NEW YORK – (MintPress) – On the night of June 3, 1989, 20-year-old Rose Tang dressed in black from head to toe to avoid detection, grabbed a dagger and snuck out of the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute. Then she rode her bicycle to Tiananmen Square. “I was prepared to die for democracy,” she says […]
NEW YORK – (MintPress) – On the night of June 3, 1989, 20-year-old Rose Tang dressed in black from head to toe to avoid detection, grabbed a dagger and snuck out of the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute. Then she rode her bicycle to Tiananmen Square.
“I was prepared to die for democracy,” she says in a Mint Press interview.
As it turns out, she would suffer from survivor’s guilt instead. “The next morning, I was among the last getting out of the square. It was so chaotic. I stumbled on bodies. I didn’t know if they were dead,” she recalls. “But I did get beaten; soldiers were carrying big sticks and beating us up.”
“I was crushed between the mob and a tank, so I climbed over the tank to get out. I had to duck under the barrel of a soldier’s machine gun,” she continues.
When she jumped off the other side, she found herself face to face with a CNN crew looking for students to interview. “They focused the camera on me and I told them I was angry and a lot of people had died,” Tang said.
She and her friends from college then hid in back alleys to escape the soldiers before hitchhiking back to campus. Although many students soon left school to stay with their families in Beijing and elsewhere, Tang stayed behind. There were rumors of a civil war and she didn’t want to miss out on the action.
A few days later, the government ordered the arrest of student leaders of the uprising, of which Tang was one of. But as fortune had it, when authorities came to arrest her, she was sound asleep and didn’t hear the pounding on the door. They arrested someone else instead.
Tang learned of her narrow escape only when the political advisor of her department told her the following day what had happened.
Tang went on to become a journalist, working for international news organizations in both China and Hong Kong. Today, she is a New York-based writer and artist and is working on a book about China.
Tang recently visited her family in Beijing and sat down with Mint Press News to talk about her emotional — and in many ways extraordinary — journey across continents and over time.
Indeed, Tang made local and international headlines during her latest trip to Beijing.
“I did something I would have never imagined during my 12 years working as a journalist for traditional media covering China.” she says.
It all started when she went in search of dumplings after visiting the Forbidden City and stumbled upon the Beijing Snacks restaurant — and the sign it had posted on its windows: “This shop does not receive the Japanese, the Philippines, the Vietnamese and dog,” in both English and Chinese.
“I was shocked when I saw it,” Tang recalls. “I wanted to raise people’s awareness of racism and extreme nationalism.” So she did what anyone in the age of social media would do: She posted it on Facebook, which can be accessed in China with the purchase of a VPN service, with the caption “Racism with a nationalist twist.”
Tang had no idea the picture would go viral, with thousands of people quickly liking and sharing it on Facebook and other social networking sites. “I was literally watching the number of shares going up by the hundreds within minutes,” she said.
The comments also came fast and furiously. “The owner of the restaurant has obviously been brainwashed by their [China’s] government,” wrote Chung Pham of Vietnam.
All three countries named on the sign are currently involved in bitter, long-running maritime disputes with China over national boundaries in the South China Seas.
“This is the government and Party’s fault,” commented Paul Mooney, a freelance reporter in Beijing. “They tell lies about other countries and distort history and so Chinese who don’t know any better respond with ignorance. Very depressing.” Hundreds of people liked his post.
Soon, dozens of news outlets in Asia, including Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre newspaper, which has one of the biggest readerships in the country, carried the story, blaring headlines such as “Incendiary Beijing Restaurant Sign Triggers Online Fury.” They were soon followed by major organizations including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, AFP, VOA and Sky News.
Even more astonishing, Tang’s photo and the posts it generated also were widely circulated among Chinese Internet users on microblogs such as Sina.com for several days.
“Although these countries all have had territorial disputes with China, people shouldn’t be so extreme about this,” wrote one young woman.
“Waaaaaa way to make us foreigners feel welcome, patriotism is patriotism, racism is not about loving your country, racism is racism!” said another user.
“More and more people are making their voices heard on microblogs, and their followers are commenting. They try to control it but they can’t because it is so widely used,” explains Tang.
“Even if the posts are deleted, they are out there, and within seconds they are shared everywhere,” she adds. “They are all climbing over the great firewall.”
Less than a week after Tang’s original Facebook post, China’s state-run newspaper Global Times reported that the restaurant had removed the sign.
“Yay!!! The Beijing restaurant just removed its racist sign,” Tang triumphantly told her followers on Facebook. “This event is a nice example of how we individuals, no matter how powerless we think we are, can make a difference if we work together.”
The story has still not died down. “The number of my followers keeps growing every day and people are adding information, tips, photos, thoughts and asking me to carry on,” she says.
Tang was born in Sichuan province in 1968, two years after the start of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Her father was at the time interned in a re-education camp in the countryside; an artist, he had been detained after being forced to give local Communist Party officials his diaries, in which he criticized Mao.
Her mother, also an artist, almost died after giving birth in an unheated hospital and then being forgotten in a hallway after nurses were forced to rush to a daily morning meeting to recite Mao’s Little Red Book.
Tang’s parents now live in Fujian province. Her father has produced three books on painting and her mother is working on children’s books, all of which their daughter has translated into English.
Their recent reunion in Beijing marked the first time Tang had been to the Chinese capital in three years.
“Whenever I am there, I go back to Tiananmen to feel it and be with the souls of those who were killed,” she says.
“This time was especially bad, because every entrance leading to the square is like airport security, even worse. There are lots of soldiers at checkpoints. They are more afraid now.”
She says that as soon as she took photos, a soldier yelled at her and told her it was not allowed. He made her take out her camera and delete the pictures. “I almost asked him ‘what are you so afraid of,’” she recalls, “ but I left.”
“They are afraid of the people,” she asserts. “Major stories about corruption keep coming out. People view the government and the party as a joke.”
“They see that over the past few months, protests and strikes have been everywhere. They have been across the board, including among retired soldiers and army officers, who have had their benefits reduced to nearly nothing,” Tang continues.
“Also, various religious groups have been holding doomsday rallies and protests saying communism is coming to an end.”
There has been a growing hunger for spiritual pursuits, she explains. “A lot of people are coming out openly and saying they are converting to Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. It is quite fashionable to have a Buddhist master.”
“Christianity has also been getting big over the last few years,” she adds. “If I were running the country, I would be panicking too.”
Grassroots is growing
In addition to the plethora of new media, Tang points to the flourishing of more established websites such as 64tianwang, which was set up by Chinese webmaster and human rights activist Huang Qi, co-founder of the Tianwang Center for Missing Persons along with his wife Zeng Li.
The original mission of the organization was to help counter human trafficking, which had become a swelling problem in the late 1990s, but it was later expanded to include campaigning against human rights abuse.
Police tried to close down the website but Huang moved it to servers in the U.S. He was arrested in late 2000 under the charges of “inciting subversion” and sentenced to five years in prison.
Soon after his release in 2005, Huang resumed posting similar content and did so until June 2008, when he was arrested again after he wrote an article on behalf of parents of school children who had died in the Sichuan earthquake, demanding an investigation into the schools’ construction.
Huang was released from prison in 2011 after he completed his sentence and is back at work.
The authorities also have to deal with the tenacious rights protection movement, Tang says. Known as the Weiquan movement, it is a loosely organized group of lawyers and legal experts who work to protect civil rights under Chinese law and challenge the lack of judicial independence from the Communist Party.
They have worked on behalf of migrant workers, peasants religious minorities, environmentalists, journalists and ordinary citizens facing discrimination, with many facing disbarment, detention, harassment and even torture as a result.
Among the Weiquan activists are so-called “barefoot lawyers,” many of whom are self taught and lack any formal legal education, such as Chen Guangcheng, who gained international recognition in 2005 for organizing a landmark class-action lawsuit against authorities in Linyi in Shandong province, for what was claimed to be excessive enforcement of the one-child policy.
As a result of the suit, Chen, who was blind from a young age, was arrested and sentenced to four years and three months in prison for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” He was released from prison in 2010 but remained under house arrest at his home in Dongshigu Village.
In April 2012, Chen escaped and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After negotiations with the Chinese government, he left the embassy for medical treatment in early May 2012, and it was reported that China would consider allowing him to travel to the United States to study. On May 19, 2012, Chen, his wife, and his two children were granted U.S. visas and left Beijing for New York City.
Meanwhile, other Weiquan lawyers, such as Gao Zhisheng, a Christian who has been imprisoned and allegedly tortured for his advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, continue their work.
Power of the press
Tang says many professional journalists also want to make a change. “They do care, and they have their own blogs, which are not allowed to be published. But these forces are becoming stronger and stronger.”
Case in point was the latest pollution crisis in Beijing, where in early February air pollution soared to new records.
The nation’s press used to downplay pollution reports, calling it “fog” and claiming that foreigners were meddling in China’s affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, as the U.S. Embassy does regularly.
But in recent articles and editorials, state-run media published the pollution levels and called for greater transparency.
Indeed the problems are increasingly hard to ignore. “It’s the worst I’ve seen it so far. It’s like walking through a coal factory. I could smell the carbon monoxide,” recalls Tang. “There was dirt and spit stains everywhere. People are coughing up phlegm. It was uncomfortable trying to clear your throat all the time.”
“My parents and my sister have been coughing violently for weeks in the foul air,” she continues. “My former neighbor, a beautiful artist, is dying of lung cancer in Beijing. My aunt in Chengdu city, who never smoked, is dying of lung cancer. “
There have been some signs the government is responding, says Tang, pointing to the fact that it recently started releasing pollution data for several cities.
“The good news,” asserts Tang, “is that the top leaders have to deal with it now.”
Tweeting for change
Ordinary citizens are also taking to Twitter to communicate in new and clever ways, Tang says.
“They are sending each other tips on how they are dealing with the authorities, and they are using code.”
If, for example, you are invited “to have tea,” it means you have been summoned by the police or could be detained. If you have gotten” harmonized,” it means your micro blog has been blocked or shut down.
And how do you talk about the 18th Party Congress, which is taboo? Use the name “Spartacus.” In Mandarin, the spellings for each have similar correlating sounds.
Similarly, the pronunciation of the word Facebook in Chinese is similar to that of “have to die.”
Tang’s interpretation: “When Facebook is widely used in China, that’s when the Communist party has to die.”
In the meantime, capitalizing on the success of her restaurant posting on Facebook, she is starting a new page, Rebel Fashion With a Cause. “I’m going to promote a line of such fashion featuring styles of clothing and accessories from the Tibetans and all people who suffer from and protest against the Chinese Communist regime,” says Tang.
She will also use it to share photography, paintings and music on the subject.
It has already been shared by Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia and former Tiananmen leader Wu’er Kaixi.
“Thanks to social media,” she says, “It looks like I’m finally realizing the dreams I had more than two decades ago.”