What a Tiananmen Square Survivor Thinks of Chinese Protests

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More than 30 years ago, ordinary residents of China protested in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where authorities reacted by killing an estimated 10,000 or more.

Sean Lin, who traveled to Beijing to attend those protests in 1989, recalls them as “a historical moment in [China’s] modern history.”

Lin, a former Army microbiologist, is now an assistant professor in the biomedical science department at Fei Tian College in Middletown, New York.

He recalls that “not only students actively joined the protests,” but “a lot of civilians from all walks of life all supported this movement.”

“At the time, I think the main theme is anti-corruption because after the Cultural Revolution ended, the Communist Party allowed certain levels of economy reform,” Lin says. “So, many of the party elites quickly get rich using their privilege, using their powers.”

He added: “So, immediately, the Chinese people see the society become polarized … I think it triggered a huge anger against the corruption level at the time.”

Lin brings this frame of reference to discussing the ongoing unrest in China triggered after at least 10 persons died and at least nine were hurt last Thursday in an apartment fire in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region during the nation’s COVID-19 lockdown. 

“I think at that time in the 1980s, people definitely were very, very angry and upset about the corruption level. But at that time, nobody even … call for a step-down of the Communist Party,” Lin says. 

“But now, 33 years later, I think people are totally disappointed and [have] totally lost any confidence in the Communist Party.” 

Lin joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about his experience during the Tiananmen Square protests, his thoughts on the Biden administration’s response to the current protests in China, and his message to those protesting. 

Samantha Aschieris: Dr. Sean Lin is joining the podcast now. He served as a U.S. Army officer and microbiologist and survived the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Sean, thank you so much for joining us.

Sean Lin: Samantha, it’s my pleasure to join your program.

Aschieris: Now, let’s go back to 1989 before we talk about the unrest that we’re seeing unfold in China and even throughout the globe today. So, what was it like during the Tiananmen Square protests?

Lin: 1989 movement is a historical moment in China modern history, and at a time not only students actively joined the protests, and a lot of civilians from all walks of life all supported this movement. 

At the time, I think the main theme is anti-corruption, because after the Cultural Revolution ended, the Communist Party allow[ed] certain levels of economy reform. So, many of the party elites quickly get rich using their privilege, using their powers. So immediately, the Chinese people see the society become polarized and the Communist Party elites getting so reached so fast. And so I think it triggered a huge anger against the corruption level at the time.

But now they actually, now the corruption is even much bigger, much bigger scale than the 1980s. But the other time already triggered the big protest. So, other times, you got support from all walks of life in China, basically. So the protest in Beijing, it was like the main hub for students from different parts of China to go to Beijing to voice a protest together.

So, I was a freshman at Zhejiang University at the time, so I also got an opportunity to—I went to Beijing to join the protest, and I was very, very impressed because you see people supporting the students gathering in the Tiananmen Square. And so, even on the way to Tiananmen Square, you see other civilians. As long as they see you’re a student, as long as they see you heading to Tiananmen Square, they’re passing you water, they’re passing you food. They encourage students to stay on Tiananmen Square to continue their protest. It was a very, very touching moment.

Aschieris: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about your decision to go to Beijing and support these movements and this protest back in 1989. I mean, were you scared of being arrested? What was your mindset at that moment?

Lin: I think at the time, just like young people, you have no knowledge about the brutality of the government, so you don’t have too much fear when you go to Beijing. You just feel something important happening in China, in Beijing especially, so I would just want to go there to visit. 

But in Hangzhou at the time, there are also smaller scales of a protest. So, I participate [in] that earlier, so I see it’s an important and righteous cause. 

People call for freedom of prayers, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, as well as anti-corruption to end the Communist Party elites ruling the society, or things like that. So, I think it’s a righteous cause, even just from your basic common sense as a young people. You feel this is important, I want to join it. So, I took a chance to take the train to Beijing to join it, yeah. You don’t know enough the cruelty the Communist Party came back [with] on Chinese people.

Aschieris: Yeah, that is so incredible. I have been covering and looking at the protests that are going on in China right now and just have been amazed by the courage and the bravery of these people that are standing up to the Chinese Communist Party. Before we talk about present day, I just want to ask if you, going back to 1989 to present day, what changes have you seen over the last few decades in China in respect to the rights there?

Lin: Yeah, I think, actually, huge change in China, and actually today, you just saw the news that the former leader, Jiang Zemin, passed away in China, right? So, actually, after 1989, that Jiang Zemin came into power, and then next 30 years he’s in power, and then after him, Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao is still in the shadow. Hu Jintao is still being controlled by Jiang Zemin, so Jiang Zemin is actually in direct control, or in indirect control of China. And so, for more than 20 years.

So, it’s a huge change in China, because overall, during the Jiang periods, he emphasizing, Chinese people, you just need to focus on getting rich, getting money, regardless the means that you can take. And so, he basically, he ruled China using corruption to make sure that Communist Party members stay loyalty to the party, and then using corruption to bribe the social elite, the intellectual elite, or kind of different level of the government systems. Also, using the corruption to make sure they follow his order, even in 1989, when he persecuted Falun Gong. He established the 610 Office, especially responsible for persecution of Falun Gong, right?

That system is actually totally out of the legal judicial system, so he can enact this kind of system using the money to bribe these officers in the judicial system to carry out a crack-down policy. So basically, he’s emphasizing [to] the Chinese society, just focus on [gross domestic product’s] growth, and regardless how much sacrifice on the environment, on the social improvement, or many other things. You can sacrifice as long as you get a good GDP, right?

So basically, you quickly bring whole morality of the China down very, very fast. So now, they probably, international society know China always have some fake products coming out, right? Stealing intellectual property, all these kind of problem. But that was triggered after 1989 persecution, after Jiang Zemin came into power, that people were encouraged just focus on profit, focus on your interest, and so, regarding any means you can use. So I think that after that, there’s a huge decline in morality in China.

Also, they strongly suppress people’s freedom of speech. So nowadays for young people, many people don’t know about the Tiananmen Square massacre, right? They have no idea that Chinese government actually use tanks to crack down student protest. So, this is a very, very different generation now. 

So, it’s actually very surprising to see now young people actually has the courage, again, to come out to protest, even call for step-down [of] the Communist Party. I think probably things have both sides, right? The students have no idea what happened in 1989, so they don’t know about the cruelty as well, just like me at the beginning.

So, these younger generation now, they step forward. They want to call for step-down [of Chinese President] Xi Jinping, “Step down, Xi Jinping,” because many people still have no idea about the brutality the Communist Party can do. 

And in the last two decades, so many crack down against underground Christians, against Uyghurs, against Tibetans, right? And against Falun Gong. So, many of the young people, they don’t know, because the government now has established digital totalitarianism. They control the message that people can receive, so it’s more intricate brainwashing than before the 1989.

Because in the 1980s, the press environment was relatively loose, so the Chinese people can still see some foreign informations. And so, now it’s just so tightly controlled, people were locked down more tightly. Visually, we can see, under “zero COVID” policy, Chinese people are locked down in their house and home, right? But I think in the ideological world, in the mind, in the psychologies, Chinese people were also locked down for a long time, because they cannot access free information for long, long time, and they’ve been brainwashed. So, this is the overall situation. I think it’s very, very different than the situation in 1980s.

Aschieris: Yeah, and I’m also curious, too, when you were a freshman in college heading to Beijing to support these protests, was your family supportive of you? What was their reaction to you participating in these protests?

Lin: Well, they don’t know, because my family, they didn’t know that I went to Beijing. My family’s in Fuzhou, in Fujian province down in the south. So, I attended college in Hangzhou, is middle, near Shanghai. So I think, if my parents know I’m heading to Beijing, they probably will try to block. But for young people at the time, you just needed to go follow your heart, to go to see what was happening in Beijing.

But it is a huge, huge lesson I never forget because you see, when people are united, how much power it can be, and then you also witness this, the crackdown. And personally, I witnessed the tank rolling on students’ heads. You can’t believe these and you never forget about these, and you understand the dictatorship, the evilness of the Communist Party right away.

Aschieris: Yeah, it’s been really eye-opening to see even, I mean, much, much less graphic than someone having their head run over with a tank, and just seeing people being carried away, being arrested. 

There was one image that I saw of someone who was being arrested. He was being carried by police officers. He was protesting over the weekend. It’s really, I mean, it’s good that these images are getting out, that they are being able to spread around the globe, because people are taking action, and just earlier this week in Washington, D.C., there was a candlelight vigil for the victims of the apartment fire, and people were rallying, calling for the end of the CCP and Xi Jinping’s reign as their leader. So, it definitely is becoming, at least for right now, a global calling. 

And over the last few days, in response to China’s zero-COVID policy, as we’ve been talking about, there’s been these protests, and what are your thoughts on what we’ve been seeing now, and how do the two uprisings, what you lived through in 1989, compare to what we’re seeing today?

Lin: I think at that time in the 1980s, people definitely were very, very angry and upset about the corruption level. But at that time, nobody even talk about this integrated Communist Party, to call for a step-down of the Communist Party. People still give them hope, right? People still hope someone like Zhao Ziyang in the Communist Party systems can stay open-minded and can do good things for the people.

But now, 33 years later, I think people are totally disappointed and totally lost any confidence in the Communist Party. So now, people are challenging the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s ruling, and this is fundamentally different. And I think that Chinese people have suffered so tremendously in the last two, three years under COVID lockdown. So many people lost their job. So many people, very hard to maintain their living standard now, so their anger has been accumulated to an unprecedented level. So, that’s why I feel this time is very different.

And to me, it’s more or less, it’s like in 1976 when Mao passed away, when Zhou Enlai passed away. And so, I think China right now is facing a big, very, very important moment, that society has become very, very unstable. 

The Communist Party ruling is at least one of the weakest moment, even though Xi Jinping has all the power in his hand. But I think he’s very, very vulnerable and he’s facing strong challenges inside the party as well. And people will continue protesting in different ways. And I’m very, very impressed that Chinese people now can have so many creative ways to show their protests.

And also, one thing is very, very different, is that now, 33 years later, people have the cellphone in their hand, right? In the 1980s, you have, the Communist Party control all the media. People have no way to express their angers quickly through the internet, right? They cannot spread a message widely. So at that time, you rely on international media to cover it. But now, I think, with the cellphone, the messages, the brutal image that you just mentioned can be quickly shared worldwide. So I think this is a different level of protest, as it were, a different level of information exchange. So, people can be waken up much faster than before.

I remember in 1989, actually, one of the most difficult things after the crackdown happened is the Chinese Communist Party using their own propaganda machine to create a different narrative for the student protests. And then, on the second half of the year of 1989, all the Chinese people were forced to toe the party line, to buy the Communist Party story about what happened in Tiananmen Square. They called it political turmoil. They mentioned that someone wanted to overthrow the government. The government say whatever they want and people have no way to get the information.

And even if I was a direct eyewitness of the brutality, when I went back to my hometown and I would mention to people what I witnessed, many people still doubt because they don’t see it. It’s not like nowadays. You see the video, right? You share the image to people, many people start to see right away. At that time, it was very difficult. 

So now, I think, even though the government have very, very complete control of society through this digital totalitarianism system, but at the same time, people can waken up much faster than before.

So, I think the power of people will be manifest in different way, and they will be very creative, and will be very fast-changing in China as well. But at the same time, the Communist Party won’t let it go easily. So, I actually think brutal suppression waves is coming, but probably in different form as well. 

And when we saw the news that the Shanghai police is actually checking on many people’s cellphones to try to see if they are engaged in the protest in the last weekend—so, they have these different digital tools now, but I think it will also further trigger more angers against the Communist Party.

Aschieris: Yeah, it’s been really interesting watching these protests. And you talked about different creative ways that people have been protesting, and we’ve seen images of white blank papers, pieces of paper. A few people had them on Monday at the protest. And with all of this pent-up anger against the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, is it likely that we see any major changes in China? If Xi Jinping does potentially give these protesters what they want regarding the zero-COVID policy, easing that up, what does that then say about his leadership?

Lin: Xi Jinping has a nickname. He’s called the General Accelerator, right? He’s accelerating the collapse of the Communist Party. And so, I think any leader with a rational mind might think about to give something to the people to ease the anger, maybe loosen up the lockdown policies somewhat. 

But I’m kind of doubting Xi Jinping will do that. He’s very stubborn one, and he can stick to his zero-COVID policies, and he can enforce crack-down policies. He can even, there are rumors talking about it, he may put many out in the big city in two weeks’ lockdown, in order to screen through the people who joined the protest. He may do something like that to further trigger the anger because he still feels he’s in control.

But I think different regions, many, many of the local leadership maybe have totally fed up with this situation. Many of the police may not support the crack-down policy, they may not implement it. And also, the central government pretty much pushed the problem down to the local level, right? Central government, in one hand, they’re telling, “We need to stick to zero-COVID policy,” and on the other hand, they’re telling them, “You cannot elevate the level of lockdown.” 

So, the local Communist Party government system have a very difficult situation, so they probably want to somewhat have a compromise in between.

So, it is very difficult for them to really, really, following the central government’s policy. So, I think it will also further triggering local Communist Party leadership to betray the central government’s policies. It will further create more conflict, cracking inside the Communist Party system. So, I think it will trigger faster change inside the Communist Party.

So, it more or less says, I think, for Chinese people, for Chinese student nowadays protest, whether inside China or outside China, I think the key is that they need to just express their anger or dissent or discontent against the current policy in different way. And it don’t have to be very, very, how to say, to do a grand scale, very, very coordinated protest. You don’t have to do that. As long as you have a way to show your disagreement, it’s encouragement.

I think the key issue is more Chinese people breaking away the fear that the Communist Party had implemented in people’s heart for decades through so many political movements, through so many different kinds of persecution. Many Chinese people already have that fear against Communist Party for a long, long time. And now, it’s a challenge to break away from the fear, to show your disobedience against the dictatorship. 

I think this is a process. For many people, it may take some time, and now it’s just the beginning, and if more and more people can show their disobedience, then China will have a bigger change.

Aschieris: And from your perspective, what would you like to see happen, in terms of the global response to what is happening in China? Like, we’ve talked about, there’s been protests and there’s been gatherings of people coming out in support of the protesters and their mission in China. But from President Joe Biden, for example, or other leaders throughout the world, what would you like to see done?

Lin: Well, I think the leader in the free world needs to be more courageous, needs to make very strong statement to support Chinese people’s freedom of expression and the freedom of protest, and needs to send an unambiguous message to Communist Party to warn them to not take any extreme measure to crack down the protest. I think we need to have a great message to send to the Communist Party to tell them, “If you do anything extreme, you will suffer more consequence, direct consequence.”

Maybe even, for example, I think that when, in the Trump administration, when the consulate in Houston was locked down, it was a huge blow to the Communist Party. So, I think international leaders can think about some strategy like that. 

If you continue to crack down the students’ protest or the civilians’ protest, many more countries can shut down more consulates, Communist Party consulate in their countries. So, give the message to the Communist Party, they will be further isolated in China and do more sanctions against the Communist Party elites. 

I think it needs to be more straightforward as well, and maybe some economist sanction as well, I think need to be, do it for real. And right now, I’m a little bit disappointed that the current Biden administration still pretty much just deliver lip service. I don’t think that’s strong enough.

Aschieris: Now, Sean, just before we go, I’m not sure how likely it is that this podcast will reach the ears of protesters in China, but if you could share a message with the people on the ground, what would that message be?

Lin: I would say, their protest is historical. It’s very inspiring. They need to keep on their great efforts to wake up more Chinese people, to help more Chinese people break away the fear against the Communist Party, and the truth will shine. 

And the evils always try to hide, try to use all kinds of disguised ways to deceive Chinese people, make Chinese people believe these so-called COVID policies is for pandemic control. No, that’s actually totally a lie. It’s basically a way to establish control in the society, more complete digital totalitarianism against Chinese people, and Chinese people are being treated like animals.

And so, these are the reality, and don’t believe any words regarding about using different tactic to do pandemic control. This is totally a lie. They are basically using this way to maintain their power. I think that Communist China is in the process of being completely collapsed, so I think the Chinese people are doing the rising at the right historical moment. They just need to continue and have the courage and the perseverance to continue protesting.

Aschieris: Well, Dr. Sean Lin, thank you so much for joining us today and giving us some insight into what you experienced back in 1989 as well as what’s been going on over the last couple of days in China. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

Lin: Oh, thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you.