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October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two)
June 4, 2016
Wu: Another find that was very exciting was to discover the chief of staff of the 38th Group Army’s 1st Tank Division. This chief of staff led the spearhead of that tank division, the 1st Regiment of armored infantrymen and the 1st Regiment, the very first tanks to arrive in Tiananmen Square, including the three tanks involved in the massacre at Liubukou. This chief of staff was eager to carry out orders and show his “politically correctness.” In all the military propaganda materials celebrating his “heroic achievements,” he was only ever referred to as “Chief of Staff Yan.” They described how he repeatedly ordered for forcing advancement, and his troops shot dead a student attempting to obstruct them outside Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now the Communication University of China). So I had a very strong wish to identify this chief of staff. But despite countless searching, I had never found the man’s name.
There were a total of five regiments in the 1st Tank Division. The 2nd and 3rd tank regiments, and the artillery regiment, were led by the division commander and political commissar — they were the remaining units that followed. The division commander and political commissar acted completely differently. Like a lot of the other martial law troops, they encountered obstruction and interference by citizens as they advanced toward Tiananmen, but they weren’t willing to smash through and hurt people. So they simply stopped, and only arrived at the Square on June 5. They didn’t participate in the clearing of the Square, and had no involvement in the massacre.
A Taiwan publishing house is going to put out the Taiwanese version of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth this year, so I made a round of revisions for that, correcting a few minor errors, and also did some more searching for a few tricky pieces of information that I had never been able to solve. The name of Chief of Staff Yan was one of them. As I searched, I came across a Yan, the division commander of the 38th Army Group’s Sixth Tank Division. My intuition was: this is my man! Yan Hongji (闫红计) is his name! I was able to confirm the connection with more searching. I’d poured countless hours into figuring out this person’s name and whereabouts, and in this round of revision I found the answer. I was so excited. This happened not long ago.
CC: Mr. Wu, you often refer to the book One Day During the Martial Law (《戒严一日》) in your book about the troops. Can you talk a little about this book?
Wu: One Day During the Martial Law was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department and published in 1990. This is the most valuable official publication about the Tiananmen incident. It consists of two volumes and was an anthology of over 100 articles by as many authors, all of whom are named along with their service post and military rank. Each of the authors records their participation and experience in the enforcement of martial law. Some of them write about how they helped the common citizens, others discuss their marching into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. Among them there were commanders and political commissars of army groups, but also regular soldiers. Apart from a few policemen from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the vast majority were all soldiers and officers involved in martial law. The value of each piece is different, but overall this book provided many leads and clues for my own research. From a historiographical perspective, the official documents are extremely accurate, better than individuals’ memories, when it comes to times and places, although other details of the events may be concealed or distorted.
Not a month after this book was published in 1990, it seems that the military realized that it revealed too much, so they retracted it, making it a “banned book.” Later they published an “abridged edition,” which was shrunk into a small pamphlet with huge chunks deleted.
CC: I assume it goes without saying that you consult the full version.
Wu: Right. In early 1990 when I’d just arrived in Hong Kong, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Monthly (《当代》) Ching Cheong learnt about my interest in researching and recording June 4, so he gave the book to me. He was once the Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (《文汇报》).
CC: You mentioned another book, Defenders of the Republic. Tell us about it.
Wu: This is official propaganda material, also published between the latter half of 1989 and 1990. A year after the June 4 incident, this form of propaganda was put to a stop; evidently an internal decision was issued to cease it, because they knew there was nothing glorious about it, and it would only draw more criticism. On June 4, 1990, Yang Baibing (杨白冰) and the General Political Department wanted to put on a massive celebration, but Li Ruihuan (李瑞环), the then head of Communist Party propaganda and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, dissented. Yang was furious. Li said that it wasn’t his order, but from the top — from Deng Xiaoping, obviously. So from that point on basically all celebration and propaganda about the suppression vanished from official sources.
The sub-title of Defenders of the Republic is A compilation of the deeds of heroic troops and model soldiers enforcing martial law in the capital — that’s the kind of book it was. There are about a dozen or so similar books. I asked friends in Beijing to dig them out for me. Some were brought over to the U.S., other were scanned and sent.
CC: Out of the 200,000 martial law troops, you verified and listed the identities of over 3,000 soldiers in your book The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. You’ve taken an enormous amount of time to identify them, and yet it’s only 1.5% of the total. Why did you put so much time into finding and verifying these names?
Wu: Of the hundreds and thousands who experienced the June 4 massacre, I may be one of a few who has a background in historical and documentary research. From the perspective of recording history, to ensure that a massacre like this is properly recorded, we must have the victims, as well as the perpetrators. Since the Communist Party’s founding of its regime, a huge number of people have died in its political movements. For instance, in just the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries in the 1950s, official figures say that 2.4 million were executed. Is there a name list of these 2.4 million people? No. Who sentenced them to death? We don’t know that, either. The political campaign closest to June 4 was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and official Communist Party documents acknowledge that it was a “calamity,” and vaguely say that millions of people suffered unnatural deaths. But who are they? Wang Youqin (王友琴), who also graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades — her record is still extremely limited.
I feel that when it comes to June 4, if I don’t do this kind of recording, then with the passage of time the massacre will become just like the Cultural Revolution, or any other political campaign, and end up with no legitimate historical record.
In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, my chief task was to search out information about the perpetrators. The work of the Tiananmen Mothers for so many years has been to seek out and record information about the victims. They have a list of those who died in the massacre, and so far have recorded and verified the names of 202 victims. This is still quite far from the real death toll, but the work they’ve done has already been extremely difficult.
CC: Let’s not forget that these 200,000 martial law troops are a huge group of witnesses, and most of them are of the same age as the student protesters. When we say “the 1989 generation,” we have to keep in mind that they are the other part of the 1989 generation. Are there any in their midst who have spoken out about June 4?
Wu: Yes, they are indeed a huge group of witnesses, but so far, only two out of the 200,000 have come out, using their true identity, and spoken about their experiences. One is Zhang Sijun (张四军), a soldier with the 54th Group Army and now a veteran living in his home province of Shandong. He has been detained several times and harassed for speaking online about 1989. According to my research his testimony isn’t that valuable, but morally, it’s significant. If a large number of them testify, we would know so much more about the massacre.
CC: Imagine a few thousand of them doing this.
Wu: The other is Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李晓明) , who headed a radio station of the Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. He was what we call a “student-officer” who enlisted after graduating from college. Following his discharge, he went to study in Australia and became a Christian. He held a press conference and spoke about his experiences. It is from his testimony that we learned about another general who disobeyed orders, in addition to Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army.
That was Xu Feng (许峰), commander of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. I had done so much research, and I discovered the passive resistance on the part of General He Yanran (何燕然), the commander of the 28th Group Army, and Zhang Mingchun (张明春), the political commissar, but I had known nothing about the division commander. Because of his refusal, he was disciplined and discharged after June 4. I have wanted to know his whereabouts and what happened to him, but I have never found any more about him despite my efforts.
CC: What about the commander and the political commissar of the 28th Group Army?
Wu: They were both demoted and removed from the combat forces. Zhang Mingchun was demoted and reassigned to deputy political commissar of Jilin Provincial Military Command, and He Yanran the deputy commander of Anhui Provincial Military Command. Zhang Mingchun died a year after being demoted.
CC: This is probably a no-brainer question, but I’ll still ask anyway: Have you received any comments, publicly or otherwise, from the PLA after you published The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth?
CC: I’m sure there are reactions that are just not reaching you.
Wu: They would definitely purchase the books and give them to certain people to read. Not no one has told me anything. On the other hand, the authorities haven’t come out to say: this book is wrong here and there, or it’s nonsense.
CC: I saw some news on Twitter a while back saying you’d be taken “ill” for a while. Can you talk about that?
Wu: I worked at the Press Freedom Herald for 15 years and then wrote for 10 years, and I’ve always been healthy. I fell ill for a period because of the emotional and psychological toll of my work. There’s a famous saying about 1989: “Dare not forget; don’t dare to recollect.” I had been immersed in everything about 1989 for more than two decades. I’ve collected a photo gallery of 9,000 images, each one of them full of blood and passion. Take the clearing of Tiananmen Square: When I was writing about how 11 students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou, an incident I personally witnessed, tears would stream down my face, and I would crying bitterly by my desk. Finally, beginning in the latter half of 2010, while I was going over the draft manuscript of my third book, something went wrong — I succumbed to depression.
My original plan was to publish it in May of 2011, and I knew that I had to work every day in order to meet the deadline. But every time I opened the computer I just sat there in a daze. I couldn’t write. I’d go out for strolls, or chat idly with friends, but I couldn’t enjoy distraction either, and had to return to my desk. This dragged on for a long while. So I had to stop working and think of a way to solve the problem.
In addition, a lot of my friends know that I’d been paying out of my own pocket to get these books published, and relying on meager royalties to get by. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally, I’ve been separated from my family, and especially my mother, for 22 years. It’s hard to put into words how much we missed each other. She knew my situation, and never said anything disheartening in all my years calling her. She’s never said: Son, I miss you, I’m old, come back and see me. She’s never said that. So when I found myself unable to work, I said to myself: I need to see my mother; it’s been 22 years, she’s 85 years old. Maybe I’d be able to write again after I got back.
Up to that point I had not taken up American citizenship, nor had I planned to. I always wanted to be a Chinese citizen, and record this massacre as a Chinese citizen; oppose dictatorship as a Chinese citizen; and contribute to democratization of China as a Chinese citizen. As a historian, my PRC citizenship had an added significance. Young people might dismiss my old fashioned sentiments. But in the end, in order to go back and visit my mother, in late 2010 I decided to become an American citizen. After that I quickly got my American passport.
CC: How about the visa?
Wu: That’s another story. In order to stop people like me — who are banned from the country — from getting a foreign passport and coming back in, the Chinese authorities required all ethnic Chinese, whether mainlander, or from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, to submit their original passport when applying for a visa after becoming an American citizen. That’s how they would get your original Chinese name.
I spotted advertisements in the World Journal for a service to handle Chinese visa applications. I picked one and called the number. Sure enough, they accepted cash, and they took care of the visa. It wasn’t cheap: for $1,200, I could get a visa without having to provide an old Chinese passport.
I picked one of the services. A male clerk asked me a few questions, and then got down to it: are you involved in politics? I said nope, that I’m a Wenzhounese who got smuggled into the U.S., and that I didn’t have a passport at the time. Wenzhou was a known source of illegal immigrants. I was accompanied by a friend who also came from Wenzhou, so we chatted in Wenzhou dialect. He believed the story and asked me to write down my Chinese name. I came up with Wu Yanhua (伍彦华), matching Yenhua Wu, the English spelling of my name — it was spelled this way on my documents when I left Hong Kong in 1990. He asked nothing else: no address, phone number, or reason for visiting. When I got the visa two weeks later, I was worried it was fake.
Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books.
CC: You can’t go back anymore?
Wu: No. Now that they know, they won’t give me visa anymore.
CC: My last question has to do with Wang Weilin (王维林), the Tank Man. There have been different versions of who he is. What’s puzzling is that, so many years have passed and the image has become so iconic — how could there be no information about this man whatsoever? I want to hear your take on him.
Wu: As long-time researcher on 1989, of course I’m very interested in finding out who he is and what happened to him — the man in the white shirt and shopping bag in each hand who, on the morning of June 5th, stopped a formation of tanks. Wang Weilin, as many believed, is not necessarily his name. Videos show that he was spirited away by a few men off the street. For many years the story went that he was dragged away by good people and once on the sidewalk disappeared into the crowd, and safety.
But a couple of years ago, an academic specializing in body language studied the video and concluded that those who took the Tank Man off the street were not ordinary bystanders, but trained personnel. He believed that the Tank Man fell into the hands of the Chinese military or police.
When this analysis came out, the Voice of America was very interested and consulted me for my comment. In their studio in Los Angeles, I watched the video over and over again. It was a couple of seconds longer, and revealed the scene: there was nobody on the sidewalk, and dozens of tanks were parked in the area. That means that it was an area secured by the martial law troops, and there could be no large crowds anymore. I had to agree with that professor that the Tank Man ended up in the hands of the soldiers or the police.
We already know that protesters who were captured after the clearing of the Square were beaten badly with batons or the butts of rifles. For example, Gao Xu (高旭), a student of Shanxi University who was captured on June 5, was tied to a pillar at the Great Hall of the People and beaten so badly he ended up blind in one eye.
In the case of the Tank Man, he was seen as highly provocative in that he not only tried to stop the tanks, but even climbed on one. So he would be treated even more brutally in the hands of the troops. My sense is that he was probably beaten to death. Otherwise, in the age of internet, we would have heard something.
CC: Recently a friend said that they’d heard from a credible source, that at the time of the June 4 massacre, the PLA had killed students in the parks near Tiananmen—Zhongshan Park and the Worker’s Cultural Palace. I momentarily thought of Wang Weilin.
Delving deep into the full truth of June 4 is still such an arduous task, so we thank you so much for your studies. I agree with Mr. Yan Jiaqi’s assessment: This isn’t merely the pursuit of one individual, but a contribution to all of China.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, January 15, 2013.
By Wang Yaqiu, published: June 4, 2015
Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波)
In the spring of 1989, Dr. Liu Xiaobo left Columbia University where he was a visiting scholar and went back to Beijing to take part in the democracy movement. In Tiananmen Square, he became a leader and a mentor, drafting open letters, giving speeches and leading a hunger strike. Liu Xiaobo was instrumental in preventing further bloodshed by negotiating with the troops and persuading students to evacuate the Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4th.
After the crackdown, Liu was identified by the Chinese government as one of the instigators of the “turmoil” and jailed for two years. After being released in 1991, Liu published articles and gave interviews, urging the Chinese government to redress its actions in cracking down the protest and the grievances of the parents whose children were killed. He also drafted petitions to advocate for rule of law and democracy in China, and he called for dialogues between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.
In May 1995, he was arrested and held without charges for six months. In October 1996, he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” (劳教), a form of arbitrary administrative detention, for “disturbing social order.”
In the early 2000s, Liu wrote a large quantity of articles, published three books, and became the director of the Independent Chinese PEN center, a writers’ organization promoting free expression. At the same time, he was subject to surveillance and harassment.
In 2008, Liu was arrested for coauthoring Charter 08 (零八宪章), a manifesto calling for democratic reform in China. About 300 Chinese intellectuals signed the Charter initially, and all of them were later interrogated and threatened by the Chinese government. In December 2009, a Beijing court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu is the recipient of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2010 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu is currently incarcerated in Jinzhou Prison (锦州监狱) in Liaoning Province. His wife Liu Xia (刘霞) has been held under house arrest since the announcement of the Nobel Prize.
Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌)
Liu Xianbin, a Sichuan native, was a student at Renmin University in Beijing when he took part in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. After the crackdown, Liu continued to organize activities until in 1991 when he was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement (反革命宣传煽动罪).”
After being released in 1993, Liu quickly resumed activism. He penned essays and petitions, campaigned for the release of other dissidents, and helped establish the China Democracy Party, which has been outlawed since 1998. As a result, Liu became a target of frequent house raids and interrogations. In 1999, Liu was given a 13-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power (煽动颠覆国家政权罪).”
Liu was released in 2008. Once out of prison, Liu continued to write articles criticizing the Chinese one-party system, advocated for human rights cases, and organized gatherings to discuss political issues. Liu was also a signatory of Charter 08.
Liu was once again detained in June 2010 and, in March 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, again, for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu has since been held in Sichuan Province’s Chuanzhong Prison (川中监狱).
Chen Wei (陈卫)
Chen Wei was a high school friend of Liu Xianbin and a student at Beijing Institute of Technology in 1989. For his role as a student leader, he was imprisoned after the Tiananmen movement until January 1991.
Chen was arrested again in 1992 for commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre and for organizing the China Freedom and Democracy Party. He was charged and sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”
After he was released in 1997, Chen continued to organize democratic activities. He was the literary editor of Suining Culture (遂宁文化报), a small publication in his hometown, which was later shut down for publishing news about the banned Nobel Literature Prize laureate Gao Xingjian (高行健). Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.
In 2011, a Sichuan court sentenced Chen to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on the essays he had penned for overseas Chinese-language websites. Chen Wei is currently jailed in Nanchong (南充), Sichuan. The Chinese authorities prohibited his wife and their daughter from leaving the country.
Zhao Changqing (赵常青)
In 1989, Zhao Changqing was a history student at Shaanxi Normal University in the northwestern city of Xi’an. On May 23 that year he came to Beijing for the first time to join the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He was one of the leaders of the Autonomous Student Union of Non-Beijing Universities (外地高校学生联合会) in support of the movement.
After the crackdown, Zhao was held in Qincheng Prison in Beijing for four months. Zhao said that his life-time commitment to advancing democracy in China stemmed from his experience in Tiananmen Square and Qincheng prison (秦城监狱).
After he graduated from college in 1992, Zhao became a high school teacher. In 1997, he wrote an open letter to the Chinese government urging political reform. In 1998, Zhao campaigned in the election of local people’s representatives as an independent candidate. He was soon arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for “endangering state security.”
He was released in March, 2001. In 2002, he again drafted an open letter to the 16th Communist Party Congress calling for political reform, and he collected nearly 200 signatures. Zhao was later arrested and sentenced for “inciting subversion of state power.” He spent five years in prison until 2007.
In April 2014, a Beijing court sentenced Zhao Changqing to two and a half years in jail for his involvement in the New Citizens Movement. Zhao is currently serving his sentence in Weinan Prison (渭南监狱) in Shaanxi province. His wife and his toddler boy were forced to move out of their rental apartment due to police pressure on their landlord.
Chen Xi (陈西)
In 1989, Chen Xi was a 35-year-old administrative worker at Jinzhu University in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province in southwestern China. He had been an active member of local salons that discussed political ideas. During the Tiananmen Movement, Chen Xi established the Patriotic and Democratic Union in Guiyang, in solidarity with students in Beijing. For that he was jailed for three years.
In 1995, three years after he had been released, he was arrested again for organizing the Guizhou branch of the China Democracy Party. A year later, a Guiyang court sentenced him to ten years in prison for “organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group.”
After Chen was released in 2005, he continued to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law in China. He and several other Guizhou-based activists established the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, which was later declared an “illegal organization” by the authorities. Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.
In November 2011, after announcing his intention to run for a seat in the local People’s Congress, Chen was detained. A month later, Chen was handed down a ten-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on dozens of articles Chen had written for overseas websites.
Chen is currently held at Xingyi Prison (兴义监狱) in Guizhou Province. According to his wife, Chen has been suffering from chronic diarrhea and other ailments. He has not been allowed to write letters with family and friends.
Zhang Lin (张林)
Zhang Lin graduated from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1983. In 1989, while living and working in his home province of Anhui in southeastern China, he organized and led local citizens to participate in the democratic movement that was quickly spreading beyond Beijing. Zhang was arrested on June 8 and sentenced to two years in prison.
After Zhang was released in 1991, he organized several underground groups to promote democracy and human rights. One of those groups was the Labor Rights Protection Union, for which he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” in 1994.
In 1997, after his release, he came to the United States and became an active member in the overseas Chinese democratic movement. However, when he returned to China in October 1998, he was arrested upon arrival and later given another three years of “reeducation through labor.”
In January 2005, Zhang was detained after returning from a failed attempt to attend a memorial service for the deposed Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In August, a court in Anhui sentenced Zhang to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and the conviction was based on his online writings and interviews he had given to overseas radio broadcasts.
In February 2013, Zhang’s 10-year-old daughter was taken out of school in Hefei one day by police without his knowledge. The school later rejected her on the ground of school jurisdiction. Netizens from around the country traveled to Hefei, demanding that the girl be allowed to resume school. Zhang Lin was accused of organizing these protests. In September 2014, Zhang was sentenced to three and half years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.”
Zhang is currently incarcerated in Tongling Prison (铜陵监狱) in Anhui Province. Zhang’s two daughters now live in the Untied States, thanks to the help of Ms. Reggie Littlejohn, the president of Women’s Rights without Frontiers.
Li Bifeng (李必丰)
In 1989, the 25-year-old poet Li Bifeng was elected the president of the Chengdu Youth Autonomous Committee. He organized protests and mobilized local residents in Chengdu and Mianyang, cities in Sichuan province, to support the nation-wide democracy movement. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”
After being released in 1994, Li became a labor activist, advocating for workers’ rights. Li provided critical information about labor protests in the 1990s to foreign media and human rights organizations. In 1998, he was sentenced to seven years in prison on dubious charges of “fraud.”
In 2011, Li was arrested again because the authorities suspected him of financing the escape of his friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), a dissident writer and also a participant in the 1989 movement, who had fled to Germany months earlier. In 2012, Li was given a 12-year prison sentence for “contract fraud” which his lawyer and family believed was groundless. The sentence was later reduced to 10 years. Li is currently imprisoned at Chuanbei Prison (川北监狱) in Sichuan province.
Chen Yunfei (陈云飞)
Chen Yunfei was a junior at Beijing Agriculture University in 1989 and one of the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. On May 18, he fainted and was taken to the hospital. On the night of June 3, when resting in his dormitory, Chen heard that the troops were marching into downtown Beijing. Chen and his friends went out, trying to block the troops’ movement. The riot police knocked him unconcious.
In the following two decades, Chen interviewed parents whose son or daughter were killed in the massacre, collected their information, and commemorated the June 4th anniversary every year. Chen has also campaigned tirelessly for human rights and environmental protection over the years, and has received constant harassment because of his activities.
On June 4, 2007, Chen placed an ad in the Chengdu Evening News (成都晚报) that read “Salute the brave mothers who lost their children on June 4th.” Two days later, he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power” and placed under house arrest for six months.
On March 25 this year, Chen was detained shortly after visiting the grave of a journalism student gunned down and bayoneted to death in the morning of June 4th. In April, he was formally arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Chen is currently detained at Xinjin County Detention Center (新津县看守所) and denied of lawyer visit.
Yu Shiwen (于世文)
In 1989, Yu Shiwen was a junior majoring in philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou and active in student affairs. After the democracy protests broke out, Yu was elected the president of the Autonomous Student Union of the university. He led student marches on streets, and staged a hunger strike in solidarity with students in Beijing. After the crackdown, Yu helped Beijing students who had escaped to Guangzhou. For this, Yu was detained for 18 months.
In the two decades that followed, Yu and his wife, who was also a student leader in 1989 at the same university, made a fortune from stock trading, but they had never forgotten 1989. They organized and hosted commemoration events over the years. In February 2, 2014, they organized a visit to the birthplace of Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Communist Party leader. Three months later, Yu and his wife, along with 10 others, were arrested. While all the others were eventually released, Yu Shiwen was indicted on April 23rd for “picking quarrels and creating trouble.” He is currently detained at Zhengzhou No.3 Detention Center (郑州第三看守所).
Yu wrote from the detention center, “I feel at ease, and honored. I’m finally making a real contribution to the memories of June 4.”
Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强)
Pu Zhiqiang was a graduate student in law at China University of Political Science and Law in 1989. He too was among the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and remained there until the last moment. “On June 3, 1989, while in the Square,” Pu said years later, “I made a promise: ‘if I get out of here alive, I will revisit Tiananmen on this day every year.’” And he did.
In the years followed, Pu became one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in China. He was the defense lawyer of, among many others, artist Ai Weiwei and dissident writer Tan Zuoren (谭作人) who was jailed for five years for investigating the collapse of school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
Pu played a key role in ending the notorious “reeducation through labor” in China in 2012.
In May 2014, Pu was detained after attending a small gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen movement. On May 15, 2015, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate indicted Pu for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and the evidence cited is a series of tweet-like comments he made online that criticized the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang and made fun of the Party propaganda.
Pu is currently held at Beijing No.1 Detention Center (北京第一看守所). He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease and has been subjected to inhumane interrogations.
Gao Yu (高瑜)
In 1989, Gao Yu was 45 years old and the deputy editor of the Beijing-based magazine Economic Weekly. After learning that the government might use force against the students, Gao went to the Square to talk to the student leaders in an effort to persuade them to leave. In the morning of June 3rd, Gao was taken away by plain-clothes policemen as she left her home. She was secretly jailed for 15 months in Qincheng Prison.
Not too long after she was released, in 1993, Gao was arrested again and sentenced to seven years in prison for “leaking state secrets,” after she wrote articles about elite Chinese politics for a Hong Kong publication.
She was released on medical parole in 1999. Gao Yu continued to report news and write commentaries critical of the Communist leadership. She has since won numerous international awards for her courage and her contribution to the freedom of speech.
In April 2014, Beijing detained Gao again, also on charges of “leaking state secrets.” This time, the alleged secret was a Chinese Communist Party document known as the “Document No. 9,” which orders suppression of the ideas of constitutional democracy, rule of law, civil society, freedom press and other universal values. In April, a Beijing court sentenced the 71-year-old Gao Yu to seven years in prison.
Xu Zhiqiang, or Monk Shengguan (徐志强/圣观法师)
In 1989, Xu Zhiqiang was an engineer at a state-owned enterprise in Xi’an. He became a leader of the pro-democracy protests and a co-founder of the Xi’an Democracy Advancement Federation (西安促进民主联合会). Xu was arrested and jailed for a year.
In 2001, Xu became a Buddhist monk with the title Shengguan. In 2006, for performing Buddhist rituals to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Massacre and promoting transparency in the temple in Jiangxi Province where he resided, Xu was evicted from the temple by police. In 2009, after Xu organized an event to pay tribute to Hu Yaobang, the liberal-minded Communist leader whose death triggered the 1989 movement, Xu was dismissed from the leadership of Honglian Tempe in Hunan Province.
In 2011, Xu met with His Holiness Dalai Lama in India.
In May 2014, three days after Xu had hosted a small seminar in Wuhan to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, he was detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Xu was tried in April for “inciting subversion of state power,” but the court has yet to hand down a sentence. Xu is currently held at Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center (武汉市第二看守所) in Hubei province.
Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫)
In 1989, Zhu Yufu was an official at the Bureau of Housing Management in Hangzhou, the capital of coastal Zhejiang Province. He was detained for 27 days after taking part in in protests and lost his job.
Zhu was a co-founder of the outlawed opposition group, China Democracy Party, in the 1990s, and in 1999, he was sentenced seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
After his release in 2006, Zhu spoke out against the torture he had endured in prison and continued to promote democracy. A year later, he was detained again for pushing a police officer who was harassing his teenage son. He was sentenced to two years in prison for “disrupting public service (妨碍公务罪).” His son was jailed for 18 months too.
In 2011, Zhu was arrested during the crackdown of the “Jasmine Revolution,” a series of public assemblies that took place in over a dozen cities after an anonymous tweet called for peaceful protests in China. In February 2012, Zhu was sentenced to seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” and his “crime” was a poem titled “It’s Time” that he had disseminated:
It’s time, Chinese!
The time is now.
The square belongs to all, and your feet belong to you,
It’s time to walk to the square to make a choice.
Zhu is currently imprisoned at Zhejiang No. 4 Prison (浙江第四监狱) in Hangzhou. Zhu suffers from poor health, and his application for medical parole has been denied repeatedly.
Chen Shuqing ( 陈树庆)
In 1989, Chen Shuqing was a 24-year-old graduate student at Hangzhou University (now Zhejiang University) and took part in the democracy movement.
Chen has since become an activist. In 1999, he was detained for four months for co-founding the China Democracy Party. After being released, he continued to organize activities on behalf of the Party, enduring harassment from the authorities.
In 2006, Chen was arrested in connection with his online expressions and the activities of the China Democracy Party. He served a four-year sentence.
In September 2014, Chen was criminally detained again on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Chen has been held at the Hangzhou Detention Center (杭州市看守所). His trial, scheduled for May, has been postponed.
Zhou Yongjun (周勇军)
There is a famous photo of 1989 in which three students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, entreating an audience with the Chinese leaders. Zhou Yongjun, on the right, was a student at the China University of Political Science and Law and the president of the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities, a student group formed during the protests.
Zhou was imprisoned for two years afterwards. He came to the U.S. in 1993. In 1998, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” when he attempted to re-enter China to visit his parents.
Zhou came to the U.S. again in 2002. In 2008, after being repeatedly denied of visa to return to China, Zhou made a second attempt to re-enter mainland China. He was arrested in Hong Kong for using a fake passport. Seven months later, the Hong Kong authorities handed Zhou to the Chinese government.
In January 2010, Zhou was sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Sichuan on undisclosed charges of financial fraud. Zhou is currently held in Chongzhou Prison (崇州监狱) in Sichuan. In August 2014, it was reported that Zhou suffered from serious liver failure and partial blindness. For a while it was feared that he might die in prison. There has been no more reports about his conditions since.
Yaqiu Wang (王亚秋) researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.
Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin, by Chen Mingxian, 2010.
Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing, by Gu Chuan, January 12, 2014.
Tamer of Beasts, Tamer of Despots, by Liao Yiwu, May 24, 2015.
Tackling a Wall of Lies – a Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, by Albertine Ren, September 14, 2014.
Xi Jinping the Man, by Gao Yu, January 26, 2013.
By China Change, published: April 24, 2015
Xiong Yan (熊焱) was a law student in 1989 and a leader in the student democracy movement that ended tragically when the Chinese government cracked it down with machine guns and tanks. Xiong Yan left China in 1992 and is now a U. S. Army chaplain stationed in Texas. His applications for Chinese visa have been turned down repeatedly over the years, and he has not been able to visit his loved ones in China, and, this time, his dying mother.
According the New York Times:
Now an American citizen and a United States Army chaplain, Major Xiong said in a telephone interview on Friday that he had asked to return to his homeland. His mother, who is in her 70s, is dying, he said, and he has asked the Chinese authorities to allow him to travel back to say goodbye.
But Chinese consular officials have so far ignored his request, he said, reflecting how the country has yet to come to terms with the protests 26 years ago.
On April 23, Major Xiong Yan flew to Hong Kong from Seattle, and at the airport in Hong Kong, he was taken to a room and questioned by Customs officers, his friend Wang Min in Seattle told Radio Free Asia. A few hours later, Major Xiong was told by the airport officials that he may not enter Hong Kong and must return to the U. S. immediately.
It must be noted that, as a U. S. citizen, Major Xiong Yan is eligible to enter Hong Kong without a visa, and six years ago he was able to travel to Hong Kong to attend the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Tiananmen Movement but no more, an example how fast the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” is falling apart.
While in Hong Kong, Major Xiong Yan wrote the poem below:
Arriving at the Border of the Free World
by Xiong Yan
Written in Hong Kong, April 23, 2015
Dedicated to my dying mother
I arrive at the border of the free world,
gentle of heart
and eager to move forward.
Gazing over there, at that leaden sky,
I cry out to my dying mother,
tears of sorrow mingling with grief.
lying on your sickbed
as your strength ebbs,
forgive your unfilial son
for not being there to bid you farewell.
Here in Hong Kong,
I envision your pallid face,
I stretch out my hand
that I may be nearer to you.
stretch out your hand
that we may meet again
in a more loving world.
Unable to meet here on Earth,
we will be reunited in Heaven.
The scene, so vivid,
is but a lingering hope.
As the pain of this mortal world
drives me ever forward,
I will remember what the Lord taught:
that Love is everlasting.
I stand at the border of Hong Kong,
gazing at my mainland—
a mainland I can but see
as a swath of gray.
I stand atop a Hong Kong skyscraper,
reminiscing of motherly love—
a love I may not meet again,
though I may but hope.
Hope is a truth
that each of us has,
a promise from God
to never be forgotten.
(Poem translated by Cindy Carter)
The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, by Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2013. How another Tiananmen exile returned home to visit aging mother.
Exiled Tiananmen Protester Blocked From Entering Hong Kong, the New York Times, April 24, 2015.
By China Change, published: January 12, 2015
Shortly before June 4th, 2014, ten in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). Seven of them have since been released, and three have remained in custody for over six months now without an indictment. The 47-year-old Yu Shiwen, who organized the memorial along with his wife Chen Wei, suffered a stroke. Recently, the public security once again urged indictment for the three. Yu’s case has drawn attention from participants, inside and outside China, of the Tian’anmen democracy movement 25 years ago.
On February 2nd, 2014, Yu Shiwen, Chen Wei, and a group of Henan-based citizens held a memorial in Hua County, Henan provicnce (河南滑县), to remember Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang and those who died during the June 4th massacre in 1989. After the memorial, Yu Shiwen sent photos to overseas Chinese websites and was interviewed by Radio Free Asia. But they were not arrested until shortly before the June 4th anniversary on charges of “picking quarrels and creating disturbances,” likely a result of Chinese authorities’ nervousness leading up to the anniversary.
In poor health, Yu Shiwen has been shuttled several times between the detention center and a hospital. The public security twice recommended indictment but were asked to provide more evidence. Last December, the public security once again sent Yu Shiwen’s case to the prosecutors for indictment.
Lawyers of the three recently issued statements against possible indictment. Yu Shiwen’s lawyer Ma Lianshun argued that there is nothing against the law about remembering Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and the June 4th dead, and what Yu and his friends did in no way “created disturbances.” Lawyer Ma further argued that the Chinese Communist Party should redress the Tiananmen Democracy Movement, recognizing its legitimacy and historical significance. Should Yu Shiwen be tried, Ma said, he would have to defend his client by introducing a plethora of witness accounts relating to the June 4th crackdown, its origin, development and tragic ending.
Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei were students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in 1989. They became student leaders during the democracy movement that took the country by storm that spring. They each served prison time afterwards. In the two decades that followed, the couple lived mostly in Zhengzhou where they tried their hand in business and made a considerable fortune in stock trading.
Zhou Fengsuo, another 1989 student leader who lives in California now, told Radio Free Asia that, “as a member of the 1989 generation, I have a lot of respect for Yu Shiwen for keeping alive his idealism after 25 years. I personally feel compelled to stand side by side with them in his current plight, and I also call on other 1989ers to pay attention to his case.”
Braving the cold, on January 6, Yu Shiwen’s 85-year-old mother and older sister, the wife of Dong Guangping, and the mother of Hou Shuai demonstrated in front of Guancheng District Prosecurorate, holding banners that read, “It’s not a crime to remember the dead,” “Return to your loved ones.”
“Among our ranks of the 1989ers, many have had success in business and made money,” said Zhou Fengsuo. “In private, many are candid about their assessment of the democracy movement of our youth, but few are as courageous as Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei to make a public statement. Such is the burden imposed on our conscience by the CCP tyranny. When we choose silence, we are giving tyranny a free rein.”
Fang Zheng, another 1989er who lost both legs in the morning of June 4th to charging tanks, initiated a signature campaign calling upon 1989ers, whether they are overseas or inside China, to provide testimonies on the truth of the Tiananmen Massacre, should Yu Shiwen and the two others be tried.
“I don’t know what CCP is thinking to detain Yu Shiwen and the two others, and possibly try them, for commemorating June 4th after 25 years. As witnesses, it’s imperative that we step out to testify the facts of that time in front of the CCP prosecutors…. We will make our voices heard,” said Zhou Fengsuo.
By Chang Ping, published: August 23, 2014
(This is Chang Ping’s rebuttal to Frank Sieren’s Let Fairness Replace Anger [link in German], the second round of the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate in June this year in Deutsche Welle about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Chang Ping’s rebuttal to Frank Sieren’s From Tian’anmen To Leipzig [link in German], the first round of the debate. – The Editor)
Matthias von Hein, a Deutsche Welle (DW) commentator, quotes George Orwell’s “1984” in his essay on the Tiananmen massacre anniversary: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The Chinese Communist regime is in the process of carrying out this aphorism. I am therefore compelled to engage DW’s Beijing correspondent, Mr. Frank Sieren, on the history of the massacre.
Responding to objections I raised in a previous article, Mr. Sieren published “Replace Anger with Justice.” In addition to insisting in this rather brief piece that “it is incontrovertible that the 1989 incident is a lapse in the history of New China,” he puts forth assessments on several historical and contemporary questions of great significance. By asserting that “many Chinese wish to forget the Tiananmen massacre” and that “consumerism appeals to Chinese people more than memories,” Mr. Sieren cedes a wide berth for me to take this debate further.
No One Can Escape History
I am quite taken aback to see a German author claim that “many people wish to forget history.” In Germany, I have interviewed many organizations and individuals who study and manage issues of history, including the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship; The Foundation for Remembrance, Accountability and theFuture; the former Chief Prosecutor of Berlin, Christoph Schaefgen, who led the indictment of East German leaders including Erich Honecker and Egon Krenz; the head of the Stasi archives, Roland Jahn; and ordinary Germans I meet in daily life. Throughout these interviews, everyone keeps bringing up the same word,Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” It’s a word that keeps simplistic evasions of truth at bay, and inspires the utmost respect for the sincerity of German efforts at reexamining their own history.
When it comes to familiar quotations, this one from the Czech exile in France, Milan Kundera, is close to Chinese hearts: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” His works chronicle the agonized struggle of Czech intellectuals against the mandatory oblivion under Communist dictatorship. Nor is Kundera alone. From Solzhenitsyn to Herta Müller, the list of writers of conscience who fight to defend memories of what ought not to be forgotten grows long.
Lies Are Spawned by Fear
I am well aware that you cannot find scenes of such conscientious struggle in today’s China. On the contrary, there aremany who are reluctant to openly discuss the Tiananmen massacre and the Cultural Revolution, stressing the need to “drop the baggage and look forward.” Even those who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo are mostly unwilling to put up a fight. Fighting back is futile, and the only way out is to put up and to put it out of your mind. Those who study historyknow that this is far from unique to China; in the former East Germany and other Communist countries things were exactly the same. Havel, the dramatist, dissident and eventual Czech President, captures in his play, “The Power of the Powerless,” a particular ludicrous moment in time: The manager of a grocery store, out of his own initiative, puts up a slogan on his shop window: “Proletarians of the world, unite!” Are we to believe that he is personally invested in the global solidarity of workers? Hardly. The truth is, in an autocratic society teeming with desperation, lies confer a sense of security.
If surveys were conducted in China during the Cultural Revolution or, for that matter, today’s North Korea, the vast majority is likely to describe their lives as blissfully happy. Can we therefore conclude that the Chinese and North Koreans much prefer authoritarianism, and we are to honor their “right to happiness?” The dissatisfaction Germans express toward theirown government must be greater than that in China. Does this mean China’s system is better than the German one?
Commemoration, Not Forgetting, Is Banned
Moreover, it is impossible to obtain statistics to support the conclusion that “many Chinese wish to forget the Tiananmen massacre.” What we do know is that the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party would consider all such assessments a joke. I personally attended Party propaganda meetings, and witnessed an extraordinary and palpable nervousness whenever the massacre anniversary drew near. Party officials were convinced that even a slight slack in thecontrols would see public opinion break through and bring the truth to light. For the CCP’s controls on free speech are in every way comparable to those achieved in the Eastern bloc countries of the Soviet era.
Of course people have the right to choose to forget. However, it is worthwhile to consider this thought with which I sign off all my posts in Chinese social media: “Without the freedom to criticize, compliments are worthless.” Rights are theoutcome of free choice. In a country where people have no right to commemorate, it is not only a luxury to speak about the right to forget, but a downright act of collusion with the oppressor. In a political environment where people are arrested and sentenced for going to a commemorative event held at a private residence, Mr. Sieren’s statement that “just as you cannot forbid people to commemorate, you cannot forbid them to forget” has no basis in reality. Such a position is not as rational as it strives to appear, and is regrettably lacking from a humanitarian standpoint.
Chang Ping (长平) was former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》). He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)