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‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing Public Security Bureau ordered me—“controlled” me, in police lingo—to go to the Fanjiacun police station in the Fengtai District of Beijing. This “practical action” of the Chinese government, although it violated basic human rights, was taken in support of the “stability” that the violent suppression at Tiananmen had brought about.

I recall the early hours of June 4, 1989. The few thousand students and other citizens who refused to disperse remained huddled at the north face of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square. The glare of fires leaped skyward and gunfire crackled. The pine hedges that lined the square had been set ablaze while loudspeakers screeched their mordant warnings. The bloodbath on outlying roads had already exceeded anyone’s counting. Martial law troops had taken up their staging positions around the square, awaiting final orders, largely invisible except for the steely green glint that their helmets reflected from the light of the fires. It was then that I turned to a friend and commented that the Martyrs’ Monument might soon be witness to our deaths, but that if not, I would come back to this place every year on this date to remember the victims.

* * *

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That comment somehow turned into a vow—one that I may need to be fulfilling indefinitely. So far, I have. Every year on the evening of June 3, I have come back to Tiananmen to linger for a while. My wife and I join a few good friends—and beginning in 1995, have brought our son—to gather at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument and spend some time in reflection.

For me these visits have also aroused guilt feelings. The government’s pressures to forget June Fourth have caused the day slowly to erode in public memory: each year the Tiananmen Mothers seem more isolated, and the massacre seems more a topic to be avoided in daily conversation; even singing “The Internationale,” as students did that night, has become vaguely embarrassing. A certain lazy comfort attends this forgetting, and that is why I feel guilt. If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered “rioters” of seventeen years ago? And if everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres? Our Tiananmen generation is now in middle age; we are in positions where we can make a difference. Do we not want to? At a minimum, my guilt feelings cause me to telephone Professor Ding Zilin, a leader of the Tiananmen Mothers, every year on June 3 from Tiananmen Square. It allows me to feel that I am bringing greetings to this white-haired mother from the spirit of her dead son.

I know that I am not alone in these feelings, and that is why I involve others in my annual visits. My purpose is not to stimulate resentment. Reconciliation is fine, but it must be based on truth.

This year, about 9 PM on June 2, I sent the following cell-phone text message to a number of friends:

On the evening of June 3 we will gather at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square to reflect upon the 1989 massacre. The purpose is to remind ourselves that those events have not been consigned to history but remain deeply rooted in our minds. Pu Zhiqiang asks your support in declaring: do not forget the massacre; uphold truth; promote reconciliation based on legal rights.

In fact it was a minimal gesture, aimed mostly at assuaging my own unease.

I also forwarded the message to the low-ranking police who are assigned to “care for” me. I did the same last year. It is better for all concerned to do this. It prevents causing a shock to the police higher-ups, who, if angered, take it out on their underlings as well as on me. I did not anticipate that this time my message would set off a ruckus.

* * *

At 1:10 AM on June 3 my phone rang. It was Officer Cheng Guanglei of the National Security Unit in Fengtai District. He had been ordered to “find his way” to the doorway of my building, from where he was calling to inform me that the Public Security Bureau of Beijing City wanted to have a chat with me. He earnestly hoped that I would “coordinate” with this plan. I offered a perfunctory protest, but then went downstairs, got into the officer’s car, and went to the Fanjiacun police station. As we entered the main hall I noticed a blackboard bearing the words “Be Civilized in Raising Dogs.” I had to stifle a laugh. If our government were to reach the level of “civilization in raising dogs,” then, yes, we would be well on our way to the “harmonious society” that our leaders were touting.

Deputy Chief Sun Di and Officer Han Feng were waiting for me. Sun Di is about six feet tall. He struck me as good-natured, but deadpan: there was no way to guess what he was thinking. He said the police had received a report about my text message, so they needed to talk to me in order to understand the details.

“We all know what place Tiananmen Square is, and what day tomorrow is,” he said. “You sent a text message to a lot of people, including quite a few foreign and domestic media, saying that you intend to go there. If everybody goes, and something happens, then what?” In the view of his superiors my text message “endangers stability,” he said, so he needed to get clear on a few things: my motive, the message contents, the number of recipients, and the identity of each recipient. He invited me to explain.

I began by saying that I was confident that no one on my list of recipients would inform on me. I didn’t imagine that all the recipients would head for Tiananmen Square, either. “I don’t have that kind of charisma,” I said, “not even Hu Jintao does.” Would reporters go? Chinese journalists had long been frightened into silence on this topic, and even if one went, no report could be published. The foreign media? They always report the Tiananmen anniversary anyway—there’s nothing you can do about that. People are going to have their own opinions of what I’m doing in any event, so there’s no point getting all hot and bothered by it.

Then I explained why I had forwarded the text message to the police. Since I had been under their surveillance for some time now, I thought I might as well be aboveboard about everything and avoid any misunderstandings. But you can’t deprive a person of his will, I said, and going to Tiananmen every June 3 to commemorate the dead is a promise that I made to myself. I go there to keep the promise, and would feel wrong if I did not.

I ended by saying that I understood it to be legal to send text messages in China and legal to go to Tiananmen Square on June 3. Moreover, no law prohibits citizens from commemorating the victims of 1989. Since this is so, our whole chat right now is superfluous. For you to come to my building in the middle of the night, without any legal papers and asking for a “chat,” is itself an example of illegal use of police power.

Deputy Chief Sun responded that he wished I would lower my profile a bit and stop sending text messages all over the place. “If you want to go, then just quietly go,” he advised. “What’s the need for text messages?” He promised not to restrict my movements, but said he might assign some people to accompany me “for protection.”

“Fine,” I said. “I understand.” Then I asked Sun to relay to his superiors my own promise that, although I view China’s “Law on Assembly, Marches, and Demonstrations” to be in violation of China’s constitution, I would make written application in advance if I ever were to plan “an assembly, march, or demonstration.” But since my present plan is a purely personal matter, and since Tiananmen Square is a public space, police obstruction of my movement would be unconstitutional. Please also tell your superiors, I said, that I hope the government will finally face history squarely and solve the “June Fourth” problem. A world of make-believe on this issue cannot last forever, and it generates quite a lot of contempt.

Our chat ended about 3:00 AM. Officer Cheng Guanglei saw me home. But that was not the end of it.

At 10:20 AM the police called my home to tell me that I could not go out. This meant, without their saying it, that Sun Di’s promise of a few hours earlier was no longer valid. Although I had half-expected this news, it angered me. I went downstairs to walk the dog. Three patrolmen from the National Security Unit of Fengtai District were already on duty at my door. They looked bedraggled from lack of sleep. I telephoned Sun Di from the spot. Since he had broken his promise, I had no choice but to send out a text message explaining that fact, I said. I hoped that he would stay in touch, though, both with me and with his superiors, and do what he could not to break his word too grievously. At least, I said, he should help me to keep my promise of a yearly visit to Tiananmen this evening. Then I walked the dog.

The police joined me on the walk, and afterward I invited one of them, with whom I was fairly well acquainted, to come upstairs for lunch. My elderly mother was home, and we didn’t often have guests, so she was delighted to have one. She made special dumplings, and the young policeman helped by rolling the dumpling skins. I was busy composing my text message about “the story that I had no choice but to tell.”

* * *

Shortly after 1:00 PM Officer Cheng Guanglei reappeared downstairs. He called on his cell phone to invite me down for “another chat.” I gobbled down a few dumplings, pressed “send” on my text message, and went down to see him dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers. He, too, looked short of sleep. He told me I would need to come down to the police station again, because some municipal-level officers wanted to see me.

“Why don’t they come here?” I asked. “See how cool and bright it is here?”

“You know such things aren’t up to me,” Cheng said. “Could you cut the questions and just ‘coordinate’ with us again?”

I could see what was going on. In order to guarantee that I would not be seen that night at the base of the Martyrs’ Monument, the police were going to “spend time” with me for a while. They had instructions from above to “frustrate” my personal plans, but they couldn’t plainly say so.

The people waiting for me were Jiang Qingjie and Zhang Kaijun of Department 1 of the Public Security City Bureau. Sun Di joined us later. Jiang Qingjie, a 1996 graduate of the Chinese People’s Public Security University, was the picture of competence and efficiency—but, like his colleagues, skipped the step of showing any legal papers. Their formal agenda remained the same: they wanted to inquire about my text message, my motive for sending it, and a recipient list. But their real objective, clearly, was to “tie up” my time.

Jiang Qingjie began by saying that to send a text message like this, at a time like this, harms stability and produces consequences. This is why he has to get clear about everything.

I responded that Sun Di had broken his word. Then I inquired whether sending text messages, going to Tiananmen Square, or commemorating June Fourth was illegal. Who, I asked, was actually breaking the law? Just as I have no right to force other people to commemorate June Fourth, so the government has no right to bar me from doing so. But that, I said, is exactly what you are doing right now. If we go by the rules, I don’t have to “coordinate” with you and we can end our chat right here.

* * *

But the chat did drag on, all afternoon, as the room grew heavy with cigarette smoke. Every now and then we discussed some legal matter, but for the most part the topics lay elsewhere. I asked if the inmates at their detention center could eat wheat pancakes and dough-drop soup these days, or if they still had to survive on corn balls. The policemen offered many topics of their own: how their pay was low, promotions were impossible, and how they always had to work overtime because there were too many cases. I joked with them that if they did a good job “accompanying” me they might get raises. Last year the young man who was assigned to be with me around the clock during the “sensitive time” after Zhao Ziyang’s* death got a promotion shortly thereafter to deputy station chief in charge of several dozen people.

About 6 or 7 PM, after box dinners all around, they wanted to “do a formality” about my summons.

“Summons? You mean this was a summons?” I asked. “To me it felt rather more like a kidnapping.” I told Zhang Kaijun that if I’d known it to be a formal summons, I would have wanted a lawyer.

Zhang answered that he was basing himself on article 82 of the Penal Code of the People’s Republic of China on the Management of Public Order.

I said that I was used to illegal detention for “chats,” but had never received a summons before. So could he please read to me what that article says? He didn’t read it, but showed it to me.

“You’re mistaken,” I said after glancing through it. “It says here that a summons may be issued ‘according to law’ only after discovery that a person’s behavior has violated the penal code on public order. My behavior has not.”

The police responded that article 82 was only a procedural regulation. “If you don’t agree with what we’re doing, you can go into detail in your statement.”

So I “coordinated” again. I answered their questions—pointing out, in passing, where they had broken the law. They took notes. In the end I affixed my signature and thumbprint to their written record, noting explicitly that they had omitted mention of the illegal behavior of the police.

By then I was starting to get cell-phone calls from friends at Tiananmen who wondered where I was. Something else strange was going on, they said. In earlier years the police cleared the square sometime after 9 PM, but this year they were already shooing people out by 8 PM. I explained to my friends that I was at a police station, kidnapped “according to law” for seven or eight hours, and that they should take care not to get into trouble.

At 9:30 PM Sun Di asked me to sign my name “confirming” that my summons had ended at 10 PM. It had begun at 2:30 PM, he said, and as long as it ended within eight hours it was legal. I congratulated him on the successful completion of his mission, which was, as both he and I knew, to thwart my plans to go to Tiananmen. On my side, though, the half-day detention at a police station made me feel as if I had, in fact, kept my promise to remember the massacre victims.

I reminded Sun Di that, counting the two hours of summons in the middle of the night, the total for the day was more than eight. Was this not a dangling vulnerability in his work?

“The morning wasn’t a summons,” he said. “It was just a private chat.”

At noon on Sunday, June 4, I went into the offices of my law firm to do some overtime work. Two policemen, assigned to “maintain overall stability,” came with me.

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.


  1. General Secretary of the Communist Party of China 1987–1989, disgraced and held under house arrest from June 1989 until he died on January 17, 2005.
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Pu Zhiqiang, an executive partner at the Beijing Huayi Law Firm, is a pioneering free speech lawyer and civil rights activist. His other areas of practice include finance, real estate, reputation...

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This article was first published in the August 10, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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