Tiananmen Square, Egg Wash and Tank Man: Reflections after 25 years

AP Photo/Jeff Widener, courtesy The Atlantic‘s terrific photo essay ‘Tiananmen Square, Then and Now

In 2009, Canadian author Denise Chong published a book called Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship. The main subject of the book is a friend of mine, exiled Chinese dissident Lu Decheng. Our friendship was when I was a free man and he was in a Thai prison. We have not met for around eight years, but I look forward to see him someday. This is a modest attempt to introduce Lu to my other friends & colleagues, to remember the 1989 prodemocracy movement in China and appreciate the spirit and courage of Lu and many other dissidents, especially students, who did what they believed in and paid heavy prices.

Who is Lu and why is he became famous?

Lu was a worker in a faraway province. He had been participating in protests against the Chinese regime (Chinese Communist Party) and in May 1989, he had decided to go to the capital, Beijing, with two friends, to voice their protest in a stronger manner. They were armed – with paint filled egg shells and posters, one of which had said “The cult of personality worship will vanish from this day onward!” Media reports quote Lu as having said “On May 22 (1989), as the three of us sat on the stairs in front of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square we decided to throw ink and eggs at the official portrait of Mao. Our intent was to demonstrate our complete denial of the authority of the CCP at its root — Mao.” According to one of Lu’s friends, who joined him, they had decided on this course of action “to motivate the student leadership to question the legitimacy of the Communist regime itself, and therefore its very authority to impose a state of martial law.”On 23rd May 1989, Lu and his two friends had thrown eggs and ink at Mao’s portrait. They were arrested and imprisoned.

According to Ottawa Senator Jim Munson, who was present at Tiananmen Square as a reporter when the “Egg Washing” happened, “the saga of Lu, an ordinary bus mechanic transformed into a prisoner of conscience, is a powerful human story” that people should listen to and “the lack of freedom to choose in China leaps from every page (in Chong’s book about Lu), in the stories of Lu Decheng’s childhood, his marriage and his life as a dissident”.

“Tank Man”, pro-democracy protests in 1989 and Tiananmen Square

Pro-democracy protests in China, led by students escalated in the days after the “Egg Wash”, as did the crackdown by the Chinese authorities. Tiananmen Square was the focus, but the protests and crackdown was widespread. Numbers killed, injured and arrested afterwards vary from hundreds to thousands. According to one foreign journalist who was present, “I counted 64 wounded or killed in a short span of time then stopped counting”. His story implied “short span of time” to be matter of minutes than hours on 4th June 1989.

A lasting impression I have of the events is of the “Tank Man” – the image of the unarmed man who had stopped a convoy of tanks by standing in front of them. I have used this image in trainings and talks I had given, even though I was not there personally and didn’t know the man personally. Journalists on the scene who had taken the photos had reported that the “Tank Man” was dragged away by some men, but no one is sure of what had happened to him. But he had indeed stopped the advancing convoy of tanks, even temporarily.

Lu’s stories in detention and flight

I remember Lu’s horror stories about prison, especially about torture. I also remember him saying how sad he was when his wife had come to prison and informed him she wanted a divorce. Lu had run away with her, as parents had not approved their relationship, and they had undergone lot of difficulties when the wife was pregnant, as it was illegal for a young couple to have a baby under China’s strictly regulated child birth regime. Lu was eventually released after nine long years, but even after that, he had been hounded by Chinese authorities. The next horror story I remember was his illegal journey from China to Thailand, through Burma, as he couldn’t get an exit permit from the Chinese authorities. By then, he was well known, and the Chinese government had pressed the Thai government to arrest and imprison him.

I was working in Thailand at that time, and it was there that I met him and we became friends, even though he couldn’t talk English and I couldn’t talk Chinese. Two Malaysian friends had been translating for us, and together with them, we often visited Lu in prison, taking Chinese food and reading materials. We negotiated on his behalf with the UNHCR, Thai authorities and finally the Canadian Embassy in Thailand. After long time, Lu was released from Thai prison, granted refugee status by UNHCR, granted a Canadian visa and left for Canada. In Thailand, I remember Lu had been talking about his two friends. But like the “Tank Man” and the many other Chinese dissenters and political prisoners, Lu’s two friend’s fate remains unknown to me.

China today, 25 years after Tiananmen Square

Several years ago, I joined a June 4th remembrance vigil in Hong Kong, to remember the crackdown in Tiananmen Square and all over China. There were tens of thousands. It was biggest protest or vigil I had ever attended. Although I could not understand Chinese, from the little my friends translated and more from the environment, I felt the intense passion participants felt. I have read that since then, the numbers participating has increased to more than 150,000.

At the same time, I have heard that Chinese authorities forbids public and collective remembrances in the Tiananmen Square itself and in mainland China generally, and that independent discussions and media coverage is prohibited. It is only few individuals and groups, such as the “Tiananmen Mothers”, that openly talks about the incidents and it’s aftermath, seeking truth, vindication for victims, justice and compensation.

Five years ago, when the book about Lu was published, it’s author spoke about her experience doing background research in China, “Just the very fact that I had to be so cautious and clandestine about it speaks volumes to the worry about the state… you still cannot show any dissidence. Certainly much has changed, certainly you can talk much more openly in private. But don’t you dare oppose the regime in public!”

In January this year, legal activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 4 years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” due to his involvement in a grassroots movement which sought to expose social injustice and official corruption. On 14th March this year, activist Cao Shunli died while in detention, after being in coma and having been seriously sick without getting medical assistance. She had been arrested in September last year, when she was travelling to Geneva, to follow a training session before China’s human rights record was to be reviewed at the UN Human Rights Council. There are many other such stories I have read and heard personally.

China and Sri Lanka

As I was writing this, it was difficult to avoid thoughts and comparisons with Sri Lanka. Having many Sri Lankan activist friends forced into exile just like Lu, seen the tanks in Sri Lanka, heard stories of torture and of political prisoners detained for longer than Lu and been personally imprisoned for being a dissident even though for much shorter time than Lu may have been why I could not let thoughts about Sri Lanka go away. Or perhaps the way remembrances and memorials are banned and threatened, and the way student are attacked, arrested, threatened etc. But I don’t feel ready yet to write again about Sri Lanka. Except perhaps to say that in China, it’s 25 years since Lu’s “Egg wash”, “Tank Man” defied the tanks and the Tiananmen Square massacres and arrests. And it’s 5 years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Today, both countries and their political and business leaders appear to be the best of friends and collaborators. And I wonder whether there will be Sri Lankans who may dare to do an “Egg wash” and defy the tanks (or the guns, water cannons, tear gas or court orders) like the Tiananmen Square’s “Tank Men” did 25 years ago.

  • Jayalath

    Tiananmen square incident and Sri Lankan incident is entirely two different incident ,therefore making an effort to boost the comparison is an effort of brain dead .
    AND I can see distinctively that writer is suffering from the side defect of Chinese medicine which perfectly worked for Sri Lanka 2009.
    However , China is formally base on a concept of Mao and once when he came to the question of ” how do we change china , Mao laid the utmost emphasis on destruction ‘ the country must be destroyed and then reformed ‘ he extended this line not just to china but to the whole world – and even the universe ‘ this applies to the country , to the nation , and to mankind ….. The destruction of the universe is the same …people like me long for its destruction , because when the old universe is destroyed , a new universe will be formed . Isn’t that better. (Quoting from Mao the unknown story)
    After Mao conquered china in 1949 , his secret goal was to dominate the world . In chasing this dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history . In all well over 70 million people perished under Mao’ s rule .
    So , I wouldn’t wonder the massacre of Tiananmen Square in 1989. however this is not a just isolated incident , when we consider to The “Indochina political ” crisis which took as many as numbers in china and in other hand , Korean War that all claims million of innocent lives which was reasoning for historical political contexts where it is clear that people have died by million being to be believed some one’s political aspiration weather it is the right one or not . Thus , We still not know and not clear what political system would fit to a peaceful world and how can we achieve it and also when ….. As it is still remaining as Unanswered puzzle . However ,
    We must not forget the 20 th century was engulfed with many political turmoils where some countries were fighting their way to autonomy from the colonialism and some were revolting against the capitalism and craving to a new political movement . Therefore it was common crisis that 20 th century culminated with prolific political crises , Perhaps, the people may have thought subsequently world would stay in peace after collapse of Soviet Union . ( Cold War ) Actually Looking into the Ukraine criss today which concedes as a potential evidence of still remaining the crisis of unprecedented level . So , I believe that Tiananmen incident wasn’t potentially isolated incident and which had been written in the history as one another disastrous result of division in the world .

    Mao had said as this as well ……”our state is people’s democratic dictatorship ….what is this dictatorship for ? It’s first function is internal, namely ,to suppress the reactionary classes..or in other word ,to resolve the contradictions between ourselves and the internal enemy ….the second function of this dictatorship is …to resolve contradictions between ourselves and the external enemy .