Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Karen Engst

Exclusive on-the-spot report: From Tiananmen Square

First Published: Unity, Vol. 12, No. 8, May 31, 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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At different times during May 19-22, Karen Engst joined Chinese students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and upon her return to the U.S., she wrote this firsthand report. Ms. Engst grew up in China. She is a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus.

* * *

It’s an exciting time for China, with so many young people debating their futures and what China should be. Different ideas swirled through Tiananmen Square during the time I spent there. Everyone felt free to just put out their opinions and see what others had to say.

For example, you may have heard that some students carried images of the Statue of Liberty, others carried posters of Chairman Mao, but everybody sang the “Internationale.” What you may not have heard is that there was a debate beforehand about what to sing. Some said we should sing the national anthem instead, objecting to a line about communists in the “Internationale.” Others said we should sing the “Internationale” because it says we don’t want to be slaves, we want to be the masters of the country. In the end, the majority wanted to sing the “Internationale,” and so we did. That was the most moving moment. People grabbed each other’s hands and everybody had tears in their eyes.

The students also talked about what is socialism, and what is capitalism, and what do we want for China. One guy said what we want is capitalism, and that everyone is rich in the U.S., even a philosophy professor, compared to China where intellectuals don’t have much money. I said that’s not true. People who are rich in the U.S. are mostly involved in business. You can’t just be a rich philosophy professor because graduate students in social science don’t have much money either. Then other people said, ok, let’s forget about the U.S. example, and let’s talk about what we want for China.

There are also differences between what some students think and what a lot of workers and peasants think. For example, one woman student said, “Workers and peasants should not be in the People’s Congress. They’re not educated, and all they care about is soy sauce and salt and rice on the table. We need professional politicians.” But a worker explained, “The reason we care about soy sauce and salt and rice is because we have our families to feed. You get fed by your parents, so you don’t worry about these things.”

I think the main spirit of the debates is to reform, correct and improve Chinese socialism, People are really not afraid to say what they think, compared to South Korea, where students and workers are attacked with tear gas and guns for demanding more democracy. When I brought up this contrast, the Chinese students said, “Of course, South Korea is not a people’s government!” They know the difference.

It will take a long time, I think, to sort out what is good and bad, deal with the corruption, and decide what the people want and don’t want for China. But at least the process is begun.