Picks and Pans Review: Children of the Dragon: the Story of Tiananmen Square
by Human Rights in China
When a tank toppled the "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during the early hours of June 4, 1989, immediate hopes for democratic change in China crumbled in a cloud of dust. This remarkable book is a chronicle in text and pictures of the student-led uprising at Tiananmen and the jackboot repression that brought it to a tragic conclusion.
Compiled by Human Rights in China, a New York City-based organization of Chinese scientists and scholars. Children of the Dragon combines vivid first-person accounts and gritty black-and-white photos from various sources. We are invited to share the exhilaration of the students as the death in April of ex-Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, who had been stripped of power earlier because of his reformist ideas, sparks a series of antigovernment demonstrations. We are made privy to the moment-by-moment expressions of fear and anguish of people in the square and elsewhere in Beijing as the tanks begin to roll.
Journal-style entries reveal key student leaders to be both courageous and naive. Chai Ling, the diminutive leader of the demonstrators, who later escaped to France, portrays herself as a reluctant firebrand. "I love these kids out there so much," she writes. "But I feel so helpless. How can I change the world? I am just one person." By contrast, Wuer Kaixi, a student union leader now living in the United States, comes across as a grandstander whose bravado is at limes foolhardy. The day of Hu Yaobang's funeral, Wuer grabbed a bullhorn outside the Great Hall of the People and demanded a meeting with Premier Li Peng. But when finally granted an audience with the Premier a month later, Wuer was deliberately discourteous. "I wanted to slight Li Peng," he writes, "so I didn't stand up until he was in front of me."
Little insight is offered into the power struggle within the Communist hierarchy or what prompted party leaders to unleash the People's Liberation Army. Some estimates say as many as a thousand people were slaughtered as the army plowed through crowds en route to the center of the city.
The nearly 3,000 students huddled together for a final stand in Tiananmen ultimately made a calm and dignified retreat. But there was chaos on several of the streets leading to the square. Yu Shuo, a philosophy professor at one of the local universities, describes the anguished and fatal reaction of one young woman after seeing her brother shot. "Crying, she charged toward the soldiers with a cigarette," Yu recalls. "As I watched the girl run forward, I suddenly felt something like hot water splashing on my face. I touched it; I felt brains and blood. I looked around and found the two students who had come with me lying on the ground."
Fang Lizhi, a dissident astrophysicist holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing until he left for England in late June, takes a long view in his postscript to this book. "Remember that in the current climate of terror, it may well be that those who are most terrified are those who have just finished killing their fellow human beings," he writes. "We may be forced to live under a terror today, but we have no fear of tomorrow."
An unspecified part of the proceeds from the sale of Children of the Dragon will be donated to the Fund for Free Expression in China. (Collier, $19.95)
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