Leadership and Witness: In Communist China, Remembering Tiananmen Square

Monday’s Washington Post featured an article about the conundrum facing the survivors of the government attack on unarmed civilian protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. These civilian leaders, killed or maimed, and the subsequent silence required by the government propoganda machine, means that telling the truth is dangerous.

Time has not changed the official policy; what does that mean to former protesters who now face questions from their children? Here, the step from survivor to witness is a hard one.

“For those who were part of the student-led protests against government repression and corruption, those dark morning hours of June 4, 1989, remain etched in memory and … on their bodies. That generation must now decide what to tell their children about that day, if anything at all.

For many, the decision is colored by how their own views have changed over time. In interviews with more than a dozen survivors, a few wondered whether the democratic cause they fought for was misguided by youthful passion. Others have won asylum abroad, and when they talk of Tiananmen to their children, it is as history — just one part of their life’s larger story.

But the dilemma is often more complicated for those who remain in China, where public mention of Tiananmen can result in government retribution. To this day, officials maintain that the decision was necessary for stability, and the anniversary is marked with thousands of police officers patrolling the square and chasing off journalists.

Those who have found successful careers in business, law and academia often talk of it only in private, fearful of consequences for themselves and their offspring.

Even some of those who have soldiered on as activists deliberately say little of Tiananmen to their children, who grow up not fully understanding why police barge into their homes each year as the anniversary approaches to interrogate and spirit away their parents for weeks without explanation. Some children experience restrictions and warnings at school.

For most parents, it comes down to a choice between protecting their children from the past or passing on dangerous and bitter truths about the authoritarian society they continue to live under.”

In the class I’m teaching at Pacifica Graduate Institute we are talking about activism, art and social change. Reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, a harrowing memoir of his childhood years in concentration camps, we’re talking about the power of witness as a force of social transformation.

Wiesel writes: “I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.” (p. viii, 2006 edition of Night)

In activist leadership, sometimes witness is a powerful force for change. Our stories become part of authentic practices, and our truths can help set others free, either to speak their truths or to fight against oppression. Wiesel is a good example of this kind of leader. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, author of many books about the Holocaust, ethics and social justice, he has dedicated his life to the hope that speaking the truth will help prevent other holocausts.

But Wiesel wrote and spoke of his experiences after the defeat of Nazi Germany. It can’t have been easy to dive back into those memories, but he did not face prison by speaking them. In fact, for him, I think it was a release from the prison of silence.

But the survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre face poverty, prison and possibly death if they speak out. The Post profiles Qi Zhiyong, who has suffered because of his insistence on leading by witness.

“While most people, including some former Tiananmen protesters, have learned to avoid the topic, Qi carries business cards listing his job title as “Disabled Victim of June 4.” His home telephone number, cellphone number and e-mail address end with deliberately chosen digits: “89 64.” And on the back of his cards, he has emblazoned this slogan: “Facts written in ink cannot conceal the truth written in blood.”

Qi Zhiyong, Post Photo

Qi Zhiyong, Post Photo

His family lives in a cramped Beijing apartment, dependent on his wife’s $320-a-month job as a drugstore sales assistant, while Qi cares for their daughter and supports human rights causes — work that has resulted in long stretches of detention and frequent government harassment.

Qi’s wife, Lu Shiying, wishes he would let go of what happened 24 years ago. She recently declined to meet with foreign journalists and warned Qi against it.

“How come others are able to move forward?” she often asks him, he said. “You were not the only victim on June Fourth.”

Such leadership is not easy. We may praise authenticity and courage, and honor the work of those who have succeeded, like Wiesel and Malala Yousafzai, in reaping freedom from pain. But most of those who suffer because of their insistence on being heard may, like Qi, be a footnote in history, punished by the repression that makes speaking out so dangerous.

I don’t know what I would do if I were faced with the pleas of my partner to let go, to be silent. I admire his persistence, and hope the Post’s article brings him courage and support.



One comment

  1. […] of leading integrally with our values and authentic selves visible (coming out of the closet, standing in the face of oppression, whistleblowing). Reimer reminds us of a practical requirement that makes ethical behavior and […]


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