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California Students Call for Democracy in China in Memory of Tiananmen Square Incident

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University students from six California universities organized and participated in a series of protests and vigils to mark the 34th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident from June 3 to June 4.

Pro-democracy Chinese students organized cross-campus and grassroots protests at UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford to mark the event and remember its legacy.

The Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, or the Tiananmen Square Protests, was a three-month-long social campaign joined by students and workers in Beijing, China that resulted in a massacre on June 4. Individuals from major cities in China protested for democracy and freedom during a time of rapid political and social change in China. Corruption and huge wealth disparities during this period additionally led to growing resentment among the public. 

The Tiananmen Square Incident were triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, a prominent and widely respected government official in China, according to the Washington Post. Hu planned and led most of China’s major political reform campaigns that led to the political openness of China in the early 1980s. He pushed for political reforms toward freedom of expression and independent judicial power, which made him extremely popular among liberal students and the rising Chinese middle class. Hu was forced to resign in 1987 after his liberal policies angered the Chinese party leader Deng Xiaoping, and he passed away in 1989 due to a heart attack. Hu’s funeral proceedings were reportedly neglected by the Chinese government in an effort to downplay his influence. 

The Chinese regime’s treatment of Hu Yaobang’s legacy upset his supporters, and crowds spontaneously gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the politician in late April 1989. The gathering soon turned into a mass protest, and nearly half a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square to demand independent judicial power, democratic reform, free speech and fair elections.. As the number of participants increased, the protest grew into a three-month long campaign and gained widespread domestic and international attention. The campaign led supporters in other major cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu to hold their own protests with similar demands.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government sent troops to the capital city of Beijing and violently suppressed the protest, clashing with protestors. The army opened fire on the protestors, resulting in large casualties. The number of casualties vary based on different sources. The Chinese government reported 200 civilian deaths directly after the incident while UK documents released in 2017 estimate at least 10,000 deaths. In addition, mass arrests were conducted nationwide in the following months. The Chinese government recorded at least 1,103 civilian arrests.

Since 1989, the Chinese government has continuously labeled the Tiananmen Square Incident as a “Western-sponsored Anti-Revolution campaign” and denied that the event was a “massacre.” The Tiananmen Square Massacre is widely recognized across the world and viewed by pro-democracy Chinese citizens as a major event for democracy and political freedoms.

A campus protest at UC Irvine honored the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square and commemorated the movement in front of Langson Library on June 4, marking the anniversary of when the People’s Liberation Army violently suppressed the protest.

Preparations for the Irvine protest started weeks in advance and began with a small group of pro-democracy Chinese students. Using the platform Discord, the group grew quickly through word of mouth within trusted networks. The leader of the group, a graduate student from UC Santa Cruz, developed the community of students with his background in political organizing. 

To publicize their activities and engage the UCI community, the student group first created a “democracy wall.” A democracy wall, popularized after the Hong Kong protests of 2019, is a public space for overseas Chinese students to freely advocate for democracy through posters, signs and statements. The student group chose to create an online democracy wall called UCI Wall of Democracy (UCI WOD) on Instagram. Through its online presence, the students of the UCI WOD aim to provide a platform and space for democracy that cannot be physically damaged by nationalist Chinese groups. The UCI WOD account received over 100 followers in its first day of creation.

The June 4 protest was organized through cooperation between UCI WOD and the Discord community of pro-democracy Chinese students. The two groups appointed an undergraduate UCI student, who also organized a protest on the UCI campus against the Chinese government’s COVID-19 lockdown policies in December 2022, to organize and host the protest.

The student leader, who requested to stay anonymous, explained their motivation for organizing pro-democracy protests in a 2022 interview with the BBC News Chinese.

“My goal is to provide people with hope, speak our opinions, which I hope will help other people to think about social and political issues in China, and rethink their position that they have been holding since very young,” he stated. “I noticed that many of my classmates around me who I think do not care about politics before actively participating in the protest, this encourages me. I hope with my effort, I can at least bring some positive changes to the social atmosphere in China.”

To engage other campus communities, leaders of the UCI June 4 protest team and Discord community  reached out to potential supporters at fellow California campuses. Students from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Los Angeles, Stanford and UC Santa Barbara confirmed to hold protests in support, making the event a cross-campus movement.  

UCI student groups then publicized the event by displaying posters around campus. Students created and put up posters containing information on the history of the Tiananmen Square Incident as well as current issues such as the Iranian protests and war in Ukraine. However, group members found that the majority of the posters were torn the following morning, allegedly by nationalist Chinese students. 

The Chinese government uses overseas Chinese nationalist students to monitor pro-democracy individuals, according to students and a report by the New York Times. 

Pro-democracy students at UCI posted signs and papers during the night to protect their identity.

In response to the torn posters, pro-democracy students printed more posters and posted more frequently. A special group of members tracked where posters were taken down and immediately called for repairs or new posters.

This “battle” between pro-democracy and nationalist students continued for the following three days leading up to the June 4 protest.

At the protest, candles carved to read “June 4th, 1989” were lit to mourn those who sacrificed their lives for democracy and freedom in China 34 years ago. Witnesses of the Tiananmen Square Incident were also in attendance and shared their experience with the students. 

Members of different communities showed support at the protest. Approximately 40 students were in attendance, with the majority of participants being Chinese or from the Iranian community. Students at the protest gave speeches and emphasized their views and mission. One participant spoke out against hypocrisy in the current Chinese government and discussed the legacy of the Tiananmen Square Incident.

“However noble the claims of human rights are, they do not generate themselves by virtue of us being human,” the student stated. “There sure was no such thing as the right to life when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on its people 34 years ago in Tiananmen Square.”

The protest also sought strength in community and emphasized the importance of solidarity between groups. 

“We are gathering here today not to seek substantive influence on the Chinese government, but to make everyone feel the presence of each other and the strength of mutual support and solidarity,” another student stated in a speech.

Most students participating in the protest wore masks to hide their identity, due to the risk and danger of the Chinese government identifying overseas dissidents and threatening their families in China. However, near the end of the protest, one student took off their mask.

“I don’t want us, the righteous side, to be living in fear,” they stated. “I am taking off my mask because I want everyone here to know how I look, so when we meet on campus in future, we can feel a sense of support among each other.”

Their words and courage won them a long-lasting applause.

Students from participating campuses held protests at their respective schools to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident. The protest at UC Santa Barbara, held on June 3, went “comparatively smooth” according to organizers. Student leaders from UC Davis and UC Berkeley shared photos and videos of their gatherings in the Discord group. The videos showed students singing protest songs, including “Do You Hear the People Sing,” together.

The Tiananmen Square remembrance protests at California campuses represented the power of collective effort and solidarity among communities, according to members. These students continue to bravely speak out and fight for democracy in China despite government oppression and censorship. 

“As the force of Chinese democracy, we are always concerned, but not frightened. We are always disturbed, but not dismayed,” one student proclaimed. “We should believe in ourselves, and believe that we have the power to start this world over again.”

Deng Liu is a City News Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. He can be reached at dengnl@uci.edu.