The Tiananmen Square Massacre, commonly known in China as the June Fourth Incident (六四事件) was a student-led demonstration in Beijing in 1989. More broadly, it refers to the popular national movement inspired by the Beijing protests during that period, sometimes referred to as the ’89 Democracy Movement (八九民运). The protests were forcibly suppressed after the government declared martial law. On that day, troops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands of people.
Set against a backdrop of rapid economic development and social changes in post Mao-era China, the protests reflected anxieties about the country’s future. The reforms of the 1980s had led an emerging market economy which benefited some groups, but seriously disaffected others; the one-party political system also faced a challenge of legitimacy. Common grievances at the time included inflation, limited preparedness of graduates for the new economy and restrictions on political participation. The students called for democracy, greater accountability, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. At the height of the protests, about a million people assembled in the Square.
At the time of this event in China, my father was 89 years old, an immigrant from China who came here as a very young boy. He followed this story as it unfolded in the press every day with relentless attention. At times I would sit with him and ask him to explain to me what was happening. He would simplify the response to something like, “China is refusing to recognize change, the young people are trying to lead the way to the new future and there is a resistance to this change. China has needed to change its ways for a very long time, this is why my family forced me to leave even back in 1911. Today again young people are demonstrating their desire for freedom and fighting for their future and that of their children.” My father would tear up and tell me that the youth of the day are the future of tomorrow. I remember every day my father giving me a head count of the number of young people killed in these demonstrations. He told me these are young people that had a dream.
Earlier in the 70’s my father sponsored several Vietnamese refugee families. I was extremely young at the time and did not understand exactly what was happening. My father explained that these were families that had fled their country, jobs, farmland, and careers because they needed to find a better life and home for their children and their future. I remember these families when they first arrived in our home, scared of the unknown, clinging to each other for comfort and a look on their children’s faces that I will never forget. I can only describe the look as an intense need to find hope. I befriended these children as best as I could, they had a difficult time integrating their lives here, but eventually they did and their families formed successful lives in America for their children, because my father told me, they had a dream.
I saw this look again later in my life when I first went to work in Africa as a young man. I remember the first villages that I went to where drought had taken so many lives and children were starving. The military ruled these areas and there were thousands of orphaned children left to fend for themselves after their mothers were raped and killed by the militia. These children were left with no sense of hope for their future. The look in their eyes is forever engrained in my heart and always in the forefront of my mind, giving me a passion for the fate of all children’s futures.
I came to realize that parents throughout history have always fought for a brighter future for their children that would be different from the pain of their day. But never ever did it ever occur to me that by the time I would have my own child, that the fight would be the same for me today.
My son was born on World Peace Day and inherently has a deep need for peace in the world around him. He doesn’t like conflict and has demonstrated many times his need to intervene and make peace in his world. I have been purposely shielding him from the news and current affairs because it would break my heart to expose him to such pain and injustice at this joyful time in his life. I know I cannot do this forever and in fact, the world around him might actually force a reckoning upon him sooner that I would choose. But how can you prepare a child for a world that has seemingly gone awry?
I only watched the movie Life is Beautiful one time, the courageous story of a father who protected his son from the ugly truth of hate, prejudice and intolerance until his very death. It was one of the most painful films I have ever seen, but one I understand on a very deep level, because I would go to these same lengths if I thought I could prevent this kind of pain for my son.
Whitney Houston sang the song “I believe the children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way, show them all the beauty they possess inside, give them a sense of pride to make it easier.” At Imua Family Services, we empower children to reach their full potential and teach them to include the world around them. Over the years, we have made great strides with countless children and their families allowing them to create a better future, so they can dream too.
Twenty-eight years after Tiananmen Square, I am looking at the world around me and the media is full of news of protests, demonstrations and actions by leaders that are based on fear. I find it hard to believe that in the 21st Century there is still a fight for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. I am witnessing things today that I have come to believe were ignorant behaviors of a past society, but I find that overt racism, prejudice, environmental ignorance, brutality and intolerance are alive and well. We cannot sit by and allow these things to become the new normal. We must keep the dream alive! We must speak up, sign petitions and join organizations that will support the civil liberties of all people. Too many people have fought to combat these injustices, many giving their lives to do so. 5 years ago I would never have believed that this would be the climate that I would be raising a child in. And I have to be honest; I am scared and have been facing a deep internal anxiety.
I wonder if our world will be ready to accept our children and the change that they will want to bring to it. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we leave a planet that allows them and future generations to flourish. A future that embraces human potential.
My father had a dream, Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi had a dream, the boat people of South Asia and the students at Tiananmen Square had a dream. Now I have a dream – and I encourage everyone who has a dream for their children and grandchildren and the future of our planet to do what they can to fight for a world that will allow the our children and generations to come to finally live the dream we are all meant to live.