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Hu Ping, November 19, 2018
Recently, there have been two hot topics in China: the Sino-U.S. trade war and the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening up.
We have noticed that many people in the system have written articles or made speeches enthusiastically praising Deng Xiaoping while covertly and in some cases even openly criticizing Xi Jinping. They believe that in bringing back lifelong leadership terms and the cult of personality, abandoning Deng’s policy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦) and promoting state-owned businesses over private firms, Xi Jinping has significantly deviated from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up.
For this year’s May 4th anniversary, Fan Liqin (樊立勤), a Peking University alumnus and an old friend of Deng Xiaoping’s eldest son Deng Pufang (邓朴方), posted a 24-page big-character poster in the Campus Triangle at Peking University calling Xi Jinping out for “going against the tide.” On July 24th, Xu Zhangrun (许章润), a law professor at Tsinghua University, published an article titled “Our Fear and Expectation,” which explicitly demanded restoration of presidential term limits and even the vindication of the June 4th Incident.
Also, some economic scholars criticized the boastful propaganda of “Awesome, my country!” that was launched a while ago, saying it invited the U.S. to begin the trade war and caused serious difficulty for the Chinese economy — with this they implied that the leadership was to blame. In the past six months, more people in the system are choosing to support Deng’s policy over that of Xi. Such phenomena has been quite rare during the six years since Xi Jinping took office.
Not long ago, on Sept. 16, Deng Pufang said at a conference of the Disabled Persons’ Federation that: “We must persevere in seeking truth from facts, keeping clear-minded, knowing our actual ability without being boastful or self-deprecating. We should adhere to our national conditions and plan all work based on the reality of being in the primary stage of socialism.” Anyone who is even remotely keyed in can immediately see who Deng is referring to.
Interestingly, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed similar views promoting Deng and opposing Xi in his Oct. 4 speech given at the Hudson Institute. Pence criticized Xi Jinping several times without naming him directly. For example, he mentioned that “China’s top leader” had visited the China Global Television Network (CTGN) headquarters and said that “the media run by the Party and the government are propaganda fronts and must have the Party as their surname.”
Pence said that when the United States decided to develop extensive economic relations with China, they had hoped that Beijing would allow its people to move toward greater freedom. At one point, Beijing did make slow progress toward giving greater respect for human rights. However, in recent years, China has turned sharply in the direction of controlling and oppressing its own people.
The vice president noted that now, “while Beijing still pays lip service to ‘reform and opening up,’ Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy now rings hollow.” Pence hopes that Chinese leaders will change course and “return to the spirit of reform and opening up” when relations between the two countries began decades ago.
Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek recently published an article titled “Will our future be Chinese ‘capitalist socialism?’” in which he mentions an anecdote told many years ago by a Chinese scholar who knew Deng Xiaoping’s daughter. “When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China. To their surprise, he answered: ‘No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.’”
We can’t confirm whether Deng Xiaoping actually said this before his death, but it would be in keeping with his legacy. In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Communist Party, and many other communist parties in Eastern European countries were pushing for economic reforms. However, while the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe moved away from dictatorship, the CCP held onto and even reinforced the Party’s authoritarian rule.
Deng Xiaoping played the most crucial role in guiding China to embark on a path different from these other communist countries. He differed from the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in that he promoted economic reforms while rejecting political openness.
Within the CCP, the forces demanding political openness were once strong and it was unclear whether the CCP would be able to maintain its authoritarian leadership. The reform of the communist countries, even if confined to the economic sector at the beginning, was symbolic of digging their own graves. Because the communist countries’ economic reforms were essentially equal to altering socialism and restoring capitalism, it effectively became a self-denial of the communist revolution and with it the communist dictatorship.
In the past, the only “magic weapon” for the Communist Party to suppress freedom and democracy was to accuse others as “bourgeoisie” and “taking the capitalist road;” but once the Communist Party itself consciously and openly took the capitalist road and became the bourgeois class, what other excuse would it then have to insist on communist dictatorship? In this way, even if they did not actively choose to change the system, then tens of thousands of people would do it for them — by demanding the end of one-party dictatorship and the implementation of liberal democratic reform. To paraphrase American scholar Adam Przeworski, the leadership couldn’t convince themselves to pull the trigger.
This is how the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of peaceful democratic reform. How did Deng Xiaoping resist calls for political openness coming from both outside and within the CCP? The answer is the June 4th Massacre.
As I said earlier, China’s reform is not one but two reforms. June 4th, 1989, was a turning point. Deng Xiaoping ruthlessly suppressed China’s democratic forces and led Chinese reforms in the wrong direction.
There is no essential difference between the Xi Jinping route and the Deng Xiaoping route. Xi Jinping’s actions are basically an extension of Deng Xiaoping’s political line, but he has deviated from it by bringing the pernicious elements inherent to Deng’s policy to extremity. In this regard, it is something of a positive sign that there are people in the system who oppose the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route and promoting Deng. The Xi route is indeed worse than the Deng route.
Furthermore, if Xi’s policies are stopped and he loses power, things will not simply return to the era of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. When Hua Guofeng (华国锋) arrested Jiang Qing and the other Cultural Revolutionaries, China didn’t just return to the pre-Cultural Revolution period; instead, a strong impetus brought China into a new era of Reform and Opening up. Similarly, if anti-Xi forces within the CCP strike down the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route, then the resulting political momentum would surely break through and beyond the boundaries set by Deng Xiaoping.
The June 4th Massacre was not just a brutal event, but an atrocity by many measures. Only by clearly recognizing this truth can we understand the nature of “Chinese characteristics” and the “Chinese model,” and what it means for the future of humankind if such “characteristics” and such a “model” are allowed to triumph.
Hu Ping (胡平) was one of the most respected and prolific dissent intellectuals living in New York. He edited Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China” for more than two decades before retirement. This article combines two recent articles (here and here) by Hu Ping, and edits were made for clarity and fluency with the author’s authorization.
Also by Hu Ping:
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. (This is one of the most read essays on this site.)
Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform? Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017.
Wu Renhua, June 4, 2018
The June 4 massacre once shocked the world — but because the Communist Party made it a forbidden area of enquiry, there are still numerous controversies around the massacre, despite it having taken place 29 years ago. Following are some of the major sources of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the events of June 4, 1989.
- Was There a Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing?
To provide a seemingly reasonable justification for the bloody military suppression in the capital, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities emphasized that a violent insurrection was afoot, and that the martial law troops had no choice but to put it down. To this day, the CCP’s claims still deceive a great many people. But in fact, proving false this lie of a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing’ is not difficult — one must simply take careful note of the sequence of events. It was only after the martial law troops had opened fire that the authorities called it a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion.’ Prior to this, they merely labeled it ‘turmoil in Beijing.’
In fact, not only was there no counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing, there was no turmoil either. The official mouthpiece of the CCP’s Central Committee, People’s Daily, reported following the military crackdown: “Beijing residents are much more civilized; social order is excellent.” The newspaper also quoted a Beijing Public Security officer who said: “The number of criminal acts that occurred during the student movement was less than the same period last year.”
The student movement had from the beginning been committed to peacefulness, reason, and nonviolence — and even after the martial law troops had opened fire and there were heavy civilian casualties, the members of the public who retaliated in fury at the slaughter only targeted martial law troops or their actions. After the incident, the CCP authorities produced ‘The True Facts About the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing’ and other propaganda videos — but the images of burning vehicles in them all took place after the martial law troops had begun firing on civilians. The images show that the apartments, stores, and even Party, government and military buildings on both sides of the road remained undamaged.
- Citizen Violence in Response to the Military’s Slaughter
After the massacre on June 4, the CCP used its control of the media to publish stories and broadcast news reports on a national scale, severely inflating the troop casualties. They created the impression that ‘hoodlums’ were at large, killing martial law troops and officers. The result was that many Chinese people believed that the troops opened fire in order to suppress a rebellion.
In response to this, I made a specific study of the deaths of martial law troops and officers, concluding that a total of 15 died, seven of whose deaths were due to violent retaliation by protesters. My important finding was that, according to official Party materials, the deaths of these 15 all took place after 1:00 a.m. on June 4, 1989. The time that martial law troops opened fire was around 9:00 p.m. on June 3. The earliest confirmed case of a death of a member of the public is that of Song Xiaoming (宋曉明), who was shot at around 9:00 p.m. on the sidewalk at Wukesong crossing (五棵松路口). From this the following conclusion can be inferred: The martial law troops opened fire and killed people first, and only then did members of the public respond with violence; that is, the killing by troops was the cause, and the violent response was the effect. Which took place first, and what caused what, is obvious at a glance.
- Whether or Not The Martial Law Troops Opened Fire and Killed People on Tiananmen Square
The CCP not only denies that the troops opened fire and killed protesters on Tiananmen Square; they even deny that they opened fire on Tiananmen Square at all. The spokesman for the martial law troops, Zhang Gong (張工), said in a June 6 press conference held jointly with spokesman for the State Council Yuan Mu (袁木) that: “Firstly, I would like to responsibly explain an issue to my comrades in the news profession, and I want to, through you, make this clear to every citizen of the capital and the nation; this is that between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on June 4, in the process of carrying out the task of clearing Tiananmen Square, there was absolutely no student or member of the public shot and killed, and nobody was crushed to death or run over.”
I personally experienced the clearing of Tiananmen Square. During the entire process, the sound of gunfire was constant. From the distance of just a few meters I personally witnessed two soldiers in the scout company of the 27th Army Group fire on and destroy the two large loudspeakers set up on the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the square.
The CCP denies that there were casualties on Tiananmen, and by doing so direct the focus of the June 4 massacre to Tiananmen Square — the goal of which is to, by denying casualties on the square, achieve the effect of denying any massacre at all on June 4.
At the time, foreign reporting, especially in Western media, were all calling it the ‘Tiananmen Massacre,’ not the ‘June 4 Massacre.’ The slaughter of June 4 indeed took place primarily outside of Tiananmen Square, and so the CCP’s spin on this issue indeed had an effect, leading some people to have doubts about the June 4 massacre itself.
Whether the martial law troops opened fire and killed people on Tiananmen Square itself, or outside of Tiananmen Square, makes no substantial difference and isn’t worth arguing over. But, because the CCP hyped the question of whether or not there were civilian casualties on Tiananmen into such a focal point and controversy, I made a detailed study of the matter simply to respond to the confusion on the part of the public. To date, I have verified that the following people died on Tiananmen Square: Cheng Renxing (程仁興), a student in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern Europe Studies (蘇聯東歐研究所) of Chinese Renmin University doing a double Bachelor’s degree; Dai Jinping (戴金平), a graduate student at Beijing Agricultural University; Li Haocheng (李浩成), an undergraduate student in Chinese studies at Tianjin Normal University. Among the survivors who were shot on Tiananmen Square, there is the well-known Taiwanese journalist Hsu Tsung-mao (徐宗懋) with China Times (《中國時報》), who suffered a bullet wound in the head, but was rescued and came out alive.
At the time, Party media made particular efforts to interview Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), Hou Dejian (侯德健) and others who were in custody at the time; during the interviews, they had them say that they’d not seen anyone shot and killed on Tiananmen Square. Because these were famous people and they’d indeed been there when the square was cleared, those statements led many to believe that indeed no one was killed on the square. The problem is that Tiananmen Square has a surface area of 44,000 square meters, and the clearance took place from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.; lines of sight were obstructed, and even if one were present, how would it be possible to see everywhere the entire time? I was also there through the square clearing, and had an excellent vantage point, sitting at the top level of the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — but the most I can say is that I didn’t see anyone shot. I certainly can’t say that, through the entire process of the square being cleared, no one was shot in Tiananmen Square at all.
- Were There Orders to Open Fire? Who Ordered It?
A key factor in determining responsibility for the Tiananmen Massacre is whether the troops received orders to open fire on students, and if so, who issued these orders. This is one of the reasons why the CCP goes to such lengths to keep this information classified. None of the major figures involved in the decision — Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng — were willing to own up to their roles, and their children are doing all they can to exonerate them.
My research concluded that the martial law troops did not shoot their weapons on their own; they were ordered to open fire. Per instruction of the State Council, then Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong (陳希同) made a report on June 30, 1989, during the eighth meeting of the the 7th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, titled “A Situation Report on the Suppression of Unrest and Counter-revolutionary Riots.” In the report, Chen said that “Having sustained heavy casualties and being pressed to the limits of their endurance after giving multiple warnings, the martial law troops were left with no choice but to follow orders and fire warning shots, then counterattack to neutralize a number of violent rioters.” The phrase “follow orders” indicates that there was a command to open fire.
Other sources support this. The martial troops invariably opened fire only after being ordered to do so, despite prior encounters with civilian resistance. Before deployment, some commanders held multiple briefings telling their men not to open fire.
The book One Day of Martial Law (《戒嚴一日》), compiled by the cultural office of the PLA’s General Political Department, includes least 10 articles by martial law soldiers in which there is mention of orders to open fire. Lt. Col. Fu Shuisheng (傅水生), a joint logistics officer in the Beijing Military Region, wrote in the article Eight Unforgettable Days and Nights (《難忘的8天8夜》) :
“Around midnight [on June 4, 1989], senior military officers went to the Great Hall of the People, followed shortly by some government officials, to draw up strategic plans to clear the Square. Working to avoid confrontation and bloodshed, the generals and Party leaders stayed up the entire night. Around 1 a.m. [in the early morning of June 4], two officers from a brigade, bleeding and wounded, reported to headquarters that their troops had arrived at the designated pointed. When a senior commander asked how they were doing, they replied that the troops had taken heavy casualties while advancing on foot, and that their supplies had been seized or destroyed. ‘Why didn’t you fire at them?’ [the senior commander asked]. They responded, ‘We were instructed not to fire our weapons.’”
The “headquarters” mentioned here refers to the command center established in the Great Hall of the People to plan for clearing the Square. In another article, Back to Beijing (《再度京華》),” Maj. Gen. Wu Jiamin (吳家民), commander of the 40th Army, wrote: “On June 3, at 11:10 pm, someone in civilian clothing demanded to see me, claiming to have important instructions. I met him, and he produced documents identifying him as vice director of a high level department and was there to relay some instructions from his superior. We were ordered to arrive at the designated zone without fail, and given permission to take decisive actions should it be necessary. Right after he finished talking, we received further instructions from the military district’s frontline command informing us that the martial law troops on Wanshou Road (萬壽路) had fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and secure their path of advance quickly.”
The order was issued around 9 p.m. on June 3. As it was issued in person rather than through military radio channels, it is likely that they did so to avoid leaving any material evidence. The directive came from the very top of the Party, first authorized by Central Military Commission chairman Deng Xiaoping, and passed down to lower levels. Yang Shangkun, then in charge of the CMC’s routine work, was prudent to avoid personally issuing the command; therefore, it must have been a group decision by key members of the Politburo Standing Committee — Li Peng, Qiao Shi, and Yao Yilin, with Deng’s approval.
- How Many Died?
How many people died in the Tiananmen Massacre is still unknown. Naturally, CCP and unofficial sources are at complete odds regarding the figure.
There are two versions of the official, Party-approved story. One is that of Yuan Mu, the State Council spokesman. On June 6, 1989, at a press conference at Zhongnanhai, he said that “according to incomplete statistics which have been verified repeatedly, the situation is as follows: PLA forces suffered 5,000 wounded; while locally (including crime-committing rioters and innocent bystanders unaware of the circumstances), there were 2,000 wounded; total military and local fatalities number about 300, including soldiers, bandits who got their just deserts, and collateral damage,” and “one figure of which we can be confident is that as of now, there were 23 dead across the universities of Beijing.”
The other official source is the aforementioned report made by Beijing mayor Chen Xitong before the NPC Standing Committee on June 30. Per the report, “including soldiers of the martial law troops, armed police, and public security law enforcement officials, about 6,000 were wounded and several tens killed in action,” and “according to information available at present, there are about 3,000 nonmilitary wounded and over 200 dead, including 36 university students.”
Clearly, there is something wrong with the official explanation, given the discrepancy between the figures cited by Yuan Mu and Chen Xitong.
Unofficial estimates vary wildly. The earliest figures came from a report by Red Cross Society of China, saying that 2,600 people were killed. I heard of this number on June 4 as I vacated Tiananmen Square with other students; it later circulated widely. But it’s unlikely that the Red Cross in China would have published real figures.
Zhang Wanshu (張萬舒), who was the director of the domestic department of Xinhua News Agency in China during the events, gives a very exact figure. In “The Big Bang of History” (《曆史的大爆炸》), published in 2009 in Hong Kong, he said, “Comrade Liu Jiaju (劉家駒), veteran editor of “People’s Liberation Army Art and Literature,” told me that he had it on good record from Tan Yunhe (譚雲鶴), CCP secretary and deputy director of the Red Cross Society of China, that the total number of deaths in the June 4th incident was 727, including 14 military fatalities and 713 local dead (among them students and ordinary civilians). He examined every corpse.” According to Zhang, this “is probably the most credible figure.”
This is incorrect, however, because not all corpses went through the hospitals. Some were taken by the martial law troops and public security authorities to be disposed of secretly. For instance, the Tiananmen Mothers (天安門母親群體) looked into 202 victims of the June 4th incident and found that the bodies of eight of them had never been found. I have some additional evidence on hand that is beyond the scope of this article.
Information from American and British diplomatic sources concerning the scale of the June 4th incident has been declassified in recent years. The British document claims that the death toll reached 10,000. The sources are ambassadorial staff on assignment in Beijing who got their information secondhand. Given the conclusions I arrived at in my own research and documentary work, I am not prepared to accept these numbers at this time.
In his book Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, eminent Canadian sinologist Timothy Brook collected statistics from 11 hospitals throughout the early morning of June 4, counting a total of 478 dead. Extrapolating this figure to cover the hundreds of hospitals in the Chinese capital, he came to a probable total of about 2,800 dead. I found myself in particular agreement with the following passage from his book:
“Do we need to decide between three hundred and three thousand? From a distance, either death toll is atrocious: the number hardly matters. From close up, however, even one death is too many, and the omission of one in the final count is a terrible lie. The quantity of killing matters most to those who died and who mourn them. Not to be counted is to be lost forever.” (p. 152, Quelling the People, Stanford University Press, 1998)
As a scholar of the June 4th Massacre, I have often been pressed to produce a statistic on how many died that day. I am not willing to give a final answer, since there is no way of determining the number. In the last few years I have been looking into this matter by investigating Beijing’s hospitals — over one hundred locations — one by one. Though a definitive conclusion continues to elude me, at least I have been able to make a general assessment.
Translated from Chinese by China Change:
六四屠殺的焦點問題, 台灣思想坦克網站， 2018年6月3日。
About the author: 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 in the United States later that year. 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.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Part Two
Liao Yiwu, June 2, 2017
(Continued from Part One)
LIAO: I’ve heard some people say that if they had known blood was going to be shed, they would not have resisted.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was the student’s Command Center that turned us over [to the authorities]. The guy who headed the UAA Guards was called Guo Haifeng. He told us his name himself — you have to give him credit for being pretty open and candid. He said that the UAA standing committee members took a vote, with the majority deciding to send us off to the Public Security Bureau of the Eastern Quarter Branch Tiananmen office. He had strongly opposed the decision. After an impassioned debate, he was overruled and, what’s more, charged with the task of delivering us into the hands of the police, since he was the UAA Secretariat. I assured him it was alright and, cleaning out my pockets, handed him for safekeeping the two-thousand yuan we had left. He wrote me a receipt on the spot, and he asked the police to provide proof that we had been dropped off. We got into the patrol car in a downpour. The police put the handcuffs on us. Guo stood in the rain for a long time.
LIAO: Could you have escaped at some point during the uproar?
YU ZHIJIAN: I definitely could have slipped away starting when we did the deed at 2:30 p.m. until the cops got their hands on us in the early evening. Not sure about the other two. But why should we run away? We were mentally prepared to shoulder the consequences.
LIAO: What next?
LIAO: The next day, we were transferred to a detention facility. The entire place was empty. There was only one other guy in my cell, an inveterate thief. The guy took everything at his own pace and stayed put; he even asked me to help him to get a drink of water. I really wanted to keep abreast of the movement, but I was completely cut off. I think it would be fair to say that the entire judicial and enforcement system of Beijing was half paralyzed. I barely even saw the wardens in that place. They must have all been watching the power struggle at the highest echelons of the Party to see where the chips were going to fall, to know which way to turn.
LIAO: No prisoner could have ranked higher when it came to incurring imperial displeasure than your gang. You weren’t interrogated overnight? What the..?
YU ZHIJIAN: For the two weeks before and after the massacre, never mind interrogation, no one even bothered with us. I spent the day just lying around. God, my bones hurt from sleeping so much. Thank goodness I am pretty lazy and laid-back by nature; I’d perfected my sleeping technique early on, and I don’t overthink when I run into problems. If the sky is going to cave in, and you keep holding on to hope that it won’t, all that stressing isn’t going to get you anywhere.
The first wave arrived bright and early on June 4. All dedicated youth and college students, averaging no more than twenty. By June 5, so many people came in they filled up the empty cell. The wardens kept stuffing them in after we reached capacity. It’s a good thing people are made of flesh and can expand and contract.
We were formally arrested on June 15. The paralyzed judicial and enforcement system, like me, woke up from a dream and recovered, at a moment’s notice, its vicious capacity to churn at high speed. Wanted notices and announcements went up everywhere, and checkpoints for sweeps flourished. The red terror was comparable to 2003’s SARS epidemic outbreak, when you would have trouble spotting anyone on the street. The sterilization of thought, it turns out, isn’t that different from sterilizing the body.
LIAO: I’m picking up some Taoist vibes here — the state of letting things take their course.
YU ZHIJIAN: In the middle of the night on June 3, gunshots went off outside the walls of the detention center. It was like someone was sautéing peas and woke me up. Fuck! They finally opened fire! These bastards only dogs would fuck went and opened fire! My premonition, Dongyue’s premonition, all came to pass. As they say, political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. This is how the CCP rose to power. Students and intellectuals had no chance in this game against seasoned and murderous players. I could not sleep that night and strolled around my cell until darkness began to lift. Anxiety had all my muscles twitching involuntarily. The thief, very nicely, talked to me about it: What can you do about our country plunging into chaos? Agonizing won’t help any. It’s not like a bursting bladder – just let it out and you’re done with it.
Given the unrest, the Beijing police were not to be trusted either, so the detention and intake facilities were all taken over by the army. The soldiers, coming fresh from airtight brainwashing, bared their teeth and claws and no rules bound them. They thrashed both students and residents within an inch of their lives. When I was getting turned over to the detention center after our arrest, a soldier dangled me like I was a newborn chick and threw me several feet away toward the military jeep. As that wasn’t enough for him, he raised his automatic rifle and whacked my face with the butt, and I spewed out a mouthful of blood. You see this false tooth over here? That’s the replacement for the one I lost then and there.
LIAO: This detention center you were at, was it the Tortoise Building?
YU ZHIJIAN: Yes. Lots of Tiananmen ‘insurgents’ were locked up there.
LIAO: And that includes you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Since we didn’t get around to starting fires and blocking military convoys, we had to content ourselves with being “rapists of our Great Leader.” After five months’ of protracted proceedings in the Tortoise Building, a secret trial was held in the basement of the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
LIAO: No sunshine for this trial, I see.
YU ZHIJIAN: The fuckin’ thing was just going through the motions. The crime was there for everyone to see, and what defense we had no one was around to hear. It was over in under two hours. The sentencing was postponed for a week, and then we received the sentencing document.
LIAO: As perfunctory as that?
YU ZHIJIAN: I forgot what statements Decheng and I made. Dongyue’s was the most intriguing. He argued that we had no political end in mind, we were merely finishing a piece of artwork.
LIAO: Performance art?
YU ZHIJIAN: You got it. That’s what Dongyue called it. And the greatest of this century to boot. People would only truly comprehend the full scope of its meaning after years and years.
LIAO: As a piece of political pop art that ended an entire era, personally I think it will become part of the art history of our time.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Laughing). This one went right by the prosecutor and the judge. They couldn’t make head or tail of what Dongyue was saying and, looking like asses, blew their top. They seriously thought he was messing with them. Even the defense lawyer dropped the act and kept interrupting him.
LIAO: That’s priceless. The mood in that courtroom is clearly a part of the performance art by extension.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Chuckles).
LIAO: Did you try to figure out the outcome before that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Everyone was bored in prison, so folks spent a lot of time analyzing our case and peering into crystal balls. You’ve got phrases coming at you like “premeditated and calculated violation, doing the dirty job willfully in the face of great odds,” “with extremely blah-blah means and extremely blab-blah consequences.”
Anyone familiar with the Criminal Code can tell you, when the prosecuting docs specify “especially grave crime and especially vicious particulars,” your head is hanging by a hair. (Sighs). Waiting for death was hard. I even wrote several last notes, for my older sister, my baby brother, and my parents too. Looking back, I was a bit of a wuss: causing them hurt, how sorry I was, hoping they’ll put this unfilial son clear out of their minds, belief that posterity would come to understand what we did and how we had stood up and done something we could stand by, and so on.
LIAO: Somewhat contradictory.
YU ZHIJIAN: You thought one thing one day and something else the next. It was no small thing – confronting death and the empty abyss of it. Terror when you wake and more of the same when you fall asleep. And tears flowed too. But I did not regret doing what I did.
LIAO: When the sentencing document was handed down, you were relieved nonetheless….?
YU ZHIJIAN: The stuffing just about went out of me. What novel did I read this in? The death knell of dictatorship sounds in my ear already! Liberty is before me and all I have to do is to reach for it.
LIAO: Maybe Dongyue was right. That completed this unparalleled performance.
YU ZHIJIAN: I got life and spent 11 years and 6 months in jail. Decheng got 16 years and did 8 years and 8 months. Dongyue got 20 years and, clocking in at 16 years and 9 months, was actually the last one they let out in the end.
LIAO: You didn’t appeal?
YU ZHIJIAN: We didn’t have the death-wish. Year end, 1989, we were sent back to Hunan and kept in the prison in Hengyang.
LIAO: Were you beaten in there? Kept in solitary confinement?
YU ZHIJIAN: Dongyue suffered a lot of torture. One time, after the cops took him apart, a bunch of us protested with a three-day hunger strike. But the authorities refused to apologize. I’d never been put in solitary confinement, but half of the time before 1992 I was locked away under the Disciplinary Team. Pretty horrifying.
LIAO: You were acting up in there?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was new and didn’t have a good grip on how things stood. I told everyone I ran into about the people who died in the massacre, how autocratic and vicious the Communist Party was, hardly stopping to catch my breath. To top it off, I didn’t do the work, all caught up in analyzing the development of current events with other political prisoners. The authorities gave me repeated warnings, which fell on deaf ears, so they announced I was now under “Strict Discipline.” I was beaten up five or six times. This one time the two cops grabbed me and hammered away with two tasers. I fended them off just a tad and then went limp. Fists and steel toe boots flashed like lightening, and had me rolling on the ground. I was wearing quite a decent outfit; after the beating, the whole thing was in rags. I lied there without a stitch on. I had no fractured bones, so you can say they held back, given how brutal all Hunan prisons were.
Eventually I wised up and didn’t fight back at every goddamn turn. But there was one point I wouldn’t give way on: I was a political prisoner and RTL was not for me. After a while they also made sure an experienced inmate would be there to team up with me, set up the master-apprentice connection. The most I ever did was to stand by and watch the guy work. And then I would huddle in a corner, or chat up other prisoners.
LIAO: Were you held in Hengyang Prison the entire time?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was later transferred to Hunan No. 3 Prison, also known as Yongzhou Prison; Yu Dongyue was transferred to the No. 1 Prison, which specializes in locking up politicals. It’s got a reputation as the most savage prison in Hunan.
After 1992 I heard about Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” and I really started analyzing it, concluding that, basically, China has entered the equivalent of the Soviet’s pre-Brezhnev era. We’re in for a long, dark ride. Around that time I also started feeling dark, and time passed slow.
But for all that, we still have to get by. I told the jailers that my specialty is teaching — so they took me out of the steel workshop and put me in a classroom. On a regular basis I gave literature classes to inmates, all the way until I was released.
LIAO: I guess that counts as a silver lining.
YU ZHIJIAN: Of the three, Lu Decheng was the luckiest. He fled from the Yunnan border to Thailand, even though he risked being picked up and sent back. But what Yu Dongyue went through was too cruel. On the day he was released, I called a few democrat friends to go pick him up. It never occurred to me that he’d be like a broken block of wood, completely another person from the radiant and joyful Yu Dongyue that I knew from before. I was yelling “Dong, dong, what’s going on? Don’t you recognize even me?” No reaction. When he did react, he’d suddenly drop to his knees and clutch my legs, yelling “spare my life! spare me!” I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. The June 4 incident is just too much. The historians and political scientists can worry about a comprehensive examination of it. What I’ve never been able to shake all this time has been Yu Dongyue. I’ve always felt that I’ve the one who ruined him.
LIAO: I read some reports on the internet about what happened. People in China and abroad have been raising funds for his medical care. How is he doing now? He doesn’t even recognize you? That’s incredible.
YU ZHIJIAN: He doesn’t even know himself. If you ask him, “Who is Yu Dongyue?” he just gives you a blank stare. He can’t recall.
YU ZHIJIAN: Nobody knows what kind of hell and trauma he went through in jail. There’s no saying they didn’t give him some kind of drug in there. You know how even today so many people worship Mao still; a lot of taxis have Mao’s portrait hanging over the driver’s seat as a talisman.
LIAO: Will how he lost his mind stay an unsolved mystery?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to say. There were so many other prisoners in Yongzhou with him, it shouldn’t be that hard to find out who the perpetrators were. Just recently, Public Security put me away in criminal detention for 32 days on charges of incitement to subversion, after I published a handful of ‘reactionary’ pieces on the internet. After I came out, I took a short break for a couple of days, then went to visit Dongyue at his home 70 kilometers outside the township. Well, his mood is a bit more stable now since he’s been out so long, so he doesn’t kneel in front of whoever happens to walk through the door anymore. But his eyes are still dazed, and you can’t talk loud around him, or he gives a shiver and falls on his knees again. His family is constantly trying to help him get his memory back, talking about so-and-so from what year, and this or that neighbor. For a moment it would look like he realizes who he is, but then he’d turn around and forget right away. It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez — all the characters live by themselves in this dreamed-up space. Dongyue used to think the world of that book; none of us knew he would one day end up in it.
Occasionally I’d take him with me when people in the movement met up. Look at this photo, there, the one in the middle, that’s him. Even when photos were being taken he’d be muttering along, and it’s like there is absolutely nothing in front of him, and he’s aware of no one around him.
LIAO: Quite a festive-looking picture you’ve got there. Who are all these people?
YU ZHIJIAN: My wedding. A lot of democrats came to celebrate.
LIAO: Congratulations! How do you plan to make your living now that you’re married?
YU ZHIJIAN: I’m not sure. To sum it up, we’ve got no house, no pension, insurance and such. Chugging along on luck. Our primary source of income right now is tutoring. The number of my students goes up and down so it’s not stable. Average income each month is less than a thousand yuan.
LIAO: Have you ever thought about going abroad?
YU ZHIJIAN: What for?
LIAO: Freedom. This country is run by such a band of thugs.
YU ZHIJIAN: But at the end of the day this is the land where I was born and raised. I can’t go through with breaking away.
LIAO: You have a great attitude.
YU ZHIJIAN: No one can rob me of my inner freedom. As far as things at home go, you’re always going to rub each other the wrong way here and there. But romantic love, the love of your family and friends — these are our eternal verities. I’m slowly adapting to the world out there. We’re all average nobodies who have to roll with the punches. But compared to the other average nobodies we’ve got our June Fourth complex that you can’t rub out, so we still have the impulse to take on the fears the government hangs over everyone’s heads.
LIAO: What is your biggest fear?
YU ZHIJIAN: The future. I don’t see a future for our people, our society. Will the price we paid, the hot blood that spurred us on, dwindle to nothing, a mere joke? Is our fight to stamp the memory of those who come after us a self-indulgent wish, doomed to failure? It may well be that the very fact we ever existed inconveniences those who are feted and successful whenever and wherever. (Sighs). Let’s let it go. Got to get by first. Thinking too hard about these things gives you a headache.
LIAO: Are you planning to have a child?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to afford. Not in the cards for now.
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989
Liao Yiwu, June 1, 2017
On the afternoon of May 23, 1989, sitting at home in a small town in Sichuan, poet Liao Yiwu watched in awe scenes from Beijing just after “three hooligans from Hunan” threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong, sized 6 by 4.6 meters, hanging on Tiananmen (the Gate of Celestial Peace). Increasingly astonished and impressed, once the full significance of the act sunk in Liao Yiwu came to regard it as the most singular event during the 1989 movement — second perhaps only to the Tank Man. Liao himself, a rebellious poet publishing in underground magazines during the 1980s, would be imprisoned too for writing and performing a long poem titled “The Massacre.”
On a sultry and airless day in Changsha, June 2005, Liao Yiwu interviewed Yu Zhijian (余志坚), one of the “three hooligans from Hunan.” The other two were Yu Dongyue (喻东岳) and Lu Decheng (鲁德成). In 1989, Yu Zhijian was sentenced to life in prison and eventually served 11 years and 6 months; Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 16 years and 9 months; Lu Decheng was sentenced 16 years in prison and served 8 years and 8 months. Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue fled China in 2008, and eventually settled in Indianapolis as political refugees. Before them, Lu Decheng settled in Canada.
When the student movement began in Beijing, 1989, Yu Zhijian was in his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan Province. The year earlier he had resigned from his teaching job in the countryside, and since then had been loafing with his childhood friend and neighbor Lu and college classmate Yu Dongyue. Our excerpt of the interview begins from this point.
In memory of Yu Zhijian, who died on March 29, 2017, in Indianapolis.
— The Editors
LIAO: They both had jobs, didn’t they?
YU ZHIJIAN: Lu was a bus driver and Yu was a reporter at Liuyang Daily. We were cut from the same cloth, blabbed day and night about literature. Yu was ahead of me in putting a lot of stock in modernism and avant-garde ambiguity, which was all the rage. For two months or so, they didn’t bother going home and crashed at our place every night, crowded as it was. Looking back, it was a wonderful time. When Hu Yaobang died on April 22, our literary zeal was sublimated overnight and we answered the call: “Chinese people are now in the direst crisis.” A lot of friends came together and agreed that we absolutely had to organize a memorial for Hu, the great man from our hometown.
I was the one who wrote all the slogans in traditional calligraphy, using an ink stone and ink brush: In memoriam for Hu, constitutional amendment, democracy, freedom, anti-corruption – it just about summed up my lifelong political aspirations. In the middle of the night, like the hero-bandits from the novel Water Margin, we plastered several blocks with our revolutionary – or counterrevolutionary as the government saw it – slogans. At daybreak, would you believe it, the residents of Liuyang City were reading the stuff in droves and talking about it in whispers. It’s a bit like Lu Xun’s story where the unconfirmed but true rumors about the impending fall of China’s last dynasty bring a claustrophobic village to a boil. We hotheads stayed back and watched it all happen, with an ineffable sense of excitement and impending doom.
We were all fired up in our role as activists. Talked about what was happening in Beijing that day, every day. Didn’t eat much but were more alert than ever. We tried to get the students at Liuyang Normal College to start a street protest, but our town was too small and the people too conservative. We may all have been hopping around like the rebellious Monkey King from the classic tale, but nothing came of our agitating.
LIAO: That’s why you decided to go to Beijing.
YU ZHIJIAN: The hunger strikes began in Tiananmen. And a few students got down on their knees on the steps outside the People’s Congress when they handed in their petition. Complex political games are beyond people like us, but intuitively we weren’t happy with that sort of thing. If they didn’t want to be the docile subjects of a feudal monarch, why did they kneel? An autocratic regime wouldn’t even bother brushing off that sort of concession.
On May 16, after an all-nighter debate on the state of the nation, we three decided to go to Beijing. We were all broke and none of us had ever gone north before to “make revolution.” We took out our wages and it didn’t look enough. The night before we left, I knocked on the door of a classmate who was a private entrepreneur in the electric appliance business. He was generous for the sake of the revolution and forked over a grand — which would be twenty-something times that amount in today’s money, right? The train ticket from Changsha to Beijing cost less than fifty.
LIAO: Very generous indeed.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was part and parcel of our collective fantasy over democracy. Bus drivers along the way to Changsha wouldn’t take our fare when they heard we were on the way to Beijing to show support. When we pulled into Changsha early morning, we headed toward the May First Boulevard and the provincial government buildings to get a read on what was happening. Woa! The student movement in the capital of Hunan was in full swing. The maze of streets was overrun by students and residents. That set our blood boiling, there was no holding back! Given my long legs, I was tasked to go out and buy stationery, and Yu made a giant banner. We occupied the train station plaza, set up our banner, and took turns giving speeches on the most popular themes of the movement: Anti-corruption, change to the political system, amending the Constitution, and opposition to one-party rule. Yu was in charge of taking photos because his camera was made in Japan. He was supposed to use it to cover his beat at Liuyang Daily – in those days you don’t come across a camera like that one every day. I was with him when he bought more rolls of Kodak film than any of us could keep track of. These masterpieces of photography all ended up in court as incontrovertible evidence of his counterrevolutionary incitement to subvert the state.
LIAO: Not that different from my own situation. I manufactured a lot of irrefutable literary evidence against myself.
YU ZHIJIAN: The crowd was milling around us. I, an incompetent teacher whose previous encounters had all been with children under the age of ten in a village classroom, was taking a first crack at “incitement” in public. Fluent and fervent, it was pretty effective, and the worked-up crowd threw money into our makeshift donation box. In pennies and yuan bills, even tens. It was so moving. There were no hundred-yuan bills yet at that time. I remember to this day this one man, stuffing bills into the box with both hands. After only a few hours of incitement the box overflowed.
LIAO: There was so much passionate conviction in those days.
YU ZHIJIAN: We collected more than three thousand yuan. Some students joined our petition group to go to Beijing to support the student movement.
LIAO: How many?
YU ZHIJIAN: Forty, fifty? A big crowd. We got on the express train that had just started operating. It leaves at 9:00 p.m.
LIAO: The train tickets alone would cost a fortune.
YU ZHIJIAN: What could you do? We bought platform passes and rolled in. The train was overflowing with patriotic crowds. We were stuffed into the corridor skin-on-skin. The train conductor checking tickets got the head of the crew to come see us. He was all courtesy: Who is responsible for this group? I said I was. He told me he understood and supported our cause unconditionally, and had us taken to the crew lounge where we could take turns sitting down. We got to the train station the next day and the first thing we did was to unfold our banner – the thing was half as long as a train passenger car. It sure drew attention. Only a few moments after we took off in the direction of Tiananmen, I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of several hundred people materializing behind us. These were mostly students visiting Beijing and looking for a group to belong to. We were more on than ever. “Down with Deng Xiaoping! We want Zhao Ziyang! Freedom, democracy and human rights – Chinese people will stand tall once more!” We were shouting slogans louder and faster than the gongs and drums of folk plays. After just under an hour, we sighted the ramparts of the Forbidden City looming over Tiananmen; until then, we’d only seen it in newspapers. Before we had the chance to “lose ourselves in the sea of the masses,” someone who carried himself like a student leader marched up and told us he was from the Guards of the University Autonomous Association. He commended our group for supporting the cause. “But your slogans are a bit inappropriate; that is to say, extreme. Even the people in the Square are not going this far this thoughtlessly.” Initially that did not go down well with us, but then we thought it through and wanted to make the movement’s needs our priority, so we did as we were told and put away the counterrevolutionary extra-long banner for the time being.
Over the next couple of days, the college students who came with us all found their own student body organizations or other clusters like birds returning to their nests. Our petition group fell apart, leaving only the three of us core members with no pigeonhole to fit into. Our “class categorization as lone vagabonds” was exposed, as they say in Communist social theory.
LIAO: Didn’t take much for that group to fall apart, it looks like.
YU ZHIJIAN: We got into trouble on May 23, so we were only in the middle of everything for five, six days in total. We went to some rallies and called for the abolition of one-party dictatorship and full-blown Westernization in some speeches. Didn’t sleep a whole lot during those few days. At night, when we couldn’t keep going any more, we would roll out a piece of tarp in some underpass or on the sidewalk, snuggle into a military coat, and doze a little. This one morning, I opened my eyes to find a girl, a student, lying asleep on top of me. (Laughs). It was so romantic.
Three quite memorable things happened around this time. A sign saying “Extraordinary Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” was put up over the Great Hall of the People. We went into wanton fantasies over it, as if the utopia of democracy was looming right there in front of our eyes. At the same time, a lot of military helicopters were circling over the square, sometimes flying so low they practically grazed the ramparts of the Forbidden City. They scattered flyers “To the Deluded Masses” calling on everyone to surrender and desist. The exact same way the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty brought his formidable foe to his knees – inundating him and his troops with the songs of their homeland, softening their morale so much they disbanded on their own.
The last thing that sank in the most was how inconsistent the student leaders were in their talks. Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi were running on and on: “Do your best to maintain the order at the Square” – duh. Or, “Residents and workers, return to your posts and normal working routines,” duh. Chai Ling was even acting like some variety-show host on TV, “Thank you, thank you! Thanks for everyone’s support.” All of them carried on as if the students were a privileged group who alone enjoyed the mainline privilege to love our country, and every other social element was only there meddling in what was none of their business and making things worse. What the hell? If it weren’t for everyone else’s support, could the students have lasted? The Communists would have taken them out long ago. The troops were already kicking up their heels in the suburbs, and the students were still busy infighting, holding dialogues, freaking out, stalemating – what was the goddamn use of their play acted composure? Did they think the soldiers, armed to the teeth, were weenies just in town for a visit? What if the army did open fire? The democracy movement was so vast, with tens of millions caught up in it. What made them believe, the handful of lousy babies that they were, that they could stay on top of it and make sure everything wind down smoothly? Bloodshed was breathing down on everyone, and there they were, thwarting their country’s fate with their empty talk. Completely immature.
LIAO: Your intuition was pretty sound.
YU ZHIJIAN: But grassroots folks like us from the provinces had no chance to speak up. We tried getting through the guards to talk to the student leaders, but when the guards saw me acting all aggressive and pent-up, there was no way in hell we could gain access to the Command Headquarters of the square, let alone see the chief. What to do? We turned in a Proposal of Recommendations, and begged and pleaded and stormed until the guards promised to hand it to the leaders. If only “for reference as needed.”
LIAO: Do you remember what the recommendations were?
YU ZHIJIAN: First, University Autonomous Association should declare the Chinese Communist regime illegal in the name of every citizen in the country. Second, the Association ought to call on Beijing and the entire nation to strike. Third: Students and worker guards…oh, wait, I can’t recall off the bat.
LIAO: Didn’t hold back, did you? Was there a response?
YU ZHIJIAN: Nothing. Everything was so chaotic. Maybe they never even gave them the thing to read.
LIAO: That must have sucked for you. But maybe you were too far out.
YU ZHIJIAN: I know. We couldn’t get anywhere.
LIAO: As Confucius says, “Mingle not in projects with a man whose way is not yours.” You could have dusted off the seat of your pants and walked away.
YU ZHIJIAN: No. We’d come all this way to Beijing, and we had to live up to our duty. Yu Dongyue was so upset and saddened that he proposed we self-immolate as a group. We came up with several plans. For example, we could stand on Gold Water Bridge, pour gasoline over ourselves and light it up. The effect was sure to be dramatic. But what goal were we trying to achieve? Should we put out a statement beforehand, or get somebody to notify the country afterwards that our sacrifice was for democracy and freedom, an act of protest against state violence and a wakeup call to the people? But things were stacked against us. If something goes wrong, people would not have understood why we self-immolated. There was even some chance the government would turn our deaths into a smear campaign against the democracy movement.
That would have been pretty senseless. So I proposed that we take action against Mao Zedong’s portrait — the original prototype one — hung on the ramparts of the Forbidden City. Put a symbolic end to the repressive Communist regime. My two friends agreed right away. From midnight to sunrise of the 22nd, we talked over our options. From a distance, it did not look like climbing up to take the portrait would be all that hard. But the square was guarded so closely we would have had better luck getting up to heaven than the walls of the palace. Our eyes ruddy from sleeplessness, the next morning we got hold of a ladder after a lot of to-do, and carried it to the archway beneath the portrait like patients burning up in a high fever. We looked up and you could have knocked us down with a feather. The bastard despot who sat on our heads and had his way with us, who had died years ago – he was out of our reach even when we stand on top of a ladder as tall as several grown men!
We took turns carefully examining the setup. After a lot of hard staring, we finally made it out – the nail on which the portrait hung was as thick as a man’s arm. Which means even if we could set up a high enough ladder and be ready for death and torture worse than death, we still might not be able to take the emperor down with us.
LIAO: Did no one notice you?
YU ZHIJIAN: No one had the time for anyone else. In the tumult of a movement like that, oftentimes each person is marginal and alone, with very little to connect him to it. Of course, it’s something else entirely if you were chosen as the focus of the world’s attention.
LIAO: That’s why it occurred to you to treat the despot to rotten eggs? I was at home in Puling, and saw you guys doing it. I was stunned. I remember the news broadcaster was China Central Television’s Chen Duo, with graying hair, whose voice was shaking — he was that angry.
YU ZHIJIAN: We really had no other way to get to Old Man Mao and that’s how we came up with our lousy scheme. We shopped at the Wangfujing Department Store and bought twenty eggs. At first we thought we could eyeball the distance and pitch the eggs as is, but it didn’t take long for us to realize eggs are too light-colored and the splash would be hard to see. Lucky for us, Dongyue dabbled as a painter. He said let’s make a dark gray from oils and fill the eggs with it.
We took a long time with the preparation and treated it all quite seriously. After buying stationery supplies and paint, we went to the post office to send our last letter to our families. It’s incredible, but I’ve actually forgotten what I wrote to mine; I think I cited a lot of Byron. Lu mulled over what he wrote for a long time. It was tough, pretty emotional — he is an only child. I heard later that when his parents saw the TV broadcast about us they fainted on the spot. I remember bits and pieces from what Dongyue wrote. He had five boys back home — he bound himself to them in brotherhood unto death — and he lied on his belly writing them letters one after the other. He was going to imitate Don Quixote and battle the windmills, and they should see him off like the legendary assassin Jing Ke, whose friends said farewell to him in the chill wind on the banks of the Yi River, never to return, et cetera. Lyrical compositions.
LIAO: People tell me he’s quite gifted in poetry.
YU ZHIJIAN: He wrote doggerel I can still remember: There may be a thousand reasons for you to walk on one side of the street. But there are a thousand and one reasons for you to cross the street and join me!
LIAO: The impulse to cross the line. Lo and behold, you did cross over to the other side.
YU ZHIJIAN: We were so hungry after we finished writing our last words, we took the twenty eggs to a food stall next to the Gold Water Bridge. You spread a flour paste on the pan, add the eggs and sprinkle scallion on top. We stuffed ourselves with too much of this northern-style pancake. The first few batches, fried to a bright gold and smelling delicious, went down real easy — we don’t have them in Hunan. But it got to be too much after a while and we almost threw up.
We then went to the park named after Sun Yat-sen, the man who overthrew the last dynasty, and sat down to put the eggs together, filling the shells with paint and sealing them one by one. Then we spread out calligraphy paper, 1.2 meters long and 80 cm wide, on the ground. This had got to be the gutsiest couplet written in China since 1949. I came up with the words and Dongyue, deep in thought, dashed it off with an ink brush: “An end to five thousand years of despotism / Cult of personality is no more.” The matching slogan was: “Hail Liberty!”
The gun was cocked, so to speak. Dongyue took shots of the banner, and Decheng and I had our photo taken at the gate of the park “for keepsake.” All of it, unfortunately, is now part of the criminal record archives at the Public Security Bureau.
LIAO: You didn’t bequeath the “revolutionary keepsakes” to someone you could trust?
YU ZHIJIAN: We couldn’t think of anyone reliable despite knowing so many people. We divided up the job. I am the tallest so I was in charge of blocking the crowd and making the announcement. Dongyue and Decheng would put up the banner and pitch the eggs. We took our respective positions. I made the first appearance, running to the archway and blocking pedestrians: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Please stop for a moment!” More people came toward us and I could not keep them back, until a few students rushed over to help.
LIAO: Why did they help you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Decheng and I were only 25 or 26, and Dongyue was 22 (he’s a prodigy, and graduated from college at 18.) Based on the way we looked, the students thought we were their peers. I was just getting a grip on things when my buddies unfurled the banner with a swoosh and put it up. They were a bit rushed and the thing was a little skewed. Those two then immediately ran backwards, aimed for the best angle of elevation and began pitching. We had thought twenty eggs would be plenty to deface the entire giant portrait, but the two dummies were so lame: the eggs went flying and missed their mark every which way. They didn’t have enough strength in their arms, and the egg would fall halfway through. I couldn’t do anything except watch it happen. I started cussing: What the hell do you think you’re doing? They didn’t end up losing face entirely though. Three out of twenty made it, and graced the despot’s double-chin with a smattering of pockmarks.
LIAO: How long did that take?
YU ZHIJIAN: The whole act took five or six minutes but the eggs took only two or three. It was like a dream, and no one there realized what was happening. They were out of it, surprised, and some people clapped their hands and cheered without thinking it through. When they came to, the deed was done. Walls of people closed in on the “criminals,” and someone reprimanded: “What did you do? Where are you from? Who is behind this?” The UAA guards also rushed over. I was standing to the side and could only see the top of their heads. I overheard lots of jabbering, accusatory voices: “Your motivation is malicious. You intend to destroy everyone, destroy this patriotic movement of ours.” Decheng, sporting the color of the palette from all the broken eggs, was fighting to be heard: “Outlawing Mao’s portrait is both just and legal. We didn’t do anything wrong!” I applauded from far away and spoke up: “That’s right!”
The student standing next to me was having none of it, pointed his finger at me and said, “You’d better not interrupt if it’s none of your business.” I said: “Of course it’s my business. We’re in this together.” That clinched the matter and I was snapped up for good, too. We all got taken to the Command Center.
LIAO: Did you get beaten up?
YU ZHIJIAN: Just pushed around and jostled. Both the people for and against us were in just for the heck of it anyway. The student guards were, when you come right down to it, protecting us. We finally reached the Center set up at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — the movement’s nucleus we had racked our brains for a way to get into before all of this happened. There we finally were, even if the way we burst on the scene was a bit less dignified than we would have preferred.
We sat under the memorial with hanging heads, forlorn, waiting to see what would be done with us. The student leaders took forever discussing what to do. Finally, plainclothes agents showed up, circled the place, then walked in to demand that they turn us over. The students, quite diplomatically, refused. Right then a lady inched up to me when no one was looking and whispered: “Things are turning out really badly for you all; you’d better look sharp and get away as soon as you can.” I shook my head, “We will live and die together. I won’t walk by myself.” She paused for a moment before saying, “Then why don’t I give you a telephone number. If you need any help, call this number and look for me.” I agreed. I was young and had a good memory, so she only had to say it once for me to remember it.
LIAO: You didn’t ask her who she was?
YU ZHIJIAN: I did not, and I doubt she would have told me anyway. But the way she looked at me, I think she really wanted to help me, so I would like to make sure to mention it now.
LIAO: What happened with all that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Too many things happened and I forgot both about her and the number. Even if I am to stand face to face with her now I doubt I’d be able to recognize her.
LIAO: And then what happened?
YU ZHIJIAN: After some deliberation, the student leaders took us to the Museum of History to the right of the Square for what may count as an informal press conference for Chinese and foreign reporters. There were a lot of reporters and people waiting around already. We did not expect it to be so short; the whole thing lasted under five minutes. The questions were primarily for Lu Decheng. Some head honcho from the UAA also “made clarifications” on behalf of all the university students, stating that they had nothing to do with what happened. Their goal was to promote democratic reform and was absolutely free from this sort of hostility. It is not within the realm of possibility for the UAA to attack the Communist Party or to damage Chairman Mao’s image, et cetera, et cetera. My mind just about exploded.
Then we ended up in a bus, and Decheng was interviewed again, this time by the China Central Television. It began to rain. Outside the window, tents and tarps everywhere on the Square were one big mess, like a disaster area roughly patched together. Who would have thought the official media, usually so sluggish, would have moved so fast and done such a long interview? Questions included where we came from, our profession, how long our planning took, our initial motivation, and whether we had contemplated the consequences. Decheng also answered him at a measured pace, making sure to state that the students were not involved in any way with what we did. People tell me on that same day “XWLB News Broadcast” aired our story as a warning to others and the segment ran for five or six minutes. The program included eyewitnesses, some students and people from Beijing, where they narrated what happened and expressed their views. One student said, “I really admire them for having the courage to do this.” (Chuckles).
LIAO: That’s where I first found out about you, that program. The tone was mostly, I’d say, “angry condemnation,” but the reporters’ anxiety and good will lurked right beneath the surface. They were worried that the incident would bring unthinkably negative consequences to the movement.
YU ZHIJIAN: Negative consequences were on the cards from the very beginning. As long as Mao’s specter roams China and Deng’s iron fist stays on our necks — as long as the Communists are in power, the only outcome to resistance will be bloodshed. We were just one of the episodes.
( To be continued.)
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.