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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.
Wu Renhua, May 29, 2017
Wu Renhua (吳仁華) is a unique scholar. For over 20 years he has been immersed in the primary source materials about what Chinese authorities call “the June 4th incident,” and what is known around the world as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. His academic training of nearly a decade was in ancient Chinese historiography — a set of research methodologies that he never expected he would apply to unraveling the genesis, execution, and aftermath of the bloody slaughter of unarmed students and Beijing residents in 1989. Wu was a junior faculty member of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing at the time of the protests, in which he was also a participant. He was one of the last to leave Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4; on his way back to his college residence he witnessed tanks crushing students in Liubukou (六部口). In February 1990 he swam four hours through the Zhujiang River Estuary from Zhuhai to Macau, then made his way to Hong Kong and finally the United States. He edited Press Freedom Herald (《新闻自由导报》), a pro-democracy magazine, for 15 years. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
China Change has undertaken a translation, performed by Matthew Robertson, of the first chapter of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth (《六四事件中的戒严部队》), one of Wu Renhua’s three books on the 1989 movement. The other two books are: The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square: The Inside Story (《天安门血腥清场内幕》, 2007) and The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement (《六四事件全程实录》, 2014).
The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth was first published in 2009 in Chinese, and a revised edition was published in 2016. It has not yet appeared in English. It is an exhaustive, meticulous account of the decision-making process behind the command to impose martial law in Beijing and, later, open fire on the students; the command and control structure of the military; the manner in which commands were communicated through the ranks; the marshalling of military forces and their composition; the routes they took to Tiananmen; the countermeasures established by the military to guard against a coup; the clearing of the square; the reasons for the savagery of the troops; the rewards later given to officers and soldiers, and more. The bulk of the book is dedicated to minute analysis of the force composition of each of the group armies mobilized for the massacre, the routes they took, the orders they received, and in some cases the specific actions of specific units, and even individual officers and soldiers.
The foreword to the book and the section headings of the first chapter are presented for readers below as the 28th anniversary of the massacre approaches. — The Editors
The foremost question in any study of the 1989 Beijing massacre is the mobilization of a fully-armed military force for the slaughter of peaceful students and protesters. When discussing the “truth” of the June 4 incident, the most important truth to be discussed is this. As a participant in the protests, a witness to the killings, and a scholar with a background in Chinese historical research, I’ve worked for years to gather documentary materials about the June 4 incident, and to explore the truth of the massacre that took place. My previous book, The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square: The Inside Story, was a careful documentation of the entire process by which the square, and surrounding area, was cleared. The current volume is an examination of the PLA units that were ordered into Beijing to impose martial law. It is therefore testimony to another side of the truth of the June 4 massacre.
This book was conceived in March, 1990, soon after I had escaped the mainland by swimming across the bay to Zhuhai and then to Hong Kong. I’m indebted to the veteran journalist Ching Cheong (程翔) who gave me the book One Day Of Martial Law (《戒嚴一日》) that provided a preliminary explanation of the June 4 martial law troop deployments. The detailed arrangements for the mass use of lethal force by Party leader Deng Xiaoping and his key supporter and senior military leader Yang Shangkun (楊尚昆) shocked me deeply. At the same time, there was much left to clarify: the order to open fire, the unit designators (番號) of the martial law troops, the number of troops involved, and more. So I made a vow: I would cast a vast net to collect material, begin a detailed study, and write a volume specifically dedicated to the martial law troops of June 4. This would also be a recording of the decision-makers and executors of the June 4 massacre, ensuring that all their names were listed in history’s hall of shame.
To this day, the June 4 massacre remains an area of enquiry forbidden by the Chinese Communist Party. This made writing a book about the subject particularly challenging. The first problem is a grave lack of data, and the absence of officially-produced reliable materials. The second issue relates to the Chinese military itself, and in particular the difficulty in finding information on the units involved in the imposition of martial law. Chinese communist historiography has always regarded military affairs as a state secret. Every PLA unit has a numerical unit designator, and every organizational unit in, for instance, the 38th Army Group (陸軍第38集團軍), has a code name at the regimental level or above. All public references to the unit use this code name. The most well-known is Central Guard Unit (中央警衛團), which goes by the code “8341.” Thus, even the unit designators are secret and not allowed to be used — code names are used instead. On top of this is the extreme political sensitivity of the June 4 massacre, which has been blotted out of official Communist Party literature. This extends to propaganda about the successes of “suppressing the counterrevolutionary riot,” and the material regarding awards given to “Guardians of the Republic” — not only are the unit designators absent, but even the code names for the units are elided, making it almost impossible to determine from the official materials which soldiers and officers were in which units.
To my great fortune, I specialized in classical historical and documentary research at Peking University, undergoing seven years of professional training in bibliographical studies, bibliology, historiography, and textual criticism, first obtaining a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s. Furthermore, prior to entering university I was an enlisted soldier in the PLA at a border defense garrison, and thus have a certain foundational knowledge about the Chinese military and its organization. With this background, and after many years of assiduous effort, the secrets hidden in materials about the June 4 martial law troops were slowly revealed, and I was able to verify each and every one of the unit designation numbers, which provided the foundation for this volume. On the basis of this — having cracked the code and discovered the unit designators — related materials fell into place and were able to act as mutual-supporting verification for official documents that had previously been a mystery. Thus, formerly worthless propaganda material celebrating the “suppression of the counterrevolutionary riot” assumed immediate value, and the position of the PLA’s Command Center for Clearing the Square (解放軍戒嚴部隊清場指揮部), as well as the forward deployments of military units, became clear.
Writing this book was a grueling process — but since it involved the constant unraveling of surprises in the primary sources, and the solving of riddle after riddle, it was also a process full of delight and surprise. I regularly commented to my friends, half in jest, half in earnest, that I never thought that I would find myself, exiled in the United States, separated by so many years from my study of classical documentary research and textual criticism, able to put to full use the things I studied at university. Perhaps in all this the hand of providence is at work.
To this day, this is the first work to clarify the unit designators of the martial law troops of June 4, along with the number of soldiers. This includes the 24th Army Group, 27th Army Group, 28th Army Group, 38th Army Group, 63rd Army Group, and 65th Army Group under the Beijing Military District; the 39th Army Group, 40th Army Group, and 64th Army Group under the command of the Shenyang Military District; the 20th Army Group, 26th Army Group, 54th Army Group, and 67th Army Group under the Jinan Military District; the 12th Army Group under the Nanjing Military District; the 15th Airborne Corps under the direct command of the Central Military Commission; the 14th Division Artillery under the Beijing Military District; the 1st and 3rd Security Divisions of the Beijing Garrison Command; the 1st Tank Division of the Tianjin Garrison; and the Beijing Municipal People’s Armed Police Corps. In total, this comprised over 200,000 troops.
The current volume devotes one chapter to enumerating these units and describing, blow-by-blow, their actions — from when they received orders to enter Beijing until they received the command to clear Tiananmen Square, including the routes and methods by which they entered the capital, the manner in which they cleared Tiananmen, and so on.
Another chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the order to open fire, as well as other questions about the June 4 massacre that are of widespread interest. This chapter is broken into 14 parts, and includes discussion of: the origin and decision-making process behind declaring martial law in Beijing, the deployments of the martial law troops in Beijing, the military unit designators and number of troops involved, the measures to ward against an internal coup d’état or mutiny in the military, the routes by which PLA troops entered Beijing, the specific orders given in the clearing of Tiananmen Square, the goals and itinerary of the martial law troops, the specifics of the orders to open fire, the circumstances surrounding the clearance of Tiananmen Square, the helplessness of unarmed students in confronting a highly armed opponent, the list of names of officers and soldiers awarded and promoted for their involvement, the deaths of paramilitary and military troops, the reason the martial law troops were so savage in their killing, and the wild retribution visited upon protesters by martial law troops after the incident.
The current volume provides what is to date the most complete list of military officials who were promoted due to their roles in the June 4 massacre, including a partial list of the officers and soldiers involved in the incident. This includes their military unit designators, positions, and ranks — a list of over 2,000 names. These individuals may not all be personally responsible for the June 4 massacre, but they are at the very least eyewitnesses, and they have a responsibility and a duty to testify as to what they did and witnessed all those years ago.
Given China’s current political circumstances, the only way that the full truth of the June 4 incident will be told is through the joint effort and work of scholars and insiders. Obviously, the largest and most important group of insiders knowledgeable about the crackdown are the soldiers and military officials involved. Unfortunately, however, to this day there are only two soldiers involved in the massacre who have emerged to speak about their experiences. The first is First Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李曉明), a radar station master in the 116th anti-aircraft artillery division, 39th Army Group, who resides in Melbourne, Australia. Li spoke about his experiences at a press conference in New York City on May 30, 2002. The other is Zhang Shijun (張世軍), a soldier in the 162nd infantry division, 54th Army Group, who lives at Number 35, Lane 2, Shanguonan Road, Tengzhou City, Shandong Province; he wrote about his experience in an open letter to then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao on March 6, 2009. In the early hours of March 30 he was arrested and detained for over 10 days.
I look forward to any material and research leads that readers may be able to provide about the martial law troops of June 4, so that this text may be further revised, supplemented, and updated.
Section I | Martial Law in Beijing: Origins and Decisionmaking
Section II | Martial Law Military Deployments
Section III | The Number of Martial Law Troops and Their Designators
Section IV | Precautions Against Coups and Mutinies
Section V | The Units that Entered Beijing and the Routes They Took
Section VI | The Order to Clear the Square
Section VII | The Martial Law Troops Advance Toward Their Objectives
Section VIII | The Order to Open Fire
Section IX | The Clearing of Tiananmen Square
Section X | A War Against an Unarmed Enemy
Section XI | Deaths of Soldiers and Armed Police
Section XII | The Reason for the Martial Law Troops’ Savage Killing
Section XIII | The Soldiers’ Mad Revenge
Section XIV | Promotions for Services Rendered
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.
By @badiucao, June 5, 2016
I choose art to resist — to fight terror and to remember. I once drew the Tank Man, and I also have Tank Man tattoo. This year I decided to use performance art to bring the Tank Man back, in the hope that, tomorrow, there’ll be even more Tank Men.
All I know of the Tank Man is his plain white shirt, his black trousers, his leather shoes, and the plastic bag and briefcase he carried. The only thing he left the world was that view of him from behind.
I don’t know the real identity of the Tank Man. There’s a rumour that his name is Wang Weilin, but no one really knows. Who he was before becoming the Tank Man is a mystery; what’s become of him after he was the Tank Man is equally a riddle. I don’t know whether he lived or died. In my heart, I hope he successfully escaped, and that he’s somewhere now, living in quiet and safety.
For me (probably for many of you too), his clothing became him. On June 4, 2016, I “became” the Tank Man for one day in Adelaide, South Australia. I admit that I was somewhat nervous, because my photographer Alycia Bennett and I were alone. We didn’t know what would happen. But we set up and we started. Some people gave me the middle finger; security guards asked me to move on. But many Chinese students stopped to take photos. And there were people who greeted me with encouragement.
Next year I hope I will not be alone, and there will be more “Tank Men” in Australia and elsewhere. I’d like to see this form of June 4th remembrance spread: it’s simple, calm, and powerful.
Follow @badiucao on Twitter.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two)
June 4, 2016
Wu: Another find that was very exciting was to discover the chief of staff of the 38th Group Army’s 1st Tank Division. This chief of staff led the spearhead of that tank division, the 1st Regiment of armored infantrymen and the 1st Regiment, the very first tanks to arrive in Tiananmen Square, including the three tanks involved in the massacre at Liubukou. This chief of staff was eager to carry out orders and show his “politically correctness.” In all the military propaganda materials celebrating his “heroic achievements,” he was only ever referred to as “Chief of Staff Yan.” They described how he repeatedly ordered for forcing advancement, and his troops shot dead a student attempting to obstruct them outside Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now the Communication University of China). So I had a very strong wish to identify this chief of staff. But despite countless searching, I had never found the man’s name.
There were a total of five regiments in the 1st Tank Division. The 2nd and 3rd tank regiments, and the artillery regiment, were led by the division commander and political commissar — they were the remaining units that followed. The division commander and political commissar acted completely differently. Like a lot of the other martial law troops, they encountered obstruction and interference by citizens as they advanced toward Tiananmen, but they weren’t willing to smash through and hurt people. So they simply stopped, and only arrived at the Square on June 5. They didn’t participate in the clearing of the Square, and had no involvement in the massacre.
A Taiwan publishing house is going to put out the Taiwanese version of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth this year, so I made a round of revisions for that, correcting a few minor errors, and also did some more searching for a few tricky pieces of information that I had never been able to solve. The name of Chief of Staff Yan was one of them. As I searched, I came across a Yan, the division commander of the 38th Army Group’s Sixth Tank Division. My intuition was: this is my man! Yan Hongji (闫红计) is his name! I was able to confirm the connection with more searching. I’d poured countless hours into figuring out this person’s name and whereabouts, and in this round of revision I found the answer. I was so excited. This happened not long ago.
CC: Mr. Wu, you often refer to the book One Day During the Martial Law (《戒严一日》) in your book about the troops. Can you talk a little about this book?
Wu: One Day During the Martial Law was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department and published in 1990. This is the most valuable official publication about the Tiananmen incident. It consists of two volumes and was an anthology of over 100 articles by as many authors, all of whom are named along with their service post and military rank. Each of the authors records their participation and experience in the enforcement of martial law. Some of them write about how they helped the common citizens, others discuss their marching into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. Among them there were commanders and political commissars of army groups, but also regular soldiers. Apart from a few policemen from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the vast majority were all soldiers and officers involved in martial law. The value of each piece is different, but overall this book provided many leads and clues for my own research. From a historiographical perspective, the official documents are extremely accurate, better than individuals’ memories, when it comes to times and places, although other details of the events may be concealed or distorted.
Not a month after this book was published in 1990, it seems that the military realized that it revealed too much, so they retracted it, making it a “banned book.” Later they published an “abridged edition,” which was shrunk into a small pamphlet with huge chunks deleted.
CC: I assume it goes without saying that you consult the full version.
Wu: Right. In early 1990 when I’d just arrived in Hong Kong, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Monthly (《当代》) Ching Cheong learnt about my interest in researching and recording June 4, so he gave the book to me. He was once the Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (《文汇报》).
CC: You mentioned another book, Defenders of the Republic. Tell us about it.
Wu: This is official propaganda material, also published between the latter half of 1989 and 1990. A year after the June 4 incident, this form of propaganda was put to a stop; evidently an internal decision was issued to cease it, because they knew there was nothing glorious about it, and it would only draw more criticism. On June 4, 1990, Yang Baibing (杨白冰) and the General Political Department wanted to put on a massive celebration, but Li Ruihuan (李瑞环), the then head of Communist Party propaganda and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, dissented. Yang was furious. Li said that it wasn’t his order, but from the top — from Deng Xiaoping, obviously. So from that point on basically all celebration and propaganda about the suppression vanished from official sources.
The sub-title of Defenders of the Republic is A compilation of the deeds of heroic troops and model soldiers enforcing martial law in the capital — that’s the kind of book it was. There are about a dozen or so similar books. I asked friends in Beijing to dig them out for me. Some were brought over to the U.S., other were scanned and sent.
CC: Out of the 200,000 martial law troops, you verified and listed the identities of over 3,000 soldiers in your book The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. You’ve taken an enormous amount of time to identify them, and yet it’s only 1.5% of the total. Why did you put so much time into finding and verifying these names?
Wu: Of the hundreds and thousands who experienced the June 4 massacre, I may be one of a few who has a background in historical and documentary research. From the perspective of recording history, to ensure that a massacre like this is properly recorded, we must have the victims, as well as the perpetrators. Since the Communist Party’s founding of its regime, a huge number of people have died in its political movements. For instance, in just the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries in the 1950s, official figures say that 2.4 million were executed. Is there a name list of these 2.4 million people? No. Who sentenced them to death? We don’t know that, either. The political campaign closest to June 4 was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and official Communist Party documents acknowledge that it was a “calamity,” and vaguely say that millions of people suffered unnatural deaths. But who are they? Wang Youqin (王友琴), who also graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades — her record is still extremely limited.
I feel that when it comes to June 4, if I don’t do this kind of recording, then with the passage of time the massacre will become just like the Cultural Revolution, or any other political campaign, and end up with no legitimate historical record.
In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, my chief task was to search out information about the perpetrators. The work of the Tiananmen Mothers for so many years has been to seek out and record information about the victims. They have a list of those who died in the massacre, and so far have recorded and verified the names of 202 victims. This is still quite far from the real death toll, but the work they’ve done has already been extremely difficult.
CC: Let’s not forget that these 200,000 martial law troops are a huge group of witnesses, and most of them are of the same age as the student protesters. When we say “the 1989 generation,” we have to keep in mind that they are the other part of the 1989 generation. Are there any in their midst who have spoken out about June 4?
Wu: Yes, they are indeed a huge group of witnesses, but so far, only two out of the 200,000 have come out, using their true identity, and spoken about their experiences. One is Zhang Sijun (张四军), a soldier with the 54th Group Army and now a veteran living in his home province of Shandong. He has been detained several times and harassed for speaking online about 1989. According to my research his testimony isn’t that valuable, but morally, it’s significant. If a large number of them testify, we would know so much more about the massacre.
CC: Imagine a few thousand of them doing this.
Wu: The other is Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李晓明) , who headed a radio station of the Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. He was what we call a “student-officer” who enlisted after graduating from college. Following his discharge, he went to study in Australia and became a Christian. He held a press conference and spoke about his experiences. It is from his testimony that we learned about another general who disobeyed orders, in addition to Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army.
That was Xu Feng (许峰), commander of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. I had done so much research, and I discovered the passive resistance on the part of General He Yanran (何燕然), the commander of the 28th Group Army, and Zhang Mingchun (张明春), the political commissar, but I had known nothing about the division commander. Because of his refusal, he was disciplined and discharged after June 4. I have wanted to know his whereabouts and what happened to him, but I have never found any more about him despite my efforts.
CC: What about the commander and the political commissar of the 28th Group Army?
Wu: They were both demoted and removed from the combat forces. Zhang Mingchun was demoted and reassigned to deputy political commissar of Jilin Provincial Military Command, and He Yanran the deputy commander of Anhui Provincial Military Command. Zhang Mingchun died a year after being demoted.
CC: This is probably a no-brainer question, but I’ll still ask anyway: Have you received any comments, publicly or otherwise, from the PLA after you published The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth?
CC: I’m sure there are reactions that are just not reaching you.
Wu: They would definitely purchase the books and give them to certain people to read. Not no one has told me anything. On the other hand, the authorities haven’t come out to say: this book is wrong here and there, or it’s nonsense.
CC: I saw some news on Twitter a while back saying you’d be taken “ill” for a while. Can you talk about that?
Wu: I worked at the Press Freedom Herald for 15 years and then wrote for 10 years, and I’ve always been healthy. I fell ill for a period because of the emotional and psychological toll of my work. There’s a famous saying about 1989: “Dare not forget; don’t dare to recollect.” I had been immersed in everything about 1989 for more than two decades. I’ve collected a photo gallery of 9,000 images, each one of them full of blood and passion. Take the clearing of Tiananmen Square: When I was writing about how 11 students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou, an incident I personally witnessed, tears would stream down my face, and I would crying bitterly by my desk. Finally, beginning in the latter half of 2010, while I was going over the draft manuscript of my third book, something went wrong — I succumbed to depression.
My original plan was to publish it in May of 2011, and I knew that I had to work every day in order to meet the deadline. But every time I opened the computer I just sat there in a daze. I couldn’t write. I’d go out for strolls, or chat idly with friends, but I couldn’t enjoy distraction either, and had to return to my desk. This dragged on for a long while. So I had to stop working and think of a way to solve the problem.
In addition, a lot of my friends know that I’d been paying out of my own pocket to get these books published, and relying on meager royalties to get by. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally, I’ve been separated from my family, and especially my mother, for 22 years. It’s hard to put into words how much we missed each other. She knew my situation, and never said anything disheartening in all my years calling her. She’s never said: Son, I miss you, I’m old, come back and see me. She’s never said that. So when I found myself unable to work, I said to myself: I need to see my mother; it’s been 22 years, she’s 85 years old. Maybe I’d be able to write again after I got back.
Up to that point I had not taken up American citizenship, nor had I planned to. I always wanted to be a Chinese citizen, and record this massacre as a Chinese citizen; oppose dictatorship as a Chinese citizen; and contribute to democratization of China as a Chinese citizen. As a historian, my PRC citizenship had an added significance. Young people might dismiss my old fashioned sentiments. But in the end, in order to go back and visit my mother, in late 2010 I decided to become an American citizen. After that I quickly got my American passport.
CC: How about the visa?
Wu: That’s another story. In order to stop people like me — who are banned from the country — from getting a foreign passport and coming back in, the Chinese authorities required all ethnic Chinese, whether mainlander, or from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, to submit their original passport when applying for a visa after becoming an American citizen. That’s how they would get your original Chinese name.
I spotted advertisements in the World Journal for a service to handle Chinese visa applications. I picked one and called the number. Sure enough, they accepted cash, and they took care of the visa. It wasn’t cheap: for $1,200, I could get a visa without having to provide an old Chinese passport.
I picked one of the services. A male clerk asked me a few questions, and then got down to it: are you involved in politics? I said nope, that I’m a Wenzhounese who got smuggled into the U.S., and that I didn’t have a passport at the time. Wenzhou was a known source of illegal immigrants. I was accompanied by a friend who also came from Wenzhou, so we chatted in Wenzhou dialect. He believed the story and asked me to write down my Chinese name. I came up with Wu Yanhua (伍彦华), matching Yenhua Wu, the English spelling of my name — it was spelled this way on my documents when I left Hong Kong in 1990. He asked nothing else: no address, phone number, or reason for visiting. When I got the visa two weeks later, I was worried it was fake.
Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books.
CC: You can’t go back anymore?
Wu: No. Now that they know, they won’t give me visa anymore.
CC: My last question has to do with Wang Weilin (王维林), the Tank Man. There have been different versions of who he is. What’s puzzling is that, so many years have passed and the image has become so iconic — how could there be no information about this man whatsoever? I want to hear your take on him.
Wu: As long-time researcher on 1989, of course I’m very interested in finding out who he is and what happened to him — the man in the white shirt and shopping bag in each hand who, on the morning of June 5th, stopped a formation of tanks. Wang Weilin, as many believed, is not necessarily his name. Videos show that he was spirited away by a few men off the street. For many years the story went that he was dragged away by good people and once on the sidewalk disappeared into the crowd, and safety.
But a couple of years ago, an academic specializing in body language studied the video and concluded that those who took the Tank Man off the street were not ordinary bystanders, but trained personnel. He believed that the Tank Man fell into the hands of the Chinese military or police.
When this analysis came out, the Voice of America was very interested and consulted me for my comment. In their studio in Los Angeles, I watched the video over and over again. It was a couple of seconds longer, and revealed the scene: there was nobody on the sidewalk, and dozens of tanks were parked in the area. That means that it was an area secured by the martial law troops, and there could be no large crowds anymore. I had to agree with that professor that the Tank Man ended up in the hands of the soldiers or the police.
We already know that protesters who were captured after the clearing of the Square were beaten badly with batons or the butts of rifles. For example, Gao Xu (高旭), a student of Shanxi University who was captured on June 5, was tied to a pillar at the Great Hall of the People and beaten so badly he ended up blind in one eye.
In the case of the Tank Man, he was seen as highly provocative in that he not only tried to stop the tanks, but even climbed on one. So he would be treated even more brutally in the hands of the troops. My sense is that he was probably beaten to death. Otherwise, in the age of internet, we would have heard something.
CC: Recently a friend said that they’d heard from a credible source, that at the time of the June 4 massacre, the PLA had killed students in the parks near Tiananmen—Zhongshan Park and the Worker’s Cultural Palace. I momentarily thought of Wang Weilin.
Delving deep into the full truth of June 4 is still such an arduous task, so we thank you so much for your studies. I agree with Mr. Yan Jiaqi’s assessment: This isn’t merely the pursuit of one individual, but a contribution to all of China.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, January 15, 2013.