Twenty years ago on June 4, 1989, the Chinese military took brutal action against student demonstrators in Beijing's Tianamen Square. Many Americans who watched the unthinkable atrocities can only recall watching the People's Liberation Army tanks running over students. It seemed an impossible nightmare, just a movie on our television screens. At least, until we watched the recorded events of September 11, 2001, in New York.
Lake with No Name: A True Story of Love and Conflict in Modern China is Diane Wei Liang's memoir of that time in China, of her own role in the Student Democracy Movement (SDM) and of the friends and lovers who stood beside her and made history on that terrible day. She was born in Beijing, but spent part of her childhood with her parents in a labor camp in a remote region of China. In her university years, she took part in the SDM and protested in Tiananmen Square. She graduated from Peking University. She has a Ph.D. in business administration from Carnegie Mellon University, taught ten years, and now writes full-time and lives in London.
Beijing University, 1986. The Communists were in power, but the so-called Harvard of China was a hotbed of intellectual and cultural activity, with political debates and "English Corners" where students eagerly practiced the language with each other and longed for democracy. Nineteen-year-old Wei had known the oppressive days of the Cultural Revolution, having grown up with her parents in a work camp in a remote region of China. One winter they subsisted only on cabbages that they had harvested in freezing weather. The level of poverty described is almost unbelievable for "modern" times.
As a student at Beijing University, Wei immersed herself in study and spent her free hours writing poetry beside the "Lake with No Name" at the center of campus. It was there that Wei met Dong Yi, her first "true love." Unfortunately, he was pledged to another, and Wei's love sublimated into a deep friendship that smoldered for years with a passionate longing. Intertwined with the romance were the dissident activities that the Chinese government eventually labeled "anarchist".
After several revolutions that Wei deftly summarizes, the specter of government repression loomed once more. By the spring of 1989, students demanded more freedom and transparency. The dictatorial government of Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping rumbled warnings of violent repercussions at the rebellious students. But the students' actions for democracy inexorably pushed the rigid wall of opposition, culminating in the international trauma at Tiananmen Square, following a long siege of starvation by many participants.
As Americans watched the actions half a world away, we heard that the only way the students could coordinate the movement was by receiving fax messages from outside China. Many students had been allowed to travel to the United States for purposes of higher education. They could see and hear live reports of what was happening in Beijing and communicate with colleagues back home. No Internet chat or Twitter facilitation, but crude printed pages worked perhaps as well.
Liang was not exactly at the heart of the SDM, but she knew the leaders well and paints an understandably sympathetic picture of the events. She also provides a satisfying follow-up, letting readers know what has happened to the major players whose actions she traced.
Amusingly, the Chinese government has once again tried to cut off the flow of information concerning democratic movements and, presumably, the world's remembrance of the events of 20 years ago. On June 2, 2009, Reuters reported,
Access to the popular social networking service Twitter and email service Hotmail was blocked across mainland China late on Tuesday afternoon, two days before the twentieth anniversary of a bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
DDSS in China.