The Dream of a Free China

A replica of goddess of democracya statue first erected during the Tiananmen Square protests (Photograph by Charlotte Lawson.)

McPHERSON SQUARE—A few blocks north of the Smithsonian is a lesser-known but interesting detour for District of Columbia residents and visitors: the Museum of the Victims of Communism. The collections, which opened to the public in June, pay tribute to the millions of people who died at the hands of communist regimes.

Last week, one of the ideology’s most outspoken opponents took the time to show me a temporary exhibit about the Tiananmen Square protests and the massacre that brought them to an end.

In the years since Zhou Fengsuo first visited Beijing’s Tiananmen Square as a student organizer, he has dedicated his life to preserving the memory of an event that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would prefer to see historical records erased. For more than six weeks in 1989, residents of cities across China made a strong call for democratic and economic reform through mass protests. At the height of the protests, around 1 million people occupied the square.

“It was just spontaneous, like the eruption of a volcano. People’s true will was suppressed so deeply, for so long, that all of a sudden it had to come to the surface. We were all surprised,” Zhou said. “All of a sudden, we all realized that our opinion was not isolated, was not in the minority. This was the real hope for change.

But the movement is perhaps best known by its grim ending. In the final days of the sit-in, CCP leaders ordered the army to point its guns at the civilians it was once responsible for protecting, killing thousands. The Chinese government continues to deny, cover up and obscure the crimes of its former leaders to this day, threatening Tiananmen participants who remained in China to speak out and systematically erase evidence of the massacre from cyberspace.

Over the next five months, however, the Museum of Victims of Communism will house some of the physical relics from the dark but hopeful period of Chinese history. Zhou hopes the collection will serve as a reminder of the ongoing hardships faced by people living under the CCP’s autocratic rule, as well as the efforts people will make to seek a free China.

A framed blood-soaked shirt greets visitors as they enter the exhibit. The garment belonged to a journalist employed by the state-owned company People’s Daily newspaper which, when the troops entered the square, showed solidarity with the demonstrators. Another exhibit features a freedom of the press flyer written by Zhou and his classmates, which a young woman-turned-journalist returned to him years later.

According to Zhou, who undertook the nearly impossible task of documenting Tiananmen victims, protesters equipped with cameras were targeted more than any other group: a real-time effort by the regime to bury its atrocities. Today, the CCP is waging a campaign of digital totalitarianism to transform Chinese civil society’s collective memory of its own history, deleting all remaining photos and stories of the protests from online public records.

It was effective. When asked if there was a strong appetite to learn more about the 1989 protests and military crackdown in mainland China, Zhou said no, in part because of people’s reluctance to grapple with the tainted history of their own leaders. “If you knew that this government has committed such heinous crimes against its own people, what would you do? he asked.

Zhou Fengsuo points his no. 5 most wanted list, first published in Chinese state media in June 1989 (Photograph by Charlotte Lawson.)

Hong Kong is another story. In the immediate aftermath of the military crackdown, the then British colony played a crucial role in relocating persecuted protesters overseas and out of the CCP’s jurisdiction. In the years since 1989, the city has honored the victims of the massacre through annual vigils and events. It also houses one of the world’s only permanent exhibitions on Tiananmen, the June 4th Museum.

But since the CCP has taken steps to to disassemble the territory’s semi-autonomous status in recent years, it has also cracked down on local organizations and individuals tasked with keeping the memory of Tiananmen alive. Several members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, which runs the now closed June 4 Museum, are currently in jail. Last month, the police stopped at least six people for having organized a candlelight vigil on the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of the military crackdown.

“It’s an important part of their identity. Many protesters in Hong Kong grew up going to the Tiananmen Memorials. It was their political awakening,” Zhou said. “We all hoped that the freedom of Hong Kong could spread to China, but now the totalitarian regime continues to expand.”

“That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this here, because we have the freedom and the ability to do this,” he added.

The collection also includes Shenzhen University’s official blue and white flag, which was flown by student protesters in the square. It contains the signatures of 92 people, including police, doctors and journalists. Long live the freedom of the press! “, one reads on an inscription. “Beijing police solute students in Tiananmen Square,” reads another.

“Today a lot of people buy into this idea that the Chinese are different, that they need a different way of governing. That’s completely wrong,” Zhou said. “The majority of people in Beijing and people from all over China – more than 400 cities – and not just students – people from all walks of life – all had this common dream of a free China. It was almost within reach.

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