped off the other side.
It was dawn. We found more students from our university. Some had bleeding heads or feet. I saw a TV crew and walked over, barefoot. I thought they might need some help as I had been volunteering as an interpreter for foreign crews for the past month. A woman reporter asked me how I felt. “I’m very angry! Many students were killed,” I said in English.
At that moment, I knew it would put me in danger, but I thought the most important thing was to tell the world the truth. I asked the crew to leave immediately. As it turned out, the reporter was Cynde Strand, an award-winning journalist with CNN. I didn’t see the footage until 10 years later, in 1999. I spoke to her on the phone when I worked for CNN in the early 2000s. She was in the CNN bureau in Johannesburg, I was in the CNN center in Hong Kong. Now we’re Facebook friends, still I have not seen her after all these years, despite that we both live in the US…
What happened next?
The square was cordoned off by tanks. A few large puffs of smoke rose. We heard gun shots in the distance as we walked slowly in narrow lanes among traditional courtyards. Locals came out and gave us shoes. A weeping student joined us, holding a small pair of blood-stained glasses with two bullet holes. He described how a 12-year-old girl had been shot by troops near Mao’s mausoleum. She was taking a stroll with her five-year-old sister.
One student leader and I volunteered to return to campus for help. Along the way, we saw burning trucks and tanks piled along the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
The university dispatched an ambulance. We drove through the outskirts of Beijing to avoid troops, but they were everywhere, even in wheat fields. It was a full-on military campaign.
For the first time since the movement began more than 40 days before, I cried, not sure if my friends were still alive. We were relieved to find them hiding in a courtyard. A few days later, I was informed that Wang Qiong, a 19-year-old freshman had been gunned down. We had met at the Zhongnanhai sit-in on May 20.
What is your view on today’s China, between the “Belt and Road Initiative”, COVID-19, and its clash with the rest of the world?
Today’s China, like yesterday’s China, is still the world’s biggest prison, as my father warned me two decades ago. It is another planet, very barren, with very little culture or spirituality left. Vulgarization and dumbing-down continue to proliferate. Most ordinary Chinese are so burdened with mortgages of apartments and cars and costs of kids’ education that they do not care about politics or others, unless their own interests are threatened. Even when they suffer injustice, very few people bother to take to the streets. They are addicted to most electronics, social intranet (WeChat, etc.), TV variety shows and soapies. Most of my friends, however very well educated, told me they’re free and they would not live overseas. But they all try their best to send their kids overseas.
“Belt and Road,” like the names of many CCP other policies and projects, does not even make any sense grammatically. It is a name for China’s new wave of colonial expansion and hegemony. Along with China’s COVID-19 “diplomacy” of adopting a thuggish approach by lying and threatening and by using money and goods (poorly made masks, PPE, now vaccines), it is a sideshow. The world, rich and poor countries, really should boycott all what CCP is offering and bullying about.
China is a dictatorship and colonial power that is more dangerous and vicious than Nazi Germany. It has been thriving thanks to appeasement from the Western governments and courtship from multinationals. The CCP is not even practicing socialism or Communism, China is a cesspool with shiny glitzy surface, but it stinks like hell. It is hell. Because it is ruled by the CCP, the world’s largest terrorist organization.
How do you judge the CCP policy on ethnic minorities?
What CCP has been doing to Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols is colonization and genocide, the most brutal and most blatant in the 21st century. These peoples are not “ethnic minorities”—they have been made minorities in their own homeland. It is the CCP that killed millions of them while sending and encouraging Han people to migrate to these countries that CCP invaded and is occupying to this day.
What do you foresee for Hong Kong?
My idea on the future of Hong Kong is it should become a fully independent city state. Hong Kong independence is the only future for them. More and more Hongkongers are waking up to this fact. When I lived and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2003, I never read about or heard anyone talking about Hong Kong independence. Since the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, the independence movement has been growing, especially among the young people, who identify themselves as Hongkongers, not Chinese, unlike their parents and older generations. Hong Kong has all the monetary and human resources to be a powerful independent city state. Heroic and smart Hongkongers will achieve that goal. Why? Because they are tough and smart and resilient. They have faith and civilization, and are on the right side of history, CCP and China in general are the opposite. A society with no civilization will not survive long.
What should be done about the 2022 Olympics in China?
Back in July 2015, I initiated and led a global campaign boycotting Beijing’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. I organized an open letter urging the IOC not to award it to Beijing. I ran the campaign as part of the global campaign to pressure Beijing to release some 300 human rights lawyers and their family and staffers who were arrested within a weekend around July 9 (the case is now called 709). I do not agree with Olympics and the sport industry in general, so I do not support moving the Olympics. It should not exist because it has since long abandoned the original spirit.
Look at what problems Tokyo Olympics already have long before the opening. Either way, athletes get hurt, physically and mentally. What’s the point? I love sports but Olympics and many large sports events are not what sports should be about. It is all about money. Forget about health or fun or humanity or the environment. I don’t know any millennial or Gen Z watch Olympics.
Your message to the world about China?
China is not what a nation should be. It is a black hole. Not a market either for goods or services. It is another planet. Do not go there. Do not invest in it. I decided not to go to China because of the danger of being arrested after I decided to touch the number one taboo: Tibet. In 2012, I was shocked that a large number of Tibetans self-immolated, and I was even more shocked to see a collective silence on this issue among the Chinese, including the dissidents, overseas. I thought it was urgent to speak up publicly about China’s colonization and genocide in Tibet. Later, I realized it is also dangerous for me to go to Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where Chinese dissidents have been kidnapped by CCP agents. I thought being banned is the norm for a dissident.
And guess what? Now everyone is a dissident and banned—cannot travel to another country, banned everywhere. Why? It is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is it a pandemic? It is because of the CCP’s deliberate coverup right at the beginning, and the corrupt WHO not having any teeth and being negligent.
If we do not hold the Chinese government accountable for all the genocides, atrocities and now the COVID-19 pandemic, if we do not send CCP leaders to The Hague for committing crimes against humanity, humanity is doomed.