“People must be able to speak freely, without fear”

My dad was jailed at Tiananmen Square. Now in Canada, I’m protesting Chinese oppression.

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(Photo courtesy of Yihan)

Yihan is a 23-year-old receptionist who grew up in China, first under Hu Jintao and then Xi Jinping. To protect her and her family, we’ve agreed not to reveal her surname.

I was a child living in Beijing when my dad told me that when he was young, he’d protested at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was arrested during the demonstrations, and at just 24 years old, he spent six months in jail. He wasn’t given enough to eat and wasn’t allowed to shower. He was bound so tightly that he wondered if the open wounds on his hands would even heal.

He wasn’t the only one: for several months, thousands of students protested in Beijing against the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, calling for democracy, freedom of speech and a free press. On June 4, 1989, the government sent in troops, who opened fire at students. It’s estimated that hundreds to thousands were killed and almost 10,000 were arrested. I didn’t really hear much else about Tiananmen Square growing up. My dad doesn’t talk about it—aside from snippets here and there, he’s never told me exactly what he witnessed or went through.

Soon after my dad was released, he met my mom in Beijing. I was born several years later in the northwestern province of Gansu, and after my parents had my little sister, they settled down in Beijing. We had a comfortable childhood, with my dad working in media and my mom staying home to take care of us.

From discussions I heard as a child, I could tell my parents were pessimistic about China’s future. Many people in China are secretly critical of the government but they fear getting a call from police, being fined or going to jail, so they censor themselves. Chinese people are good at ignoring what the government is doing, but it doesn’t mean they agree with Xi’s actions, including mass surveillance, online censorship and arresting and profiling dissidents.

In China, schoolchildren are expected to work hard. I went to school at 7 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. each day. I didn’t have many hobbies because I spent most of my free time doing schoolwork, which furthered government propaganda. I had a “society and politics” class in grade seven where I learned about Marxism and Chinese communism. My parents, and especially my dad, weren’t happy about this. It might seem theoretical, but these lessons indirectly taught us to trust the CCP—we didn’t learn anything that might cause us to question the government or its actions. The Tiananmen Square Massacre, for example, is never mentioned in our history textbooks.

When I was in high school, my parents encouraged me to complete my secondary education in Canada. At first, I was optimistic: I was excited to have less homework to do after school. But I didn’t realize how hard it would be to live without my family. I landed in Toronto on a cool evening in August of 2014, and my first few months were tough. I stayed with a host family near the high school I was attending in Mississauga. It was a rural area with no public transportation, so I was often bored and homesick. I stayed up late, reading or watching YouTube: it was better than lying in bed awake, missing my family.

After high school, I went to the University of Toronto to study philosophy and German. In 2019, I became more politically aware of the situation I’d left behind in China, during a Russian history class. I asked my professor questions about communism, and through my discussions with him, I realized how repressive and undemocratic the Chinese government is, particularly its censorship and human rights abuses. I stumbled across Doctor Zhivago, the 1957 novel by the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, which explores anti-authoritarianism and life under Soviet communist rule. I started to relate the themes in the book to my growing knowledge of the Chinese government.

I also became involved in activism for the Hong Kong protests that year. I’ve spoken out for human rights in China since then. Protesting the communist regime in China was scary at first: that fear left me only after I attended a handful of events.

This past summer, I helped host a commemoration event for the victims of June Fourth in Toronto. Thousands of people attended. People wore black as a sign of mourning. When the sun went down, the flames of lit candles glowed. It was an emotional moment. I’m also a member of the Federation for a Democratic China. We work with other groups to organize rallies and other events, and put together our own.

Because of my political activism, I can’t go back home to visit my parents and sister. My mom came to visit me two years ago, and I haven’t seen my dad in over three years. After the memorial event for the victims of the June Fourth Tiananmen Square Massacre this summer, my dad got an anonymous call from someone. They were polite and didn’t say anything explicitly threatening, but they did tell him his family members living overseas should not engage in activities that might harm China’s reputation. We still don’t know who it was. I’m afraid that if I go back, I’ll be greeted at the airport by the police. If there’s a security list, I might be on it. But I am the child of a protester at Tiananmen Square— I can’t stop working toward the collapse of the CCP. People must be able to speak freely, without fear.

I haven’t told my dad the complete truth about my activism. I know it would get him in trouble: families of overseas dissidents are often intimidated, imprisoned or harassed by police in China. It’s why Chinese in the diaspora are so hesitant to protest the Xi regime. There’s so much fear for the safety of our families back home.

Whenever I speak to my dad, we exchange pleasantries—I wouldn’t dare share pictures I’ve taken at protests or rallies. It’s an invisible barrier between us. My dad isn’t a political person anymore; he’s just an average person living his life. As a father, he would be concerned. But I know he would be proud of me, too.

— As told to Leila El Shennawy