BEIJING – From a young age, Qi Zhiyong’s daughter asked him how he lost his leg.
To everyone else in the world, Qi always responded to the question with an unflinching, often angry, answer: He lost his left leg when soldiers fired on him and other unarmed civilians during protests at Tiananmen Square in one of modern history’s most brutal crackdowns.
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.
In the 2½ 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 now wondered if 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 patrolling the square and chasing off journalists, while Internet forums are stripped of content.
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 themselves 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.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 troops fired without warning at the crowd around him to a baptism of sorts.
“The veil was lifted from my eyes, and I saw the party for what it really was,” he said.
In the hospital, he said, as doctors tried to salvage his bullet-torn left thigh, he took a purple antiseptic liquid and, to their chagrin, angrily scrawled on his leg: “This bullet belongs to the Communist Party’s army.”
After the amputation, he was forced to give up his construction job and has not found work since. By the time Qi Ji was born in 1998, her father had become a full-time activist, protesting the government’s maltreatment of the handicapped and democracy advocates, along with other human rights abuses.
Qi’s wife warned him early on: Say what you want about the government to everyone else, but Ji is too young. Why create problems for her, his wife argued, why poison her against the society she must live in?
“But I don’t think it’s a bad thing for her to understand this government,” Qi said on a recent afternoon while waiting for his daughter’s return from school. “I want her to be prepared to handle life and to face these problems. Why should we cover up the truth and let her live in illusion?”
For Qi, the Tiananmen crackdown — or June 4, as it is commonly referred to in China — has become the defining moment of his life.
While most people, including some former Tiananmen protesters, have learned to avoid the topic, Qi carries business cards listing his job title as “Disabled Victim of June 4.” His home telephone number, cellphone number and email address end with deliberately chosen digits: “89 64.” And on the back of his cards, he has emblazoned this slogan: “Facts written in ink cannot conceal the truth written in blood.”
His family lives in a cramped Beijing apartment, dependent on his wife’s $320-a-month job as a drugstore sales assistant, while Qi cares for their daughter and supports human rights causes — work that has resulted in long stretches of detention and frequent government harassment.
Qi’s wife, Lu Shiying, wishes he would let go of what happened 24 years ago. She recently declined to meet with foreign journalists and warned Qi against it.
“How come others are able to move forward?” she often asks him, he said. “You were not the only victim on June 4.”
Kong Weizhen was also shot and lost the use of his left leg that night. But after seeing the danger and futility of his anti-government activism, he abandoned the opposition work that had brought him to the streets. Instead, he tried to make a new life for himself within the existing system.
He became a salesman and worked his way up to owning a computer store. He even tried in vain to join the Communist Party at one point — an attempt, he says, to increase his pay for the sake of his 12-year-old daughter.
“My family is now my first priority,” he said. “There’s nothing to be gained from telling her about June 4. If I tell her, she may form some dangerous resentment against the party. . . . I just want her to have a safe and happy life.”
The only reason he would tell her, he said, is if another anti-government protest erupted. “If that happened, I would use my own example to teach her what such movements can accomplish and what they cannot. And I would ask her to get as far away as she can.”
But even those who have devoted their lives to fighting for the democratic ideals of 1989 disagree on how much to tell their children. Many of them form the core of China’s dissident community.
“I don’t want my children to know,” said Zhang Lin, a rights activist in Anhui province who has spent many years in jail on state subversion charges.
In February, authorities pulled his 10-year-old daughter, Anni, from school as an apparent punishment to her father. The incident spurred dozens of other activists to stage a hunger strike in front of the school. Weeks later, Anni was allowed to resume class, but only in another town far away.
His daughter now loses her temper easily, Zhang said, and has become obsessed with cartoons in which the good guys beat up the bad. “I don’t want my children to follow the same path as me,” he said.
In a phone interview, his daughter said, “I don’t know why the police keep coming,” although she knows it’s related somehow to her father.
When asked about June 4, she responded: “What is June 4? I haven’t heard anything about it.”
Qi said he doesn’t begrudge other parents their personal decisions, but he worries that staying silent contributes to the gradual purge of China’s collective memory.
To this day, he said, his amputated stump hurts whenever he hears the crack of fireworks. He avoids passing Tiananmen Square, he said, because he tastes blood whenever he gets too close.
In the end, suppressing all mention of June 4 in front of his daughter proved impossible. And after his daughter turned 10, a teacher made passing reference to the date while talking about the physical space of Tiananmen Square.
That night, with Qi’s wife still at work, his daughter mentioned it to him, and the memories poured out. The clacking advance of tanks. The shocking sound of gunfire. The blood he saw all around him and the sudden pain and darkness.
In the years that followed, he secretly told her more and more. They watched banned videos about that day on overseas websites. They talked about the party and its instinct for self-preservation.
He watched both proud and pained as June 4 began to color her worldview as it had his.
She became both more rebellious and more mature, he said. Like her parents, she now refers to the police watching their home as “dogs,” but she accepts without questioning when school leaders exclude her from trips abroad and from student parades at Tiananmen celebrating China’s Communist rule.
Lately, she’s talked of becoming a kindergarten teacher so she can teach kids how to think for themselves about what’s right and wrong.
“All parents want their children to live a happy life, but I have no regrets about telling her,” Qi said. “Only after she first tastes the bitter can she know what the sweet is.”
Qi’s wife now knows that her daughter knows. But recently, the family reached a kind of detente — similar to the one in Chinese society at large. When together at home these days, they simply avoid all mention of Tiananmen Square, June 4 and what happened that day 24 years ago.