Screaming, gunfire: finding my voice

Thirty years after Tiananmen Square Protest, my mother’s story continues to inspire me

Lucy Tu, Co-Editor-In-Chief

I remember all the screaming, my mother said. The screaming, the gunfire, and the sound of feet on pavement. Everyone was trying to get out of Tiananmen Square.

My mother tells me the story as we play a game of mahjong, and her calm demeanor does not match the horrific image she paints with her words. It is June 4, and my father is in the living room watching a broadcast that covers the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre — the 30th anniversary of the night my mother almost died.

In 1989, China was in political turmoil, when supporters of the progressive movement began leading protests against the Chinese government. Thousands marched in the name of democracy, demanding the right to free speech and free press. On June 4, Chinese military and police stormed Tiananmen Square and fired at protesters, killing hundreds and arresting thousands more.

My mother recalls the night she rode her bike through the flood of student protesters as the Chinese military opened fire. She was one of many trying to escape, as other protestors fought back against the soldiers who were hell-bent on permanently silencing their voices.

In the aftermath of the massacre, media workers were specifically targeted by the government. Hours after the event, news anchors Xue Fei and Du Xian were fired for displaying sad emotions in a broadcast, and many other journalists suspected of being sympathetic toward the protestors were taken into custody. Due to the pressure of retaliation, those, like my mother, who wished to tell their firsthand accounts of the inhumane attack in Tiananmen Square were silenced into submission out of pure fear. 

My mother tells me all this as she casually wins another round of mahjong. As I re-sort the tiles, I reflect on the moment I first told my parents I wanted to pursue journalism. They were extremely hesitant. To them, journalism represented instability and danger. At the time, I dismissed their concerns, believing them to be baseless. But in that moment, surrounded by the blare of the television and my mother’s solemn expressions, part of me attempted to understand.

I’ve grown up in a country where the freedom of speech and the press is a right, not a privilege. I spend hours working as the editor of the school newspaper, publishing articles and editorials that challenge norms, as I seek to find untold perspectives. If my time in journalism has taught me anything, it’s that there are multiple sides to every story, each of which deserves the opportunity to be heard. My parents grew up with a different life — one of censorship and suppression. 

That restriction of speech and media persists to this day. According to a 2019 survey by the University of Hong Kong, more than 3,200 words referencing the Tiananmen Massacre have been censored from the Internet by the Chinese government. Further investigations by BBC News reporter Michael Bristow revealed that every year, on the anniversary of the day hundreds of people brutally lost their lives, Chinese authorities mobilize paramilitary police forces to prevent public displays of remembrance.

When I think of journalism, I think of the power of the Fourth Estate in influencing the public, impacting policy, and advocating for the oppressed. When my mother thinks of journalism, she thinks of the massacre and relives the memories she had to wordlessly endure.

Yet as much as that day is my mother’s reason for staying silent, it is my reason for continuing to seek answers and share the perspectives of the voiceless. The sacrifices of my parents — immigrating to a new country and braving the unknown — have given me the privilege of living in a place where I can do so, and I will continue to commit myself to journalism so I can use my privilege to share these stories. My search for the truth will not be censored.

Screaming. Gunfire. Thousands of pounding feet desperately trying to escape. This is my mother’s story that she was forbidden to tell. 30 years later, and I am grateful to be able to share her story and my own.