Shen Tong Reflects On Tiananmen Square
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013 01:10
“Regardless of political or religious persuasions, our genders, our social standings, and our social views, deep down we want to believe that somehow when faced with such an awesome state power, an individual’s protest matters.”
This message was the heart of Shen Tong’s lecture, which he gave Tuesday evening as part of the ongoing China Watching Series, which is organized by the history department’s assistant professor Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J.
Shen began his lecture by showing a familiar image: a monk set aflame in protest of the Vietnam War. The essence of this image was at the heart of his message.
As a student who was present in Tiananmen Square when the protests broke out, and one of Newsweek’s 1989 “People of the Year,” Shen is one of China’s most prominent exiled dissidents.
After speaking at Harvard University earlier Tuesday morning, Shen arrived at Boston College for the first time as part of the China Watching Series.
Shen attended Beijing University from 1986 to 1989, and was later educated in Boston. He became a software and media entrepreneur in the U.S. after founding VFinity, which is based in New York City, where he lives today with his wife and children.
After 25 years of exile, Shen put the Chinese student movement into global context. He discussed the frustrated street vendor in Tunisia who set himself aflame in front of City Hall as his last form of protest, which began the Arab Spring. Since that incident, the Middle East has experienced more than half a dozen regime changes and is continually being challenged in terms of legitimacy through “people’s power” type of protest.
Shen considered the 200 Tibetans who recently set themselves on fire as a form of protest. He questioned if this event has really changed hearts, or if people feel compassion because it is such a horror. He claimed, however, that we do not have answers to these questions.
Shen noted how the Beijing Olympics were the most nationalistic event for contemporary China. This moment of triumph, this coming out of the shadows of Imperialism, marked China’s coming to age in a global stage.
Shen believes there are a lot of good things about nationalism—that it comes closest to the religious experience of being part of a whole.
The 1980s marked the beginning of China’s lasting economic growth. With this development came students taking on public issues. Over 400 cities in China, an estimated 100 million people, protested, in the words of Shen, in the most bizarre and least economically efficient way to change a government and public opinion: non-violent street protest.
Shen claimed this was not a revolution, but a reform—that the students believed in the legitimacy of the government, but wanted to make it better. He claimed it was a revolution of rights and expectations.
Shen described how the tanks rolled in and crushed the student’s “God of Democracy”—a statue made to mimic the U.S. Statue of Liberty. After showing the iconic Tank Man photo, which is still denounced by the Chinese government today, Shen said that a belief in the power of an individual’s protest is why the image lives on, despite the fact that the Tiananmen events have been erased from Chinese history.
After the massacre, Tong realized his time was borrowed. He finished the lecture by noting that 15 years of nightmares ended on the evening of the day his first daughter was born.
“So now, I’m going to sound like a Hallmark card, right,” he said. “So to get a new relicense of life you give birth to life—you give a life. I wasn’t that good—I wasn’t aware of that. But after a few days the dreams don’t come back.”
As the last student wrapped up his question, which was spoken in Chinese and translated by Clarke, the audience learned that, as a Chinese student, this was the first opportunity he had had to meet someone who was involved with the events at that time.