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The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two)

June 4, 2016



(Continued from Part One)

Wu: Another find that was very exciting was to discover the chief of staff of the 38th Group Army’s 1st Tank Division. This chief of staff led the spearhead of that tank division, the 1st Regiment of armored infantrymen and the 1st Regiment, the very first tanks to arrive in Tiananmen Square, including the three tanks involved in the massacre at Liubukou. This chief of staff was eager to carry out orders and show his “politically correctness.” In all the military propaganda materials celebrating his “heroic achievements,” he was only ever referred to as “Chief of Staff Yan.” They described how he repeatedly ordered for forcing advancement, and his troops shot dead a student attempting to obstruct them outside Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now the Communication University of China). So I had a very strong wish to identify this chief of staff. But despite countless searching, I had never found the man’s name.

There were a total of five regiments in the 1st Tank Division.  The 2nd and 3rd tank regiments, and the artillery regiment, were led by the division commander and political commissar — they were the remaining units that followed. The division commander and political commissar acted completely differently. Like a lot of the other martial law troops, they encountered obstruction and interference by citizens as they advanced toward Tiananmen, but they weren’t willing to smash through and hurt people. So they simply stopped, and only arrived at the Square on June 5. They didn’t participate in the clearing of the Square, and had no involvement in the massacre.

A Taiwan publishing house is going to put out the Taiwanese version of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth this year, so I made a round of revisions for that, correcting a few minor errors, and also did some more searching for a few tricky pieces of information that I had never been able to solve. The name of Chief of Staff Yan was one of them. As I searched, I came across a Yan, the division commander of the 38th Army Group’s Sixth Tank Division. My intuition was: this is my man! Yan Hongji (闫红计) is his name! I was able to confirm the connection with more searching. I’d poured countless hours into figuring out this person’s name and whereabouts, and in this round of revision I found the answer. I was so excited. This happened not long ago.

CC: Mr. Wu, you often refer to the book One Day During the Martial Law (《戒严一日》) in your book about the troops. Can you talk a little about this book?

Wu: One Day During the Martial Law was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department and published in 1990. This is the most valuable official publication about the Tiananmen incident. It consists of two volumes and was an anthology of over 100 articles by as many authors, all of whom are named along with their service post and military rank. Each of the authors records their participation and experience in the enforcement of martial law. Some of them write about how they helped the common citizens, others discuss their marching into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. Among them there were commanders and political commissars of army groups, but also regular soldiers. Apart from a few policemen from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the vast majority were all soldiers and officers involved in martial law. The value of each piece is different, but overall this book provided many leads and clues for my own research. From a historiographical perspective, the official documents are extremely accurate, better than individuals’ memories, when it comes to times and places, although other details of the events may be concealed or distorted.

Not a month after this book was published in 1990, it seems that the military realized that it revealed too much, so they retracted it, making it a “banned book.” Later they published an “abridged edition,” which was shrunk into a small pamphlet with huge chunks deleted.

CC: I assume it goes without saying that you consult the full version.

Wu: Right. In early 1990 when I’d just arrived in Hong Kong, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Monthly (《当代》) Ching Cheong learnt about my interest in researching and recording June 4, so he gave the book to me. He was once the Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (《文汇报》).

FullSizeRender (10)CC: You mentioned another book, Defenders of the Republic. Tell us about it.  

Wu: This is official propaganda material, also published between the latter half of 1989 and 1990. A year after the June 4 incident, this form of propaganda was put to a stop; evidently an internal decision was issued to cease it, because they knew there was nothing glorious about it, and it would only draw more criticism. On June 4, 1990, Yang Baibing (杨白冰) and the General Political Department wanted to put on a massive celebration, but Li Ruihuan (李瑞环), the then head of Communist Party propaganda and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, dissented. Yang was furious. Li said that it wasn’t his order, but from the top — from Deng Xiaoping, obviously. So from that point on basically all celebration and propaganda about the suppression vanished from official sources.

The sub-title of Defenders of the Republic is A compilation of the deeds of heroic troops and model soldiers enforcing martial law in the capital — that’s the kind of book it was. There are about a dozen or so similar books. I asked friends in Beijing to dig them out for me. Some were brought over to the U.S., other were scanned and sent.

CC: Out of the 200,000 martial law troops, you verified and listed the identities of over 3,000 soldiers in your book The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. You’ve taken an enormous amount of time to identify them, and yet it’s only 1.5% of the total. Why did you put so much time into finding and verifying these names?

Wu: Of the hundreds and thousands who experienced the June 4 massacre, I may be one of a few who has a background in historical and documentary research. From the perspective of recording history, to ensure that a massacre like this is properly recorded, we must have the victims, as well as the perpetrators. Since the Communist Party’s founding of its regime, a huge number of people have died in its political movements. For instance, in just the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries in the 1950s, official figures say that 2.4 million were executed. Is there a name list of these 2.4 million people? No. Who sentenced them to death? We don’t know that, either. The political campaign closest to June 4 was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and official Communist Party documents acknowledge that it was a “calamity,” and vaguely say that millions of people suffered unnatural deaths. But who are they? Wang Youqin (王友琴), who also graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades — her record is still extremely limited.

I feel that when it comes to June 4, if I don’t do this kind of recording, then with the passage of time the massacre will become just like the Cultural Revolution, or any other political campaign, and end up with no legitimate historical record.

In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, my chief task was to search out information about the perpetrators. The work of the Tiananmen Mothers for so many years has been to seek out and record information about the victims. They have a list of those who died in the massacre, and so far have recorded and verified the names of 202 victims. This is still quite far from the real death toll, but the work they’ve done has already been extremely difficult.

CC: Let’s not forget that these 200,000 martial law troops are a huge group of witnesses, and most of them are of the same age as the student protesters. When we say “the 1989 generation,” we have to keep in mind that they are the other part of the 1989 generation. Are there any in their midst who have spoken out about June 4?

Wu: Yes, they are indeed a huge group of witnesses, but so far, only two out of the 200,000 have come out, using their true identity, and spoken about their experiences. One is Zhang Sijun (张四军), a soldier with the 54th Group Army and now a veteran living in his home province of Shandong. He has been detained several times and harassed for speaking online about 1989. According to my research his testimony isn’t that valuable, but morally, it’s significant. If a large number of them testify, we would know so much more about the massacre.

CC: Imagine a few thousand of them doing this.

Wu: The other is Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李晓明) , who headed a radio station of the Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. He was what we call a “student-officer” who enlisted after graduating from college. Following his discharge, he went to study in Australia and became a Christian. He held a press conference and spoke about his experiences. It is from his testimony that we learned about another general who disobeyed orders, in addition to Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army.

That was Xu Feng (许峰), commander of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. I had done so much research, and I discovered the passive resistance on the part of General He Yanran (何燕然), the commander of the 28th Group Army, and Zhang Mingchun (张明春), the political commissar, but I had known nothing about the division commander. Because of his refusal, he was disciplined and discharged after June 4. I have wanted to know his whereabouts and what happened to him, but I have never found any more about him despite my efforts.            

CC: What about the commander and the political commissar of the 28th Group Army?

Wu: They were both demoted and removed from the combat forces. Zhang Mingchun was demoted and reassigned to deputy political commissar of Jilin Provincial Military Command, and He Yanran the deputy commander of Anhui Provincial Military Command. Zhang Mingchun died a year after being demoted.

CC: This is probably a no-brainer question, but I’ll still ask anyway: Have you received any comments, publicly or otherwise, from the PLA after you published The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth?

Wu: No.

CC: I’m sure there are reactions that are just not reaching you.

Wu: They would definitely purchase the books and give them to certain people to read. Not no one has told me anything. On the other hand, the authorities haven’t come out to say: this book is wrong here and there, or it’s nonsense.

CC: I saw some news on Twitter a while back saying you’d be taken “ill” for a while. Can you talk about that?

Wu: I worked at the Press Freedom Herald for 15 years and then wrote for 10 years, and I’ve always been healthy. I fell ill for a period because of the emotional and psychological toll of my work. There’s a famous saying about 1989: “Dare not forget; don’t dare to recollect.” I had been immersed in everything about 1989 for more than two decades. I’ve collected a photo gallery of 9,000 images, each one of them full of blood and passion. Take the clearing of Tiananmen Square: When I was writing about how 11 students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou, an incident I personally witnessed, tears would stream down my face, and I would crying bitterly by my desk. Finally, beginning in the latter half of 2010, while I was going over the draft manuscript of my third book, something went wrong — I succumbed to depression.

My original plan was to publish it in May of 2011, and I knew that I had to work every day in order to meet the deadline. But every time I opened the computer I just sat there in a daze. I couldn’t write. I’d go out for strolls, or chat idly with friends, but I couldn’t enjoy distraction either, and had to return to my desk. This dragged on for a long while. So I had to stop working and think of a way to solve the problem.

In addition, a lot of my friends know that I’d been paying out of my own pocket to get these books published, and relying on meager royalties to get by. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally, I’ve been separated from my family, and especially my mother, for 22 years. It’s hard to put into words how much we missed each other. She knew my situation, and never said anything disheartening in all my years calling her.  She’s never said: Son, I miss you, I’m old, come back and see me. She’s never said that. So when I found myself unable to work, I said to myself: I need to see my mother; it’s been 22 years, she’s 85 years old. Maybe I’d be able to write again after I got back.

Up to that point I had not taken up American citizenship, nor had I planned to. I always wanted to be a Chinese citizen, and record this massacre as a Chinese citizen; oppose dictatorship as a Chinese citizen; and contribute to democratization of China as a Chinese citizen. As a historian, my PRC citizenship had an added significance. Young people might dismiss my old fashioned sentiments. But in the end, in order to go back and visit my mother, in late 2010 I decided to become an American citizen. After that I quickly got my American passport.  

CC: How about the visa?

Wu: That’s another story. In order to stop people like me — who are banned from the country — from getting a foreign passport and coming back in, the Chinese authorities required all ethnic Chinese, whether mainlander, or from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, to submit their original passport when applying for a visa after becoming an American citizen. That’s how they would get your original Chinese name.

I spotted advertisements in the World Journal for a service to handle Chinese visa applications. I picked one and called the number. Sure enough, they accepted cash, and they took care of the visa. It wasn’t cheap: for $1,200, I could get a visa without having to provide an old Chinese passport.

I picked one of the services. A male clerk asked me a few questions, and then got down to it: are you involved in politics? I said nope, that I’m a Wenzhounese who got smuggled into the U.S., and that I didn’t have a passport at the time. Wenzhou was a known source of illegal immigrants. I was accompanied by a friend who also came from Wenzhou, so we chatted in Wenzhou dialect. He believed the story and asked me to write down my Chinese name. I came up with Wu Yanhua (伍彦华), matching Yenhua Wu, the English spelling of my name — it was spelled this way on my documents when I left Hong Kong in 1990. He asked nothing else: no address, phone number, or reason for visiting. When I got the visa two weeks later, I was worried it was fake.  

Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books.

CC: You can’t go back anymore?

Wu: No. Now that they know, they won’t give me visa anymore.

Tank man long shotCC: My last question has to do with Wang Weilin (王维林), the Tank Man. There have been different versions of who he is. What’s puzzling is that, so many years have passed and the image has become so iconic — how could there be no information about this man whatsoever? I want to hear your take on him.

Wu: As long-time researcher on 1989, of course I’m very interested in finding out who he is and what happened to him — the man in the white shirt and shopping bag in each hand who, on the morning of June 5th, stopped a formation of tanks. Wang Weilin, as many believed, is not necessarily his name. Videos show that he was spirited away by a few men off the street. For many years the story went that he was dragged away by good people and once on the sidewalk disappeared into the crowd, and safety.

But a couple of years ago, an academic specializing in body language studied the video and concluded that those who took the Tank Man off the street were not ordinary bystanders, but trained personnel. He believed that the Tank Man fell into the hands of the Chinese military or police.  

When this analysis came out, the Voice of America was very interested and consulted me for my comment. In their studio in Los Angeles, I watched the video over and over again. It was a couple of seconds longer, and revealed the scene: there was nobody on the sidewalk, and dozens of tanks were parked in the area. That means that it was an area secured by the martial law troops, and there could be no large crowds anymore. I had to agree with that professor that the Tank Man ended up in the hands of the soldiers or the police.  

We already know that protesters who were captured after the clearing of the Square were beaten badly with batons or the butts of rifles. For example, Gao Xu (高旭), a student of Shanxi University who was captured on June 5, was tied to a pillar at the Great Hall of the People and beaten so badly he ended up blind in one eye.

In the case of the Tank Man, he was seen as highly provocative in that he not only tried to stop the tanks, but even climbed on one. So he would be treated even more brutally in the hands of the troops. My sense is that he was probably beaten to death. Otherwise, in the age of internet, we would have heard something.

CC: Recently a friend said that they’d heard from a credible source, that at the time of the June 4 massacre, the PLA had killed students in the parks near Tiananmen—Zhongshan Park and the Worker’s Cultural Palace. I momentarily thought of Wang Weilin.

Delving deep into the full truth of June 4 is still such an arduous task, so we thank you so much for your studies. I agree with Mr. Yan Jiaqi’s assessment: This isn’t merely the pursuit of one individual, but a contribution to all of China.


Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.



The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, January 15, 2013.

A Young Political Prisoner in the Grand Picture of US-China Diplomacy in the Wake of June 4th Massacre, May 11, 2016.



The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre –  An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two) 

June 3, 2016

In 1989, Mr. Wu Renhua was a young faculty member at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, leading the student demonstration along with other young scholars. He participated in the Tiananmen Movement “from the first day to the last,” and was among the last few thousand protesters who left Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4. On the way back to his college, he witnessed PLA tanks charging into a file of students at Liubukou (六部口), a large intersection, killing 11 and injuring many. In February, 1990, Wu swam four hours from Zhuhai to Macau, and onto Hong Kong, and arrived later that year in the United States. Over the next 15 years he was the editor of Press Freedom Herald (《新闻自由导报》), a Chinese-language paper founded on June 9, 1989, by a group of overseas Chinese, to bring news of pro-democracy activities to China. Given Mr. Wu’s training as a historiographer, he began his research of 1989 as soon as the incident ended—but his writing didn’t start until in 2005, when the paper he edited folded. From 2005 to 2014, he published three books (none have been translated into English): The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square (《天安门血腥清场内幕》, 2007), The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth (《六四事件中的戒严部队》, 2009), and The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement (《六四事件全程实录》, 2014). Together, the three books form a complete record of the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth Massacre. I flew to Los Angeles and interviewed Mr. Wu over April 24 and 25.  The first half of the interview discusses his work, especially his research on the martial law troops. – Yaxue Cao




CC: Did you decide early on to start carrying out June Fourth research?

Wu: Yes. For one thing, I myself took part in the 1989 democracy movement. But it was also because I was a historiographer. From February 1978 to June 1986, I studied ancient Chinese historiography in the Chinese Department at Peking University, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. After I graduated from Peking University in 1986, I went to work as a historiographer at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.

Given my academic background, as the events of 1989 were underway I had already begun to feel the need to create a record of this great moment that not only influenced China but also changed the world. That, after all, is the role of a historian.

Ever since the Chinese Communists took power, a lot of history has either been covered up or distorted. Those of us who deal with historical documents are much more concerned with the historical record. And the Tiananmen movement was the biggest public movement of citizens since the Communists took power, and the massacre was so tragic and shocking to the world. So after the massacre, I vowed to create a record of that period of history so that it would not be forgotten.

CC: You’ve published three books to date. Tell us a bit about each.

Wu: My June Fourth research is divided into two parts: the collection of documents, and writing. The document collection process is the harder of the two parts and takes a lot more time. Writing takes a bit less time, relatively speaking. I began collecting documents when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1990. I began writing in 2005 when the Press Freedom Herald ended. I was the chief editor of the Herald for 15 years, from September 1990 to May 2005. Work kept me extremely busy during that time, and I didn’t have much time to write. But over those 15 years, I never stopped gathering documents.

The first book, The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square, was published in May 2007. By that time, many years had already passed and June Fourth wasn’t a big news item anymore. So it wasn’t the greatest moment to publish the book and no proper publishers were willing to put it out. They all thought that there wasn’t any market for a book like that anymore, meaning that there wouldn’t be very many readers who’d be interested. I had discussions with a few Hong Kong publishers, but their terms were really harsh. So I decided to set up my own company, which I called Truth Publishing and published that book myself. Fortunately, the United States has a free press, so it only cost $40–50 to register the company. So, it was pretty tough to get that first book out. After the book was printed, a magazine publisher friend in Hong Kong handled sales and distribution. That book sold better than I expected and is now in its second printing.

CC: What’s that book about?

Wu: That book was a complete account of the clearing of Tiananmen Square, covering roughly 22 hours from around noon on June 3, 1989, to just past 10 a.m. on June 4. It also included materials I collected later on the massacre that happened on West Chang’an Avenue, where the worst of the killing took place. Before I published that book, there had been a few books and some articles on the subject, but their accounts were all based on memories and were incomplete. My book was compiled in the traditional annalistic style, with events presented in the order that they happened and each incident and the time in which it occurred recounted as fully as possible so as to satisfy the requirements of the historical record.

I think another reason this book attracted people’s attention was that it dealt with certain aspects of the PLA martial law troops, such as which units took part in clearing the square, what routes they took, and what tasks they each carried out. This might have been the first time someone revealed the hidden details of what the martial law forces had done.

The second book, which I published in May 2009, was called The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. Again, I published this myself through Truth Publishing and distributed it in Hong Kong.

The content of this book should be clear from the title. My plan was for it to represent another type of Chinese historiographical writing, namely biography, and to focus on personalities and events. The book is composed of a total of 19 chapters covering each military unit, plus an introductory chapter. The introduction was a comprehensive overview comprised of 14 sections, in which I dealt with questions like how the order to open fire was issued and how many soldiers and police officers died.

This book received quite a reaction from academics and researchers because it was the first of its kind. No one inside or outside China had ever done that kind of research before. Another reason is that it truly did reveal some specific details about the martial law troops. For example, how many soldiers were part of the martial law troops? Everyone else could only guess without being able to give a precise answer. And which units took part? To that point, there had been no answer. Even I, a first-hand participant who carried out several months of investigation after the events of June Fourth and interviewed a lot of other eyewitnesses from different locations, didn’t know which units took part in the crackdown. People only mentioned the 38th Group Army, the 27th Group Army, and the 15th Airborne Corps—no one knew about the rest. In this book, I was able to answer all of these questions at once.

For example, I calculated that around 200,000 troops took part in the martial law forces. And the book gives a more precise number of units that made up the martial law troops. These answers aren’t estimates: they’re precise figures based on evidence. I think the ability to answer these questions is the reason that academics and researchers took note of this book. So, if you go online to places like Wikipedia, the information cited there regarding the martial law troops all comes from that book. On the 20th anniversary of June Fourth in 2009, Yazhou Weekly in Hong Kong mentioned this book as an authoritative source on the Tiananmen Massacre and the details of the martial law troops.

The political scientist Yan Jiaqi (严家祺) went even further. He wrote an article entitled “Wu Renhua’s Contribution to China,” in which he said that those two books were a milestone in research on the Tiananmen Massacre and that future researchers would first have to go beyond the work that had already been done in them. I’m deeply humbled by his praise.

But as far as readers and sales are concerned, the second book has not done as well as the first. The first book was very readable and had many moving, tragic stories that I tried to tell as fully as possible. That’s an attractive aspect of it.


The title of the third book is The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement, which I published in May 2014. I published and distributed that book myself, just as I’d done with the first two books. It was different from the first two books in that it was a comprehensive account. Another title for it could be A History of the 1989 Democracy Movement. But I don’t dare call it a “history,” given the limits of my ability as a single researcher and the control that the Chinese Communist Party has over information.

Full Record starts from Hu Yaobang’s death on April 15, 1989, which sparked the 1989 democracy movement, and follows events up to June 30. The killing actually continued after June Fourth. In Beijing, many workers and urban residents continued to protest after June Fourth, as did people in other cities around the country. Many of those protesters paid a high price. After June Fourth, the Communist authorities carried out a large-scale campaign of investigations and arrests. This is another important part of the history of June Fourth.

Before my book came out there was another book, called The Tiananmen Papers in English; the title of the Chinese translation is 《中国六四真相》(The Truth about June Fourth in China). This book was edited by Professor Andrew Nathan and Professor Perry Link and came out around the 10th anniversary of June Fourth in 1999.

TheTiananmenPapersPerryL1507_fCC: Can you compare your book to The Tiananmen Papers? Professors Link and Nathan are also friends of yours.

Wu: Like my third book, it’s a day-by-day account presented in an annalistic style. It’s short of documentation in some crucial areas and so lacks a record of certain things. I often divide the events that took place in and around Tiananmen Square into two parts: the 1989 student movement and the June Fourth massacre. This is a division that I’ve proposed. Take the student movement part: there’s no account of the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation in The Tiananmen Papers—when and where it was founded and by whom. There are many other examples like this. This is where I had an advantage over them. For one thing, my book came out later than theirs, allowing me to make use of many more participant memoirs and richer documentation.

CC: What’s their book primarily based on?

Wu: It’s mainly based on official news sources and internal reference reports that were never published but were circulated to high-ranking officials. What it lacks the most is documentation of the massacre itself, because there weren’t many official journalists on the scene when the killing took place and the ones who were there were so scared they practically ran away. State-media journalists couldn’t get their hands on documents from the martial law troops, which were highly classified, and they couldn’t carry out interviews. So, compared to my book, that book has very little on the massacre. In my view, the account of the massacre in that book is based on rumors.

The section on the student movement, on the other hand, has some grounding in internal reference reports. Those are quite reliable, even more reliable than the memories of ordinary citizens. At the very least, they were quite accurate about things like time and place, even if they adjusted their reports to the needs of the authorities. So, in my books I pay close attention to the details of time and place as reported in official documents. The Tiananmen Papers doesn’t have anything on the massacre on Changan Avenue, such as how it came about or unfolded.

The later skepticism about their book wasn’t so much because it was based on official documents; rather, it was the errors it made in the section on the massacre. For example, The Tiananmen Papers went along with the rumor that Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), who headed the 38th Group Army, was the son of Xu Haidong (徐海东), a former senior PLA general. An internal Communist Party account would have never made that mistake. There are many examples like this, things I’ve pointed out to Professor Link in private communications. So, The Tiananmen Papers is more reliable in its section on the student movement but less reliable when it comes to the massacre or the martial law troops, because there were no sources for those sections.

CC: Has Prof. Perry Link read your book about the martial law troops?

Wu: Yes, and he even wrote an introduction for it in English. Because I can’t speak English and have always written in Chinese, I have had practically no interactions with English-speaking scholars or researchers. Occasionally, I’ll get a call from someone like a reporter who asks a few questions. But that’s basically it.

CC: I hear you’re working on a fourth book. Can you reveal anything about the status of that and perhaps tell our readers a bit about it?

Wu: My original plan was to write a series of three books: an account of the victims, an account of the perpetrators, and an account of the full series of events. I’ve said to friends that the decade I spent writing these three books took quite an emotional and physical toll on me, and self-publishing was a very difficult process for me financially. But since their publication, these three books have gotten quite a response in the Chinese-speaking world, and every now and then readers will send me questions through the Internet or social media. The majority of these questions have to do with the massacre. For example, was anyone actually killed on Tiananmen Square proper? For such a huge event, the record will never be complete without being able to answer the question of how many people died with a degree of accuracy.

I have no answer for this question. Unlike other people, I can’t just casually answer 2,000 or 3,000. This is the question that prompted me to write the fourth book. I can’t reveal the title for the moment, because there have already been attempts to pirate content from this book. But this book will be about the massacre and not limited to Tiananmen Square or Chang’an Avenue. Through this book, I will try to answer this crucial question of how many people died.

CC: By your calculation, about 200,000 martial law troops were deployed. How did you calculate this figure? And can you first explain which units were involved? 

Wu: These numbers come from Chinese official materials. After the Tiananmen massacre, the government engaged in a large-scale propaganda campaign about “suppressing the counterrevolutionary riot,” and handed out a large number of awards to units and individuals in the military, including the 37 “Defenders of the Republic” [Ed: troops who were killed]. I decoded each of the military code designations referred to in these materials, because the PLA’s numerical designations (番号) are secret; instead, each military unit from the regiment level and above has a code, a five digit Arabic numeral. So the first step was to match the actual numerical designation of the unit with the code, tally them, and then calculate out how many troops were involved in the Beijing martial law operation.

I was shocked with the number that came out: a total of 14 army groups. Among them were six army groups in the Beijing Military Zone: Nos. 24, 27, 28, 38, 63, 65. From the Jinan Military Zone there were four army groups: Nos. 20, 26, 54, and 67. From the Shenyang Military Zone there were three: Nos. 39, 40, and 64. The Nanjing Military Zone’s 12th Group Army also participated. At the time, the PLA ground forces had a total of 24 Group Armies. Other troops that were involved include the Tianjin Garrison Command’s 1st Tank Division, the Beijing Military Zone’s 14th Artillery Division, Beijing Garrison Command’s 1st and 3rd Guard Divisions, its 15th Airborne Corps, and the Beijing Armed Police unit (an army-level command). Altogether, there were 19 troops.

Of course, these groups didn’t take part in their entireties. Take for example the 38th Group Army — its total force sat at about 70,000 personnel. Based on a calculation of the size of all the units that actually entered Beijing, I calculated that it was roughly 200,000. I think it is pretty accurate.

CC: Can you explain this code number (代号) and numerical designation (番号) issue?

Wu: Again, take the 38th Group Army as an example. “38th” is its numerical designation, and the so-called code number is a five digit number used to refer to it. The media reports won’t directly refer to the 112th Infantry Division of the 38th Group Army, but will instead talk about “a certain” division or regiment from a certain army group. Sometimes they’re even vaguer, for instance when referring to the commander of the 38th Group Army, they’ll say “the commanding officer of certain troops.” But “commanding officer” could be an army commander, a division commander, or a regiment commander. These books and official materials only use code numbers when referring to the army, for example the 51112 Group — you’ve got no way of knowing what it is. Is it a whole corps, or an infantry regiment?


Mr. Wu’s early manuscripts.

CC: How did you go about matching each unit’s numerical designation and its code number? 

Wu: In the simplest case, you just type “Unit 51112” into Google. If all soldiers and veterans strictly followed the regulations, then you’d find nothing. But by looking at forums and websites run by veterans, you can glean a lot of information. A lot of these veterans don’t always keep secrets, and they’ll say something like: Back in the day I was in, for instance, the 112th Infantry Division of the 38th Group Army. The 38th has three infantry divisions, a tank division, an artillery brigade, and an anti-aircraft artillery brigade. Within an infantry division there will be a number of regiment-level units, so you have to, one-by-one, match together all of the many code numbers for all the units in the 14 army groups involved. I was in the military for a short period before university, so I had some basic concepts about it. Through internet searches, following the idle chatter of old veterans, I just kept a running record of all the code names as they appeared. By the time the book was published in 2009, there were still a small number of code numbers that I hadn’t been able to match up.

Apart from the code numbers, you also need to figure out where the troops are stationed. A lot of the martial law troops came from outside Beijing, and if you can’t find out where they were stationed, you have no way of knowing where they set out from and which route they took to enter the capital. In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, I charted out which routes all the different units took when they got the order to enter Beijing and how they were transported: by air, by train, and by just driving their trucks.

Same with information about commanders. When referring to the commander of a unit, they use they’ll say “the commanding officer of certain troops.” But “commanding officer” could be an army commander, a division commander, or a regiment commander.

So I spent a lot of time surfing the veteran message boards and keeping notes – for instance hometown association sites, or alumni groups. Sometimes I might spend a whole day and come away with nothing. Other times I got lucky. There were times when I got not only where a particular regiment was stationed, but also the name of the regiment leader. Sometimes I’d even get a whole name list. That’s why you’ll see in some places in my book that the lists of names are complete. Some people would post the whole name list of a unit that was enlisted together, say a whole battalion, from battalion commander down to everyone in each company and platoon — the whole lot. There were disappointments of course. For instance, I’d been tracking a particular officer for a long time and I wanted to know where he was in 1989, but then I’d find that he’d been discharged in 1988.

CC: How do you get into these veteran websites?

Wu: These websites are all open. Inside there are different sections, and the one “Seeking Old Comrades” is open to everyone — they’re notices of soldiers looking for their buddies, saying “I joined the 38 Army Group’s 112th Infantry, and I’m looking for comrades who enlisted at the same time.” Or “I was such-and-such soldier with such-and-such regiment, I’m looking for my platoon leader so-and-so from back in the day.” All those sections of the sites are open — but the private discussion area is not. You have to be verified before being admitted: for instance, you are required to report your personal information, which year you enlisted with what unit, and you have to provide two names of former military comrades. After you get admitted, you can enter the private chatroom. The numbers of people in there differ. The most popular in China are QQ chat groups. There are a lot of them. Because of my research I had the basic name lists of a lot of units, so I’d provide a name for myself and two for the old comrades and get in that way — it was quite straightforward. In the open segments of the veteran forums, people won’t talk about the June Fourth suppression, or if they occasionally do, someone else will come along and put a stop to it. But in the private chat rooms people do open up, and I was able to collect a lot of valuable information that way.

Announcements of governmental appointments is another source that yielded results for me: it would include a list of appointments and dismissals at various ranks, some of which contain curriculum vitaes.

Then there is Google search: one day I’d search for the 334th regiment in the 38th Army Group’s 112th Infantry Division, another day I’d look up the 335th regiment in the same division. You punch in the keywords, then just flip through page by page. The material is voluminous.

CC: You’ve lived overseas for all these years, how do you get your hands on officially published materials in China? Are there people in China helping out? 

Wu: For many years there have been journalists, readers, and other researchers asking me this question. Chinese-language media ask in an even more direct manner: Are there high-level people giving you top-secret materials, and is this how you’re able to write your books? My answer is: no. The material I’ve collected has primarily come from Chinese official publications in the wake of the crackdown, including triumphalist propaganda about how it was suppressed. Many people think these publications are beneath contempt, but for me it’s extremely valuable. These are all open source, published materials, and there’s no problem with taking them out of China. I don’t have internal PLA reports.

On a website for the veterans of the 14th Artillery Division of the Beijing Military Zone, someone mentioned the “Beijing Military District 14th Artillery Division Report on the Suppression of the Counterrevolutionary Riot.” A report like that would record the commands given by headquarters and the entire process of their being carried out, as well as the names of many officers and servicemen. Every participating unit had a report like this — this is the kind of material that I want to get my hands on the most, but I’ve never been able to get hold of one. The only thing I’ve found online is one chapter, the seventh, of the 38th Group Army’s official history. It was about the suppression, but anything that’s in the form of military history is already highly condensed and sometimes altered.

But there was one thing I received from an anonymous source that could be considered an internal document: it was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department, and it was called “A Compilation of the Personal Achievements of the Heroes and Model Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army” (《中国人民解放军英雄模范个人事迹汇编》), and it has a portion about June Fourth. Even though it wasn’t the sort of primary report I described above, it was still an enormous help. Specifically, with a few of the 37 “Defenders of the Republic,” I had never found out the units they had served in, and this compilation helped me resolve this problem.

CC: Who gave it to you?  

Wu: Because of my June Fourth research, I have gained a minor reputation online, and my biographical introductions often include my email address. This document arrived in my email around early 2009. In all sections but the June Fourth one, this person redacted all the names and the numerical designations of troops, even the parts listing the decorated combat heroes of the Korean War. By the way he or she was so careful about confidentiality, I judged that he was a military officer.


Liubukou in the morning of June Fourth.

CC: What other interesting moments have there been during your research?  

Wu: The most dramatic incident had to be the identification of Wu Yanhui (吴彦辉). I was trawling a veteran website when I saw a veteran from the No. 1 Tank Division. At the time he was working at the Hengshui Lao-bai-gan Liquor Distillery in Hebei province (河北衡水老白干酿酒集团有限公司) as a salesman, hoping to spark up some business with his old comrades. He’d often frequent the forums to chat with old friends. He said he was in Beijing in 1989 to put down the riot, and so he became an important target of mine. I’d often go back and look at the message log, and I followed him for a long time, collecting scraps of information about him. Bit by bit, I pieced together his identity: He was in the Tianjin Garrison Command First Tank Division, First Regiment, First Battalion, First Company, First Platoon—and he was the second gunner in Tank No. 106!

I was so overwhelmed, at the moment of this revelation, that I broke down in tears. This, to me, was a most shocking discovery. In the over 3,000 servicemen I’ve verified, he was a highly representative case, because this was the very tank that ran over students in Liubukou. So many people remembered this tank, including the wheelchair-bound victim Fang Zheng who lost both legs, and the Tiananmen Mother Ding Zilin. Back then someone wrote a note to Ding Zilin with No. 106 on it. I was there when the Liubukou massacre happened. It’s something you never forget. I recall that when we left the scene, we shouted: “Remember this tank! Remember this tank!” Now, finding this tank’s second gunner opened up the possibility of finding the driver and the commanding officer. Of course, those who held the most responsibility for what happened are the driver and the commanding officer, but finding the soldier in charge of the ammunition was a close clue.

In early June 2014 I shared about the process of finding Wu Yanhui on Twitter, and posted up his cell phone number. His number hadn’t changed. A fellow Twitter user gave him a call, and confirmed with him directly that he is indeed who I believed he was. This user then went on to describe the phone call on Twitter, which many users found fascinating. At least a few others called too, but he stopped picking up.


(Continue to Part Two of Two)


Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.




Yu Shiwen Hunger Strikes in Protest at Two Year Detention Without Trial For Holding Zhao Ziyang Memorial

China Change, May 3, 2016


YU Shiwen chen wei

Yu Shiwen and wife Chen Wei.

Shortly before June 4, 2014, ten citizens in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the late Communist Party leader who died under house arrest in 2005. Zhao’s crime was to show sympathy for students in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. The memorial was held in the open fields of China’s Central Plains, not far from Zhao’s hometown; now, all participants but Yu Shiwen (于世文) have since been released.

Mr. Yu was indicted on February 11, 2015, for “provoking disturbances.” But he hasn’t been sentenced, and is instead being kept in deplorable conditions as his health rapidly worsens. Both Yu Shiwen and his wife Chen Wei were college students in Guangzhou in 1989 and got involved in the democracy movement that took China by storm.

On March 9, 2016, Yu wrote an open letter to Ren Kai (任凯), the lead judge of the court in Zhengzhou, where his case was supposed to be tried, confronting his abuses and cowardice. Yu vowed: “I’ll hold you responsible for this for the rest of your life. You’ll be pursued by me forever, to the very ends of the earth.”  

On March 18, Yu was told that his trial had been postponed for the third time, supposedly approved by China’s Supreme Court.

On April 1, Yu’s lawyer Ma Lianshun (马连顺) submitted a complaint against the presiding judge and three other judicial personnel.

“The law doesn’t say who you can or can’t hold memorial services for,” the complaint said. “Moreover, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang were both former leaders of the Party and state, and made great contributions to the reform and opening of China. When Zhao Ziyang died, he was cremated at the Babaoshan revolutionary cemetery. Why can’t Yu Shiwen, who shared the same hometown with Zhao, memorialize the latter’s death? Why all of a sudden is it a matter of picking quarrels and provoking trouble?”


Participants in the public memorial took a group photo in front of Zhao Ziyang’s birth place, February 2014.

The argument continued: “None of the defendants [referring to the judges] independently exercised their judicial authority. They did not scrupulously follow the constitution and the law as required in China’s Judge’s Law. Judicial cases must be founded in the facts, the law must be the criterion for judgement, cases must be handled impartially, and judges must not bend the law to favor their associates or other officials. Refusing to exercise proper judicial judgement, detaining Mr. Yu for two years with the clear knowledge that he was innocent of the crime, and refusing to promptly exercise judicial supervision over procuratorial power as required by law—all of this, according to Article 399 of the Criminal Law, constitutes a crime.”  

On April 28 Yu Shiwen’s wife Chen Wei published an open letter to the president of the Supreme People’s Court Zhou Qiang (周强) titled “A Captive Who’s Neither Been Tried, Sentenced, Nor Released,” (《一名不审不判不放的被羁押者》) in which she wrote: “The procedures under which this case was heard are shockingly preposterous, and even the Supreme People’s Court played a special role in how it was handled.”

Chen wrote that every time the Guancheng District Court of Zhengzhou city postponed the trial, it provided Yu Shiwen’s lawyer with a letter saying that it had received the approval of the Supreme People’s Court for the “postponement.” Each postponement was for three months. But the court refused to give Yu’s lawyer an explanation of the reason for the postponements, and also refused to provide them the authorization documents from the Supreme People’s Court.

“Just like that, my husband became a non-person, a lonely prisoner that no one was responsible for. His fate was simply ‘set aside’ in this inconceivable fashion. His future, family, happiness, and career—all was taken away. His life was frozen, given over to an indeterminate ‘postponement.’”

“During  the nearly two years he has been held captive like this….in a tiny cell about 30 square meters, curling up with a dozen other prisoners in a long bed with little room to move around and only occasional yard time. You can imagine the torment and helplessness he suffers!”

“For my own part, every day is spent enduring bottomless anxiety. Yu Shiwen suffers high blood pressure, cerebrovascular disease, and in late 2012 he suffered a serious stroke. He suffered another stroke shortly after he was detained, and spent four months in the detention center hospital. My mother-in-law, 86 years old, is sick from worrying about her son. I can’t help but worry that she won’t live to see her son again.”

On May 2, the lawyer met with Yu Shiwen again, who had been fasting for nearly a week in protest against his treatment. Though extremely weak, Yu said he’s going to resist until the end—to use his death as protest, if need be. He said: “Tell my friends to take care! This is how I’m leaving!”



Prominent 1989ers Voice Support for Yu Shiwen

The Zhengzhou Twelve

The Torchbearers – Participants in the 1989 Democracy Movement Who Are Currently in Prison




The Two Tank Men

By Yang Jianli, published: December 7, 2015


Tank Man

In Washington, D.C. recently, my friend Alan Curtis invited me to watch Chimerica, which was written by the British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. The play focuses on finding clues to the identity of Tank Man, the iconic and still unknown protester from Tiananmen Square, and explores the contemporary relationship between China and the West. During my three hours in the theater, my mind repeatedly returned to Tiananmen Square, where I was a participant in the 1989 democracy movement, and a witness to the ensuing massacre.

The photograph of the Tank Man on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue confronting state violence is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. For more than two decades, people around the world have wondered what became of him. But both he and his fate remain unknown—though his name is thought to be Wang Weilin.

Twenty-six years ago, just after the massacre had taken place, the Chinese regime tried to use the photo of Tank Man as proof that the military had responded to the “thugs” with restraint. The world was not fooled. On the morning of June 4, 1989, I personally witnessed four tanks running over demonstrators at Liubukou on Chang’an Avenue. At least eleven of them were killed or injured. Among the victims was Fang Zheng, who lost his legs and now lives in San Francisco. My prison poem “The Unusual June” described what I saw at Liubukou: “Bloodying hooves of the iron beast / bodies flattened with angry eyes.”

In the famous scene caught by an American journalist, however, a column of tanks in fact showed restraint as it confronted the young man. It is possible that the soldier in the first tank acted not in accordance with military orders but out of his own moral conviction, and got punished for it. Indeed, Pico Lyer, writing for Time magazine, opined: “The heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.”

In Chimerica, the search for the Tank Man leads to a man named Wang Pengfei who is the brother of the tank driver, or the other tank man.

Wang Pengfei reveals that his brother was executed by the Chinese military for upholding his conscience. He tearfully cries, “My brother, the tank driver, he is also a hero!”

Although this is a creative imagining, it is not far-fetched. At that moment in Chang’an Avenue, outside the Grand Beijing Hotel, two brave young Chinese men came face to face. They both may have sacrificed their lives in ways unknown to outsiders. As I put it in “The Unusual June”: “Each one’s star lighting the other’s way to heaven.”

Heroic feats often happen in moments that go unnoticed. In June of 1989, the streets of Beijing witnessed many Chinese like Wang Weilin, standing face-to-face with soldiers. They may have been Wang Weilin, Xu Qin, Yan Heran, or Zhang Mingchun. When tanks were on the streets, some Chinese soldiers opposed the order to massacre. Chimerica reminds us that those who stand opposite us are not necessarily our enemies, and that common sense and conscience can prevail even under brutal circumstances.

I am convinced that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the general direction of China’s future can only be towards freedom and democracy. The dynamics of democratic movements do not exist only among dissidents. Although the Chinese communist regime has become increasingly unwilling to reform politically, some individuals within the system don’t wish to stand in the way of history.

In Chimerica, this unsung hero has sacrificed his life. In reality, those within the system who refuse to betray their consciences generally do not pay so high a price. They nonetheless need considerable moral courage to face the risks and pressure. Any police or military officer, and any one in the authoritarian state machinery, can be a hero if they are willing to “raise their guns an inch higher” when implementing an order of suppression. Their names may be unknown, but they will be heroes of the historical process. Just like the Tank Man.

Part of the pain in my heart I felt when watching Chimerica came from one very vivid experience. On the morning of June 4, 1989, when the troops were killing people at various locations in Beijing, I saw a soldier on Chang’an Avenue in front of the Telegraph Building. He was obviously separated from the troops, and he had no helmet or gun. He looked like a teenager. The people I was with chased him out of sadness and anger. I gave him a punch, and my companion Huang Liping gave him a kick. More and more people gathered and beat him up. Knocked to the ground, the soldier screamed: “I didn’t do it! I didn’t shoot!” Suddenly I realized that a tragedy was taking place. By then it was impossible to stop the violence. In desperation, Huang and I left the scene without looking back. A few minutes later, I knew from the loud voices behind me that the soldier had been killed. Huang and I silently shed tears.

That young soldier was perhaps one of the tank men in the opposite camp. Like all the soldiers, he had been forced to come to Beijing to massacre protesting students and citizens. Like us, he was too powerless to prevent the tragedy from happening. Out of conscience, he had probably refused to kill and chosen instead to be a deserter. If that was the case, he was a real hero.

But within the tragic events of the day, anger and irrationality got the better of me. I saw him as my enemy and struck him. This might be the biggest sin of my life. I cannot imagine the pain he suffered when he was dying and what was on his mind at that moment.

As I wrote in “The Unusual June”:

“Millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my life / millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my birth /millions of heads / like a grand explosion of planets /disappear suddenly, all at once /millions of steps / all disappear, little by little / Oh, my dearest”

“Every time / my poems cannot stop my tears / my agitated eyes and lacerated heart /all pain, not a disease / not even my compassion / I’m not an outsider.”

We have been living with this wound all these years. We should keep looking for the Tank Man, for Wang Weilin. And we should keep looking for the other tank man, who halted his advance. We should look for the loved ones of the young soldier who died in the violence in which I took part. I look forward to the day when I find his family and share with them my guilt: I too have been mourning him all these years.

Chimerica is an excellent play that has been performed in Britain and America over the past two years. More performances are planned, which will bring renewed attention to both tank men. Their stories have not yet ended, nor the history of which they are a part.

November 11, 2015


Yang JianliYang Jianli (杨建利) is the founder and president of Initiatives for China, a democracy advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. 

Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin

—- Dedicated to Wives of Dissidents

By Chen Mingxian, published: March 29, 2015


Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Editor’s note: Among Chinese dissidents and activists, this essay by Chen Mingxian (陈明先), a high school Chinese teacher in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁) and wife of Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌), has become a classic. Since reading it a couple of years ago, I have kept remembering it, and some of the imageries seem to have preeminently lodged in my mind. Few writings do that to you. Last fall, I finally had it translated but have not had a chance to edit it for posting until now. For some time, I have also wanted to interview a group of wives of Chinese political prisoners, but that desire has kept being pushed back because there is always something more urgent to do. Such is the lot of this community of extraordinary women: quietly they shoulder the emotional and material toll exacted on them by the absence of their husbands, caring for the old and raising the young, but they are no priority on anyone’s agenda. Liu Xianbin was a student in Renmin University (中国人民大学) in 1989, his participation in the Tiananmen Movement landed him in Qincheng Prison where he served 2 and half years.  He was again sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for “subverting the state power” and released in November, 2008, on reduced prison term. In June, 2010, he was arrested again and, in March, 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” The article was written shortly after Liu Xianbin was arrested in June, 2010. 



Several years ago when Xianbin was still serving his sentence at Sichuan Province’s No. 3 prison (in Dazhu county), Ouyang Yi (欧阳懿), a friend who had been campaigning tirelessly on Xianbin’s behalf, was constantly admonishing me to write something about the two of us. I thought there was nothing much to write. My meeting Xianbin was uncomplicated, not nearly as romantic as one might imagine. In November of 1993, I was teaching at Suining High School (遂宁中学), and Xianbin had just been released from Qincheng Prison (秦城监狱) in Beijing and was helping to watch his sister-in-law’s storefront. I would often go over to chat with his sister-in-law, and this is how Xianbin and I came to know each other.

And what did we talk about? I can no longer recollect. Although we both bore witness to the events of 1989, I was still full of curiosity about his experience that year. He was a man who had emerged from such suffering with energy and optimism intact. What more could he not endure? I thought. I felt so warmly toward him. He was unemployed and his household registration was with a village on the outskirts of the city, but at the time I was already coming to see that work unit and household registration were going to be largely irrelevant in the future. As long as he could support himself, I felt that I could support myself and our children.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Xianbin and I began dating in March of 1994. He had already left Suining by then, and he was shuttling between Suining and Chengdu peddling a kind of drink called Mango Tea. I have never cared very much about money, but seeing his unflagging hustle did please me.

In about May, Xianbin said that he would go to Beijing. Before his departure, we took a long stroll through Suining’s old, shabby streets. Xianbin feared that I would be lonely and suggested purchasing a black and white television, but I refused. He then suggested buying me a gold necklace, and again I was unwilling. Then we thought of going to sit for a photograph as a memento. We inquired at a number of photo parlors, but no one was willing to accommodate us. In the end, Xianbin and I spent an extravagant thirty-five yuans [about $4-$5 at the time] on a set of four black and white wedding portraits.

During the summer vacation my older brother’s family went to Beijing for sightseeing, bringing with him my letter and some clothing for Xianbin. They returned with a letter from Xianbin and a “Time Flows Swiftly as Water” cassette tape. In his letter he wrote how he sat alone in the park in dusk and how the distant strains of a piano reduced him to homesickness and tears.

On the 13th of September, we registered our marriage. Because Xianbin was in a rush to leave again, we didn’t have time to take a formal photograph and so we glued one of the black and white wedding portraits onto our marriage certificate. Xianbin took one with him to Beijing, and I kept the other three with me in Suining. Perhaps the separation was too painful to bear, Xianbin also had some plans for me to go to Beijing to look for job, but nothing came of them.

At the urging of Xianbin’s mother, we held a simple wedding ceremony on January 28, 1995. Xianbin’s dramatic turn from a student at Renmin University (人民大学) to convicted prisoner had been difficult for his mother to bear, and at last here was an occasion at which she could hold her head high. She said that throughout the wedding she had felt like singing. My own poor mother wept. She had learned Xianbin’s entire story only the night before the wedding. She had asked, helplessly, “how much farm land does Liu Xianbin own?”


I became Xianbin’s bride in a small room at the west end, neighboring the boy’s dormitory, on the ground floor of Jiguang Hall (继光楼) at Suining High School. Our new home was very simple: a portrait of us, twenty-four inch black and white, hung on the wall, and light filtered through the grids of green plastic glued to the expanse of window. Looking out from the window, one could see in the yard a big banyan tree, a small pavilion capped with green tiles, and an ancient bell. The bell had long since been abandoned and almost never rung before. The first morning after our wedding, Xianbin went outside with a hammer to ring the bell, like a child. With school out of session, the campus was quiet, and the simple, wholesome notes of the bell rang out long and travelled far.

Xianbin has mentioned this particular time many times in different settings. I think this must be because that small room and the ringing of the bell were among his loveliest memories; they came to stand for the rare moments in our lives where we have been free of care.

The bell in Suining High School.

The bell in Suining High School.

On the evening of the fourth day of the first lunar month, we returned from a gathering of Xianbin’s former classmates to find the door our small room ajar. All the things in the room were neatly and intact, but one of the two cameras resting on the writing desk had vanished. Xianbin believed that the curious restraint of our burglar could be accounted for with only one explanation: that the object of the theft had been the film rather than any valuables. And so our friend Chen Bin [Chen Wei’s younger brother] lost his camera, and we lost all the photographic record we had of our wedding.

Xianbin had already a sense of foreboding, but it made no effect on his mood. Although I was regretful, we were bereft of any recourse. Yet whenever the photographs were mentioned, I would wistfully imagine that they still lay in some safe corner and that they would return to us one day in the future.

I can’t remember how long Xianbin stayed with me after the wedding. He was always hurrying away and then suddenly returning. When he was gone, my heart would sink into some chasm where there would never be any word of him and my anxiety could find no accommodation. Perhaps our days together were too few in number, so that seeing him return suddenly, even after many years of marriage, would fill me with heart-fluttering shyness.

In the summer of 1995, Xianbin took me to Baoshi Middle School to see his good friend Ouyang Yi. At that time, Ouyang Yi was already a father. Teacher Luo, Ouyang’s wife, and I stayed at home to watch the toddler while Ouyang Yi took Xianbin to the homes of some local villagers to conduct surveys. After returning, Xianbin was full of excitement and wrote for several days.

When the police raided our home for the first time, we had already moved to the third floor on the east end of Jiguang Hall. It was a three-room, wood-lined apartment with a balcony and a simple kitchen and toilet. Though plainly furnished, it was our sweet home and it was there that Xianbin learned to cook.

In March and April of 1996, Xianbin’s sojourns were no longer so unrestricted. News of his returning would reach the police very quickly, and then he would be taken away for questioning. The questioning was often aggressive and threatening. Xianbin did not want to tangle with them and would later avoid coming back to Suining altogether.

Our reunions became ever more difficult. One morning in May, Xianbin’s mother came over telling me that Xianbin had returned, staying in her rental room on Small East Street. I rushed over and, furtively, I entered his mother’s room to see Xianbin sitting on an old bench paring a peach as he waited for me.

Liu Xianbin

Liu Xianbin

That afternoon, Xianbin took me to the park beside Suining First High School for a stroll. The park, sparsely visited, was safer than our home. We sat on a bench holding each other closely until dusk. For dinner, we ate “Feng Dumplings,” and then Xianbin took me to the bank of the Fu River (涪江). The riverbank was strung with garbage and rubble then, and few people would go there to walk about. We held hands as we walked back and forth under the weak lamp light. Xianbin decided to go into the city only after we had exhausted ourselves staying out late into the night. Having crossed many streets and alleys, we finally found, and checked into, a small guesthouse that did not require us to register for the night.

The police had not seen Xianbin for some time, and they must be very anxious. In early June, I received a telegram with news that my father was critically ill, so I hurried to my hometown in Renshou (仁寿). On the road, I noticed that there was a neatly dressed man who had been following me throughout my journey. He followed me from one bus transfer to another, and he would take out a dark object (it may have been a mobile phone) and huddle in a corner communicating something to someone. My intuition told me that they were looking for Xianbin. I later had proof from my sister-in-law, who not long after asked me: “Is there something wrong with Xianbin? Why did the police come here looking for you?”

Xianbin returned home upon the start of the America’s Cup in 1996, a weary bird returning to roost. The security police sought him out immediately upon hearing of his return. Xianbin’s old homeroom teacher from high school, now the school’s vice principal, knocked on our door, accompanied by a large entourage of police officers. The meeting of the teacher and the student was more than a little strained and awkward. Soon Xianbin was taken by Wang Yanwen (王延文), the brutish head of the domestic security branch of the local public security bureau, while the others stayed behind to turn our home inside out.

The police ransacked my bed!

The police scattered my clothing!

The police opened my diary!

The police was reading what I had written!

They had unscrupulously violated my privacy. It was as if I was stripped of all my clothes and thrown on the street for the first time in my life. Never in my life had I felt so humiliated. My entire body shook with rage and nervousness. Hidden against my chest was an address book Xianbin had passed to me, and I feigned calm while pacing the balcony.

The next day, Xianbin returned safely, and by then I had burned six heavy volumes of diary recording fourteen years of girlish youth and dreams.


At the end of May of 1997, shortly before our child was born, Xianbin put his travels in abeyance and returned home to stay. Seeing my heavy belly and struggling steps, he was secretly worried. One day, I went out to take a stroll on the street and, stopping at his sister-in-law’s storefront, began chatting so happily I forgot about returning home. He didn’t know what had happened and became as anxious as an ant on a hot pan.

Happy Familly portrait.

Happy Familly portrait.

On the morning of June 13, our child was born by caesarian section, and Xianbin could not contain his happiness. Every day, he busied himself washing clothes, making meals and looking after the baby. But before our child was a month old, he told me, “I have to take a trip, I will have my mother come over to help you.”

Xianbin left me some money for living expenses and left, seemingly without a care in the world. I didn’t know where he had gone, nor did I need to know, it seemed. But when he return again that autumn, he had tuberculosis flare-up. He was constantly coughing blood and had to be admitted to the hospital. I shuttled back and forth between home, the market, and the hospital with our child and a very heavy heart.

Xianbin had been very strong and capable, but falling ill made him vulnerable like a child in need of love and attention. I did everything I could, borrowing from family and friends to pay for his medical expenses and nutrition. After some time, I was too ashamed of approaching others for money and so, in exchange for a pittance, I sold the gold ring that Xianbin’s mother had given me. I will always remember the ache in my heart the day I paid my discreet visit to the tiny gold shop, thinking, “My love, I have nothing else left to save you!”

That was the second time Xianbin had tuberculosis. His mother was overwhelmed with anxiety, thinking of every possible means and trying out every folk remedy to drive the disease away. After hearing that there was a kind of herbal bath for treating the illness, Xianbin’s mother carried a large steel wok from Renli village (仁里场) several kilometers away to heat the medicinal water at our home. She kept giving us money out of her own scant living allowance. And in such a manner we struggled through those days.

The police also came to the hospital to see Xianbin, although I didn’t know whether they were visiting for other reasons. By the spring of 1998, Xianbin’s illness was in remission and he was well enough to recover at home. In April, we moved to a house near the school’s main gate. The house was in disrepair, but it was spacious enough to accommodate three rooms. This way, Xianbin’s father was able to live with us, looking after us for up to twelve years.

At that time, Xianbin’s father was 70 years old. He was still nimble, pushing our child everywhere in a bamboo stroller with Xianbin accompanying them. They would often take our child to the Northern Sichuan College of Education. The campus had a large garden with flowers in bloom year-round. When I was done teaching, I would often run over to look for them under the bobbing branches of the sweet-smelling tea olive tree where we gathered as a family. Having been there many times, those glorious golden tea olive blossoms, the tamarisk and the wisteria, fixed themselves in our hearts. After being released from jail, Xianbin more than once mentioned to our daughter that he had taken her to see the blossoms and birds call, but how could a thirteen-year-old girl recollect these tender memories of being with her father when she was too little to remember?

Xianbin’s health had not fully recovered, but he was nonetheless restless. As soon as the summer had passed, he traveled to Chengdu. Not long afterward, he had taken his bedsheets, his comforter, and other basic articles with him, as if he were planning to stay indefinitely. Our daughter was so young and in need of love, I redoubled my efforts trying to make up for the absence of her father’s affection and to ensure a happy childhood for her.

In December, Xianbin returned jubilant, bringing with him a fax machine. The fax machine needed to be connected to a phone before it could be used. And so we came to have a telephone installed in our home with the number 0825-2248222.

Xianbin could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the fax machine and stayed at home busying himself with it all day long. Meanwhile, the atmosphere around us became even more tense than usual: Officer Wang became ever more short-tempered, the searches of our home became more and more frequent, the duration of each police summon stretched longer and longer, often detaining Xianbin for 48 hours.

Later, a police car was parked outside our building day and night, and we could hear its noise from the third floor. With his movements monitored, Xianbin stayed at home without any way of printing out the essays he had written to transmit through the fax machine.

One day, I went out to buy groceries. Xianbin gave a draft of an article to me and I found a small shop and printed it, taking it home in the cloth bag I used for groceries. As Xianbin’s writing continued to be disseminated, the security police became suspicious and began to follow me. They confiscated the printing and copying machines belonging to the owner of the small print shop. I was taken to the public security bureau where I was interrogated for the first time.

Xianbin was infuriated by the constant harassment from the police and took our daughter with him to the Suining Public Security Bureau to protest. On December 19, at the Bureau’s main entrance, Xianbin refused to be interrogated, a flustered and frustrated Wang Yanwen (王延文) ordered several police officers to drag him away, tearing sleeves of his shirt. By January of 1999, the atmosphere seemed to have eased some and so Xianbin left Suining once more.

At the start of the winter vacation, Xianbin’s father returned to their hometown of Renli and busied himself in preparations for the Chinese New Year. My daughter and I had just each other for company, and we looked forward to Xianbin’s return. Although we had installed a phone in the house, Xianbin was very cautious and it had yet to ring for his wife and daughter. Two days before the New Year’s Day, Ouyang Yi told me that something had happened to Xianbin and he was being held at a detention center in Beijing. My heart, uneasy for days on end, finally sank.

My daughter and I rang in a desolate New Year’s Day in 1999. But I did not know then that that day’s void was just cracking open and that it would remain agape until 2008.


On June 13, 1999, when our daughter turned two, we had taken a family portrait. This is the only photograph of all three of us together that we have had. A few days later on the 20th, after our dry-daughter’s birthday dinner, Xianbin took another photograph with her in his arms. Who would have thought that this would be the only proof that he had ever held her close in his arms?

On July 7, the police burst through our front door and threw our simple home into disarray. Our daughter was still young and so was not very frightened. As he was being taken away, Xianbin held her tightly, just as he used to hold me each time before he left, as if we were parting forever (He was always saying goodbye, each time it felt to me as if it was for the last time). On August 6, Xianbin was sentenced to 13 years in prison and 3 years of “deprivation of political rights” for “subverting state power.” On September 3, he was sent to the Sichuan Province Number Three Prison in Dazhu County.

Dazhu was a small town in the east of Sichuan. I had never been there before. But over the endless stretch of the next ten years, my daughter and I squeezed onto trains and buses and bounced over rough roads time and time again. The road was treacherous and the bus trip full of dangers, I would clutch my daughter close, as if we were hurrying to make an appointment with death.

To distract ourselves from anxiety, my daughter and I would gaze at the mountains, the trees, the white mist rising from the slopes. My unease would subside only after the bus passed the foot of the Nine Dragon Mountain (九龙山) with its thick covering of hemp vines. In that isolated mountain town, we stayed in cheap lodgings charging 8-yuan a night and ate the simplest meals, and the three of us — my daughter, Xianbin’s mother, and I – each depending on one another.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining  High School together.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining High School together.

My first impression of jail was formed in the summer of 1995. Our good friend Chen Wei [1] was transferred from Beijing to Sichuan’s No. 1 prison in Gaoping District of at Nanchong City (南充). Xianbin and I went to visit him. In a long room like a cafeteria, Xianbin and Chen Wei smoked and chatted while clasping hands across a long and white-tiled counter. From then, I thought that all Chinese prisons allowed inmates and their loved ones to hold hands and talk to one another.

But meeting with Xianbin was not so simple. Only after passing through two gates and completing a long series of procedures were we allowed to meet in a room, under the watchful eyes of wardens. I realized then how childish and naive it was to think that Xianbin and our daughter could celebrate the Chinese New Year together in prison while he was serving his sentence.

The meeting room was on the third floor, a small, rectangular space created by bulletproof glass. Every time, Xianbin would come to the glass room from the other end, his face wreathed in smiles, and sit before us. Although we were face to face, we couldn’t feel each other physically, and we had only a half hour to talk through the phone.

On one Chinese New Year, I took a few of our nephews to see their uncle. We got lucky that year, and were given unexpected permission to eat hot pot with him. Xianbin and I sat beside one another for a full hour, and yet, surprisingly, neither one of us dared to reach out and touch the other’s hand.

Another time, when our daughter was seven years old, she joyfully ran into the glass room and hugged Xianbin. She then turned to me and made a face, saying, “Mama, why don’t you give each other a hug too?” Xianbin and I hesitated on either side of the doorway, both casting a glance at the prison warden before stepping forward, husband and wife, for our only embrace in ten years.

Xianbin had always been very reserved, yet his letters were always filled with tenderness. He sent endless lessons, drawings, and stories for our child. But once I realized that he would not be the first to read my letters, my own words became lifeless and formulaic. I would report on everyone’s situation at home and reveal very little of my own feelings — I did not want to let the public security or prison officials revel in my sorrow. But sometimes I did write about my sadness. Yet Xianbin did not seem to register anything. When I told him later that I was always weeping when I wrote to him, he was deeply surprised.

Around 2001, Xianbin wrote to me saying that he had grown plump. I was worried about his condition (he had not fully recovered from his tuberculosis). When I suggested that he make sure that he wasn’t suffering from edema, I also mentioned the Great Famine of the fifties in passing. The next time I visited, the prison official presented my letter to me with an air of great self-importance, criticizing me for saying “a nation of swollen bodies?” in it. “You are a teacher,” he said, “How could you say this?” I stood my ground and began to quarrel with him loudly.

After 2005, my correspondence increasingly became limited to captions of photos. I began the habit of using pictures to communicate with Xianbin. I would send, for instance, a photo of a red dragonfly flitting around the outskirts of the city, our daughter’s flute recital, and family Spring Festival gatherings. I hoped that Xianbin would be able to access some feeling of nature and everyday life from these photographs and so draw closer to us in spirit.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.


After Xianbin began serving his sentence, I thought that our lives would become peaceful: He would no longer be drifting around indefinitely without enough clothing or food, and my daughter and I would no longer be constantly scared and traumatized, passing our time helplessly.

Xie Jun (谢军, Huang Xiaomin’s former wife) and Luo Bizhen (罗碧珍, Ouyang Yi’s wife and also a teacher) had told me about how terrified their children had been to witness the public security officers ransacking their homes and then taking away their fathers. I was glad that our daughter was only an infant and did not yet understand fear enough to be harmed by the memory. I savored the peace that fell after the tempest our family had been through, and in the midst of this tranquility even felt some happiness.

Xianbin’s friends would occasionally come to visit. When they left, they would leave behind articles they or others had written about Xianbin. In between the work of looking after our daughter and supporting the two of us, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate these writings with careful attention.

But before and after June 4th every year, I would still be summoned and escorted, by an ill-tempered police officer named Zheng Dashuang (郑大双), to the school’s security office where I would be interrogated. Sometimes they were hostile and aggressive, other times wheedling. Perhaps it was my refusal to leave or denounce Xianbin that disappointed them. They would threaten to have me demoted to teach at a school in the countryside. But I was actually prepared to return home to farm, and so their threats held no force for me.

On the evening of May 28, 2001 (Xianbin had served nearly two years of his sentence by then), Zheng Dashuang arrived at my home with a large group of officers. They said that Xianbin had committed some illegal act while in prison, and that they needed to search our home to assist in the investigation. The police once again looked through every corner of our home, only uncovering the literary essays of Ouyang Yi and Huo Ge (火戈), and another letter written by Mr. Zhang whose first name I can no longer recall. As if they had seized upon something extremely valuable, they took me to the school’s administrative office and interrogated me until the small hours of the night.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Mr. Zhang was a Dutch national. As a young man he had been labeled a rightist. Out of sympathy, he had sent us one hundred U.S. dollars and forty Dutch guilders during the spring festival of 2000 as a new year present for our daughter. His letter was written in traditional characters, and his message extremely simple. But the police examined this letter for a long time, as if to unearth something from it. Seeing them treating a brief letter with such seriousness was actually quite amusing. But I had no desire to play audience to their particular brand of theater, and so I told them that I would return home because my daughter needed to be looked after. They took advantage of this weakness of mine, saying, “If you can’t explain yourself clearly you won’t be going home.” But I would never be able to explain things clearly to them! I refused to speak any more. Then they didn’t know what to do next. In the end, they drove me to a place north of the city and shut me away in a room.

The room was on the second floor of the building. There were a few metal-framed bunk beds, much like a student dormitory. It was empty and seemed as if no one had ever stayed in it. It was only by the light of the lamp outside that I saw that the bed in the center had a mattress. I crawled into it and fell asleep in my clothes.

The next morning, I woke to someone crying out “Time to eat!” and saw an elderly man pushing a bowl of rice porridge into the room through a small window. After eating breakfast I looked out through the window and could see the canopy of a large tree with glossy green leaves. The old man came back down the corridor twice, and, perhaps he thought I looked like a trustworthy person, he gave me a magazine to help me kill time.

At five in the afternoon, a plump woman opened the door. In her office, I filled out some personal information. Then, after asking if I had anything to add to the questions they had asked me the day before, she let me go.

Besides Xianbin’s father and my daughter, no one knew that I had been disappeared for twenty-four hours. When I contacted Chen Wei, he told me: “I was just released as well from the drug rehab!” It turned out that we had both been detained in the same place, only he had been held on the first floor. I asked him what he ate for lunch. “Potatoes!” he said. We both laughed uproariously.

Liu Xianbin's daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She's high school senior now.

Liu Xianbin’s daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She’s high school senior now.


At the end of 1999, the local public security bureau took out a large billboard on the plaza outside the Northern Sichuan College of Education celebrating their achievements. I heard they included a photograph of Xianbin at his trial. I didn’t go to see.

Word of my husband’s prison sentence slowly spread to the public. My daughter and I became the objects of pity, and I also became a figure that some avoided. At that time, associating with someone with a background like mine was dangerous if you were seeking to advance professionally or financially.

I broke off nearly all contact with my closest friends and relatives in my hometown so that their lives would remain undisturbed. My mother learned of Xianbin’s arrest and incarceration only in 2005 after Xianbin had been in prison for six years.

When Chen Wei was sentenced, his mother’s hair turned white overnight. For fear of subjecting my mother to the same distress, I took her to the garden of the Northern Sichuan College of Education and first gave her the news of Xianbin’s receiving a human rights award and the prize money he had won. Then I told her the actual circumstances of his incarceration and how my situation now were actually quite good. My mother was relieved. Although she was illiterate, she seemed to have understood everything. She looked untouched by age, peaceful and sage. It made me feel that perhaps all my anxiety over the previous years had been completely groundless.

Nonetheless, for many days, my mother hid in the kitchen, weeping. My daughter was not yet eight years old, but she had learned to comfort others. She said, “Grandma, don’t cry. Daddy teaches in the prison, he is doing very well!”

Although my daughter and I would only very rarely receive attention of my family in my hometown, we were still very lucky. On June 1st of 2000, Children’s Day, a retired teacher, also a “rightist” in the 1950s, discreetly came to our front door to give my three-year-old daughter a bag of plums and Wahaha, the sweet yogurt drink. Two of my friends, husband and wife, would often bring their child to our home to play with my daughter. For years they treated us like extended family. A doctor at a clinic on Yanshi Street (盐市街) was so sympathetic to me and my daughter that, every time we visited, she was always very attentive and then would ask for very little or no money. Chen Wei’s mother took her pension out of the stock market and insisted on lending us money to buy the apartment in Baisheng Courtyard. And elderly Mr. Deng Huanwu (邓焕武) came many times all the way from Chongqing to visit us and lent me the money to decorate the interior of the apartment so that we were able to settle into our new home in September of 2002. Although Xianbin could not be with us, our life in Baisheng Courtyard was very simple and happy.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2010.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2009. From left to right: Ouyang Yi, Chen Wei, Liu Xianbin, and Zhang Ming. All four were 1989ers, all four have been in prison, and their total prison terms add up to 53 years!

On June 25, 2002, the domestic security police summoned me once again, but in the six years following, it seemed as if the public security officers had forgotten about my existence (although I learned later that they had had me on their radar all the time). They only called me to the school’s administrative office twice. Once, a police officer from Chongqing came to investigate whether Xiao Xuehui (肖雪慧) had brought me American currency. The second time, the Suining police required me not to leave Suining while the Olympics were being held in China. I worked quietly, saving money and running our household; our daughter was healthy and doing really well in school.

On December 5, 2002, Ouyang Yi was taken away by the Chengdu police and was later sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion of the state power. His wife, teacher Luo Bingzhen, was heartbroken, and I did not know how to comfort her. In today’s China, all dissidents’ wives are likely to face the same fate. I didn’t know how our tears and sorrow could alter anything.

Compared to the interminable length of Xianbin’s sentence, Ouyang’s two years seemed fleeting. On the afternoon of December 4, 2004, the prison officers escorted Ouyang back to Suining, his hometown while Teacher Luo traveled to Chengdu to greet him. They missed each other. The local police officers had to bring him back into town. At the bridgehead of Heping Road (和平路), Ouyang’s former classmate Kong Jie (孔杰) and I finally met him.

Two years in prison left marks on Ouyang. As his slim body made its way toward us, I was startled to see what Xianbin would look like, in years later, with all the helplessness and desolation in and around him.

In my dreams, Xianbin returned to me in many different ways. In the earlier versions, I would dream of visiting him in prison and helping him to escape. In later dreams, he would come back, smiling, with his bag slung over his shoulder looking bedraggled. Still later, I would dream of hearing news that he was getting an early release but then I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of him. I think my dreams, over the years, had gone from hope to despair, and, in the end, there was neither but a certain elusiveness.

In September of 2008, Xianbin wrote to me telling me the exact date by which he would have finished serving his sentence. But I didn’t experience much joy as one might have imagined. For me and for him, freedom seems such an extravagance. Xianbin had spent ten years apart from me, how much time would we need to close the distance between us? I couldn’t bear to see him being helpless and lonely; could he bear to see me as hardened as alkaline soil?

I remember reading a passage about the wife of a Russian dissident. It says that her face could no longer register joy or sorrow. I think I too will eventually become like her, aged, numb, and expressionless, because it was only for one year, seven months, and twenty-two days from November 6, 2008 to June 28, 2010, that Xianbin and I were reunited. Now he’s gone again, we are once again on the interminable journey of walking toward one other.


Afterword: For reasons of length, I am unable to describe in this essay all the care and help I have received. All that I have lived through over the past 15 years is also the past, present, or future experience of the wives of other dissidents. And so I sincerely dedicate this piece to those women who were, are, or will be the wives of dissidents.

Baisheng Courtyard, July 14 – August 10, 2010.


[1] Chen Wei (陈卫), Liu Xianbin’s high school classmate, entered Beijing Industrial College (北京工业学院, now Beijing Institute of Technology) to study physics in 1988. In 1989, he witnessed June 4th movement as a student leader. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced for a year and a half and expelled from college. In 1992 he was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing the Chinese Freedom and Democracy Party (中国自民党). Between 1997 and 2011, he participated in organizing the Sichuan Democratic Party (四川民主党), signed 08 Charter, and was an important coordinator of non-violent rights activism. He was charged with “inciting to subvert state power” in March, 2011.  In December 23 of the same year, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors were four articles he authored – “Constitutional Democracy as Medicine for a Diseased System,” “Growth of an Opposition Key to China’s Democracy,” “The Trap of ‘Harmony’ and the Absence of Justice,” and “Thoughts during My Human Rights Day Fast.” 



Chen Wei’s wife waits for his return, July, 2012.


(Translated by Sophie J.)

Chinese original

The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (1)

By Fang Zheng, published: June 3, 2014


The Morning  in Liubukou

In the spring of 1989, I was a college senior in Beijing Sports College, and one of the tens of thousands of students who took part in the Tian’anmen democracy movement. I was in the Square most of those days.  I marched, participated in sit-ins, helped the rescue effort when students went on a hunger strike – there were 3,000 of them.  They began to collapse. And, after May 19 when Martial Law was announced, I was part of the student patrol to protect the square.

During the days leading up to June 4th, the atmosphere was getting steadily grimmer. The announcement broadcast to us after dark on June 3rd was threatening: the military will do whatever it takes to quashthe anti-revolutionary riot and clear out the Square.  I felt something would happen that night, I thought I should stay and, together with the last few thousand students, we should defend our ground in the Square.

We were scared, but at the same time I did not believe they would shoot us. Around 10 o’clock, the news of shooting and death at a nearby intersections came.  We also could see the gunfire and hear the shooting. We knew that the troops were very close and coming closer. The last few thousands of students gathered around the Martyr’s Monument surrounded by makeshift tents. Then I met a girl from my college. She was scared and wanted to stay with me. I told her to calm down. I said we had been completely peaceful and there was nothing to fear.


Click to enlarge.

Around 2:30 in the morning or so, about 100 soldiers, armed and in battle fatigues, came out of the Great Hall of the People. They made their way to the top tier of the Martyr’s Monument where the student command center was, and shot down the speakers. Sometime around four o’clock, the Four Gentlemen of the Tiananmen Square (Liu Xiaobo, Hou Dejian, Gao Xin, and Zhou Duo) reached an agreement for the students to leave the Square safely. After discussions and voting, it was decided that we were going to leave from the southeastern corner. At the time, tanks had already encircled us and bulldozed the tents.

Through a tank “gate” and then a passage of tanks on both side, the students walked away. The day had yet to break. I was with the last leg of the student  file coming from the north side of the monument. Behind me there were some more students. The soldiers beat them with the butts of their rifles to move them faster, and my sense was that they were ordered to drive the students away before a certain hour and we were slow-moving.

West Chang'an Avenue, the morning of June 4th, 1989. Click to enlarge.

West Chang’an Avenue, the morning of June 4th, 1989. Click to enlarge.

Leaving the Square, we turned westward on West Qianmen Avenue (前门西大街) because most of colleges in Beijing are in the northwestern part of the city. From W. Qianmen Ave. we turned north on a quiet street called N. Xinhua Street. Along the way, we saw smashed road  barricades, overturned vehicles, a burned bus skeleton, broken glasses, rocks, and blood stains. We walked slowly in a long file and shouted slogans. We even walked past a file of soldiers marching in the opposite direction without incident. Standing on the roadside and at the entrance of their Hutongs, residents told us what had happened the night before as we passed by.

I was walking with the girl from my school, and around six o’clock, we turned onto W. Chang’an Avenue that runs east-west across Beijing and passed in front of Tian’anmen, and kept walking westward on the sidewalks and the bicycle route on the south side of the street. We sensed no danger, nor were there any soldiers in sight. Suddenly we heard explosions, one right next to us, and with it, a cloud of green-yellowish smoke cloaked us. The girl fell in the sudden chaos. My first reaction was to pick her up and move her to the sidewalk. But there were five-foot-tall fences separating the sidewalk and bike route, and as I turned to lift her over the fences, I saw, through the fog, a row of tanks, three or four of them, speeding towards the students. One of them was already very close to me, so close I felt its main gun was right over my head. I pushed the girl hard against the fence.

"Le massacre du printemps. Collectif, Chine, le roman d’une revolution inachevee, Document Observateur, No. 7, Edition Hachette, Octobre 1989, p.116."

“Le massacre du printemps. Collectif, Chine, le roman d’une revolution inachevee, Document Observateur, No. 7, Edition Hachette, Octobre 1989, p.116.” Click to enlarge.

Next – it must have been just a matter of one or two seconds– I felt I was being squeezed and then dragged. I remember thinking, “Shit, I’m being run over.” With my shoulders and arms I pulled hard against the ground. I fell off and rolled to the roadside against the fence. My last visual memory was the white bones of my legs, and then I lost consciousness, first receding sound and then a bright spot moving farther away.

It wasn’t until 1999 that I learned of the existence of a photo of me right at that moment. A man was tying up my left leg, and others were helping. I didn’t see the photo until 2009 when I arrived in the U.S.

That intersection, I only learned later, was called Liubukou (六部口) where Xinhuamen, the entrance to the CCP Central Committee and the heart of Chinese leadership, sits at the northeastern corner facing Chang’an Avenue.  The greenish smoke, researchers found, was military gas. Eleven were killed in Liubukou and many more wounded that morning.

In the Hospital

Around noon on June 5th, I came to at Jishuitan Hospital (积水潭医院). Around me stood a circle of doctors and nurses who towered over me as I was lying on the floor, I learned later, in the hospital’s conference room with other wounded.

“Do you know what happened to you?” A doctor asked me.

“Did I lose my feet?”

They asked me my name and notified the school. That evening, people from my school visited and confirmed my identity. I was still going in and out of consciousness, ice bags were placed on my head and under my armpits to keep my temperature down, and someone brought a recorder asking me to leave my will. I recorded my name, the names of my parents, what happened to me, and I can’t remember what else I said.

On the 7th, the girl who was with me came to see me. I had been asking about her. After she lost consciousness, residents took her to their home, and she learned about my injury when she returned to school the day after. By the 7th, my mother, my sister, and my girlfriend also arrived from Hefei, Anhui province, to be with me.

Liubukou, the morning of  June 4th, 1989.

Liubukou, the morning of June 4th, 1989.

On June 9th, a few nurses came and said they had to hide me. Rumor had it that the military would be in hospitals searching for wounded students and even taking over the hospitals. “We can’t let the military take you away,” they said, “you are still in grave danger.” They pushed me around the hospital looking for a good place and finally they hid me in the elevator machine room in the basement. The rumors turned out to be false, but policemen from Xicheng District’s Public Security Bureau did come. I was brought to an office, three policemen and one hospital administrator asked me questions about my activities and how I was wounded, recording the interrogation in writing. Unable to sign it easily, I pressed my fingerprint on it. So the Chinese government has the first record of my account.

“Review”  and Refusal

I convalesced quickly. In about two weeks, I was able to sit on wheelchair and go to the bathroom by myself.  On June 24th, I checked out of Jishuitan Hospital and went back to my school where I continued to recover in our school hospital. The reason I wanted to go back to school so badly was because I didn’t want to miss the class graduation photo session which had been scheduled for June 24th. But I didn’t know – no one who came to visit me from school  told me – that they had already taken it without me.

I was very disappointed. I don’t know if they evaded me on purpose or not. If so, why? Perhaps they didn’t want me in the picture to permanently remind everyone of that summer. I have two class photos, one taken at the beginning of freshman year, and the other is the graduation photo. I was given a copy of it but was not in it.

On July 1st, most of the students graduated and left the school. Those who were held behind, myself included, were to go through the so-called “Double Qing” – qingcha (清查, thorough investigation) and qingli (清理, cleaning up) – to come “clean” of their involvement in the movement.

Cadres from the school’s communist party committee, its propaganda department, and administrators from my department began to visit me in my hospital ward. Once, twice, many times. They wanted to know how I got hurt.  So I told them.

They did not accept my account. “Why did the tank run over you, not others?” They asked. “You must have provoked or attacked it or soldiers, because a tank would go after you only under these circumstances.”

“There are witnesses who have seen it all,” I said, enraged.  “I also rescued a girl, and you can ask her. Before she fainted, we were walking peacefully hand in hand with students in front of and behind us.”

“We know the girl you talked about. We asked her, and she said she didn’t know what you did. She cannot prove anything for you.”

I was flabbergasted. “She at least knows that she and I left the square together, walked on the W. Chang’an Avenue together, and encountered the gas together. A tank rolled over from our side, she was rescued but I was injured. How can she not know all these? Also, when I was in the hospital, she visited me. At the time other teachers and classmates were also present, and they also asked about it.”

I don’t know what the school did to her, whether they applied pressure on her. In any case, she never visited me again, nor have I seen her ever again.

Two teachers from Beijing Steel and Iron College (now University of Science and Technology Beijing), one was Wu Bei (吴蓓) and the other by the family name Chai, came to my school to provide testimonies upon hearing my encounter with the school officials. They were at the Liubukou scene in the morning of June 4th, but the school didn’t accept their testimonies.

My own account of the event, one draft after another, had been rejected.

I was a student communist party member at the time. “As a party member,” the party official said to me, “you should keep the party’s interest in mind and yield to it. June 4th crackdown is in line with the party’s interest, and you have to make demand of yourself according to the standards of a party member.”

The party official claimed that “the interest of the party is the interest of the people.” I disagreed. “June 4th crackdown may be in line with the party’s interest, but it is not in the interest of the people. On this, the party does not represent the people.”

After the unsuccessful visits by school officials, many teachers whom I was familiar with came to give me advice one after another. “Give up,” they said. “For the sake of getting your diploma and for the sake of getting a job to survive, don’t say you were run over by a tank. You can say you were run over by a military truck, or even by an armed vehicle. As long as you don’t say tank, they will let you pass.”

Gradually I realized that the so-called “investigation” was all about getting me to obscure the fact that tanks had run over people. I refused to temper the facts no matter what. And from that point on, I considered myself to have withdrawn from the party membership.

Because of my refusal, the review on me lasted no fewer than eight months. In the end, the whole thing simply stopped without me knowing what conclusions they had made.

A Gold Medalist in the National Games for the Disabled

At the time, colleges still assigned jobs to each graduate, and before the student movement began that spring, I had already been accepted by South China Normal University in Guangzhou to teach sports theories. While I was in the hospital, the school sent three telegrams to the department asking me to report to work, but the school simply said “Fang Zheng is not available anymore for some reason” without giving them a reason why.

Meanwhile I stayed on campus waiting for a resolution of my future. After checking out of the hospital the school put me in one of the rooms that had been used for storing sports equipment at a far corner of the sports field. My younger sister came from Anhui to take care of me, while I helped teachers with various chores and got paid a little.

Fang Zheng at the 3rd National Games for the Disabled in 1992.

Fang Zheng at the 3rd National Games for the Disabled in 1992.

In 1991, I met a woman who worked with the disabled. She told me that Beijing Disabled Persons’ Federation was recruiting athletes to attend China’s 3rd National Games for the Disabled to be held next spring, and asked if I would interested in giving it a try.

It was an excited idea. Although I wasn’t a student athlete in the Sports College, I had always loved sports, and was well built. Living next to an equipment storage room and off a sport field was no small advantage. Instead of ping pong or swimming which I was good at before my injury, I chose the wheelchair discus throw and javelin throw for convenience, and I began to practice on the field day in and day out.

In March, 1992, I participated in the 3rd National Games for the Disabled held in Guangzhou representing Beijing, and I won a gold medal for both the discus throw and the javelin throw.

For months, the school had been pressing me to leave, and my sense was that, as the post-89 students came in, more and more were learning about my story. After the Games in Guangzhou, I didn’t go back to Beijing but went straight to Hainan island where, with the help of Wu Bei, I was to work for the real estate company her husband had operated in the new economic special zone. The school had never awarded me my diploma.

Nonetheless, the two metals installed a lot of confidence and optimism in me about the future. I might succeed as a disabled athlete. Given my background, my inclinations and my physical condition, it felt right and it would be a tremendous self-fulfillment.


To be continued:  Fang Zheng’s attempt to participate in his first international games for the disabled, invisible but omnipresent surveillance around him throughout the years, and his unexpected brush with the 2008 Olympics.  


The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (2), By Fang Zheng


(Based on Yaxue Cao’s interview with Fang Zheng in the summer of 2012. Translated by Y.C.)