Thirty-two years ago, soldiers and tanks sent by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) descended on Tiananmen Square, beginning a violent crackdown in which thousands of Chinese citizens were arrested and a still-untold number killed. “I will never forget my fellow students being mown down by machine-guns,” one of the young protesters who was in the Square later recounted. “Others selflessly, and with complete disregard for all danger, dragged away the corpses and tended to the wounded. Women students took off garments to make bandages for people’s wounds. Soon some were almost naked.”
Despite the PRC authorities’ efforts to erase these experiences from history, both the horrific repression and heroic acts of bravery witnessed at Tiananmen Square will never be forgotten. I still have vivid memories of being a college student watching footage of the assault, and encountering the now-iconic image of a solitary Chinese man facing down a column of tanks. Seeing students my own age losing their lives, fighting for basic rights and freedoms, shook my conscience—and pushed me to grapple with the stake we have in the struggles that others are enduring, no matter where they live or who they are.
While we commemorate on June 4th the massacre perpetrated by the PRC government and honor those who lost their lives, we should also remember the events that preceded this terrible day: the peaceful, months-long mobilization of millions of students, activists, workers, and Chinese people from all walks of life, who gathered in more than 400 Chinese cities demanding political reforms and a more open, democratic future. Given the PRC’s brutal silencing of dissent today, the fulfillment of these aspirations may seem more distant than ever—but the longing for dignity and human rights is a powerful, resilient force, and we will continue to stand with all those carrying on the struggle for fundamental freedoms.