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Tiananmen Square at 25: A student leader recalls gunshots and chaos

Chaohua Wang, one of the student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests, fled to Southern California after months in hiding.
Chaohua Wang, one of the student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests, fled to Southern California after months in hiding.

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Tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong poured into the streets today to mark the 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square. But in Beijing, Chinese authorities sharply restricted access to the site and enforced a virtual blackout online.

More than 60 have been detained or put under house arrest ahead of the anniversary, according to Amnesty International, and Google has been blocked ahead of the anniversary.

On June 4, 25 years ago, military forces opened fire on unarmed protesters in Tiananmen. There, students and civilians had been filling the Square for two months, some on hunger strike. It was a rare display of public rebuke to China's central government.

One of those who was there was Chaohua Wang.

After June 4, her name appeared on a list of the most wanted student leaders and she went into hiding. Soon after, she relocated to Southern California and now teaches literature at UCLA.

Wang joins Take Two to talk about what it was like during this historic time. 

Interview Highlights:

On June 4, you were at a nearby hospital. What do you remember from that morning?

I woke up and found all the doctors and nurses disappeared from their office, where I was staying, so I walked out and walked toward the Square. On my way, I met all these people gathering in small groups. Some people were talking in tears and a man in his middle-age walked towards us and all of a sudden collapsed, sitting by the curb and started crying. Basically, there I learned [that] the sounds came from machine guns and the people had died.

What were the streets like?

The streets, when I passed the next day, were empty of people, of crowds. You had rows of these military tanks and armed trucks. The dangerous thing was that soldiers stationed at intersections would start shooting. So there were casualties, not only in that night, in that evening, on June 3 and June 4, there were further victims in the following days.

Were you ever worried about your safety?

Yes, that was always there from the beginning. But once you got really widespread support -- and also after the government issued martial law, two weeks before sending the troops in -- we were so encouraged in seeing thousands and thousands of ordinary people coming into the streets, laying on the ground to block the tanks. So we were in a situation that we couldn’t retreat from the Square. So long as we had a clear sense that we represented the people’s will, the people’s wish, the people’s hope, we would stay in the Square.

After the crackdown in June, you went into hiding, what were those months like for you?

One thing I understood very quickly was that whenever the Party had their sight on power, on holding on to power, then they treated every citizen not as an individual. You became simply a piece of chess in their playing game. So that was a very strong impression when I found my name among one of the 21 most-wanted students. Later on I learned that a few of our protesting comrades actually turned themselves in to police. For their action I feel full of admiration.

You wound up in Southern California, what was it like when you first arrived?

For me, it was after nearly nine months in hiding and I had a very strong sense of being free again, walking on the streets and trying to make decisions for yourself. To decide what you want to do next. So I had a very strong sense of liberation.

A quarter of a century later, Chinese authorities still maintain control over information about what happened. How much of what you do is to try to make sure people remember what happened?

I think where people are not really under direct control, Chinese people are remembering. This is most evident in Hong Kong. Every year, you have large-scale candlelight vigil on June 4 in Hong Kong. So I think where the government doesn’t have complete control, our duty is to preserve the memory.