There is an old Chinese parable about moving mountains. There were once two mountains – Taihang and Wangwu – that spanned thousands of miles. A farmer, whose house was facing the mountains, soon grew unhappy with how the mountains blocked his access to the nearby town. One day, he decided to level the mountains so he wouldn’t have to travel up and around them any longer, so he picked up a shovel and began to dig. His friends and family gathered around, appalled by his behavior. After all, he was but an old man and there was no way he could possibly move two enormous mountains. He responded, saying “I may not be able to move these mountains myself. But I will shovel at them every day. And after I die, my son will shovel at them every day. And after he dies, his son will shovel at them every day. Generations later, we will have moved the mountains.”
I was born in 1999, a decade after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China. My mother, a senior at the Beijing Normal University, was a student leader in the movement for democracy at that time, participating in the Tiananmen Square Demonstration. On April 26th, 1989, the Tiananmen Square Demonstration broke out in Beijing, China. The following 50 days were filled with protest and marching, and eventually, June 4th, marked what would be known forever in history as the Tiananmen Square Massacre – a fight to move the mountains of oppression in China.
My mother was just about to finish her degree in Chinese literature when the protests began. Torn between doing things right and doing the right thing, she avoided any political controversy for two weeks. After all, she was months away from graduation and the beginning of her adult future. Participating in the movement would be committing both academic and social suicide. How could she explain to her family that she’d decided to throw away all she’d worked for in the name of democracy – a cause so seemingly unattainable in the Communist Chinese regime? But one night, while studying late in her dorm, she saw her classmate – a small girl – limp back to her room across the hall, exhausted.
My mother frantically asked her classmate what had happened and the girl gave my mother an answer that she would always remember, that she would continue to live by, and that she would later pass down to me.
“They can beat us, they can push us, and they can try to stop us. But they can’t tear us down, and the harder they try, the more we know we are right.”
After hearing those words, my mother realized her degree, her well-being, and her affiliations to the government would not hold any worth if she didn’t fight for what she knew was right. A mountain needed to be moved and she needed to help.
The next day, my mother joined the crowd. Charismatic, sweet, intelligent, and reputable, she soon became a student leader in the movement, organizing the famous May hunger strike. It was because of this hunger strike that she was invited alongside other students to a rare meeting with then-Premier Li Peng, during which she notoriously fell asleep. On the night of June 3rd when the tanks rolled in, chaos broke out and my mother was among the last to escape. Amidst the frenzy, she shuttled frightened protesters and wounded bodies out of the square and to safety, refusing to leave until everyone else was out.
I was told this story by my mother’s friend, a fellow student leader who escaped to the USA and is now the CEO of a multi-million dollar investment company in Pasadena, California. It is also from him that I learned the parable of the two mountains and how they represented the fight for Chinese human rights. The anecdote he told me of my mother at the square is one that truly captures the essence of her character. As my father once told me, she was pretty, but not the prettiest. She was smart, but not the smartest. She was sweet, but not the sweetest. But she was the strongest girl he’d ever met and for that, he fell in love with her.
When my mother did flee the scene, she didn’t return to her dorm room. Or home. Beijing had released a public Wanted segment for all participants, especially leaders of the protest, declaring her, on national television, a political enemy.
For two months, she was transported from house to house by undercover supporters of the movement. Two months void of contact, security, assurance, or comfort. Finally, members of The Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China arranged for a smuggler’s boat to ship my mother out of China and into Hong Kong.
A transaction was made and my mother was taken to one of a series of undercover refuge homes, where she was placed under the care of a strange, yet oddly comforting house director: my father – a middle-school dropout city boy who’d gone from factory work, to paralegal practice, and now, activism. Thirteen years her senior and having lived a completely opposite life, my father found himself drawn to the petite, angelic, and heroic Cheng Zhen. It was a love story found only in the wildest of dreams and most creative of fiction.
My father, who had spent 35 years for the right girl to come along, found her and after only two months, proposed. The response he got was not what he’d expected. She had endured way too much to settle down in a place void of democracy. Hong Kong was safe for the time being, but it was in the process of being turned back over to CCP control and it wouldn’t be long before she was at risk again. She had to leave again and this time, she was looking at the other side of the Pacific.
For three days, my father weighed his options and on October the 15th, he made his decision. My mother filed successfully for refugee citizenship and my father, the boy who swore at 13 to never return to school, dropped his career, his family, his belongings, and his life, to register for an American student VISA.
Tiananmen Square and all it represents has remained a prequel to my life. I was 8 years old when I put two and two together. Tiananmen Square was the reason my parents met, meaning that if the tragedy hadn’t occurred, I would have never been born. Just as Tiananmen Square had sparked a new life for my parents, it had literally sparked a new life: mine. I had been taught the story of June 4th before I even knew what it meant. I remember my parents giving presentations and interviews about the fight for human rights in China throughout my childhood. They even headed the United States branch of Federation for a Democratic China – a political group formed in the aftermath of Tiananmen – for over a decade. Every June 4th, my family drives to the Chinese Consulate in downtown Los Angeles to attend a candlelight vigil, commemorating those who sacrificed their lives to fight for justice and democracy.
At these vigils, reporters ask about that week decades ago and, as I grew older, how the fight for human rights resonates with my generation. They call us “Children of Tiananmen”: those of us whose parent fled Tiananmen to other countries. To them, I am the girl whose parents were activists – a child of Tiananmen, so my opinion must hold some value. Every year, they ask many of the same questions, the most popular being how many years I’ve been attending June 4th vigils. This is always quite easy, as I just subtract ten from my age by the end of the year. But there were also tougher and more complicated questions, and over the years, I’ve gotten better at giving answers I truly stand behind.
I distinctly remember one time I was called during a vigil to speak regarding the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Cameras flashing and microphones pointed my way, one reporter gestured to the famous “Tank Man” photograph behind me and asked “What does this photo mean to you?”
I took a long look and remembered the countless number of times I’d learned about the story behind the photo and the courage that man embodied. I then looked directly at the camera and said:
“Twenty-five years ago, this man stood alone. Today, by being here, we are showing China that we stand with him.”
It sounds more dramatic in Mandarin, but you get the point.
Over the past several years, though, I have struggled to determine how I might join the movement for freedom in China and its controlled territories beyond simply being a child of Tiananmen. What mountains still existed? And what role would I play in moving them?
In 2012, during an annual visit to my family in Hong Kong, I wanted to participate in the July 1st protest in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, against the new pro-Communist education curriculum for public schools there called “National Education”. I learned that though Hong Kongers refused to support communist ideals, their “elected representatives,” handpicked by the Chinese government, always voted in favor of the Communist Party. However, these same government officials sent their children to international schools or boarding schools abroad, so the new curriculum wouldn’t even apply to them.
Hong Kong has always felt like a second home to me. Though I’ve never visited mainland China due to barring political reasons, my parents and I return to Hong Kong almost every year to spend time with my father’s side of the family. The Hong Kong I’ve always known is a true metropolis, with vendors and shoppers who keep the avenues upbeat, sizzling dim sum at noisy yum cha tables, an extremely efficient public transportation system, and pollution that makes for dirty air and colorful sunsets. At home, in California, my dad would listen to political podcasts, news radio, and talk shows concerning current affairs in Hong Kong and I would always listen. I would have weekly Skype conversations with my father’s side of the family there, who would keep me updated on daily life. I consider much of my childhood to be rooted in Hong Kong and it is quite easily one of my most beloved cities in the world. I care about their politics, system of government, and implications of such because they directly affect people I love. I have a number of younger cousins and some of my older cousins have children whom I’m also very close with and who are subjected to the education laws. The plan for National Education hit very close to home for me. Appalled by the injustice and corruption that riddled the situation, I joined the protest.
That summer of 2012, I got 42 bug bites within the three weeks of time I spent in Hong Kong. Ten of them happened the night of the Causeway Bay protest. I remember wearing my bright yellow polo t-shirt embroidered with the People’s Power organization logo and echoing whatever shocking slogans were being yelled out via megaphone. The crowd was huge. We started marching in the afternoon and when the night fell, we kept going. The farther we marched, the more police came to “supervise.” Soon enough, we were pushing through what seemed to be a tunnel of law enforcement. I saw officers pulling the members of the crowd who were leading the chanting and dragging them aside to be detained. This only encouraged us to shout louder and stomp faster, yet all void of physical violence. Excited, worried, and pumped with adrenaline, I pushed my way forward, despite my father and cousin’s attempts to restrain me. Near the front, I heard a woman scream and I turned my head to see a can of pepper spray shower various protesters. Other officers followed suit and before I had time to react, I was whisked out of the frenzy by a pair of strong arms.
On the sidewalk, I found myself out of breath, beside a middle-aged couple. They’d pulled me out of the pepper spray scene and waited with me until I found my dad and cousin. My family, relieved, thanked the couple for their care after admonishing me for my recklessness, of course. I’ll never forget what the couple said to my dad. They responded to his gratitude, saying “Of course. We’re all Hong Kongers.”
We’re all Hong Kongers. It is a phrase I’ve heard multiple times since and what I admire most about Hong Kong. A city-state encompassing cultures from all over the world, it’s been tossed back and forth between mainland China and the UK, subjected to laws it doesn’t support and punishment it doesn’t warrant. But the fierce sense of community, identity, and shared regard remains ever so strong. We are all Hong Kongers.
In September of 2014, I woke up to alarming news. Organized protest had broken out in the streets of Central, Hong Kong, in opposition to the infringement of the Basic Law Agreement between China and the UK. The Occupy Central movement grew rapidly, displaying a simple yellow ribbon as their icon, as protesters gathered on the streets day and night for two months in Hong Kong’s financial district with the aim of pressuring the administration to implement universal suffrage as guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law. Again, I was moved by the student and civilian opposition to the government’s brash infringement of a right I and many other Americans take for granted. But even more so, I was moved and awed by the strength and resilience that the Hong Kongers displayed.
Two months of civil disobedience and not one car was lit on fire. Not one window was broken. Not one riot was started. Though police brutality was shocking, the Hong Kongers held their ground. Eventually, police began using tear gas, in the hopes of clearing the streets. Instead of dispesing, protesters brought umbrellas with them. A famous photograph taken of a man standing boldly in street, surrounded by gas, wearing a face mask and raising up two umbrellas was displayed on the cover of TIME. The headline read “The Umbrella Revolution.”
The first week, I was shaken. I spent hours watching the live feed recorded by political organizations on the Internet. I messaged my family members every day to make sure they were okay. I wore yellow every day for a month. I continually shared updates on the protests on social media. My friends and I went around the school explaining the situation in Hong Kong and encouraging students and faculty at my school to share a symbolic gesture of support by tying yellow ribbons to their backpacks. We also encouraged those on Facebook to join the Hong Kong masses by changing their profile pictures to the iconic yellow ribbon. Also online, I would gather and repost firsthand accounts of the police brutality ignored by many media outlets.
One night, I came across a Youtube video. Two police officers had pushed a nonviolent female protester to the ground, assaulting her in the process. I saw my cousin Erica come into the frame and yell at the policemen in defense of the girl. I don’t remember what she said and I’m sure she doesn’t either, but it worked. Finally, they released the girl and walked away while Erica dropped to her knees, shaking and crying.
People talk a lot about being fearless and brave and standing up for what you believe in. But seeing Erica in that video showed me that you don’t have to be fearless to be brave. You don’t have to be fearless to stand up for what you believe in. Courage is not determined by lack of fear. Rather, it is facing fear and not letting it obstruct you from doing what is right. It is looking out for those in your community. It is the spirit of moving mountains. That is what it means to be a Hong Konger.
I sent Erica a message after watching the video, commending her on her courage and selfless act. She simply responded “You’d do the same if you were here.” Her message crosses my mind all the time. To this day, I still find myself wondering if I would have done exactly the same if I had been in her position. I’d like to think that I would have, but the truth is that nobody will ever know because I wasn’t. I am not in her position because I am not her. But that’s okay. We all play different roles in moving the mountains that threaten all of us. I don’t know if I could’ve done what she did. Rather, I do know that I can do what she can’t: use my voice to advocate for her cause.
I am fortunate enough to live in a nation that embraces liberty, social justice, and free speech. Though our political system is far from perfect, though our leaders still have much work to do, and though our country still has so much progress to make, it was founded upon certain freedoms – freedoms that my family and many others alike have fought and are still fighting for in China. So long as nations deprive their citizens of human rights, I cannot sit back and do nothing. I must pick up a shovel and start digging.
Having grown up the way I did, a certain appreciation for democracy and activism has always been instilled in me and I’ve noticed that is not always the case for second and third generation Asian immigrants. I was raised Democrat and for a long time, I believed the Democratic Party was a fierce proponent of all human rights. But in recent years, I found that to be contrary. In 2010, Dr. Liu Xiaobo, a world-renowned scholar and leader in the fight for human rights in China was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He never received the award because he was in prison and would remain there until his recent death.
In 2010, Congress proposed a new bill that would change the address of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC, renaming the street after Dr. Liu. It would be a symbolic gesture of support for the human rights campaign in China and a public statement of opposition to unjust political imprisonment. Almost immediately, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement, warning the US not to proceed with the bill, promising “severe consequences” if it did. The Obama administration responded, threatening to veto the bill if Congress did pass it, so the bill ultimately died before approval, while the administration continued to push for Sino-American trade and business relations.
When Liu Xiaobo died in the summer of 2017, due to stage four cancer, which the Chinese government refused to allow treatment for (even after Chancellor Merkel offered German medical care), my mother was a wreck. Dr. Liu was her favorite professor in college. It was from him that she first learned about the notions of free speech, universal suffrage, and an unregulated media. During the civil disobedience movement, he was instrumental in supporting and guiding students. She thought of him not only as an extraordinary teacher, but also as a mentor – someone who inspired her to help move mountains.
While she was sad, I was angry. I felt betrayed and let down. I remembered Obama’s veto threat. I remembered that during the time of Dr. Liu’s imprisonment, Democratic leaders had offered some words of acknowledgement, but hadn’t done a thing to actually support human rights in China. Rather, they stressed business and trade relationships, and when Dr. Liu passed away, disrespected, they were silent. Whereas members of the GOP that I otherwise disagreed with, like Ted Cruz and Rex Tillerson, offered their condolences, regards, and critique of the CCP, not one Democratic leader said a word, just as they didn’t say a word during the Umbrella Movement. I remember thinking “How can a nation supposedly founded upon certain freedoms turn a blind eye when their allies violate those freedoms?” More importantly, how could an administration advocating Hope, Change, and Progress be so quick to bow to a dictatorial country that was vehemently opposed to all of those values?
As a US citizen, I am proud to have been able to support domestic human rights campaigns. I believe that Women’s Rights are human rights. I believe that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. I believe that Refugee Rights are human rights. And I believe this to be true not only in America, but all over the world. I walk proudly in the Woman’s March on January 20th, just as I stand solemnly at a candlelight vigil on June 4th. I throw my support behind the ACLU, just as I do Amnesty International because I believe that all human rights are human rights and that all violations of such are mountains that must be moved.
Some might assume my involvement in politics and activism is rooted in my family’s history. That may be true, but I have discovered my own passion for human rights and universal suffrage through firsthand experiences and reflection, exploring new means to express support and opposition unique to me, my community, and my generation.
I have thus morphed from the girl whose parents were activists to a girl who is an activist as well, in her own way and for her own reasons. I am more than just a Child of Tiananmen. I am someone with access to basic human rights. I am a proud American citizen. I am a Hong Konger. I am an advocate of human rights both in my home country and abroad. I am a second-generation mountain-mover.
Instead of simply letting Tiananmen Square define me, I have chosen how it will do so, and how I will participate in the movement that is simultaneously my heritage and my passion. So long as the mountains that obstruct humanity exist, the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive and the fight is far from over. So grab your shovels and dig with me because together, as inhabitants of this world, we can move mountains.