But when his daughter asked, Qi choked back the words.
“I lost it in an accident,” he mumbled for years.
The lie, however, burned at him, he said.
(Read: Tiananmen witnesses on what they tell their children)
In the 21
2 decades since the protests’ violent end, China’s government has largely scrubbed Tiananmen from history. Bullet holes on the streets of Beijing have long been patched over. The government has barred any independent inquiry and censored all mention online. Instead, Tiananmen Square has been reduced to a single euphemistic sentence in most school textbooks, making vague reference to “political turbulence in 1989.”
But for those who were part of the student-led protests against government repression and corruption, those dark morning hours of June 4, 1989, remain etched in memory and, in cases like Qi’s, on their bodies. That generation must now decide what to tell their children about that day, if anything at all.
For many, the decision is colored by how their own views have changed over time. In interviews with more than a dozen survivors, a few wondered whether the democratic cause they fought for was misguided by youthful passion. Others have won asylum abroad, and when they talk of Tiananmen to their children, it is as history — just one part of their life’s larger story.
But the dilemma is often more complicated for those who remain in China, where public mention of Tiananmen can result in government retribution. To this day, officials maintain that the decision was necessary for stability, and the anniversary is marked with thousands of police officers patrolling the square and chasing off journalists.
Those who have found successful careers in business, law and academia often talk of it only in private, fearful of consequences for themselves and their offspring.
Even some of those who have soldiered on as activists deliberately say little of Tiananmen to their children, who grow up not fully understanding why police barge into their homes each year as the anniversary approaches to interrogate and spirit away their parents for weeks without explanation. Some children experience restrictions and warnings at school.
For most parents, it comes down to a choice between protecting their children from the past or passing on dangerous and bitter truths about the authoritarian society they continue to live under.
It is something Qi and his wife have wrestled with throughout their 14-year-old daughter’s life. The two have fought so often and so heatedly on the subject that neither dares mention 1989 at home anymore.
‘The veil was lifted’
A 33-year-old construction worker at the time of the Tiananmen protests, Qi took a detour that night toward the central Beijing square with co-workers out of curiosity, not activism. Qi, who later converted to Christianity, now likens the moment that troops fired without warning at the crowd around him to a baptism of sorts.