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Writers in Prison (2)

Protesting against the organizers of the London Book Fair 2012 who have not featured in their programme any writers imprisoned by the Chinese regime, this blog will be highlighting one such writer every day leading to the book fair. Although this will only show the tip of the iceberg of today’s ‘literary persecution’ under the rule of the CCP, I hope it will make more people realize the necessity of our daily question: Why haven’t British Council and London Book Fair invited Liu Xiaobo and other writers imprisoned by the CCP?

Today we are featuring TAN Zuoren (谭作人), a writer, former editor of Literati (文化人) magazine, activist and environmentalist. Tan’s conviction was based entirely on his investigating student deaths in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and expressing his opinions regarding the Beijing Massacre in June 1989. Along with   A Testimony to the Final Beauty (diary), a number of online commentaries critical of the government by Tan after the Sichuan earthquake in May of 2008 were cited as evidence and used to convict him.

CHRD: Activist Tan Zuoren Sentenced to Five Years in Prison for “Inciting Subversion”


A Testimony to the Final Beauty--An Eyewitness’s Diary on TAM Square in 1989

By TAN Zuoren, translated by ZHANG Yu


"The heart is only for giving away with a tear and a song, my love."

from Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore


As the tanks were approaching, the college students were sitting in a circle on the center of the Square where the Square University of Democracy had started its opening ceremony.


At 11 pm, the night sky in the Capital was still bright, and the gunfire in the distance was making noises from time to time. The people, sitting on the ground, were calm and quiet. Mr. Yan Jiaqi, the first President of the Square University of Democracy, was giving his lecture on the history of democracy, its current situation, democracy and the rule of law, democracy in China ... Breeze was blowing while Mr. Yan was tirelessly talking: Democracy is the majority role, with a respect for minority rights; Democracy is for the people to restrict the government, instead of the government to dominate the people; Democracy must rely on the rule of law and oppose the rule of man; Democracy is a good thing that the Chinese people have struggled hard for 70 years and still relentlessly pursued.


The humming noises suddenly came upon us, seemingly from the sky. Some of the people were standing up and raising their heads to look around. If you were sitting, you felt the earth begin to shudder. Soon, you heard the sounds that you would never forget – the roaring of a tank and the chugging of its high-speed running tracks.


"Roadblocks!" shouted someone. Roadblock, roadblock, roadblock! People jumped up into the air, calling out and rushing toward the tank running fast at the west plaza of the Square, as they were the roadblocks.


That was at 11:10 pm on June 3, 1989, in front of the People’s Great Hall.


The Highest Principle of Peace is Sacrifice


That Democracy had a chance to encounter the tanks had gone beyond many people's expectations. All of the students had been familiar with the history of the Square. From the May Fourth Movement in 1919 to the April Fifth Movement in 1976, the Square had been the venue of public demonstrations. For 70 years, people had been pursuing the footsteps of Mr. De(mocracy) and Mr. Sci(ence) and campaigning here time and again. They had seen the sticks, swords and guns, high-pressure water hoses, and the lethal weapons as well, but never happened to see a minimum of military common sense: the tanks could deal with the crowd, even driving to your home. Perhaps this spirit of insufficient preparation inspired the fears and fierce reactions.


Roadblock! Roadblock! Roadblock! The students shouted and rushed to the Square West Road and Chang'an Avenue, chasing the tank – actually a light armored vehicle – and throwing soda-water bottles, bricks, and even the pens and books. The vehicle seemed confused for a moment, and then made a sudden U-turn, running away along its previous route towards West Qianmen Street.


With neither mobilization nor command by anyone, the Square that had not been fortified instinctively reacted in fear. The traffic-dividing blocks, iron railings, trashcans, and even garbage and debris were moved to the roads to look like obstacles. You, moving the dividing blocks together with other people, thought that at seven o'clock when swearing the oath on the Square, the outcome that you could have imaged was to be beaten black and blue followed by  Qincheng Prison. You were willing. Holding fast on the Square for 15 days, you were willing to wait for that outcome. It was because the revolutionary education over 30 years had characterized you, eroded you, and made you believe that you were the Gadfly, Rudin, Che Guevara, Alekos, or Pavel Korchagin, a piece of the flesh doomed to the destruction, disruption, and devotion to the sacrificial altar. Maybe at that time, you did not really know yourself.


Not knowing oneself did not mean not knowing the society, or not knowing the history, or not knowing the nation and people. Forty years ago, somebody loudly declared here that the Chinese people had stood up at that time. However, the Chinese people who had stood up did not know where they were "standing" but became even shorter after "standing up".  In 1989, Chinese intellectuals and people gathered together at an unprecedented scale, and finally shouted out their own wishes and determinations to take the world by surprise!


The tank approaching suggested the arrival of the last moment. The students were sitting around the Monument and quietly waiting. They opposed the violence, ready to sacrifice. One and a half hours ago, a quiet soft voice at the broadcast station of the Hunger Strike Group had presented the common will of all: Student Colleagues, Colleagues, the last moment of our peaceful demonstration has come. We must remain rational, remain calm, and maintain the idea of peaceful petition, not to use violence to deal with violence. For two months, what we have insisted is the non-violent peaceful struggle, and the highest principle of peace is sacrifice.


The people on the Square were familiar with this voice, from Chai Ling, who at that time, in one sense, was another Goddess of Democracy on the Square.


Good-bye, Comrades!


The Square calmed down again while the gunfire around started making noise again. First in the distance, the sounds burst like the firecrackers on New Year's Eve, more and more intensively. Then, from the Museum and the People’s Great Hall, the rifle tracer came in fixed or repeated bursts of fire, like the fireworks drawing the sky.


You were at the northwest corner of the Square. In front of a broadcasting bus of the Independent Labor Union, you were counting the shots from the dark windows of the Museum and the Great Hall – after a flash, a shot must be heard. In the mind flashed the idea of observing the firing points. It seemed that you were Huang Jiguang or Dong Cunrui, ready to go for destroying a firing point at any time. In no time, there were too many to count – too many intensive shots, and too many "firing points".


The broadcasting bus was broadcasting the "Militia Training Textbook" to teach people how to fight a tank: blinding its eyes, digging its ears, cutting its belly open, chopping its legs ... ... It really came so quickly. Just thinking of them, a tank came.


At 0:30 am, from the east to the Jinshui Bridge, came the roaring of a tank, bursting more and more intensively. The people on the Square were running there. At the same time, from the crowds running frantically, you heard the news that the tank crushed to death a girl student, one from the Beijing Normal University, some said.


The loud speakers produced a harsh noise. Suddenly, "Militia Training Textbook" was changed to a high-pitched singing of "The Internationale". Then, the broadcasting bus that had been modified temporarily from a public bus did a u-turn. Watching the bus turning and turning around and dragging the speakers on the ground, you understood what it meant – to block the tank, die together! You were chasing it and finally grasping its door. But the door was shut in a sound of thundering, and a cry of farewell came from its cab: "Good-bye, comrades!"


Later, you would see this very bus on TV screen several times. The tank only tens of meters away in front of it would disappear. The bus would be no longer on the Chang'an Avenue, but was changed to have its mission to attack a building instead of intercepting a tank as an evidence of crime.


Strange? No. Greatness and absurdness are relatives, just as the beauty, to other’s eyes, is always ugly.


The most important reason for choosing to remain on the Square and wait for the final outcome was that the Square had been the place where the students dominated the organization, but also where they had been expressing their collective will. The collective will had been to uphold peaceful demonstration: non-violence, disobedience, bloodless, and not to surrender. You agreed with this idea, even though you knew it "inappropriate" at that time. At the same time, however, compared to the street barricade battle with high confrontation and high destructivity, this road of failure might lead to another kind of victory, instead of leading from the disorder to the greater disorder.


Violence came from fear, and excessive violence from excessive fear. At that time, however, not many people understood this point of view. Even understanding it, it was impossible to control the situation, nor to change it, and so it was of no use.


No Beating!


The broadcasting bus rushed to Chang'an Avenue, and stopped tens of meters away from the armored vehicle, because it had been immobilized by the piled trashcans, roaring in vain and then died. Instantly, the armored vehicle 003 became an item for the people to siege and give vent to. Bricks and sticks were pounding this iron turtle, and lit clothing and quilts were immediately piled upon the "Turtle." The people were angry, excited and crowded, as if surrounding a giant baked potato and waiting to divide and eat it.


Holding a bamboo stick, you touched the hot backdoor of the iron turtle. Before the stick hit down, "bang", the door sprang open. In the billowing smoke, two soldiers rushed out. They had been driven out by the heat and smoke in the vehicle; too drowsy to defend themselves, and so immediately stumbled onto the ground by the crowd. In the crowd there were heard only the deep sounds like ramming the earth, without a cry for mercy or help.


You desperately squeezed in, and wanted to beat, or to kill. Perhaps, you did not or need not think anything, but followed the crowd to do what they were doing. It was unexpected – what you did was the opposite. For eighteen years, whenever you have recalled that moment, you have always been confused . Then you have become increasingly convinced that, at that moment, there was a miracle that saved you.


You squeezed into a circle to the left of the armored vehicle, saw the soldier lying on the ground, no longer moving. Someone kicked him on the head, and someone jumped up and stepped on his body, as playing the Kung-fu roles in a movie. The soldier showed no response. You heard yourself shouting: no beating, no beating, the man won’t pull through! Then you pulled up his left hand on your shoulder, bent to carry him on your back with all your strength, and moved toward a first-aid station.


The assault did not stop. Some people began to hit you, and you staggered a step, nearly falling to the ground. Before you knelt down, a pair of hands from your right stretched out to hold you, and then both hands put up the soldier’s right arm to let you straighten the body. "No beating!" shouted someone. No beating! No beating! No beating! People began shouting, more and more loudly, more and more regularly. In such rhythmic cries , and as rich characteristics of the Square at that time, protected by a circle of more than 10 pairs of arms, you were running to deliver the soldier to the first-aid station outside the Museum a few hundreds meters away.


It was heard later that no soldier died on the Square that day, including that big man of more than 180 cm who was bloodied but not sacrificed. It was good luck for all of us.



To Remain Or To Withdraw?


"Tomorrow" arrived in a very strange way: turning off the lights.


At 4:00 am, when the Emergency Notice was rebroadcast, all of the lights on the Square went out. Fear fell as the darkness came. In the east of the Monument, someone lit the garbage. As the soldiers would always have smashed their weapons before they might die, some people collected the sticks and bars together and threw them into the fire and burned them. 3,000-4,000 students were sitting around the base of the Monument, horribly quiet. All were waiting, and waiting for the last moment to come. "The Internationale" was voicing, "This is the final struggle..."


In front of the People’s Great Hall, the spotlight turned on brightly, shining on the infantry phalanxes outside its gates. Near the phalanxes, a detachment hunched, held their rifles and rushed to the Monument. In an instant, a skirmish line surrounded the Monument. Someone called out: all of the city residents get out, out of here! At the same time, gunfire was heard. The soldiers started to act, picking out and shoving away those who did not look like students.. In a short while, someone held your collar, and pulled you out of the encirclement. Those citizens pulled out did not go away but stood outside the encirclement, chanting: Students are innocent! Students are innocent!


Someone was shooting the Monument, which made a shower of sparks. Soon, the big loudspeakers were silenced. After a moment of commotion, however, the students sitting on the steps of its base were still in silence. You admired those children for they had overcome their fear. Then, someone on the base of the Monument loudly suggested deciding to stay or leave based on a vote: which voice would be louder.


In fact, such voting on the Square had been previewed as early as on the first day of the "Martial Law". On May 22, the rumor of "the Square will be assaulted by an air bomb" spread like wildfire, shaking the students’ determination to remain on the square. At that time, the broadcast station of the Hunger Strike Group was broadcasting a public debate. As it was hard to determine which side of “Remaining” and “Withdrawing” was to win, in the southwest corner of the Square there appeared a quiet procession with the banners, rolling up the sleeves and standing in silence in the cold wind at midnight. As one came closer to have a look, my goodness, there were all the national teams of news media: the Central People's Broadcasting Station, China Central Television, Xinhua News Agency, People's Daily, Beijing Daily ... ... Applause! The students burst into tears! The motorcycle team of the Beijing residents stuck in flags, lined up in ranks and patrolled around the Square to encourage the students. Since then you had started to believe that China's bright future would rely on the intellectuals.


At that time, the intellectuals could indeed impress the heaven and earth, but not the Government.



No Enemy, No Hatred


The students’ commitment to a selection of “staying” to uphold stimulated the soldiers of “cleansing”. In the darkness, they began rifle-shooting intensively at the Monument to increase the pressure. You seemed to see the relief sculpture of the May Fourth’s Youths on the Monument staring with their confused eyes. Thus you crossed the skirmish warning line and returned to the Monument again – to die, together with everyone.


The decision to return to the encirclement and to take the risk actively might not be considered somewhat as heroic but significant. At that time, a large number of Chinese intellectual elite did not hesitate to jump into the fire, purifying their souls and restoring their humanity. On June 2, when staying on the Square had already been very difficult, and when the authorities’ intention of crackdown had already been very obvious, Liu Xiaobo, a doctorate in literature who had returned from the United States, together with Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo and Gao Xin, launched a new round of hunger strike protests. These "Four Gentlemen of the Square" issued a "Declaration on Hunger Strike", saying "China’s history of several thousand years had been fully filled by replacing violence with violence and mutual hatred. To this end, we make a hunger strike to call on the Chinese people for the gradual renunciation and elimination of the enemy consciousness and the hatred sentiment from now on, and for a complete abandonment of the political culture such as the class struggle, because the hatred can only produce violence and tyranny! We must have the spirit of tolerance and consciousness of cooperation in a democratic way to start building democracy in China. Democracy is a politics without an enemy and without hatred. " The 1989 generation of the intellectuals were not only ready to stand for justice, with the courage to feed tigers with their lives, but also profound and far-sighted, fully capable of undertaking the mission of promoting the progress of China's history. In fact, what any of the historians cannot avoid is that the June Fourth Movement in China, by turning over stones caused an avalanche effect, closing the door of Cold War and opening a new era of globalization. Its historical significance is no less than the collapse of the Berlin Wall.


The bullets ricocheting from shooting at the Monument were making new casualties from time to time. Within a short while, four men carried a student with a hemorrhaging neck and ran down from the top of the Monument base. With a doctor's instinct, you went to clear the way ahead and guided them to the first-aid station outside the Museum. Arriving there, you were dumbfounded: several ambulances that had parked there for a long time had gone! Ambulance! Ambulance! Ambulance! You were desperately shouting and looking.


During that night, the busiest place on the Square had been the temporary first-aid station in front of the Museum. For the whole night, as the alarms had been ringing and the wheels were rolling, they had been constantly transferring the wounded on the Square as well as those from the neighboring junctions. And now, they had quietly disappeared. You looked at the north of the Square, but could not see an ambulance, only tanks and armored vehicles. In the reflection of approaching daylight, about 40 armored vehicles were lined up, moving like a flock of crouched monsters.


Suddenly, the monsters roared and their engines shot out smoke, instantly obscuring the gray dawn sky that was just appearing.


Kill Li Peng!


An orderly withdrawal from the Square began. When you were directly faced with the tanks' canons at your nose, heavily encircled, and left with a sole passage at the southeast corner, your only way to survive was to leave. Hence at the last minute, it was really peaceful and orderly.


The soldiers adopted push tactics. The students withdrew from one level, and the soldiers took it over. Within a short time, the Monument was full of soldiers. In order to clarify the situation, you even climbed an armored vehicle and saw the leading rank of the withdrawing students had arrived at Qianmen Avenue but its tail just exiting the encirclement. The number was estimated as over 1,000 persons. The time was 5:10 am, in the early morning of June 4.


You jumped down from the armored vehicle to chase the ranks. The residents who got up early were pouring toward the Square. They had heavy faces, but applauding in lines to give you a good farewell – no, a sad one. You caught up with the ranks and asked, “are there any behind?” Some students answered that there were some on the Monument who firmly refused to leave! At this time, a plump girl wearing glasses rushed out of the ranks, squatting on the ground crying. Two or three girls went to pull her, but she hugged the tree and would not get up! Two boys came to persuade her but in vain. Several of them squatted on the ground, crying!


Then you heard yourself shouting a roar that did not belong to you: Kill Li Peng! Kill Li Peng! Kill Li Peng! The students followed and cried three times. The ranks continued to march toward the Qianmen.


Then you believed that, at that moment, if there was something to represent Li Peng standing in front of you, whether it was a soldier or a tank, you would not hesitate to tear it. If there was a machine gun in your hands, you would not hesitate to pull its trigger. At that moment, you had completed the transformation from an intellectual to a spiritual mob, and then across half a step, you would be a street thug, the mob produced by the tyranny. Of course, this result would only prove that you had lost, while those holding the power and weapons would have won.






On June 10, on the train home, you took out a notebook. It was noted that, on May 21, the first day of your arrival in Beijing, you copied a poem "Dialogue" on the Monument. The pro-democracy movement in 1989, which went from the original purpose of the dialogue to the outcome of confrontation, has of course got far too many problems to reflect. However, the spirit of "Dialogue" is forever so beautiful!


Therefore, on the train running to the west, you read for all this small piece of the poem to express the deep gratitude to the final beauty of an era.




Child: Mom, these little aunts and little uncles, why not to eat?

Mother: They want to get a gift.

What gift


Who will give them this beautiful gift.


Mom, why so many, so many people on the Square.

This is a festival.

What festival?

Lighting festival.

Where is the light?

In everyone's heart.

Mama, Mama, who is in the ambulance?


Why does a hero want to lie down?

To let children on the back row see.

What to see?

A flower of seven colors.


May 22, 2007 in Chengdu


Original texts in Chinese can be found at


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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