The movie “Tiananmen Mission” is about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which took place in Beijing, China, on June 4, 1989. The massacre put an end to student-led protests that began on April 15 of the same year. Records show that the Chinese Communist Regime used armored tanks to quash the demonstrations, opening fire on unarmed students (though the regime claims to this day that no life was lost during the suppression). An interview with Mr. Zhang, who was the leader of the Student Security Team during the protest, takes us through the massacre and the events leading up to it.
The protests began soon after the death of pro-reform Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Hu Yaobang. This occurred during a period of inflation, corruption, economic and social insecurity, and a government that favored the rich minority. Approximately one million students came together from around forty universities to demonstrate in favor of political reform.
Coming from a simple family, Zhang embodies the experiences of ordinary people who have endured tremendous hardship under the authoritarian Beijing government. He comes from Lao Zhuang Hu village — the documentary portrays numerous families laboring on farms, as agriculture was a primary means of income during that period. As a determined and ambitious young man, Zhang became a member of the Communist Youth League, volunteering for the organization from early age. His account reveals the perils that farmers faced during those times: “Once a member of the family falls sick, they stand to lose everything.” The living condition were very poor, especially for those at the lowest levels of society.
As the 1989 student protests took shape Mr. Zhang’s friends invited him to join the student picketing team. He soon took on more responsibility within the movement, becoming the commander-in-chief of the student security team. This job entailed supplying water to the demonstrators and getting the wounded to safety and medical care.
The citizens of Beijing, both old and young, supported the protestors. Many times, when soldiers or police came to disrupt the gatherings, the group stood as one, working together to stop the troops. The diverse crowd included individuals ranging from taxi drivers to white-collar professionals. This was the power of the people.
When the people come together for the first time, the government becomes terrified — unity is strength. Although the government arranged for dialogue with the student, none of their demands were met. “Our most basic request was for the government to rescind its April 26 decree,” said Mr. Zhang, referring to an editorial published by a state-run newspaper that condemned the protests and labeled them as “antisocialist.”
On May 30, Zhang got a visit from his mother — “they are going to kill you,” she warned in fear. “They are going to shoot at you!” She pleaded with him, begging him to reconsider his involvement in the protests. Nevertheless, Zhang was determined to continue supporting the movement, ready to lay his life on the line for the future of his beloved country. Many students exchanged farewell messages, demonstrating their readiness to die for their country, as well as their apprehension of what the future might hold. The youths of China were indeed willing to sacrifice themselves for the future of their society, standing up to a regime that had threatened to snatch children from their mothers.
On the 3rd of June, late at night, the massacre began. The army started by taking sweeping shots at the unarmed citizens. He and his friends continued to march forward into the open fire, and many lost their lives.
At one point, the students began to exact revenge on the soldiers by setting fire to their tanks. Seeing several injured soldiers, Zhang called an ambulance which took them away. In an ironic twist, these same soldiers were later paraded on television screens as being heroes who had saved the country. According to Mr. Zhang, these men couldn’t even fake a smile as their pictures were being taken — they knew that they could have died if not for the students who chose to spare their lives.
Zhang was shot during a confrontation with a Lieutenant Colonel, and he ended up losing consciousness.
Before the massacre, the students erected a statue, “Goddess of Democracy”, in the center of Tiananmen Square. Needless to say, this statue was destroyed by the during the crackdown. Estimates of the massacre’s death toll vary, ranging from hundreds to thousands killed. These were students and workers who had joined together in a massive gathering that lasted for more than a month. All the youth wanted was a social reform that favored democracy. Instead, what they got was a violent massacre.
The documentary also touches on tension between the police and the military in Beijing during this time period. For many years, the police had suffered injustice at the hands of the army. Zhang took note of this while he was recovering at the Tong Ren Hospital.
While at the hospital, soldiers came to look for him. They were surprised that such a young man could be the commander-in-chief of such a large protest. They had surrounded the hospital and had come in with loaded guns, only to find a simple countryside boy.
Given his injuries, Zhang was unable to walk for some time. He was not transferred to a prison hospital, as those were already at full capacity, being inundated by other injured students who had been arrested following the protests. After 140 days, he was released with a hospital bill of 12,000 yuan. This sum was substantial for Zhang, who came from an impoverished family — he had no way to make such a sum of money.
Zhang’s school offered to lend the money to his family, but only if he confessed his crimes. Ultimately, his mother and grandmother sold all their pigs, managing to raise 5,000 yuan, which the hospital accepted.
Scenes from the day after the military operation on June 4: Passersby and protesters on burnt-out tanks, destroyed trucks. (Photos: Zhao Xiangji-Heinrich Becher/NZZ)
After some time, when he was finally able to walk, Zhang went into hiding and later tried to get a job under a new name. Starting work as a sweeper, he soon became a janitor and then the manager of an entertainment group. He was able to all of this using a fake name and a fake identity. This went on until 1998 when, he was honored as a top manager in the entertainment business, with his real name written on a certificate of recognition. Many were surprised that the young boy who was shot long ago had risen to become such an established and important figure.
Although it had been years since the protest, Zhang recognizes that social discrimination persists. The problem of migrant workers being treated inhumanely was evident. Despite their arduous labor, they appeared exhausted. Another injustice involved taxi drivers who had to pay 100,000 Yuan to a taxi company for the right to drive the taxi and earn a living from it. The government banned these cars, leaving the men jobless and causing them to lose their money.
Zhang’s brother also fell victim to this injustice, and Zhang wanted to file an appeal against the government on his brother’s behalf. However, he could not move forward with the appeal because his name sill had not been cleared following the 1989 Tiananmen protests. As many of the taxi drivers who protested this injustice were imprisoned, Zhang realized that getting involved could result in trouble.
Zhang eventually left China for Europe. He decided to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ, as he could empathize with Jesus’s suffering during the crucifixion. Jesus shed His blood so that many might attain salvation, but even after 2000 years, many remain blind to this sacrificial gift. The same could be said of the sacrifices made by Zhang and his friends. Despite many Chinese people sacrificing their lives or getting injured, corruption continued to prosper. Countless Chinese people still face financial exploitation and social injustice.
Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that is subject to persecution in China. The Chinese government has claimed that Falun Gong is an “evil cult” or “heretical sect” and has used this state-supported narrative to justify its attempt to eradicate the movement. With assistance from his friends, Zhang obtained prohibited Falun Gong materials and, after reviewing them, he realized there was nothing evil about it. The Chinese government chose to ban the religion so that it could uphold its state doctrine of atheism.
He met some practitioners of Falun Gong at the UN Human Rights Commission which took place in Geneva. “When people pursue truth, liberty, equality, and fraternity, the Communist regime persecutes them all the same”.
The CCP’s violent suppression of religion continues, but Zhang remains hopeful that in the future, the CCP’s “satanic agenda” of persecution will cease. He believes that the Chinese people, who are suffered under the Chinese Communist persecution, strengthened by their truthful principles and support from a Higher Power, will triumph. Ultimately, they will achieve victory, overcoming any obstacles, and their sacrifices will not be in vain.
Zheng and his generation have been paving the way to freedom no matter how difficult, and Chinese people will succeed in their freedom.
Video Tianamen Mission Part One