Children of the Dragon: The Story of Tiananmen Square

In 1989, a year packed with revolutionary developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, no one political event could rival, for sheer telegenic drama, the spectacle of tens of thousands of Chinese students milling in jubilant disorder in the very square where a generation before many of their parents had marched in lockstep, chanting the slogans of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

One year later, Children of the Dragon offers a compelling look at the events in Tiananmen Square. A collaborative production, it is designed to benefit Human Rights in China, an organization of exiled Chinese intellectuals that monitors oppression in their homeland. A kind of coffee-table memorial to the popular movement that flourished from mid-April until the bloody government crackdown of June 4, the book weaves together bits of speeches, contemporary newspaper accounts, oral memoirs, and dozens of stunning photographs, handsomely reproduced. Short essays by John K. Fairbank, Orville Schell, Jona-than Spence, and Andrew J. Nathan help put the documents into perspective.

As the book vividly shows, May 1989 in Tiananmen Square was one of those mad moments in modern history, when countless numbers of ordinary people are gripped by the illusion that the crushing weight of history has miraculously lifted — and that, suddenly, anything is possible. What in March seemed an absurdly utopian dream — democracy in China — by the end of May loomed as the logical next step. That widely shared conviction — fantasy though it turned out to be — transformed the political landscape and unleashed a wild kind of pleasure in the most trivial aspects of everyday life. Lingering over the early images in the book, you see tension, defiance, and sometimes fear on the face of these young students — but you also see palpable joy. In one picture, a truckload of beaming young dissidents gleefully brandish plastic bottles of Pepsi-Cola as if they were torches from the goddess of liberty — an unmistakable sign of the explosive growth of confidence recorded in the accompanying speeches and memoirs.

This confidence was essentially moral, rooted in a shared sense of the absolute rightness of the movement’s democratic ends — and also of its nonviolent means. As Children of the Dragon reminds us, the Chinese students took heart from a crucial non-Western model: Gandhi. They not only resurrected the most classic (and controversial) of his tactics, the hunger strike, but they also upheld his conviction that true democracy depends upon the moral worth and dignity of each active citizen. But the pacifist precedent that perhaps most deeply alarmed China’s aging dictatorship was not Indian, but Polish, for the success of Solidarity proved that workers might not be entirely immune to the appeal of this sort of nonviolent direct action.

The government’s fears proved well founded. By the end of May, large numbers of workers had joined the student protest. Yet the stunning growth of the movement carried with it an escalating danger of violence. Even under the best of circumstances, Gandhian tactics risk ending in bloodshed — on the night of June 4, 1989, the circumstances in Tiananmen Square became desperately bleak.

The last part of this book, documenting the massacre of dissidents on June 4 and after, is made even more horrifying by the vibrant idealism that was its prelude. In a photo taken after the government crackdown had produced skirmishes throughout the city, we see a crowd staring impassively at the body of a dead government soldier. In another photo of the same corpse from a different angle, our gaze is directed at the body itself: We see that it is naked, burned, hung by a noose, with a military cap propped at a jaunty angle on the head. Looking at this picture, you can only wonder which image foretells China’s future — the corpse, or the students cheerfully waving their bottles of Pepsi-Cola. Perhaps, like Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia in recent months, China will someday witness again the vibrant whimsies of an unshackled civic life. But for now, its citizens have no choice but resigned obedience, in disciplined silence, to the charred remains of a dead and discredited regime. B+

Children of the Dragon: The Story of Tiananmen Square
  • Book