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Tiananmen memory lingers on

By CNN's Rose Tang, Tiananmen survivor

It was a sunny afternoon this day 12 years ago, the sun was setting.

We were playing tennis. Students ran past the sports ground in my university to the front gate, yelling: "They're smashing the tanks!" I rushed to the scene, but the smashing job had been done by other students.

I put on my black jacket and jeans for camouflage, and wrote my last wishes in a letter with my roommates.

With a dagger in my pocket, I hopped on my red Flying Deer bicycle, headed for Tiananmen Square, ready to die for the revolution.

To my surprise, the square was incredibly peaceful. Some two thousand students were scattered around dozens of tents. Street hawkers were selling dumplings and pancakes. The Goddess of Democracy statue and the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Tiananmen, were the backdrop of a usual summer evening.

The pro-democracy movement had been going on for six weeks, everyone was tired and bored -- we had been marching since mid-April. Late that night, a few leaders announced the University of Democracy had been established. A nice name, we thought.

By late that night, bullets whizzed over our heads. We cheered because we thought they were rubber bullets. We realized they were real when we saw the sparks.

Around the square, some people chased trucks and tanks and set them on fire.

In the early hours of June 4, the People's Liberation Army soldiers and tanks surged into the square and crushed the Goddess of Democracy statue before our eyes. "Fight for the truth," we sang as we ran, crawled and walked from the square.

Soldiers wielding sticks and bars

The soldiers, wielding long wooden sticks and iron bars, started to beat us. I felt like I was in a heroic movie, just like those propaganda war movies we grew up with.

It was not easy to move as the tanks had almost entirely closed us in. I climbed over a tank's tread and jumped off. At a corner of the square I spotted Zhao, a student rock 'n' roller from my university who had been writing his music on a bed sheet earlier that night.

He was wiping his music sheet over his bleeding head. I limped over. "Are you all right?" I asked. "I've lost my Nike shoe," he moaned. He was annoyed. Nike shoes were a very expensive status symbol.

I realized I was also barefoot. "I have to go back to find them," he mumbled as he turned around and headed back to the square.

A few minutes later, Zhao emerged with a big smile on his face. His Nike shoes, tied with a shoestring, were dangling around his neck.

Little girl shot

Rain drops fell from the sky that looked like a heavy sheet of lead. "The sky is crying," I said to myself. We walked slowly away from Tiananmen, we met other students who had escaped the square. One student showed us a tiny pair of punctured bloody glasses. He told us he had witnessed a 12-year-old girl gunned down by the troops.

She had been shot near the square after coming out for a stroll with her little sister.

The Nike shoes dangling from the rock 'n' roller's neck; the bloody glasses with the bullet holes. These are the pictures that have stuck in my mind for all these years.

I felt angry and frustrated. I was determined to study democracy and press freedom in the West and to find out "why" and "how" China came to be what it was in 1989.

New protest, new approach

In May 1999, I was back in Beijing interviewing a mob of students who were throwing rocks and ink bottles at the U.S. Embassy protesting the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

I was curious to know what they thought of the "June 4" event ten years before.

"Don't you confuse the two issues! Maybe people were killed ten years ago, but that was Chinese killing Chinese, it's within the family. This time, it's the foreigners who killed our people!" a young man yelled at me.

Soon a few surrounded me and questioned if I was working for the Americans. One went up to a policeman to report me. I ran for my life. A few chased me. My eyes were full of tears. I was confused. I felt like a cook who had just prepared food but nobody was hungry.

An academic friend in Beijing told me not to worry. "These kids were indeed too young ten years ago. But their parents will tell them the truth," he said. His father was tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution. He knows how long it takes for the truth to get out.

Generation gap

Today, those who were in Tiananmen Square say the Chinese youth of today lack their idealism and rebellious spirit.

What's wrong with having an ambition to take care of oneself, to make money, and to buy a car and a house?

Recently in Hong Kong I met Cui Jian, the rock 'n' roll idol for the 1980's generation. He performed in Tiananmen Square in front of the students, and we sang along with his songs like "Nothing but My Name" in our marches.

For the past 12 years, he hasn't been allowed to perform in front of a large audience in China because the government still considers him "controversial".

Cui was frustrated at the squeaky clean Hong Kong youngsters who had trouble understanding his Mandarin and rock epic "Show Your Colors", depicting China's different generations of revolution, pragmatism and the Digital Age.

"I feel suppressed when I look at ya!" he shouted at the audience.

Off stage, Cui was hardly that angry and cynical, young rebel -- he has put on weight and lost hair. "This young generation is more pragmatic. I should learn from them. They have become victims of advertisers," he said.

Dotcom democracy

Forget about the University of Democracy. These days the battle is fought by the University of the Internet, established by graduates of elite U.S. and Chinese universities.

"Everyday we have staff to get rid off 'sensitive material', y'know, the 'counter-revolutionary' stuff," said one of the founders of the dotcom, an MIT graduate. His aim is to get page views from Chinese students, achieve venture capital from the Americans, get listed on the Nasdaq, and eventually sell the company.

The Internet Generation is indeed different from the Tiananmen Generation. They are more materialistic and pragmatic, because they have the opportunity to be so. I wonder what the Nike rock 'n' roller of the Tiananmen is doing now, perhaps studying in the U.S.? Or maybe, running a dotcom start-up in China?

Memories remain

Twelve years on, sadly, Hong Kong still remains the only place in China for people to legally commemorate the Tiananmen anniversary. An organizer told me he would rather just sit and hold a candle quietly for the vigil, without shouting any slogans.

After all these years shouting slogans, demanding democracy and a verdict of June 4, it seems the best thing to do is remember.

Have people forgotten?

I met a lawyer last year in the Gobi Desert. She was showing me the square in the city of Lanzhou and suddenly said: "I will never forget those protests here in 1989".

She is now expecting a baby on June 4. She's so glad that her child's birthday is on such a special date.

Like her child, new generations will be born and their parents will tell them the stories of June 4.

That alone, is already a triumph against tyranny and injustice.

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