Rowena Xiaoqing He remembers walking into her school on June 4, 1989, wearing a black armband, a symbol of mourning for the events of the day before. The preceding evening, the Chinese government ordered the violent attack on students rallying in Tiananmen Square since April to bring democracy to the long-standing communist country. Protestors were met with soldiers armed with guns and tanks. It is estimated that at least 10,000 people died that evening and the following day; countless others in the altercations afterward.
The black armband, He said, was met with stern warning from her professors.
“My teacher came over to me and said that if you do not take that off, no one can protect you from now on,” He said. “In 1989, I learned to lie in order to survive.”
Last week, Ryerson University together with Kiké Roach, Unifor national chair in social justice and democracy, held a panel discussion to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He was among the speakers.
Since living through the struggles of the fight for democracy in China in the ‘80s, He has spent years studying and carrying on the lessons learned from that tragic time. Now a Harvard research associate and assistant professor at Saint Michael’s College, He said that despite the attempts to write off the massacre as propaganda and conspiracy theories propagated by the West, the ideas brought forth during that time live on to this day.
“Tiananmen may remind us of repression, but I always think about the date, the time when I was forced to remove that black armband. I thought that was the end of it. I thought that’s the end of it. They had guns, they had tanks, they had propaganda machines, we had nothing,” He said. “Tiananmen Square is always reminding people of repression but also people’s power. As our desire for democracy and rights, this kind of feeling is universal.”
Chris Ramsaroop, organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers, was also part of the panel discussion. Ramsaroop said Tiananmen was a lesson in democracy and the power of idealism of young individuals.
“When we look at the decisions that our government is making today in Ontario, is that what you want?” Ramsaroop said. “We have an active role to play as students, as community people, to transform our education system to make it belong to believe what we want.”
In recent months, the streets of Toronto have seen their fair share of student-organized or -attended protests. On March 15, students around the world staged a walkout to protest the governments’ apathy towards climate change. On March 20, students from 17 colleges and universities across Ontario walked out of class to protest changes to impending changes to OSAP proposed by the provincial government. This week, students will rally at Queen’s Park to protest increases in class sizes.
Dan Horner, associate professor in the criminology department at Ryerson with research interests in riots and protests, said one thing that Tiananmen showed us was the sheer power students or people in general can have on their government.
“It can remind us of the power that young people just engaging in peaceful demonstration can have,” Horner said. “At the end of the day this world won’t change because of one demonstration in Queen’s Park or something, but if people can engage with those sorts of tactics, they really can change the conversation.”