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An Interview With Xu Youyu: ‘The Worst Is Yet to Come’

China Change, October 31, 2018

This is part of China Change’s new interview series that seeks to understand the effort of civil society in bringing change to China over the past 30 years. The interview was conducted in June 2018 by Yaxue Cao, editor of this website, at Professor Xu Youyu’s home in Flushing, New York City. — The Editors


Xu Youyu, screenshot photo

Xu Youyu. Photo: China Change.


Yaxue Cao (YC): Professor Xu, would you mind first introducing yourself to our readers?

Xu Youyu (XY): My name is Xu Youyu (徐友渔); I was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in 1947. I was in the graduating class at the Chengdu No. 1 Secondary School in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution erupted — right when I was enrolling for the national college entrance examination. Later, I got deeply wrapped up in the Cultural Revolution and became a leader of a mass organization, and as a result I gained a great deal of understanding of what it was all about. This has put me at an extraordinary advantage for studying the Cultural Revolution period in my scholarship now. I was one of the first new entrants to university in 1977 when matriculation resumed. But I’d only studied undergraduate for a little over a semester when, unprecedentedly, I was recommended to take the graduate exams. I transferred to the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in 1979 to become a grad student, and worked at CASS from then on until my retirement. During that period, in 1986, I studied at Oxford for a couple of years. I retired in 2008.

YC: You retired in 2008? You were still quite young at that point. What caused you to retire so early?

XY: It was CASS rules that stipulated 60 as the retirement age — and once you reached 60, out you go.

YC: But for a scholar, a thinker, 60s are quite possibly your golden years.

XY: As the definitions go in China, those under 60 are young and middle-aged scholars; the day after you turn 60, you’re a retiree. It’s absurd, but that’s just how it is in China.

YC: Where were you in 1989?

XY: I was in Beijing. During the Tiananmen protest I was on the Square nearly every day. I was near the center of the Square on June 3rd and 4th, close to the Monument, and I saw the entire sequence of events. I stayed there the whole time, until the early hours of the 4th when students were forced to retreat from the southeast corner. I waited at the edge of that corner until all the students had exited, and only then did I go home.

YC: Just like that?

XY: The route home passed through Liubukou (六部口), and the scene there left a peculiar impression on me. As I proceeded, I saw in the distance a tank facing off against a crowd. When the tank rushed toward the crowd, the latter retreated like the tide going out. Then the tank would stop, and the crowd would again roll back like a tide coming in, then the tank would retreat. That’s what greeted my eyes in the distance. Around me, riding on my bicycle, I had to stop, hoist it up, and step across a pile of people lying on the ground. And I thought, “Huh? How could they be sleeping so soundly, right there on the road when it’s so noisy?” This didn’t seem particularly strange at the time, because many people had been out for days and were completely exhausted. But only as I wended my way through them did it hit me: they were dead. This is one of the clearest and most lucid memories in my entire life: in the early morning on June 4, 1989, after the students had all evacuated Tiananmen and I was on my way home, I stepped across a pile of corpses.

YC: Had they been crushed by tanks or gunned down?

XY: They must have been shot. But I don’t think I saw bullet holes. The corpses were clearly in one piece, this I am absolutely sure of.

YC: What of the blood?

XY: I don’t remember seeing much blood either. I just stepped over; I was perturbed in my heart, and panicked. I didn’t stop to examine the bodies, but it was very clear that they were corpses there on the ground, not live people sleeping.

YC: Can you briefly introduce us to your scholarship?

XY: My field of study had been an extremely technical, specialized area, known as the philosophy of language. When I went to Oxford University my adviser, Michael Dummett, was one of the most well-known philosophers of language in England. After I returned from Oxford, the idea was for me to build an academic career in the system, and it would have been smooth sailing from there.

When the Tiananmen Movement occurred, the strongest feeling I had at that time was that Chinese intellectuals were woefully unequipped and unprepared. When the students put forward their demands, what they actually needed was to be mentored by the intellectuals. The authorities did claim that a few intellectuals were ‘black hands’ behind the scenes, but that wasn’t the case. The thing is, intellectuals should have actually been the ‘black hands,’ but no one was, not because none dared, but because none had the wherewithal. After this massive social movement erupted, just what should intellectuals have done? What theoretical guidance may they have proposed? At the time there were none. I know that Yan Jiaqi (严家祺) held a Democracy University on Tiananmen Square, so he lectured there, but it was far, far from enough for the rushing waves and roiling torrents of that movement.

I personally made a self-conscious turn at a time when I was ready to be the academic authority in my generation, I turned away from language philosophy and turned to political philosophy. I felt that the next time a social movement erupted forth in China, when it was time for us to put forward theories and answers, intellectuals couldn’t be like they were on June 4 — doing a few childish and simplistic things. We have to learn from the experience of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Taiwan. We need a huge number of people who understand the law, and understand politics. I knew our shortcomings. For instance, in 1988, a group of Chinese intellectuals submitted a petition to Party Central, calling for the release Wei Jingsheng (魏京生). I drafted the letter, yet I had no concept of China’s constitution or laws, and what I wrote was based completely on my personal feelings. When I thought about it later I felt really embarrassed. So I turned my focus to political philosophy.

I wasn’t the only one who made this change of orientation. The entire intellectual class in China went through a similar shift — because when the historical mission of 1989 was placed on our shoulders, we failed our role. One of China’s most well-known scholars in the 1980s Li Zehou (李泽厚) put particular emphasis on this — he wrote that the most remarkable change in the Chinese intellectual sphere after 1989 was a major orientation toward political philosophy. I knew that humanist philosophy was good, along with the Enlightenment, liberty, equality, etc. But when a social movement of true significance unfolded, what theories should be used to examine Chinese society? This requires specialized knowledge. It’s not something that a humanist scholar who relies on his personal passion and ideals can carry off. I’ve done a great deal of reading in the contemporary Western literature on political philosophy and political theory, and later I had many opportunities to travel outside of China.

Another part of my research agenda is the Cultural Revolution, since I was deeply involved in the movement myself, and I came to my senses and reflected on it early on. In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, I formed a Cultural Revolution Studies group with friends, focusing on collecting documents. I think this part of my research is also very important. I’ve published quite a bit on this topic.

YC: Do you think that Chinese intellectuals of today can provide the kind of guidance you’ve been referring to?

XY: I think that if there’s another movement like June 4, intellectuals won’t be helpless in responding to it. I think that today China’s intellectuals can contribute a great deal of deep, quality thinking and analysis. But I still don’t think intellectuals are capable of successfully guiding a similar movement, because the reality of China today is just too complex. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, but I can’t focus on both theory and practice. If there’s a tectonic transformation in China sometime in the future, just what should be done? I don’t think one can demand the Chinese intellectuals to supply ideas. They can try, but my sense is that Chinese intellectuals cannot provide the kind of guidance and direction.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 1YC: When did you get to know Liu Xiaobo?

XY: I met Liu Xiaobo very late in the piece. Liu Xiaobo sought me out. I knew at the time that Chinese intellectuals were afraid of being in contact with democracy activists, just like people in the Middle Ages were terrified of leprosy. That was the overall attitude. But when Liu Xiaobo got in touch, I thought that if all intellectuals were afraid of having contact with democracy activists then, firstly, intellectuals would be just too pathetic. What are you afraid of? He’s a citizen; he’s not in jail, he’s free to contact anyone he wishes. Each one of us should be forthright and easy-mannered in our associations, and we should help normalize Liu Xiaobo’s social life. So, when Liu Xiaobo reached out to me I knew what was going on; I certainly knew there was some risk involved by associating with him, and the life I had of the quiet scholar in his study would be broken and it would go in a different direction. I also understood clearly that, because the police were monitoring Liu Xiaobo, they would then begin monitoring me too.

YC: What year was that? In one of the essays you wrote, you mentioned 2004, because you’d signed an open letter on the 15 anniversary of Tiananmen. Tell us more about the Liu Xiaobo you know.

XY: To me there are two parts of Liu Xiaobo. In the 1980s, I knew Liu Xiaobo’s thought and scholarship very well — as a scholar myself I have the habit of reading a great deal. Most people know that he’s the “Dark Horse,” but I went and carefully read through his doctoral dissertation. I thought it was truly execrable — a complete disaster. He loved philosophizing, but basically everything philosophical he had to say was mistaken [Laughs]. So I was really quite nonplussed about why he had gained such a grand reputation. And yet, I was completely different to those jealous of him for gaining notoriety so quickly. I saw his strengths early on: Liu Xiaobo’s thought, from beginning to end, I’ve felt, can be summed up simply: it is extraordinarily penetrating and thorough.

Let me tell you why. Objectively speaking, the thinking of Liu Zaifu (刘再复) and Li Zehou was rather modern in China in the 1980s’, and it indeed it helped to educate and enlighten the young people. But my point is that precisely because the level of thought in the entire Chinese public was so poor at that time that Liu Zaifu and Li Zehou were able to be the tutors. And it was Liu Xiaobo who challenged the role of Li Zehou as a spiritual lodestar that really shows his penetrating insight. I think he really got it.

So, before I met Liu Xiaobo, my impression of him was mixed. I simply felt that on the political level I must receive him, and the more the authorities tried to repress him, the more important it was for me to have an open and unhindered association with him. This was a rational consideration, not because I naturally like Liu Xiabo or have some sort of emotional resonance with him. There was none of that. I felt that as a citizen, I simply had to do these things out of my political conviction.

But once I actually got to know Liu Xiaobo, my impression of him changed for the better a great deal, and over the course of a decade it got better and better. I saw for myself Liu Xiaobo’s step-by-step process of bettering himself. He became a modest and humble man, and a man who puts himself in others’ shoes. This was completely different to the impression I had of him in the 1980s, and it’s because he himself went through a profound transformation.

YC: This is interesting. In April I visited Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) in Berlin, and he said the same thing, describing how he went from loathing Liu Xiabo to becoming his best friend.

You just said that there weren’t any intellectuals who could come out and guide China’s political life and social movements. Did Liu Xiaobo strike you as an intellectual who could have done so? What role do you think he had in China’s democracy movement, and how do you evaluate it?

XY: I think that he took on a leading role, but I don’t think it can be said that he was a leader. Let me give an example: Apart from Liu Xiaobo, I am also very close to Chen Ziming (陈子明), and I understand his thinking and also know the many things he did. When it comes to planning and leading actual political movements, I think Chen Ziming was stronger than Liu Xiaobo — much, much stronger. But if we examine a more recent democracy movement such as in the now Czech Republic, then I think what Liu Xiaobo has done is totally comparable to to the role Vaclav Havel played. He doesn’t meet the traditional definition of a revolutionary leader, and I think the days for that are long gone. If he wasn’t deprived of his freedom and persecuted to death, then I think he would have become more and more a mature and skillful leader.

YC: What’s your involvement in Charter 08?

XY: I had nothing to do with the origins of the Charter 08. On November 15, 2008, Liu Xiaobo came to me with a draft and asked me to sign it. I was reluctant initially and he seemed a little shocked. I said that open letters and statements must have a specific focus, and it has to be for something that you must speak out on. I said that you had already done a number of signature campaigns this year, and there would be more next year, and I was afraid that, with such frequency, this sort of initiative would become a meaningless formality. He seemingly hadn’t considered it from that angle.

But he was insistent, and in the end talked me into it. I said I’d consider it. I agreed to sign it when we met again three days later. I thought that the text itself had many defects, and as a scholar of political philosophy and political theory, I proposed many ideas [for how it might be revised], and Liu said he’d go back and talk it over with Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦). He sent back revisions for me to look at, and said that they were adopting basically all my suggestions.

YC: Not all petitions are equal. All the others have passed into oblivion while Charter 08 has entered into history. Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December of 2008; my impression is that you became more active afterwards, speaking out and trying to get him freed.

XY: When Liu Xiaobo was arrested, my first reaction was emotional — I was really furious. It was purely an issue of expression. Also, Charter 08 was very moderate and entirely in conformance with the constitution and laws of the People’s Republic of China. So this really got me: I wanted to speak up for Liu Xiaobo and do things for him. At the same time, I also felt that there were indeed so many things that needed doing, for example, explicating the basic principles of Charter 08 and defending them. That I became more and more active is a direct result of his arrest.

YC: You were part of the campaign to nominate Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you please tell us more about that? 

XY: When people first discussed the idea that Liu Xiaobo should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I supported it. I thought that he entirely met the criteria of candidates and accorded with the aims of the Prize. But how to make it happen? Someone said to me half jokingly: you call for it! I gave it some thought, and thought that I was actually in a unique position to do so. From 2001 to 2002 or so I was a visiting scholar in Sweden, not just any visiting scholar but the Olof Palme Visiting Professorship, which is a rather privileged position established not by a university, but the state, and it was named after former prime minister Olof Palme after his assassination. People [in Sweden] look upon this post with high regard, and I started the Palme Professorship with an acceptance speech. I thought this distinction might lend some weight to my nomination of Liu Xiaobo. So I wrote a recommendation letter to the Nobel Committee and set out my reasons. I put a lot of thought in it. I sincerely believed that he should be awarded the Prize, not because he is a Chinese person, or because he’s my friend, or because he fought for democracy and freedom.

I don’t think the role of this letter should be exaggerated. The day he won the prize, journalists from around the world, abroad, and in Beijing, wanted to interview me. I was fully prepared for what I had to say, and I spoke from morning to night the whole day: why they had awarded him the prize, why they should, the significance of it and so on. I had thought all of this through beforehand and was ready for it.

YC: I read that a group of people, yourself included, went to Prague for the Homo Homini prize. What was that?

XY: After Charter 08 was published, a human rights award in Czech Republic called the Homo Homini Award was given to Liu Xiaobo and all the signatories of Charter 08, and it invited some of us for the ceremony. We accepted the Homo Homini award on behalf of Liu Xiaobo and all Charter 08 signatories, and while there we had a lot of direct interaction with Vaclav Havel.

YC: It’s sad: come 2018, Liu Xiaobo is no more, and none of what you did then is possible now — signing Charter 08 and going abroad to receive a human rights award. 

XY: Before Xi Jinping came to power, the persecution was severe, and imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo was one example. Yet on the other hand we had a little bit of room to breathe. The day Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was taking interviews all day and I remember part of the day I was walking through a busy shopping street like Wangfujing (王府井), a really bustling part of town, while talking on the phone to foreign journalists. Nobody interfered with me. But that’s inconceivable in China now.

YC: A few years ago you and Hua Ze (华泽) compiled a book titled 《遭遇警察》. It was also published in English as In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon: Stories of Repression in the New China, which includes your own chapter ‘Defiance’ (《抗拒》). It left a very deep impression on me, and from it I understood the life of an intellectual living under the constant surveillance of China’s political police. China Change published the English-language version on our website.

XY: Police in China are unrestrained and shameless. Chinese police permeate into your everyday life. They’re there with you all the time; ubiquitous. They ‘make friends’ with you, go out drinking on the town with you, make jokes, give you a nickname, and so in the end, you get so used to their presence that the figure who was sent to spy on you becomes some kind of ‘friend’ of yours.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 2But I could never get used to it. I hate it. When the police come to visit me I often don’t let them in — but I can’t do that every time. They would force their way in. They can be polite, calling me ‘Teacher Xu,’ but the only reason they dare enter my home is because they’re police. They just come in with or without your permission or invitation because they can. As seemingly respectful and polite as they are, it’s still a humiliation. Every time they came visit me, it was an encroachment and insult on my dignity and personal liberty.

I was forever tortured by such questions. I could never get over it. For me, the basepoint is that I’m a free citizen. The police come, I subject myself to them, but I can’t reconcile with such subjugation.

YC: In May 2014, a dozen or so intellectuals, dissidents and lawyers held a commemoration of June 4 at your home. They included Qin Hui (秦晖) of Tsinghua University, professor Guo Yuhua (郭于华) also of Tsinghua, Hu Shigen (胡石根), and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强). Five were detained and you were one of them. Was that the first time you were held in a detention center? What was it like for you?

XY: That time was really just risible. I always see myself as a rational and careful person; I guaranteed everyone that it would be safe to hold such a gathering. Five years prior, in 2009, we’d held a similar event, and that time I felt it was extremely dangerous and the fallout would also be severe. Things got quite dramatic; I won’t talk about it all, but in the end it didn’t turn out so bad. So in 2014, I told everyone that there wouldn’t be any problems. I cited Chen Wei (陈卫) and Yu Shiwen (于世文), who in February of that year held a big event marking the death of Zhao Ziyang in Henan, and nothing happened.

YC: Although in July that year the couple was arrested, and Yu Shiwen was locked up until August 2016 — held without trial or sentence for two years before being released.

XY: So in May, 2014 when they arrested us, it was a surprise. In hindsight, things seemed a little off that very morning. The property management people had come to my apartment in the morning to fix something without an appointment; they were there fixing it for half a day but didn’t end up fixing anything. Later on I realized that they were there to watch me. They had been planning it all since the morning; they’d arranged everything, but I had no clue. So later on when the police came to our meeting, I said: “you didn’t come earlier and didn’t come later; you’re here right when I’m busy — what do you want?” They said that I had to come with them. So it happened just like that.

Some people gave the opinion that the arrests were mainly about taking Pu Zhiqiang, and the rest of us were just caught in the net. Some people love such analyses; the more they analyze it, the more esoteric it gets, and they think they’re so full of foresight — like ‘Look, I even know how the state security apparatus works.’ I really take exception to this stuff. What I stick to is one thing: Have I broken the law? Which law have I broken? Do you have evidence? Later when I was in detention center being interrogated, this is what I focused on.

YC: How long were you detained?

XY: Precisely a month, in the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center.

YC: What was it like for a Chinese philosopher?

XY: I had read so much about Chinese prisons, so I had some idea. For example, when new inmates come in, typically the veterans will bully them. They’ll make a show of strength and domination. They make you do the filthiest and most tiring work, give you the worst place to sleep, or do other things to take advantage of you.

It was early morning when I was sent to the cell, and the prisoners were just waking up. Everyone had their head shaved. It was a terrifying sight to behold. They all looked like bandits, with no clothes waist up, all with an ominous glint in their eyes. As soon as I got in, someone ordered me to squat: Who are you? I thought I’d be beaten up right then. I said that I’m a political prisoner and that I was being detained for commemorating June 4, and that I was a professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As soon as I said this the entire atmosphere in the place changed. Their attitude turned around entirely. They were good to me the entire time I was there. There are things that I don’t dare to tell you even now. You wouldn’t believe some of the things if I said them, about how the police told the prisoners to treat me well.

The place they gave me to sleep was the second best to that of the cell boss. I was afforded all the preferential treatment that one could expect in prison — but of course, there wasn’t much of that. Overall, conditions were horrendous, but at least their attitude to me was completely different — all because I said I was a political prisoner and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, because I’d held a memorial for June 4. This was for me a real psychological relief. Those men, locked up for murder or whatever else, are actually very clear on what’s right and what’s wrong in the politics of Chinese society. They truly had a sense of respect towards me.

There was a murderer there who was very nice to me — if he didn’t help me out, I’d be in a sorry state, because when a prisoner was taken in, you had nothing. You have no toothbrush to brush your teeth with, no chopsticks to eat with, you have to buy everything. He gave me all of that. I would have been extremely miserable without them. He was someone who had committed homicide. Who did he kill? He killed the village official who was a corrupt embezzler and bullied everyone in the village.

There were other prisoners who were also quite nice. A young police officer told me privately, while taking me out of cell for this and that purpose, ‘Teacher Xu, I’ve read your books.’ To convince me, he began citing A Variety of Rebellions (《形形色色的造反》) and explaining its place in the history of scholarship on the Cultural Revolution. He knew a lot about it. But the police officer in charge of interrogating me was really bad. He had a female assistant officer and I wasn’t exactly polite with her. We got into an argument during interrogations. She seemed like she wanted to justify herself and said, ‘Oh, Teacher Xu, let me tell you, I’m a PhD graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law.’ As soon as I heard this I really had a fire in my belly and I retorted: ‘Oh, CUPL, I thought it was better, so you are what they produce.’ But later she was very nice to me. There were others who were even nicer. I can’t say how good they were because that would be bad for them. You’d find it hard to believe. Actually they understand exactly what’s going on. I think that most people in the police forces are like that. Of course there are some, like the one who interrogated me, who are just vicious. But other police would criticize him; they said to me that they themselves had already been on the force for years, but he was still young and felt the need to prove himself. This is how they’d talk to me in private, that he wanted to make a name for himself on the force and that’s why he was so fierce.

YC: Hearing you describe things this way, it seems like many people are simply keeping to themselves, living a kind of dual life.

XY: This is a question that can be subject to deep examination; but I’ll put it simply. A regime that does not enjoy popular support, or rather one that completely goes against human nature, can exist in two ways: the first is ideological deception. For instance in the Maoist era, everyone truly felt that Mao Zedong was an angel, truth incarnate. The other means of rule is, an illegitimate regime can use naked violence and power to get its way when the ideological control no longer works. The situation in China today is of this sort. This is something shown in history and contemporary times, in China and around the world. In the ancient past, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang could spark a rebellion and overthrow the [Qin Dynasty] regime, because a soldier and a peasant were about on par in terms of arms. The soldier had a broadsword and a lance; the peasant had a hoe and a sickle — the difference is not huge. In modern society, violent rule is able to rely on a massive gap in coercive power. But ruling by coercion doesn’t give the regime any more stature in the eyes of its subjects.

YC: This year, Xi Jinping announced that he was abolishing the system of term limits for state chairman. He’s also begun implementing and exhibiting some ‘Maoist-revival’ behavior, so some people have said that China is returning to the Cultural Revolution. Thus, in such a modernized, interconnected society, we seem to be in a situation where among China’s 1.3 billion people, Xi Jinping is the only one allowed to have his own thoughts: whatever he likes is correct; whatever he doesn’t like is wrong. At the same time, the regime is doing everything it can to monopolize ideas and thought. There is on the one hand a high level of economic capacity, yet on the other an extreme level of control and suppression. How do you think this country will end up if this new absurdity goes on?

XY: The first thing I want to say is that there’s a huge difference between the society of today and Mao’s time. You can say that during the Maoist era the idea was that Mao was the only one who could think, even though I know through my studies that during that time there were many heresies and folk schools of thought, but overall it can be said that, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was one brain controlling 800 million Chinese people. Nowadays, that is absolutely not the case. We could say now that of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, at least half have their own minds. The regime allows only one voice [in the public sphere], but there is no way they can control what people think. This is a fundamental change. These days the regime uses naked violence to force people to conform — this differs from ignorant people truly believing something. So from this perspective, the times have changed, and there is no going back to the Maoist era.

But unfortunately we must face one cruel reality: the use of naked violence to rule, though it has no moral value, can be maintained for a long period of time. I don’t think this situation in China will change anytime soon. I’ve prepared for the absolute worst, based on what I’ve lived through. From what we’ve spoken today, we can see one thing, which is that China doesn’t have a ‘worst’ period, it only has ‘worse’ periods. I’m very pessimistic.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into the Cultural Revolution — though I also reflected on it very deeply afterwards. I wondered why the Cultural Revolution happened, and from there wondered why the Chinese communist revolution took place in China and why it is that the CCP was able to seize power. I feel that I thought it through deeply and thoroughly, and began to understand just truly how sinister and cruel the Chinese Communist Party is. I think that I see these things a little more thoroughly than most. I especially appreciated the thoroughness of Liu Xiaobo’s thinking, and I also consider myself a thorough thinker. As for how evil the Communist Party can be, I’ve had the time to psychologically prepare — this is what sets me apart from others. Everyone now thinks that things are the worst they can possibly get, and they can’t bear it — but when you look back and understand the Party’s own operating principles and guiding ideology, and especially its own history, I think the most evil things it may do are already within my expectations.

I don’t think that the fascist forces and tendencies in China have reached their extreme yet. The worst is yet to come. Under such circumstances, hoping for any kind of rapid change is impractical. As someone who loves thought and theorizing, the mission I gave myself is to tell the world just how this tragedy came to pass. There are no obstacles to the rise of fascism in China. I want to explain how it happened and why it happened and is still happening. These are the questions I’m observing and thinking over at present.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 3YC: After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, on October 14, 2010, you and 109 Chinese liberal intellectuals, dissidents, rights lawyers, and rights defenders published a statement. Your name was first on the list. The first sentence of the statement reads: “In contemporary society, peace and human rights are inseparable.  The deprivation and trampling upon life takes place not only on the battlefield, but also in the workings of the tyranny and the Draconian laws inside a country.” Come 2018, Liu Xiaobo died in prison for more than a year, the repression in China is such that it would no longer be possible to find 109 firm voices to sign a letter like that. In the China of 2018, the violent deprivation and trampling upon life is even more vile, even more unrestrained. And yet China’s influence on the world stage has become ever greater. It’s truly distressing to behold. What would you say to our readers?

XY: Peace doesn’t depend merely on the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization distributing grain and cereals around the world — though of course this is very important; and it isn’t just about healing people who are ill and injured. The enterprise of promoting peace is not simply tender-hearted charity work — such an understanding of peace is far from sufficient. A country that is ruled by a tyrannical dictatorship that uses naked violence to mobilize the power of the state to ravage human life and destroy human freedom — this is a matter more worthy of attention than sickness and hunger. I hope that the international community pays more attention to the values that Liu Xiaobo fought and sacrificed for. An important component of peace is that we must stand up and fight against evil forces that take humankind as their enemy. It’s an extremely salient issue, and it’s something that people with ambivalent values find uncomfortable, and that they wish to avoid. But this cannot be avoided. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the enterprise of peace. I think that the use of the instruments of the state to, in an organized way, on a large scale, violate the principles of peace and violate human rights, is far more damaging than the natural and man-made disasters that happen, or the inter-ethnic conflict that breaks out. This is a task that we cannot avoid shouldering.




Defiance, Xu Youyu, China Change, May 13, 2014.

Intellectual Discourses in Post-Mao China and Today, Xu Youyu, China Change, May 24, 2014

The Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later: How It Echoes Today, Xu Youyu, Foreign Affairs, May 15, 2016.


Xu Youyu’s work in Chinese:



Xu Youyu’s essays in Chinese:



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Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’

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


June 4 martial law troops




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.

FullSizeRenderTo 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.


Wu Renhua. Photo by Yaxue Cao.

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.


Wu Renhua
May 2016


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.





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

June 3, 2016

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: What’s that book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

CC: What’s their book primarily based on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mr. Wu’s early manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

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

CC: How do you get into these veteran websites?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Who gave it to you?  

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


Liubukou in the morning of June Fourth.

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

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

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

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


(Continue to Part Two of Two)


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




The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (3)

By Fang Zheng, published: June 6, 2014


Wuchang Kidnapping

In Zhanjiang, I boarded a train to Wuchang, Hubei (湖北武昌) where I would transfer to the No. 88 train to Beijing. On the ferry, I met a middle-aged business woman, whose destination was Anyang, Henan, on the same route as me. She offered to keep me company and help me when I needed it. It was an arduous journey, and around noon we arrived in Wuchang. We bought tickets for the train to Beijing and then we went to have lunch outside the station. After lunch, I went to a public phone and I wanted to call a college classmate of mine to see if he could bring me a few clothes. Coming out of semi-tropical Hainan, I was wearing too little for March in interior China. I was shivering in the cold and Beijing was going to be much colder.

Before I reached the phone, a van pulled up next to me, and four or five men jumped out of it.

“Are you Fang Zheng?”

“I am. What’s the matter?”

“Come with us!”

With that they grabbed and lifted me into the van. The dajie (big sister), who was also taken, was scared and confused. I told her not to worry, and these men were after me. The van drove for a long while to a small villa-like building in a suburban, hilly area. My sense was that it was a station of the security police, because people in and out of there looked like well-trained people and there was a tall antenna on the rooftop.

“We are ordered by our superiors to hold you here temporarily,” they replied to my question of why I had been brought there.

They interrogated the dajie, my travel companion, asked about her relationship with me, and searched her luggage. In the end they let her go and took her back to the train station.

I was held there for about a week under 24-hour watch, day and night, four people a shift. I asked if I could be allowed to go to Hefei to my parents, they said “No, you are going back to Hainan.”

Finally three officers from Haikou Public Security Bureau’s political security office came, including director Li (李科长) and officer Ma (马警官), with whom I had had many encounters. They complained that I left without giving them a heads up. When I asked why I couldn’t go to Beijing to visit my sister who had gotten married and settled there, or to Hefei to be with my parents, they said we couldn’t tell you why. “How did you know I was in Wuchang?” “We can’t tell you this either,” said they.

Back in Haikou, I got sick, succumbing to prolonged bronchitis because I had no money to get medical care. When I said to officer Ma, who was also a college student in 1989 at People’s Public Security University of China (中国人民公安大学) in Beijing, that the public security should give me medical treatment, he said, “Let me give you two hundred yuan from my own pocket.”

Friends from Beijing sent me money, so did my parents, to help me get by.

Falling in Love

When I had left Haikou, I didn’t plan to come back. Now that I was forced back, I had no place to live. A painter friend of mine helped me to move into an abandoned “villa” he rented at the time. There were a lot of abandoned houses like that after the real estate bust, and some had been turned into hen houses or pig sties or small factories.

I rented a room upstairs, and downstairs lived a group of girls who came from the interior to look for jobs. When I visited my painter friend shortly before I left, I met them in the house, so when I showed up again and moved into the same house, one of the girls asked me, “Didn’t you just leave?” So I told her what happened.

Then I told her more – about June fourth 1989. Her name was Zhu Jin (朱进), and she was twenty-three, ten years younger than me.  “Didn’t you kill a lot of PLA soldiers in Beijing?” She asked me.  She was 13 years old at the time living in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province (江苏徐州). She had never heard of tanks running over people and machine gun fire on crowds. In the house, I spent most of the day on the first floor helping with various household chores, and I got to my room on the second floor either carried by my painter friend or crawling up myself. Zhu Jin would say, “Let me carry you.” Tall and strong, also an athlete, she would carry me upstairs.  She did not worry about who I was. We fell in love.

Unbeknownst to us, in Xuzhou, public security officers found Zhu Jin’s mother. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. “Do you know what your daughter is doing in Hainan? Get her back. She shouldn’t get involved with politically-tainted people!” Zhu Jin’s mother wrote letters to her asking what was going on. Zhu Jin wrote back, “Ask them to come to Hainan to talk to me. I am a grownup and I make decisions for myself.” So her mother told the police, “Stop visiting me. I do not interfere with my daughter’s life.”

Speaking of harassing relatives and friends, the public security over the years had talked to my direct family, my older sister, my younger sister, even my brothers-in-law, and anyone who had business or other associations with me. In a way, they spread a net over my head and everyone related to me. Out of fear or inconvenience, some had distanced themselves from me.

Zhu Jin and I planned to get married. The first obstacle was that I didn’t have an ID. My ID had been confiscated during a police raid and it had expired anyway. I didn’t have a Hainan household registration, so the public security wouldn’t issue me a new ID. When I left Beijing in 1992, I took my Beijing registration with me, but in Haikou, the police said I didn’t meet the requirements for a household registration. I tried my hometown Hefei, and the public security said they couldn’t give me a registration because I didn’t live here and I didn’t work here.  I tried to bring it back to Beijing, but Beijing said, no, you had already left Beijing with it. So for eight years in Hainan, I didn’t have a household registration, and after 1995, I didn’t have a valid ID card. If a census was conducted during that time, I was not counted. Without a household registration and ID, I couldn’t get married to Zhu Jin.

In early 2000, I wrote to the Ministry of Public Security. I said I am not writing to talk about anything political; I am writing to talk about my household registration which I have to have just to live.  In May my parents received notice that I could settle my registration in Hefei. In August of the same year, Zhu Jin and I moved back to Hefei and moved in with my parents. We got married on September 8, 2000. I had not seen my parents for eight years.

We received many blessings. In New York, Mr. Cary Hung (洪哲胜), a Taiwanese democracy pioneer, raised about 30,000 yuan for me to start a new life with Zhu Jin and our daughter who was born in May, 2001. Zhu Jin opened a cosmetics shop but just as it was doing better, the SARS epidemic shut down the city for several months and also shut down our shop. I sought employment assistance from the Disabled Persons’ Federation in Hefei, but nothing came out of it.

Unexpected Role in the 2008 Paralympics Preparations

In 2005, a high school classmate working at the provincial DPF asked me if I would be willing to assist the province’s newly-formed athlete team of the disabled preparing for the 2008 Paralympic Games. Of course I would.

So I became a helper for the team of the disabled. I lived with the 30 or so athletes, returning home only occasionally. It was not real employment, but I was very content to be doing what I liked and knew the best, and I was happy to help each one of them succeed.

Zong Kai in a semi-final event in 2008 Paralympics  (

Zong Kai in a semi-final event in 2008 Paralympics ( Click to enlarge.

On the team, there was a 19-year-old young man named Zong Kai (纵凯) with a high hip amputation. He was a beggar crawling on the street, supporting himself with both arms, when he was spotted and picked up by the coaches looking for potential candidates for the provincial team. He came from the poorest countryside in northern Anhui. When the coaches discussed what events he should be trained to do, I opposed placing Zong Kai on the swimming team. I analyzed his condition, his muscle-type, using knowledge I learned in college, and I told the team and Zong Kai himself that the event he could quickly learn and excel in would be wheelchair racing.

But wheelchair racing was an expensive sport, the racing chair had to be custom-made overseas and was very costly, and only four cities and provinces – Beijing, Shanghai, Hubei and Liaoning – had this option. Through my connections, I introduced Zong Kai to Shanghai to try out, and he was quickly accepted and moved to Shanghai to train. In the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, he won one gold metal and one bronze. He is now a confident and successful athlete and married too. We had kept contact for a long time, and I was sure he would be attending the 2012 Paralympics in London.

My temporary employment ended in 2007 when the national qualification games for disabled athletes was over. Those who were chosen became members of the national team, and those who didn’t make it went back to their life before.

Ironically, from March 2008 when the Olympic torch relay began, all the way to September, I was pretty much under house arrest in Hefei. There were media that wanted me to visit Beijing, and they even booked a hotel room for me. But the police, CDPF local chapter and neighborhood committee worked together to monitor me.  They took turns to visit me to warn me or threaten me against traveling to Beijing, because they too knew that I was a living example of China’s disregard for the Olympic spirit and its human rights condition. They were worried my appearance would ruin their grand show. Indeed, if you asked me then, I did not believe China should be hosting the Olympics.

So I had these mixed feelings about the 2008 Olympics. As someone who studied sports, as a sports fan, I was excited about it and I also knew that many of my college friends were working hard to contribute to its success. And I was also deeply gratified to have helped disabled people like Zong Kai to be part of it. But on the other hand, I was a victim of perverse persecution that ended my career as an athlete. During the Olympics, I watched the games intently at home, but all the while I was reminded that I was imprisoned.

At the time China promised the world that it would allow foreign journalists to report freely in China. Between March and September, 2008, there had been foreign journalists who came to Hefei to interview me. But this was how “free reporting” worked: I remember when a British journalist came to interview me, he was accompanied by a Chinese “observer.” Every time when I talked about my circumstances, this “observer” would interrupt, “Enough, enough, no more talking.”

In another case, in September, a German journalist with Süddeutsche Zeitungwanted to write about the conditions of China’s disabled people. He had interviewed various people already, including me, and he asked me to introduce some interviewees. We decided to visit a young marathon runner I helped train who had lost his arms to electric shock and didn’t make the national team. But before my appointment with the journalist, I was taken to the police station and warned not to go. In the end, we didn’t go because I didn’t think the young man would be free to talk to us, or we might be intercepted halfway.

But for nearly ten years from 1989 to 2008, I had continuously talked about the June 4th massacre to overseas media without fear, I had told the truth I experienced, and I regarded it as my responsibility to speak out.

Leaving China

Around 1994 and 1995, I toyed with the idea of leaving China, but even my girlfriend couldn’t get a passport, what were the chances they would give me one? I was also approached by someone offering to smuggle me out of China. I

declined, given my handicap. In 2007 and 2008, I had communications withZhou Fengsuo and Zhang Qianjin, using public phones to avoid surveillance. They and other overseas friends wanted to help me leave China before the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen movement. My passport application was eventually approved after much delay partly in exchange for my “cooperation” with them during the Olympics.

Before I left Hefei in February, 2009, government officials talked to me many times to prevent me from leaving. Their tactics ranged from persuasion, to threat, to enticement. “Your family are still in China. We can let you leave China, we can also refuse to let you come back if you don’t behave appropriately overseas.” “If you stay in China, we will give you a job.” When nothing worked, they tried to talk me into leaving China a few months later, say in July.

I said to them, “Now I have a passport, visa, and tickets. Unless you use force to intercept me, I’m going.”

Fang Zheng, wife, and their oldest daughter in 2009.

Fang Zheng, wife, and their oldest daughter in 2009.

My wife and I arrived in San Francisco on February 26, 2009. Our daughter joined us a month later. In the United States, with the help of Mr. Michael Horowitz and many generous friends, I was fitted with prostheses and walked on my own for the first time in twenty years. I learned how to drive, and my family eventually settled in the Bay Area. Our second daughter was born in 2012. Here in the US, my heart is free, so is my movement.


As I translated Fang Zheng’s story the past week or so, his third daughter was born on May 30. – Yaxue


The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (1), by Fang Zheng

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

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

The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (2)

By Fang Zheng, published: June 4, 2014


A Disabled Athlete to Represent China, or Maybe Not

With the help of Wu Bei (吴蓓), a teacher at Beijing Steel and Iron College who also witnessed the Liubukou massacre, I settled in Hainan and worked for the real estate company run by Ms. Wu’s husband. After a while, I opened a small convenience shop on the premises of the residential development where I lived.

In Hainan, I continued to train myself. In 1993, Hainan’s Disabled Persons’ Federation took me to two national tryout competitions that selected athletes to attend the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in September, 1994, in Beijing. I was chosen. In May 1994, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) organized training in Beijing for all the athletes who would be representing China, and it so happened that trainings for his events were held at my alma mater. Needless to say, I was excited about the opportunity to win for China and for myself. I trained very hard.

The staffers and the coaches knew how I lost my legs, and they mentioned that the CDPF was discussing whether to allow me to attend the games, but all in all, everything else went normally. One day toward the end of May, Jia Yong (贾勇), a CDPF official who oversaw the training camp and who is currently the executive deputy chairman of China’s Paralympic Committee and deputy chairman of the Asian Paralympic Committee, and a coach came to look for me.

“Fang Zheng,” he said. “Come with me, our CDPF leader has to talk to you.”

They took me into the hall on the first floor of the college’s administration building, a place I was very familiar with during my student years. Lots of people were standing around, and I saw a few people lifting and moving the Chairman of the CDPF into the hall. He was Deng Pufang (邓朴方), Deng Xiaoping’s wheelchair-bound son who was paralyzed when he had jumped out of a window in Peking University during the Cultural Revolution to escape “rebels” pursuing him for being the son of one of the biggest capitalist roaders.

Xiao Xiaocheng (刘小成), the chairman of the CDPF and a few other officials came over to me. “I talk to you today on behalf of the CDPF,” Mr Liu began. “We know how you became disabled and we discussed whether we should let you participate. Despite differences among ourselves, the CDPF still hopes to keep you if you can make three promises. If you do, you can continue to train and attend the games.”

1)      Do not talk about June 4th and your injury with other athletes at the training camp;

2)     Do not contact anyone connected to June 4th during the training or the games;

3)     If you win medals you will be requested for interview by the media. We hope you avoid media; if it really cannot be avoided, do not talk about the circumstances in which you were injured. Make up something else, like a car accident. Anything.

“If you can promise these three things,” Liu Xiaocheng concluded, “we will let you compete.”

These demands didn’t sit well with me, but I promised nonetheless. I said, “right now, I only see myself as a disabled person and an athlete, and I only wanted to compete and I don’t mean to politicize it at all.”

“That’s great,” they chorused. Deng Pufang was on the scene, but no, he didn’t talk to me.

After the conversation, they even took me with them to watch a show in the auditorium by some singers and other entertainment celebrities. I was relieved, because now that things were laid bare, I could focus on training and not worry about it anymore.

Fang Zheng in college.

Fang Zheng in college. Click to enlarge.

Two months passed, one early morning at the end of July, two CDPF staffers came running. “Fang Zheng, hurry up to gather your belongings and go with us.” In a matter of minutes, one pushed the wheelchair and the other carried my bag, and I was taken into a van outside the dorm. The van drove to the Second Guest House of the State Council in Xizhimen (西直门). There they told me, “On behalf of the CDPF, we are letting you know that you are going back to Hainan today with the chairman of the CDPF Hainan chapter, and you cannot participate in the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled.”

“Why?” I was dumbfounded.

“You have been disqualified.”

“Haven’t we had an agreement? Is there something else?”

“We cannot tell you anything.”

It was around 10 o’clock in the morning, and they told me that they had bought plane tickets for me and the Hainan chairman and we were to leave right then for the airport to catch the flight around noon.

I refused. “There is nothing I can do if you decide to take me out of the competitions,” I said to them. “But as an individual, I am free. I will not be leaving Beijing today. My family has come to be with me, my friends all know I am training in Beijing, and I can’t leave without saying goodbye to them. I will not be leaving today, unless you put me on the plane by force.”

They backed down but they didn’t allow me to go back to the training camp again.

That evening I went to meet teacher Ding Zilin (丁子霖), the founder of “Tian’anmen Mothers.” We had been in contact since 1992 but I had never met her. I thought if I didn’t take that opportunity, I didn’t know when I would have a chance to meet her. When I arrived at teacher Ding’s home at Renmin University of China (中国人民大学), a great number of plainclothes cops were loitering outside her apartment building. I had dinner with her, and left around nine o’clock. She walked me across the campus to see me off. All around us, plainclothes cops followed and watched us. It was at once infuriating and ridiculous. At one point, teacher Ding confronted them, asking why the government was so uneasy about an old lady and a man without legs.

The next day, two staffers of CDPF accompanied me back to Hainan, ending my athletic aspirations. In China, sports – like so many other things – is built into the party-state system. To compete in provincial games, you have to be selected by the city you live in; to compete in the national games, you have to be selected by the province you are in;

Fang Zheng and Zhang Qianjin in front of his shop.

Fang Zheng and Zhang Qianjin in front of his shop.

and to compete in the international games, you have to be selected by the state. Outside the system, you cannot take part in sports competitions as an individual.

In Hainan, I had been living with my girlfriend. I met her during the Chinese New Year holidays in 1989 in my hometown Hefei. She came to the hospital to be with me two days after I was hurt. Starting in 1993, Hainan’s real estate bubble burst, she was thinking about going abroad, so she went back to Hefei to obtain a passport. But the local public security told her that she would not be given a passport because of her relationship with me. This was something neither she nor I had expected. She became desperate about the future. In early 1995, she left me.

For all those years, for all the hardship she had to endure and the sacrifices she had to make, she didn’t leave me. But in the end, she had to give up because the state power did not like it.

The Sixth Anniversary of Tian’anmen

After the 1989 movement, many students went to jail, more were booted out of the system without a job or unable to maintain one because of lasting and systematic interference from the government. In the 1990s, Hainan had become a destination for many 1989ers, including Zhang Qianjin (张前进), Wang Dan (王丹), Kong Xianfeng (孔显峰), Lu Jiangtai (吕江台), Zheng Xuguang (郑旭光),Zhou Fengsuo (周锋锁), where, far away from Beijing, they tried to find luck and make a living, or even make money, in the new economic zone.

My place became a hub for many of these friends. In May 1995, also the international tolerance year, we worked on a signature campaign calling for the release of political prisoners and to redress the Tiananmen movement as its 6th anniversary approached.

Another thing we were working on was a report about the custody and repatriation policies in Hainan arising from a young adolescent I had helped.

One day a boy walked down the street towards my store.  Thin as a skeleton and pale, he was about to collapse at any time. He begged for food at the store; I gave him food and kept him. He was seventeen years old and had come to Hainan to look for his older sister from Zhejiang. Being a minor, he didn’t have an ID and was picked up by the custody and repatriation enforcement. In Hainan, you had to have an ID card (身份证), a temporary residential permit (暂住证) issued by the Hainan authorities, a migrant worker permit (外出打工证)  issued by your home town authorities, a Border Permit (边防证) and, if you were a woman, a marriage and reproduction certificate (婚育证) to be legally staying in Hainan. Police frequently conducted raids and pulled people off the street and put them into iron-barred trucks. If you paid money, they would let you go, or they would send you to work on road or other kinds of construction sites in Guangdong or Hainan.

The young man was kept in the custody center for a month or so and was let go probably because he had become so weak that he might die there. My friends and I were enraged, Lu Jiangtai in particular who was a college student during 1989 in Hunan. Lu went to the authorities to complain, collected information, and wrote a report to be distributed to human rights groups overseas and to be filed at a court.

Fang Zheng in front of his apartment in Hainan in 1994.

Fang Zheng in front of his apartment in Hainan in 1994.

In late May, perhaps in the evening of May 26th, we got both the appeal letter and the report typed and printed, ready to be sent the next day. We chatted and stayed up late. In the early morning, still asleep, a swarm of policemen and armed police raided us. The other half of our group, staying with another friend, was also raided at the same time. The police confiscated all of our materials and took all of us, including my younger sister, to the detention center. My sister and I were released after one day; Zheng Xuguang and his wife were detained for a month before being sent back to their home province, Shaanxi. Lu Jiangtai was indicted and sentenced to five years in prison for authoring the report about custody and repatriation policies that weren’t abolished by the State Council until 2003.

It was my first encounter with the police in Hainan. They had probably been watching me all along for all those years, but I just didn’t know.

I went to visit Lu Jiangtai once in the detention center. Then they barred me from visiting him again. After he was sentenced, they sent him away to I don’t know where. I have never heard from him again, nor do I know his whereabouts now.

As Hainan slumped into a depression, people who had come to look for jobs, opportunities and fortune took leave. My store had fewer and fewer customers, the road construction around it made it worse, so I finally closed it down. After that I partnered with friends and had a small tourism business that sustained us just barely.

After the 1995 raid, surveillance and harassment became constant. Telephone lines at home would be cut off during the so-called sensitive days. The police required me to report my whereabouts, should I travel, and my guests and visitors, except that I didn’t oblige. Why should I tell them? Sometimes things were just ludicrous. In March, 1997, a police officer came to “have a chat” with me early one morning. I asked him what it was all about, he said, “Don’t you know? Deng Xiaoping died.” “What does that have to do with me?”

By 1997 and 1998, most of my friends in Hainan had left. I felt lonely and life became harder. Friends in Beijing urged me to go back as well where, they said, economic development  was taking steam and it would easier for them to lend me a hand.

On the evening of March 7, 1999, without much planning and without telling anyone, I got into a taxi and went to Xiuying Pier in Haikou (海口秀英码头). Quietly I boarded a cross-channel ferry and arrived in Zhanjiang (湛江), Guangdong, the next morning.


To be continued:  Fang Zheng meeting his future wife, his unexpected brush with the 2008 Olympics, and leaving China.


The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (1), by Fang Zheng

The Morning of June 4th and Its Long and Insidious Shadow (3), by Fang Zheng


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

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

By Fang Zheng, published: June 3, 2014


The Morning  in Liubukou

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

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

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


Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hospital

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

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

“Did I lose my feet?”

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

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

Liubukou, the morning of  June 4th, 1989.

Liubukou, the morning of June 4th, 1989.

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

“Review”  and Refusal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gold Medalist in the National Games for the Disabled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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