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Wu Renhua, June 4, 2018
The June 4 massacre once shocked the world — but because the Communist Party made it a forbidden area of enquiry, there are still numerous controversies around the massacre, despite it having taken place 29 years ago. Following are some of the major sources of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the events of June 4, 1989.
- Was There a Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing?
To provide a seemingly reasonable justification for the bloody military suppression in the capital, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities emphasized that a violent insurrection was afoot, and that the martial law troops had no choice but to put it down. To this day, the CCP’s claims still deceive a great many people. But in fact, proving false this lie of a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing’ is not difficult — one must simply take careful note of the sequence of events. It was only after the martial law troops had opened fire that the authorities called it a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion.’ Prior to this, they merely labeled it ‘turmoil in Beijing.’
In fact, not only was there no counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing, there was no turmoil either. The official mouthpiece of the CCP’s Central Committee, People’s Daily, reported following the military crackdown: “Beijing residents are much more civilized; social order is excellent.” The newspaper also quoted a Beijing Public Security officer who said: “The number of criminal acts that occurred during the student movement was less than the same period last year.”
The student movement had from the beginning been committed to peacefulness, reason, and nonviolence — and even after the martial law troops had opened fire and there were heavy civilian casualties, the members of the public who retaliated in fury at the slaughter only targeted martial law troops or their actions. After the incident, the CCP authorities produced ‘The True Facts About the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing’ and other propaganda videos — but the images of burning vehicles in them all took place after the martial law troops had begun firing on civilians. The images show that the apartments, stores, and even Party, government and military buildings on both sides of the road remained undamaged.
- Citizen Violence in Response to the Military’s Slaughter
After the massacre on June 4, the CCP used its control of the media to publish stories and broadcast news reports on a national scale, severely inflating the troop casualties. They created the impression that ‘hoodlums’ were at large, killing martial law troops and officers. The result was that many Chinese people believed that the troops opened fire in order to suppress a rebellion.
In response to this, I made a specific study of the deaths of martial law troops and officers, concluding that a total of 15 died, seven of whose deaths were due to violent retaliation by protesters. My important finding was that, according to official Party materials, the deaths of these 15 all took place after 1:00 a.m. on June 4, 1989. The time that martial law troops opened fire was around 9:00 p.m. on June 3. The earliest confirmed case of a death of a member of the public is that of Song Xiaoming (宋曉明), who was shot at around 9:00 p.m. on the sidewalk at Wukesong crossing (五棵松路口). From this the following conclusion can be inferred: The martial law troops opened fire and killed people first, and only then did members of the public respond with violence; that is, the killing by troops was the cause, and the violent response was the effect. Which took place first, and what caused what, is obvious at a glance.
- Whether or Not The Martial Law Troops Opened Fire and Killed People on Tiananmen Square
The CCP not only denies that the troops opened fire and killed protesters on Tiananmen Square; they even deny that they opened fire on Tiananmen Square at all. The spokesman for the martial law troops, Zhang Gong (張工), said in a June 6 press conference held jointly with spokesman for the State Council Yuan Mu (袁木) that: “Firstly, I would like to responsibly explain an issue to my comrades in the news profession, and I want to, through you, make this clear to every citizen of the capital and the nation; this is that between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on June 4, in the process of carrying out the task of clearing Tiananmen Square, there was absolutely no student or member of the public shot and killed, and nobody was crushed to death or run over.”
I personally experienced the clearing of Tiananmen Square. During the entire process, the sound of gunfire was constant. From the distance of just a few meters I personally witnessed two soldiers in the scout company of the 27th Army Group fire on and destroy the two large loudspeakers set up on the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the square.
The CCP denies that there were casualties on Tiananmen, and by doing so direct the focus of the June 4 massacre to Tiananmen Square — the goal of which is to, by denying casualties on the square, achieve the effect of denying any massacre at all on June 4.
At the time, foreign reporting, especially in Western media, were all calling it the ‘Tiananmen Massacre,’ not the ‘June 4 Massacre.’ The slaughter of June 4 indeed took place primarily outside of Tiananmen Square, and so the CCP’s spin on this issue indeed had an effect, leading some people to have doubts about the June 4 massacre itself.
Whether the martial law troops opened fire and killed people on Tiananmen Square itself, or outside of Tiananmen Square, makes no substantial difference and isn’t worth arguing over. But, because the CCP hyped the question of whether or not there were civilian casualties on Tiananmen into such a focal point and controversy, I made a detailed study of the matter simply to respond to the confusion on the part of the public. To date, I have verified that the following people died on Tiananmen Square: Cheng Renxing (程仁興), a student in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern Europe Studies (蘇聯東歐研究所) of Chinese Renmin University doing a double Bachelor’s degree; Dai Jinping (戴金平), a graduate student at Beijing Agricultural University; Li Haocheng (李浩成), an undergraduate student in Chinese studies at Tianjin Normal University. Among the survivors who were shot on Tiananmen Square, there is the well-known Taiwanese journalist Hsu Tsung-mao (徐宗懋) with China Times (《中國時報》), who suffered a bullet wound in the head, but was rescued and came out alive.
At the time, Party media made particular efforts to interview Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), Hou Dejian (侯德健) and others who were in custody at the time; during the interviews, they had them say that they’d not seen anyone shot and killed on Tiananmen Square. Because these were famous people and they’d indeed been there when the square was cleared, those statements led many to believe that indeed no one was killed on the square. The problem is that Tiananmen Square has a surface area of 44,000 square meters, and the clearance took place from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.; lines of sight were obstructed, and even if one were present, how would it be possible to see everywhere the entire time? I was also there through the square clearing, and had an excellent vantage point, sitting at the top level of the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — but the most I can say is that I didn’t see anyone shot. I certainly can’t say that, through the entire process of the square being cleared, no one was shot in Tiananmen Square at all.
- Were There Orders to Open Fire? Who Ordered It?
A key factor in determining responsibility for the Tiananmen Massacre is whether the troops received orders to open fire on students, and if so, who issued these orders. This is one of the reasons why the CCP goes to such lengths to keep this information classified. None of the major figures involved in the decision — Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng — were willing to own up to their roles, and their children are doing all they can to exonerate them.
My research concluded that the martial law troops did not shoot their weapons on their own; they were ordered to open fire. Per instruction of the State Council, then Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong (陳希同) made a report on June 30, 1989, during the eighth meeting of the the 7th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, titled “A Situation Report on the Suppression of Unrest and Counter-revolutionary Riots.” In the report, Chen said that “Having sustained heavy casualties and being pressed to the limits of their endurance after giving multiple warnings, the martial law troops were left with no choice but to follow orders and fire warning shots, then counterattack to neutralize a number of violent rioters.” The phrase “follow orders” indicates that there was a command to open fire.
Other sources support this. The martial troops invariably opened fire only after being ordered to do so, despite prior encounters with civilian resistance. Before deployment, some commanders held multiple briefings telling their men not to open fire.
The book One Day of Martial Law (《戒嚴一日》), compiled by the cultural office of the PLA’s General Political Department, includes least 10 articles by martial law soldiers in which there is mention of orders to open fire. Lt. Col. Fu Shuisheng (傅水生), a joint logistics officer in the Beijing Military Region, wrote in the article Eight Unforgettable Days and Nights (《難忘的8天8夜》) :
“Around midnight [on June 4, 1989], senior military officers went to the Great Hall of the People, followed shortly by some government officials, to draw up strategic plans to clear the Square. Working to avoid confrontation and bloodshed, the generals and Party leaders stayed up the entire night. Around 1 a.m. [in the early morning of June 4], two officers from a brigade, bleeding and wounded, reported to headquarters that their troops had arrived at the designated pointed. When a senior commander asked how they were doing, they replied that the troops had taken heavy casualties while advancing on foot, and that their supplies had been seized or destroyed. ‘Why didn’t you fire at them?’ [the senior commander asked]. They responded, ‘We were instructed not to fire our weapons.’”
The “headquarters” mentioned here refers to the command center established in the Great Hall of the People to plan for clearing the Square. In another article, Back to Beijing (《再度京華》),” Maj. Gen. Wu Jiamin (吳家民), commander of the 40th Army, wrote: “On June 3, at 11:10 pm, someone in civilian clothing demanded to see me, claiming to have important instructions. I met him, and he produced documents identifying him as vice director of a high level department and was there to relay some instructions from his superior. We were ordered to arrive at the designated zone without fail, and given permission to take decisive actions should it be necessary. Right after he finished talking, we received further instructions from the military district’s frontline command informing us that the martial law troops on Wanshou Road (萬壽路) had fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and secure their path of advance quickly.”
The order was issued around 9 p.m. on June 3. As it was issued in person rather than through military radio channels, it is likely that they did so to avoid leaving any material evidence. The directive came from the very top of the Party, first authorized by Central Military Commission chairman Deng Xiaoping, and passed down to lower levels. Yang Shangkun, then in charge of the CMC’s routine work, was prudent to avoid personally issuing the command; therefore, it must have been a group decision by key members of the Politburo Standing Committee — Li Peng, Qiao Shi, and Yao Yilin, with Deng’s approval.
- How Many Died?
How many people died in the Tiananmen Massacre is still unknown. Naturally, CCP and unofficial sources are at complete odds regarding the figure.
There are two versions of the official, Party-approved story. One is that of Yuan Mu, the State Council spokesman. On June 6, 1989, at a press conference at Zhongnanhai, he said that “according to incomplete statistics which have been verified repeatedly, the situation is as follows: PLA forces suffered 5,000 wounded; while locally (including crime-committing rioters and innocent bystanders unaware of the circumstances), there were 2,000 wounded; total military and local fatalities number about 300, including soldiers, bandits who got their just deserts, and collateral damage,” and “one figure of which we can be confident is that as of now, there were 23 dead across the universities of Beijing.”
The other official source is the aforementioned report made by Beijing mayor Chen Xitong before the NPC Standing Committee on June 30. Per the report, “including soldiers of the martial law troops, armed police, and public security law enforcement officials, about 6,000 were wounded and several tens killed in action,” and “according to information available at present, there are about 3,000 nonmilitary wounded and over 200 dead, including 36 university students.”
Clearly, there is something wrong with the official explanation, given the discrepancy between the figures cited by Yuan Mu and Chen Xitong.
Unofficial estimates vary wildly. The earliest figures came from a report by Red Cross Society of China, saying that 2,600 people were killed. I heard of this number on June 4 as I vacated Tiananmen Square with other students; it later circulated widely. But it’s unlikely that the Red Cross in China would have published real figures.
Zhang Wanshu (張萬舒), who was the director of the domestic department of Xinhua News Agency in China during the events, gives a very exact figure. In “The Big Bang of History” (《曆史的大爆炸》), published in 2009 in Hong Kong, he said, “Comrade Liu Jiaju (劉家駒), veteran editor of “People’s Liberation Army Art and Literature,” told me that he had it on good record from Tan Yunhe (譚雲鶴), CCP secretary and deputy director of the Red Cross Society of China, that the total number of deaths in the June 4th incident was 727, including 14 military fatalities and 713 local dead (among them students and ordinary civilians). He examined every corpse.” According to Zhang, this “is probably the most credible figure.”
This is incorrect, however, because not all corpses went through the hospitals. Some were taken by the martial law troops and public security authorities to be disposed of secretly. For instance, the Tiananmen Mothers (天安門母親群體) looked into 202 victims of the June 4th incident and found that the bodies of eight of them had never been found. I have some additional evidence on hand that is beyond the scope of this article.
Information from American and British diplomatic sources concerning the scale of the June 4th incident has been declassified in recent years. The British document claims that the death toll reached 10,000. The sources are ambassadorial staff on assignment in Beijing who got their information secondhand. Given the conclusions I arrived at in my own research and documentary work, I am not prepared to accept these numbers at this time.
In his book Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, eminent Canadian sinologist Timothy Brook collected statistics from 11 hospitals throughout the early morning of June 4, counting a total of 478 dead. Extrapolating this figure to cover the hundreds of hospitals in the Chinese capital, he came to a probable total of about 2,800 dead. I found myself in particular agreement with the following passage from his book:
“Do we need to decide between three hundred and three thousand? From a distance, either death toll is atrocious: the number hardly matters. From close up, however, even one death is too many, and the omission of one in the final count is a terrible lie. The quantity of killing matters most to those who died and who mourn them. Not to be counted is to be lost forever.” (p. 152, Quelling the People, Stanford University Press, 1998)
As a scholar of the June 4th Massacre, I have often been pressed to produce a statistic on how many died that day. I am not willing to give a final answer, since there is no way of determining the number. In the last few years I have been looking into this matter by investigating Beijing’s hospitals — over one hundred locations — one by one. Though a definitive conclusion continues to elude me, at least I have been able to make a general assessment.
Translated from Chinese by China Change:
六四屠殺的焦點問題, 台灣思想坦克網站， 2018年6月3日。
About the author: In 1989, Mr. Wu Renhua was a young faculty member at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, leading the student demonstration along with other young scholars. He participated in the Tiananmen Movement “from the first day to the last,” and was among the last few thousand protesters who left Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4. On the way back to his college, he witnessed PLA tanks charging into a file of students at Liubukou (六部口), a large intersection, killing 11 and injuring many. In February, 1990, Wu swam four hours from Zhuhai to Macau, and onto Hong Kong, and arrived in the United States later that year. Over the next 15 years he was the editor of Press Freedom Herald (《新闻自由导报》), a Chinese-language paper founded on June 9, 1989, by a group of overseas Chinese, to bring news of pro-democracy activities to China. Given Mr. Wu’s training as a historiographer, he began his research of 1989 as soon as the incident ended—but his writing didn’t start until in 2005, when the paper he edited folded. From 2005 to 2014, he published three books (none have been translated into English): The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square (《天安门血腥清场内幕》, 2007), The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth (《六四事件中的戒严部队》, 2009), and The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement (《六四事件全程实录》, 2014). Together, the three books form a complete record of the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth Massacre.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
Wang Dan, July 20, 2017
“Liu Xiaobo’s death also lays bare a reality we sometimes are reluctant to acknowledge: even the most moderate position, so long as it is premised on constitutional democracy, cannot be accepted by the Chinese Communist Party.”
When I heard that Liu Xiaobo had died, I quickly posted the news on Facebook. So many online friends shared their condolences. One message among them struck me as particularly incisive and worthy of our consideration — this friend said that Liu Xiaobo “walked the path of Kang Youwei (康有为), and spilled his blood like Tan Sitong (谭嗣同).”
Of course, to say that Liu Xiaobo “walked the path of Kang Youwei” is not to say that Liu advocated for constitutional monarchy, but rather that his political position and basic viewpoint were actually quite moderate, just as were those of Kang Youwei in his day. Liu Xiaobo never called for revolution, to the point that he maintained “I have no enemies.” But like Tan Sitong, Liu came to a violent end: persecuted to death for the sake of advancing reform. Sometimes, history does repeat itself.
But Liu Xiaobo’s death also lays bare a reality we sometimes are reluctant to acknowledge: even the most moderate position, so long as it is premised on constitutional democracy, cannot be accepted by the Chinese Communist Party. No matter how moderate the view, no matter how much goodwill its proponents convey, to the CCP he is an “enemy of the state” and must be eliminated as soon as possible. Within and without the system, from former General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) to the dissident Liu Xiaobo, it has always been thus.
What does this tell us? It tells us that all those who abide in the hope that the CCP will initiate political reform, all those who believe that the CCP will move toward democracy once a certain stage of economic development has been reached, all those who wait on the chance that Xi Jinping will turn out to be an enlightened autocrat—are all wrong, naive, even ignorant. Liu Xiaobo’s death has proven this once again.
This point has profound implications as to whether China’s future transition will bode well for its neighbors and for the world. If China’s ruling party is willing to permit moderate opposition, the transition may be smooth and peaceful; but if the CCP cannot even admit moderate opposition like Liu Xiaobo’s, then the only option is to break away from the moderates, and for hatred to accumulate in society.
If the path to reform is cut off, China will be left with opposition between state and society, and the only way out will be bloody revolution. We certainly don’t want this, but once it happens, China will inevitably plunge into chaos, and that internal chaos will impact neighboring countries and the whole world. This is the profound fear that Liu Xiaobo’s death has given us.
No doubt Liu Xiaobo’s horrific end is the result of the CCP’s total lack of humanity. But as New York University Law Professor Jerome Cohen has pointed out, Western countries are increasingly indifferent to human rights in China, so much so that they have nearly abandoned the issue. This conniving and appeasement is also to blame. Liu Xiaobo’s death will reverberate throughout the international community, emboldening the call to reckon with its policy towards the human rights of the Chinese people. The tragic death of a Nobel Peace laureate, we hope, will prompt those parties and politicians who have cozied back up to China to rethink their relationship.
In other words, Liu Xiaobo’s passing could become a turning point in China’s rise: the CCP, which continues to buy global support with the image of rapid economic growth, must bear the burden of Liu Xiaobo’s death for a long time to come. It will deal a blow to that image and an immense setback for the CCP’s arrogance. We will be glad to see this change, but the price we paid for it was Liu Xiaobo’s life. It is a tragedy of our time.
With his life, with his final breath, Liu Xiaobo gave us this truth—the CPP is the new Nazi Party. I hope this will make the world think.
Wang Dan (王丹) is a leader of the Chinese democracy movement, and was one of the most visible student leaders during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and has been teaching in Taiwan until recently.
More articles on the passing of Liu Xiaobo:
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Part Two
Liao Yiwu, June 2, 2017
(Continued from Part One)
LIAO: I’ve heard some people say that if they had known blood was going to be shed, they would not have resisted.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was the student’s Command Center that turned us over [to the authorities]. The guy who headed the UAA Guards was called Guo Haifeng. He told us his name himself — you have to give him credit for being pretty open and candid. He said that the UAA standing committee members took a vote, with the majority deciding to send us off to the Public Security Bureau of the Eastern Quarter Branch Tiananmen office. He had strongly opposed the decision. After an impassioned debate, he was overruled and, what’s more, charged with the task of delivering us into the hands of the police, since he was the UAA Secretariat. I assured him it was alright and, cleaning out my pockets, handed him for safekeeping the two-thousand yuan we had left. He wrote me a receipt on the spot, and he asked the police to provide proof that we had been dropped off. We got into the patrol car in a downpour. The police put the handcuffs on us. Guo stood in the rain for a long time.
LIAO: Could you have escaped at some point during the uproar?
YU ZHIJIAN: I definitely could have slipped away starting when we did the deed at 2:30 p.m. until the cops got their hands on us in the early evening. Not sure about the other two. But why should we run away? We were mentally prepared to shoulder the consequences.
LIAO: What next?
LIAO: The next day, we were transferred to a detention facility. The entire place was empty. There was only one other guy in my cell, an inveterate thief. The guy took everything at his own pace and stayed put; he even asked me to help him to get a drink of water. I really wanted to keep abreast of the movement, but I was completely cut off. I think it would be fair to say that the entire judicial and enforcement system of Beijing was half paralyzed. I barely even saw the wardens in that place. They must have all been watching the power struggle at the highest echelons of the Party to see where the chips were going to fall, to know which way to turn.
LIAO: No prisoner could have ranked higher when it came to incurring imperial displeasure than your gang. You weren’t interrogated overnight? What the..?
YU ZHIJIAN: For the two weeks before and after the massacre, never mind interrogation, no one even bothered with us. I spent the day just lying around. God, my bones hurt from sleeping so much. Thank goodness I am pretty lazy and laid-back by nature; I’d perfected my sleeping technique early on, and I don’t overthink when I run into problems. If the sky is going to cave in, and you keep holding on to hope that it won’t, all that stressing isn’t going to get you anywhere.
The first wave arrived bright and early on June 4. All dedicated youth and college students, averaging no more than twenty. By June 5, so many people came in they filled up the empty cell. The wardens kept stuffing them in after we reached capacity. It’s a good thing people are made of flesh and can expand and contract.
We were formally arrested on June 15. The paralyzed judicial and enforcement system, like me, woke up from a dream and recovered, at a moment’s notice, its vicious capacity to churn at high speed. Wanted notices and announcements went up everywhere, and checkpoints for sweeps flourished. The red terror was comparable to 2003’s SARS epidemic outbreak, when you would have trouble spotting anyone on the street. The sterilization of thought, it turns out, isn’t that different from sterilizing the body.
LIAO: I’m picking up some Taoist vibes here — the state of letting things take their course.
YU ZHIJIAN: In the middle of the night on June 3, gunshots went off outside the walls of the detention center. It was like someone was sautéing peas and woke me up. Fuck! They finally opened fire! These bastards only dogs would fuck went and opened fire! My premonition, Dongyue’s premonition, all came to pass. As they say, political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. This is how the CCP rose to power. Students and intellectuals had no chance in this game against seasoned and murderous players. I could not sleep that night and strolled around my cell until darkness began to lift. Anxiety had all my muscles twitching involuntarily. The thief, very nicely, talked to me about it: What can you do about our country plunging into chaos? Agonizing won’t help any. It’s not like a bursting bladder – just let it out and you’re done with it.
Given the unrest, the Beijing police were not to be trusted either, so the detention and intake facilities were all taken over by the army. The soldiers, coming fresh from airtight brainwashing, bared their teeth and claws and no rules bound them. They thrashed both students and residents within an inch of their lives. When I was getting turned over to the detention center after our arrest, a soldier dangled me like I was a newborn chick and threw me several feet away toward the military jeep. As that wasn’t enough for him, he raised his automatic rifle and whacked my face with the butt, and I spewed out a mouthful of blood. You see this false tooth over here? That’s the replacement for the one I lost then and there.
LIAO: This detention center you were at, was it the Tortoise Building?
YU ZHIJIAN: Yes. Lots of Tiananmen ‘insurgents’ were locked up there.
LIAO: And that includes you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Since we didn’t get around to starting fires and blocking military convoys, we had to content ourselves with being “rapists of our Great Leader.” After five months’ of protracted proceedings in the Tortoise Building, a secret trial was held in the basement of the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
LIAO: No sunshine for this trial, I see.
YU ZHIJIAN: The fuckin’ thing was just going through the motions. The crime was there for everyone to see, and what defense we had no one was around to hear. It was over in under two hours. The sentencing was postponed for a week, and then we received the sentencing document.
LIAO: As perfunctory as that?
YU ZHIJIAN: I forgot what statements Decheng and I made. Dongyue’s was the most intriguing. He argued that we had no political end in mind, we were merely finishing a piece of artwork.
LIAO: Performance art?
YU ZHIJIAN: You got it. That’s what Dongyue called it. And the greatest of this century to boot. People would only truly comprehend the full scope of its meaning after years and years.
LIAO: As a piece of political pop art that ended an entire era, personally I think it will become part of the art history of our time.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Laughing). This one went right by the prosecutor and the judge. They couldn’t make head or tail of what Dongyue was saying and, looking like asses, blew their top. They seriously thought he was messing with them. Even the defense lawyer dropped the act and kept interrupting him.
LIAO: That’s priceless. The mood in that courtroom is clearly a part of the performance art by extension.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Chuckles).
LIAO: Did you try to figure out the outcome before that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Everyone was bored in prison, so folks spent a lot of time analyzing our case and peering into crystal balls. You’ve got phrases coming at you like “premeditated and calculated violation, doing the dirty job willfully in the face of great odds,” “with extremely blah-blah means and extremely blab-blah consequences.”
Anyone familiar with the Criminal Code can tell you, when the prosecuting docs specify “especially grave crime and especially vicious particulars,” your head is hanging by a hair. (Sighs). Waiting for death was hard. I even wrote several last notes, for my older sister, my baby brother, and my parents too. Looking back, I was a bit of a wuss: causing them hurt, how sorry I was, hoping they’ll put this unfilial son clear out of their minds, belief that posterity would come to understand what we did and how we had stood up and done something we could stand by, and so on.
LIAO: Somewhat contradictory.
YU ZHIJIAN: You thought one thing one day and something else the next. It was no small thing – confronting death and the empty abyss of it. Terror when you wake and more of the same when you fall asleep. And tears flowed too. But I did not regret doing what I did.
LIAO: When the sentencing document was handed down, you were relieved nonetheless….?
YU ZHIJIAN: The stuffing just about went out of me. What novel did I read this in? The death knell of dictatorship sounds in my ear already! Liberty is before me and all I have to do is to reach for it.
LIAO: Maybe Dongyue was right. That completed this unparalleled performance.
YU ZHIJIAN: I got life and spent 11 years and 6 months in jail. Decheng got 16 years and did 8 years and 8 months. Dongyue got 20 years and, clocking in at 16 years and 9 months, was actually the last one they let out in the end.
LIAO: You didn’t appeal?
YU ZHIJIAN: We didn’t have the death-wish. Year end, 1989, we were sent back to Hunan and kept in the prison in Hengyang.
LIAO: Were you beaten in there? Kept in solitary confinement?
YU ZHIJIAN: Dongyue suffered a lot of torture. One time, after the cops took him apart, a bunch of us protested with a three-day hunger strike. But the authorities refused to apologize. I’d never been put in solitary confinement, but half of the time before 1992 I was locked away under the Disciplinary Team. Pretty horrifying.
LIAO: You were acting up in there?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was new and didn’t have a good grip on how things stood. I told everyone I ran into about the people who died in the massacre, how autocratic and vicious the Communist Party was, hardly stopping to catch my breath. To top it off, I didn’t do the work, all caught up in analyzing the development of current events with other political prisoners. The authorities gave me repeated warnings, which fell on deaf ears, so they announced I was now under “Strict Discipline.” I was beaten up five or six times. This one time the two cops grabbed me and hammered away with two tasers. I fended them off just a tad and then went limp. Fists and steel toe boots flashed like lightening, and had me rolling on the ground. I was wearing quite a decent outfit; after the beating, the whole thing was in rags. I lied there without a stitch on. I had no fractured bones, so you can say they held back, given how brutal all Hunan prisons were.
Eventually I wised up and didn’t fight back at every goddamn turn. But there was one point I wouldn’t give way on: I was a political prisoner and RTL was not for me. After a while they also made sure an experienced inmate would be there to team up with me, set up the master-apprentice connection. The most I ever did was to stand by and watch the guy work. And then I would huddle in a corner, or chat up other prisoners.
LIAO: Were you held in Hengyang Prison the entire time?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was later transferred to Hunan No. 3 Prison, also known as Yongzhou Prison; Yu Dongyue was transferred to the No. 1 Prison, which specializes in locking up politicals. It’s got a reputation as the most savage prison in Hunan.
After 1992 I heard about Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” and I really started analyzing it, concluding that, basically, China has entered the equivalent of the Soviet’s pre-Brezhnev era. We’re in for a long, dark ride. Around that time I also started feeling dark, and time passed slow.
But for all that, we still have to get by. I told the jailers that my specialty is teaching — so they took me out of the steel workshop and put me in a classroom. On a regular basis I gave literature classes to inmates, all the way until I was released.
LIAO: I guess that counts as a silver lining.
YU ZHIJIAN: Of the three, Lu Decheng was the luckiest. He fled from the Yunnan border to Thailand, even though he risked being picked up and sent back. But what Yu Dongyue went through was too cruel. On the day he was released, I called a few democrat friends to go pick him up. It never occurred to me that he’d be like a broken block of wood, completely another person from the radiant and joyful Yu Dongyue that I knew from before. I was yelling “Dong, dong, what’s going on? Don’t you recognize even me?” No reaction. When he did react, he’d suddenly drop to his knees and clutch my legs, yelling “spare my life! spare me!” I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. The June 4 incident is just too much. The historians and political scientists can worry about a comprehensive examination of it. What I’ve never been able to shake all this time has been Yu Dongyue. I’ve always felt that I’ve the one who ruined him.
LIAO: I read some reports on the internet about what happened. People in China and abroad have been raising funds for his medical care. How is he doing now? He doesn’t even recognize you? That’s incredible.
YU ZHIJIAN: He doesn’t even know himself. If you ask him, “Who is Yu Dongyue?” he just gives you a blank stare. He can’t recall.
YU ZHIJIAN: Nobody knows what kind of hell and trauma he went through in jail. There’s no saying they didn’t give him some kind of drug in there. You know how even today so many people worship Mao still; a lot of taxis have Mao’s portrait hanging over the driver’s seat as a talisman.
LIAO: Will how he lost his mind stay an unsolved mystery?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to say. There were so many other prisoners in Yongzhou with him, it shouldn’t be that hard to find out who the perpetrators were. Just recently, Public Security put me away in criminal detention for 32 days on charges of incitement to subversion, after I published a handful of ‘reactionary’ pieces on the internet. After I came out, I took a short break for a couple of days, then went to visit Dongyue at his home 70 kilometers outside the township. Well, his mood is a bit more stable now since he’s been out so long, so he doesn’t kneel in front of whoever happens to walk through the door anymore. But his eyes are still dazed, and you can’t talk loud around him, or he gives a shiver and falls on his knees again. His family is constantly trying to help him get his memory back, talking about so-and-so from what year, and this or that neighbor. For a moment it would look like he realizes who he is, but then he’d turn around and forget right away. It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez — all the characters live by themselves in this dreamed-up space. Dongyue used to think the world of that book; none of us knew he would one day end up in it.
Occasionally I’d take him with me when people in the movement met up. Look at this photo, there, the one in the middle, that’s him. Even when photos were being taken he’d be muttering along, and it’s like there is absolutely nothing in front of him, and he’s aware of no one around him.
LIAO: Quite a festive-looking picture you’ve got there. Who are all these people?
YU ZHIJIAN: My wedding. A lot of democrats came to celebrate.
LIAO: Congratulations! How do you plan to make your living now that you’re married?
YU ZHIJIAN: I’m not sure. To sum it up, we’ve got no house, no pension, insurance and such. Chugging along on luck. Our primary source of income right now is tutoring. The number of my students goes up and down so it’s not stable. Average income each month is less than a thousand yuan.
LIAO: Have you ever thought about going abroad?
YU ZHIJIAN: What for?
LIAO: Freedom. This country is run by such a band of thugs.
YU ZHIJIAN: But at the end of the day this is the land where I was born and raised. I can’t go through with breaking away.
LIAO: You have a great attitude.
YU ZHIJIAN: No one can rob me of my inner freedom. As far as things at home go, you’re always going to rub each other the wrong way here and there. But romantic love, the love of your family and friends — these are our eternal verities. I’m slowly adapting to the world out there. We’re all average nobodies who have to roll with the punches. But compared to the other average nobodies we’ve got our June Fourth complex that you can’t rub out, so we still have the impulse to take on the fears the government hangs over everyone’s heads.
LIAO: What is your biggest fear?
YU ZHIJIAN: The future. I don’t see a future for our people, our society. Will the price we paid, the hot blood that spurred us on, dwindle to nothing, a mere joke? Is our fight to stamp the memory of those who come after us a self-indulgent wish, doomed to failure? It may well be that the very fact we ever existed inconveniences those who are feted and successful whenever and wherever. (Sighs). Let’s let it go. Got to get by first. Thinking too hard about these things gives you a headache.
LIAO: Are you planning to have a child?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to afford. Not in the cards for now.
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989
Liao Yiwu, June 1, 2017
On the afternoon of May 23, 1989, sitting at home in a small town in Sichuan, poet Liao Yiwu watched in awe scenes from Beijing just after “three hooligans from Hunan” threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong, sized 6 by 4.6 meters, hanging on Tiananmen (the Gate of Celestial Peace). Increasingly astonished and impressed, once the full significance of the act sunk in Liao Yiwu came to regard it as the most singular event during the 1989 movement — second perhaps only to the Tank Man. Liao himself, a rebellious poet publishing in underground magazines during the 1980s, would be imprisoned too for writing and performing a long poem titled “The Massacre.”
On a sultry and airless day in Changsha, June 2005, Liao Yiwu interviewed Yu Zhijian (余志坚), one of the “three hooligans from Hunan.” The other two were Yu Dongyue (喻东岳) and Lu Decheng (鲁德成). In 1989, Yu Zhijian was sentenced to life in prison and eventually served 11 years and 6 months; Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 16 years and 9 months; Lu Decheng was sentenced 16 years in prison and served 8 years and 8 months. Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue fled China in 2008, and eventually settled in Indianapolis as political refugees. Before them, Lu Decheng settled in Canada.
When the student movement began in Beijing, 1989, Yu Zhijian was in his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan Province. The year earlier he had resigned from his teaching job in the countryside, and since then had been loafing with his childhood friend and neighbor Lu and college classmate Yu Dongyue. Our excerpt of the interview begins from this point.
In memory of Yu Zhijian, who died on March 29, 2017, in Indianapolis.
— The Editors
LIAO: They both had jobs, didn’t they?
YU ZHIJIAN: Lu was a bus driver and Yu was a reporter at Liuyang Daily. We were cut from the same cloth, blabbed day and night about literature. Yu was ahead of me in putting a lot of stock in modernism and avant-garde ambiguity, which was all the rage. For two months or so, they didn’t bother going home and crashed at our place every night, crowded as it was. Looking back, it was a wonderful time. When Hu Yaobang died on April 22, our literary zeal was sublimated overnight and we answered the call: “Chinese people are now in the direst crisis.” A lot of friends came together and agreed that we absolutely had to organize a memorial for Hu, the great man from our hometown.
I was the one who wrote all the slogans in traditional calligraphy, using an ink stone and ink brush: In memoriam for Hu, constitutional amendment, democracy, freedom, anti-corruption – it just about summed up my lifelong political aspirations. In the middle of the night, like the hero-bandits from the novel Water Margin, we plastered several blocks with our revolutionary – or counterrevolutionary as the government saw it – slogans. At daybreak, would you believe it, the residents of Liuyang City were reading the stuff in droves and talking about it in whispers. It’s a bit like Lu Xun’s story where the unconfirmed but true rumors about the impending fall of China’s last dynasty bring a claustrophobic village to a boil. We hotheads stayed back and watched it all happen, with an ineffable sense of excitement and impending doom.
We were all fired up in our role as activists. Talked about what was happening in Beijing that day, every day. Didn’t eat much but were more alert than ever. We tried to get the students at Liuyang Normal College to start a street protest, but our town was too small and the people too conservative. We may all have been hopping around like the rebellious Monkey King from the classic tale, but nothing came of our agitating.
LIAO: That’s why you decided to go to Beijing.
YU ZHIJIAN: The hunger strikes began in Tiananmen. And a few students got down on their knees on the steps outside the People’s Congress when they handed in their petition. Complex political games are beyond people like us, but intuitively we weren’t happy with that sort of thing. If they didn’t want to be the docile subjects of a feudal monarch, why did they kneel? An autocratic regime wouldn’t even bother brushing off that sort of concession.
On May 16, after an all-nighter debate on the state of the nation, we three decided to go to Beijing. We were all broke and none of us had ever gone north before to “make revolution.” We took out our wages and it didn’t look enough. The night before we left, I knocked on the door of a classmate who was a private entrepreneur in the electric appliance business. He was generous for the sake of the revolution and forked over a grand — which would be twenty-something times that amount in today’s money, right? The train ticket from Changsha to Beijing cost less than fifty.
LIAO: Very generous indeed.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was part and parcel of our collective fantasy over democracy. Bus drivers along the way to Changsha wouldn’t take our fare when they heard we were on the way to Beijing to show support. When we pulled into Changsha early morning, we headed toward the May First Boulevard and the provincial government buildings to get a read on what was happening. Woa! The student movement in the capital of Hunan was in full swing. The maze of streets was overrun by students and residents. That set our blood boiling, there was no holding back! Given my long legs, I was tasked to go out and buy stationery, and Yu made a giant banner. We occupied the train station plaza, set up our banner, and took turns giving speeches on the most popular themes of the movement: Anti-corruption, change to the political system, amending the Constitution, and opposition to one-party rule. Yu was in charge of taking photos because his camera was made in Japan. He was supposed to use it to cover his beat at Liuyang Daily – in those days you don’t come across a camera like that one every day. I was with him when he bought more rolls of Kodak film than any of us could keep track of. These masterpieces of photography all ended up in court as incontrovertible evidence of his counterrevolutionary incitement to subvert the state.
LIAO: Not that different from my own situation. I manufactured a lot of irrefutable literary evidence against myself.
YU ZHIJIAN: The crowd was milling around us. I, an incompetent teacher whose previous encounters had all been with children under the age of ten in a village classroom, was taking a first crack at “incitement” in public. Fluent and fervent, it was pretty effective, and the worked-up crowd threw money into our makeshift donation box. In pennies and yuan bills, even tens. It was so moving. There were no hundred-yuan bills yet at that time. I remember to this day this one man, stuffing bills into the box with both hands. After only a few hours of incitement the box overflowed.
LIAO: There was so much passionate conviction in those days.
YU ZHIJIAN: We collected more than three thousand yuan. Some students joined our petition group to go to Beijing to support the student movement.
LIAO: How many?
YU ZHIJIAN: Forty, fifty? A big crowd. We got on the express train that had just started operating. It leaves at 9:00 p.m.
LIAO: The train tickets alone would cost a fortune.
YU ZHIJIAN: What could you do? We bought platform passes and rolled in. The train was overflowing with patriotic crowds. We were stuffed into the corridor skin-on-skin. The train conductor checking tickets got the head of the crew to come see us. He was all courtesy: Who is responsible for this group? I said I was. He told me he understood and supported our cause unconditionally, and had us taken to the crew lounge where we could take turns sitting down. We got to the train station the next day and the first thing we did was to unfold our banner – the thing was half as long as a train passenger car. It sure drew attention. Only a few moments after we took off in the direction of Tiananmen, I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of several hundred people materializing behind us. These were mostly students visiting Beijing and looking for a group to belong to. We were more on than ever. “Down with Deng Xiaoping! We want Zhao Ziyang! Freedom, democracy and human rights – Chinese people will stand tall once more!” We were shouting slogans louder and faster than the gongs and drums of folk plays. After just under an hour, we sighted the ramparts of the Forbidden City looming over Tiananmen; until then, we’d only seen it in newspapers. Before we had the chance to “lose ourselves in the sea of the masses,” someone who carried himself like a student leader marched up and told us he was from the Guards of the University Autonomous Association. He commended our group for supporting the cause. “But your slogans are a bit inappropriate; that is to say, extreme. Even the people in the Square are not going this far this thoughtlessly.” Initially that did not go down well with us, but then we thought it through and wanted to make the movement’s needs our priority, so we did as we were told and put away the counterrevolutionary extra-long banner for the time being.
Over the next couple of days, the college students who came with us all found their own student body organizations or other clusters like birds returning to their nests. Our petition group fell apart, leaving only the three of us core members with no pigeonhole to fit into. Our “class categorization as lone vagabonds” was exposed, as they say in Communist social theory.
LIAO: Didn’t take much for that group to fall apart, it looks like.
YU ZHIJIAN: We got into trouble on May 23, so we were only in the middle of everything for five, six days in total. We went to some rallies and called for the abolition of one-party dictatorship and full-blown Westernization in some speeches. Didn’t sleep a whole lot during those few days. At night, when we couldn’t keep going any more, we would roll out a piece of tarp in some underpass or on the sidewalk, snuggle into a military coat, and doze a little. This one morning, I opened my eyes to find a girl, a student, lying asleep on top of me. (Laughs). It was so romantic.
Three quite memorable things happened around this time. A sign saying “Extraordinary Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” was put up over the Great Hall of the People. We went into wanton fantasies over it, as if the utopia of democracy was looming right there in front of our eyes. At the same time, a lot of military helicopters were circling over the square, sometimes flying so low they practically grazed the ramparts of the Forbidden City. They scattered flyers “To the Deluded Masses” calling on everyone to surrender and desist. The exact same way the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty brought his formidable foe to his knees – inundating him and his troops with the songs of their homeland, softening their morale so much they disbanded on their own.
The last thing that sank in the most was how inconsistent the student leaders were in their talks. Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi were running on and on: “Do your best to maintain the order at the Square” – duh. Or, “Residents and workers, return to your posts and normal working routines,” duh. Chai Ling was even acting like some variety-show host on TV, “Thank you, thank you! Thanks for everyone’s support.” All of them carried on as if the students were a privileged group who alone enjoyed the mainline privilege to love our country, and every other social element was only there meddling in what was none of their business and making things worse. What the hell? If it weren’t for everyone else’s support, could the students have lasted? The Communists would have taken them out long ago. The troops were already kicking up their heels in the suburbs, and the students were still busy infighting, holding dialogues, freaking out, stalemating – what was the goddamn use of their play acted composure? Did they think the soldiers, armed to the teeth, were weenies just in town for a visit? What if the army did open fire? The democracy movement was so vast, with tens of millions caught up in it. What made them believe, the handful of lousy babies that they were, that they could stay on top of it and make sure everything wind down smoothly? Bloodshed was breathing down on everyone, and there they were, thwarting their country’s fate with their empty talk. Completely immature.
LIAO: Your intuition was pretty sound.
YU ZHIJIAN: But grassroots folks like us from the provinces had no chance to speak up. We tried getting through the guards to talk to the student leaders, but when the guards saw me acting all aggressive and pent-up, there was no way in hell we could gain access to the Command Headquarters of the square, let alone see the chief. What to do? We turned in a Proposal of Recommendations, and begged and pleaded and stormed until the guards promised to hand it to the leaders. If only “for reference as needed.”
LIAO: Do you remember what the recommendations were?
YU ZHIJIAN: First, University Autonomous Association should declare the Chinese Communist regime illegal in the name of every citizen in the country. Second, the Association ought to call on Beijing and the entire nation to strike. Third: Students and worker guards…oh, wait, I can’t recall off the bat.
LIAO: Didn’t hold back, did you? Was there a response?
YU ZHIJIAN: Nothing. Everything was so chaotic. Maybe they never even gave them the thing to read.
LIAO: That must have sucked for you. But maybe you were too far out.
YU ZHIJIAN: I know. We couldn’t get anywhere.
LIAO: As Confucius says, “Mingle not in projects with a man whose way is not yours.” You could have dusted off the seat of your pants and walked away.
YU ZHIJIAN: No. We’d come all this way to Beijing, and we had to live up to our duty. Yu Dongyue was so upset and saddened that he proposed we self-immolate as a group. We came up with several plans. For example, we could stand on Gold Water Bridge, pour gasoline over ourselves and light it up. The effect was sure to be dramatic. But what goal were we trying to achieve? Should we put out a statement beforehand, or get somebody to notify the country afterwards that our sacrifice was for democracy and freedom, an act of protest against state violence and a wakeup call to the people? But things were stacked against us. If something goes wrong, people would not have understood why we self-immolated. There was even some chance the government would turn our deaths into a smear campaign against the democracy movement.
That would have been pretty senseless. So I proposed that we take action against Mao Zedong’s portrait — the original prototype one — hung on the ramparts of the Forbidden City. Put a symbolic end to the repressive Communist regime. My two friends agreed right away. From midnight to sunrise of the 22nd, we talked over our options. From a distance, it did not look like climbing up to take the portrait would be all that hard. But the square was guarded so closely we would have had better luck getting up to heaven than the walls of the palace. Our eyes ruddy from sleeplessness, the next morning we got hold of a ladder after a lot of to-do, and carried it to the archway beneath the portrait like patients burning up in a high fever. We looked up and you could have knocked us down with a feather. The bastard despot who sat on our heads and had his way with us, who had died years ago – he was out of our reach even when we stand on top of a ladder as tall as several grown men!
We took turns carefully examining the setup. After a lot of hard staring, we finally made it out – the nail on which the portrait hung was as thick as a man’s arm. Which means even if we could set up a high enough ladder and be ready for death and torture worse than death, we still might not be able to take the emperor down with us.
LIAO: Did no one notice you?
YU ZHIJIAN: No one had the time for anyone else. In the tumult of a movement like that, oftentimes each person is marginal and alone, with very little to connect him to it. Of course, it’s something else entirely if you were chosen as the focus of the world’s attention.
LIAO: That’s why it occurred to you to treat the despot to rotten eggs? I was at home in Puling, and saw you guys doing it. I was stunned. I remember the news broadcaster was China Central Television’s Chen Duo, with graying hair, whose voice was shaking — he was that angry.
YU ZHIJIAN: We really had no other way to get to Old Man Mao and that’s how we came up with our lousy scheme. We shopped at the Wangfujing Department Store and bought twenty eggs. At first we thought we could eyeball the distance and pitch the eggs as is, but it didn’t take long for us to realize eggs are too light-colored and the splash would be hard to see. Lucky for us, Dongyue dabbled as a painter. He said let’s make a dark gray from oils and fill the eggs with it.
We took a long time with the preparation and treated it all quite seriously. After buying stationery supplies and paint, we went to the post office to send our last letter to our families. It’s incredible, but I’ve actually forgotten what I wrote to mine; I think I cited a lot of Byron. Lu mulled over what he wrote for a long time. It was tough, pretty emotional — he is an only child. I heard later that when his parents saw the TV broadcast about us they fainted on the spot. I remember bits and pieces from what Dongyue wrote. He had five boys back home — he bound himself to them in brotherhood unto death — and he lied on his belly writing them letters one after the other. He was going to imitate Don Quixote and battle the windmills, and they should see him off like the legendary assassin Jing Ke, whose friends said farewell to him in the chill wind on the banks of the Yi River, never to return, et cetera. Lyrical compositions.
LIAO: People tell me he’s quite gifted in poetry.
YU ZHIJIAN: He wrote doggerel I can still remember: There may be a thousand reasons for you to walk on one side of the street. But there are a thousand and one reasons for you to cross the street and join me!
LIAO: The impulse to cross the line. Lo and behold, you did cross over to the other side.
YU ZHIJIAN: We were so hungry after we finished writing our last words, we took the twenty eggs to a food stall next to the Gold Water Bridge. You spread a flour paste on the pan, add the eggs and sprinkle scallion on top. We stuffed ourselves with too much of this northern-style pancake. The first few batches, fried to a bright gold and smelling delicious, went down real easy — we don’t have them in Hunan. But it got to be too much after a while and we almost threw up.
We then went to the park named after Sun Yat-sen, the man who overthrew the last dynasty, and sat down to put the eggs together, filling the shells with paint and sealing them one by one. Then we spread out calligraphy paper, 1.2 meters long and 80 cm wide, on the ground. This had got to be the gutsiest couplet written in China since 1949. I came up with the words and Dongyue, deep in thought, dashed it off with an ink brush: “An end to five thousand years of despotism / Cult of personality is no more.” The matching slogan was: “Hail Liberty!”
The gun was cocked, so to speak. Dongyue took shots of the banner, and Decheng and I had our photo taken at the gate of the park “for keepsake.” All of it, unfortunately, is now part of the criminal record archives at the Public Security Bureau.
LIAO: You didn’t bequeath the “revolutionary keepsakes” to someone you could trust?
YU ZHIJIAN: We couldn’t think of anyone reliable despite knowing so many people. We divided up the job. I am the tallest so I was in charge of blocking the crowd and making the announcement. Dongyue and Decheng would put up the banner and pitch the eggs. We took our respective positions. I made the first appearance, running to the archway and blocking pedestrians: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Please stop for a moment!” More people came toward us and I could not keep them back, until a few students rushed over to help.
LIAO: Why did they help you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Decheng and I were only 25 or 26, and Dongyue was 22 (he’s a prodigy, and graduated from college at 18.) Based on the way we looked, the students thought we were their peers. I was just getting a grip on things when my buddies unfurled the banner with a swoosh and put it up. They were a bit rushed and the thing was a little skewed. Those two then immediately ran backwards, aimed for the best angle of elevation and began pitching. We had thought twenty eggs would be plenty to deface the entire giant portrait, but the two dummies were so lame: the eggs went flying and missed their mark every which way. They didn’t have enough strength in their arms, and the egg would fall halfway through. I couldn’t do anything except watch it happen. I started cussing: What the hell do you think you’re doing? They didn’t end up losing face entirely though. Three out of twenty made it, and graced the despot’s double-chin with a smattering of pockmarks.
LIAO: How long did that take?
YU ZHIJIAN: The whole act took five or six minutes but the eggs took only two or three. It was like a dream, and no one there realized what was happening. They were out of it, surprised, and some people clapped their hands and cheered without thinking it through. When they came to, the deed was done. Walls of people closed in on the “criminals,” and someone reprimanded: “What did you do? Where are you from? Who is behind this?” The UAA guards also rushed over. I was standing to the side and could only see the top of their heads. I overheard lots of jabbering, accusatory voices: “Your motivation is malicious. You intend to destroy everyone, destroy this patriotic movement of ours.” Decheng, sporting the color of the palette from all the broken eggs, was fighting to be heard: “Outlawing Mao’s portrait is both just and legal. We didn’t do anything wrong!” I applauded from far away and spoke up: “That’s right!”
The student standing next to me was having none of it, pointed his finger at me and said, “You’d better not interrupt if it’s none of your business.” I said: “Of course it’s my business. We’re in this together.” That clinched the matter and I was snapped up for good, too. We all got taken to the Command Center.
LIAO: Did you get beaten up?
YU ZHIJIAN: Just pushed around and jostled. Both the people for and against us were in just for the heck of it anyway. The student guards were, when you come right down to it, protecting us. We finally reached the Center set up at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — the movement’s nucleus we had racked our brains for a way to get into before all of this happened. There we finally were, even if the way we burst on the scene was a bit less dignified than we would have preferred.
We sat under the memorial with hanging heads, forlorn, waiting to see what would be done with us. The student leaders took forever discussing what to do. Finally, plainclothes agents showed up, circled the place, then walked in to demand that they turn us over. The students, quite diplomatically, refused. Right then a lady inched up to me when no one was looking and whispered: “Things are turning out really badly for you all; you’d better look sharp and get away as soon as you can.” I shook my head, “We will live and die together. I won’t walk by myself.” She paused for a moment before saying, “Then why don’t I give you a telephone number. If you need any help, call this number and look for me.” I agreed. I was young and had a good memory, so she only had to say it once for me to remember it.
LIAO: You didn’t ask her who she was?
YU ZHIJIAN: I did not, and I doubt she would have told me anyway. But the way she looked at me, I think she really wanted to help me, so I would like to make sure to mention it now.
LIAO: What happened with all that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Too many things happened and I forgot both about her and the number. Even if I am to stand face to face with her now I doubt I’d be able to recognize her.
LIAO: And then what happened?
YU ZHIJIAN: After some deliberation, the student leaders took us to the Museum of History to the right of the Square for what may count as an informal press conference for Chinese and foreign reporters. There were a lot of reporters and people waiting around already. We did not expect it to be so short; the whole thing lasted under five minutes. The questions were primarily for Lu Decheng. Some head honcho from the UAA also “made clarifications” on behalf of all the university students, stating that they had nothing to do with what happened. Their goal was to promote democratic reform and was absolutely free from this sort of hostility. It is not within the realm of possibility for the UAA to attack the Communist Party or to damage Chairman Mao’s image, et cetera, et cetera. My mind just about exploded.
Then we ended up in a bus, and Decheng was interviewed again, this time by the China Central Television. It began to rain. Outside the window, tents and tarps everywhere on the Square were one big mess, like a disaster area roughly patched together. Who would have thought the official media, usually so sluggish, would have moved so fast and done such a long interview? Questions included where we came from, our profession, how long our planning took, our initial motivation, and whether we had contemplated the consequences. Decheng also answered him at a measured pace, making sure to state that the students were not involved in any way with what we did. People tell me on that same day “XWLB News Broadcast” aired our story as a warning to others and the segment ran for five or six minutes. The program included eyewitnesses, some students and people from Beijing, where they narrated what happened and expressed their views. One student said, “I really admire them for having the courage to do this.” (Chuckles).
LIAO: That’s where I first found out about you, that program. The tone was mostly, I’d say, “angry condemnation,” but the reporters’ anxiety and good will lurked right beneath the surface. They were worried that the incident would bring unthinkably negative consequences to the movement.
YU ZHIJIAN: Negative consequences were on the cards from the very beginning. As long as Mao’s specter roams China and Deng’s iron fist stays on our necks — as long as the Communists are in power, the only outcome to resistance will be bloodshed. We were just one of the episodes.
( To be continued.)
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
China Change, May 31, 2017
Liu Shaoming’s (刘少明) work as an activist, while based in Guangdong, saw him travel across the country in recent years. In Guangdong he joined the calls for releasing dissident Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), and numerous other participants in the Southern Street Movement (南方街头运动). He traveled to Xinyu in Jiangxi Province (江西新余), Jixi in Shaanxi Province (陕西鸡西), Jiansanjiang in Heilongjiang (黑龙江建三江), and many other places where citizens gathered to scrutinize the abuse of power. Over the last few years he has been summoned in for talks with the police or detained in police lockups dozens of times, but by what he called “luck” he was spared serious persecution. One human rights lawyer has described Liu as enthusiastic and selfless — like a brother. Indeed, at 59 years of age and a veteran of the June 4 democracy protests, for most of those in the field today Liu is of an older generation of activists.
In May of 1989 he was a worker at a steel factory in Jiangxi; he left behind his wife and infant child to travel to Beijing and live in one of the tents on the square, joining the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (北京工人联合自治会), administering first-aid to the student protesters. He stayed with them until the early hours of June 4, and departed the square with them. He was later identified and jailed for a year.
According to Liu Shaoming’s defense lawyer Wu Kuiming (吴魁明), since 2014 — apart from his civil rights activism — Liu has been most heavily involved in helping workers in the Pearl River Delta (珠三角) region defend their rights. In the evening of May 29, 2015, in Guangzhou, he was taken away by unidentified men; two weeks later he was detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事). His lawyer explained that the police have devoted enormous investigative resources to collecting and analyzing information about Liu’s participation in labor rights work, as supposed criminal activity. From this, the lawyer says, it’s clear that Liu’s labor rights work is the reason the authorities apprehended him.
Xiao Shu (笑蜀), a well-known writer on activist affairs who has observed the labor movement in Guangdong for many years, said that Liu Shaoming is one of the founders of the “Labor Defense Volunteers” (工维义工) collective in Guangzhou, a loose coalition of volunteers in southern China who advocate on behalf of workers’ rights. It had only been founded a few months before Liu Shaoming was arrested, but even by then the group had gotten involved in numerous labor rights incidents. Xiao Shu noted: “Over the last five months [in 2015], they’ve been involved in a strike at the Guangxin Shoe Factory in Ebu, Haifeng County, Guangdong (海丰县鹅埠广信鞋厂), and labor rights incidents at the Second Heavy Machinery Group in Sichuan (四川二重) and the Lide Shoe Factory in Guangzhou (广州利得鞋厂). The Lide strike was a total victory, and Liu Shaoming’s contribution was essential.”
On December 3, 2015, the Guangdong authorities targeted numerous labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta region. Seven activists — including Zeng Feixiang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), He Xiaobo (何晓波), and Meng Han (孟晗), among others — were arrested on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb public order” for organizing strikes and fighting for the legitimate rights of workers. Another several dozen people were summoned and interrogated. China’s state media engaged in an all-out character assassination of them, accusing their small-scale grassroots organizations of “long-term receipt of funds from foreign organizations, profiting off labor and management disputes, severely disrupting social order, and severely trampling on the rights and benefits of workers.” Over the course of 2016, under immense international pressure and domestic cries of support, these labor activists were gradually given suspended sentences or released on probation.
But not Liu Shaoming. He has been treated like a different sort of criminal, and was indicted on January 5, 2016. Despite the fact that the police had collected a vast amount of information and evidence about his labor rights activities, when they arrested him the focus of the prosecutor’s accusations lay elsewhere entirely. Their charges said:
“An investigation performed according to the law has ascertained: From 2014 to May 2015, the defendant Liu Shaoming himself composed and compiled the documents “A Letter to the CCP’s Low-ranking Soldiers and Police in the Armed Forces” (《给中共当局基层武装力量的士兵和警员的一封信》), “A Letter to My Chinese Compatriots” (《告中国同胞书》), “My Views on the Overseas Democracy Movement” (《我对海外民运的看法》), “My Personal Views on the Reformist and Revolutionary Schools” (《我个人关于改良派和革命派看法》), among many essays and expressions which engaged in rumor mongering and slander against the state power and socialism. These texts were distributed via WeChat, QQ, Telegram and other software on his cellular phone, and were received by numerous friends on WeChat and Telegram; he also on numerous occasions disseminated these texts to WeChat and QQ friend groups, under the circumstances that he was fully aware that there were a large number of friends in those groups, identifying himself under the term of endearment ‘Old Migrant Worker Liu Shaoming,’ all of which had the effect of inciting subversion of state power and overturning the socialist system.”
Two defense lawyers pointed out that the police arrest of Liu Shaoming was “simply because the police regard Liu is a ‘troublemaker.’ Even if they had no evidence, they would still have arrested him.”
China Change has observed a key feature of the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society over the last several years, which goes some way to explaining the “special treatment” Liu Shaoming has been subjected to: this is that, horizontally, Liu’s activism spanned across the rights defense movement, political dissent, and labor rights spheres, and vertically, that its origin can be traced all the way back to the June 4 democracy movement and the ideas that animated it. This, in the eyes of an increasingly paranoid Chinese government, makes Liu appear somehow more “dangerous” — even though all of the activities he has engaged in, whether 28 years ago with the June 4 demonstration, or the labor activism in the Pearl River Delta today, are perfectly permissible under the Chinese constitution.
“When it comes to political cases,” remarked a human rights lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, “the key basis for the decision to arrest, investigate, and sentence a politically sensitive individual is not a question of the facts of the matter, but a question of whether they want to do it or not. It’s all about whom they want to get rid of and persecute.” Liu Shaoming now suffers the misfortune of having become one of the people the Party authorities want to remove from the scene.
Liu Shaoming was tried in the Guangzhou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court on April 15, 2016, for “inciting subversion of state power.” The hearing ended without a sentence. It is now over 13 months since the trial, and Liu has still not been sentenced. China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that under normal circumstances “A people’s court shall pronounce the judgment on a case of public prosecution within two months or, not later than three months.”
In his statement of self-defense in court, Liu Shaoming responded to the charges thus: “Because of some essays and memoirs I wrote which accurately recorded that period of national and personal history, and because I expressed some political opinions that diverge from those of the authorities, I’ve been accused of ‘rumor mongering,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and put in the defendant’s chair in a court of law. Whatever the result, I will assume it calmly. This is the most I can do to comfort the fallen spirits of those who have laid down their lives for the project of democracy in China. As to whether I’m innocent or guilty, history will be the fairest judge. Whether it’s the 20 square meter cell of jail, or the 9.6 million square kilometer thought prison of the entire country, for those who yearn for freedom there is little difference.”
Of his own activism, he said: “The pursuit of liberty and democracy is what I have dreamed of and pursued my entire life… Our resistance and suffering today is nothing but the final stage of resistance and suffering in the five thousand years of history of the Chinese people. This time we’re making a stand without any of the slaughter and bloodletting of the past: this is a rational, peaceful, non-violent pursuit, to bring the light spring wind of constitutional democracy and liberty to this great ancestral land, and to bless China.”
He said that public security personnel in pre-trial interrogations focused exclusively on his involvement in labor activism, as well as on his support for human rights lawyers. But, he said, given that the indictment contained no mention of this, “You don’t mention it, I don’t defend it.”
In 2015 and 2016 China rolled out an intense battery of new legislation: the Foreign NGO Law (《中华人民共和国境外非政府组织境内活动管理法》), the Charity Law (《中华人民共和国慈善法》), the Cybersecurity Law (《网络安全法》), the State Security Law (《国家安全法》), and most recently a draft of the State Intelligence Law (《中华人民共和国国家情报法》草案), which will likely become a law in the near future. The international community has regarded this series of laws as primarily a formal codification of well-practiced repressive policies. They demonstrate how the Chinese authorities regard civil society as the greatest threat to the regime, and they’re aimed to maximally restrict the normal activities and growth of civil society in China.
From when he left Jiangxi as a steel factory worker, to his current imprisonment, half of Liu Shaoming’s life has been spent in the Pearl River Delta region as a migrant worker. He has worked as a porter, a construction laborer, an enterprise manager, a factory director, an advertisement salesman, and a copywriter for advertising pamphlets — he couldn’t be any more the Chinese everyman. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), a colleague who has worked with him on labor rights, said: “He established a studio for advocating on behalf of workers and joined forces with them completely — eating together, living together. He never accepted any money from any organization, and no one ever gave him a salary or stipend. His juniors affectionately called him ‘Uncle Liu.’”
By Yang Jianli, published: December 7, 2015
In Washington, D.C. recently, my friend Alan Curtis invited me to watch Chimerica, which was written by the British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. The play focuses on finding clues to the identity of Tank Man, the iconic and still unknown protester from Tiananmen Square, and explores the contemporary relationship between China and the West. During my three hours in the theater, my mind repeatedly returned to Tiananmen Square, where I was a participant in the 1989 democracy movement, and a witness to the ensuing massacre.
The photograph of the Tank Man on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue confronting state violence is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. For more than two decades, people around the world have wondered what became of him. But both he and his fate remain unknown—though his name is thought to be Wang Weilin.
Twenty-six years ago, just after the massacre had taken place, the Chinese regime tried to use the photo of Tank Man as proof that the military had responded to the “thugs” with restraint. The world was not fooled. On the morning of June 4, 1989, I personally witnessed four tanks running over demonstrators at Liubukou on Chang’an Avenue. At least eleven of them were killed or injured. Among the victims was Fang Zheng, who lost his legs and now lives in San Francisco. My prison poem “The Unusual June” described what I saw at Liubukou: “Bloodying hooves of the iron beast / bodies flattened with angry eyes.”
In the famous scene caught by an American journalist, however, a column of tanks in fact showed restraint as it confronted the young man. It is possible that the soldier in the first tank acted not in accordance with military orders but out of his own moral conviction, and got punished for it. Indeed, Pico Lyer, writing for Time magazine, opined: “The heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.”
In Chimerica, the search for the Tank Man leads to a man named Wang Pengfei who is the brother of the tank driver, or the other tank man.
Wang Pengfei reveals that his brother was executed by the Chinese military for upholding his conscience. He tearfully cries, “My brother, the tank driver, he is also a hero!”
Although this is a creative imagining, it is not far-fetched. At that moment in Chang’an Avenue, outside the Grand Beijing Hotel, two brave young Chinese men came face to face. They both may have sacrificed their lives in ways unknown to outsiders. As I put it in “The Unusual June”: “Each one’s star lighting the other’s way to heaven.”
Heroic feats often happen in moments that go unnoticed. In June of 1989, the streets of Beijing witnessed many Chinese like Wang Weilin, standing face-to-face with soldiers. They may have been Wang Weilin, Xu Qin, Yan Heran, or Zhang Mingchun. When tanks were on the streets, some Chinese soldiers opposed the order to massacre. Chimerica reminds us that those who stand opposite us are not necessarily our enemies, and that common sense and conscience can prevail even under brutal circumstances.
I am convinced that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the general direction of China’s future can only be towards freedom and democracy. The dynamics of democratic movements do not exist only among dissidents. Although the Chinese communist regime has become increasingly unwilling to reform politically, some individuals within the system don’t wish to stand in the way of history.
In Chimerica, this unsung hero has sacrificed his life. In reality, those within the system who refuse to betray their consciences generally do not pay so high a price. They nonetheless need considerable moral courage to face the risks and pressure. Any police or military officer, and any one in the authoritarian state machinery, can be a hero if they are willing to “raise their guns an inch higher” when implementing an order of suppression. Their names may be unknown, but they will be heroes of the historical process. Just like the Tank Man.
Part of the pain in my heart I felt when watching Chimerica came from one very vivid experience. On the morning of June 4, 1989, when the troops were killing people at various locations in Beijing, I saw a soldier on Chang’an Avenue in front of the Telegraph Building. He was obviously separated from the troops, and he had no helmet or gun. He looked like a teenager. The people I was with chased him out of sadness and anger. I gave him a punch, and my companion Huang Liping gave him a kick. More and more people gathered and beat him up. Knocked to the ground, the soldier screamed: “I didn’t do it! I didn’t shoot!” Suddenly I realized that a tragedy was taking place. By then it was impossible to stop the violence. In desperation, Huang and I left the scene without looking back. A few minutes later, I knew from the loud voices behind me that the soldier had been killed. Huang and I silently shed tears.
That young soldier was perhaps one of the tank men in the opposite camp. Like all the soldiers, he had been forced to come to Beijing to massacre protesting students and citizens. Like us, he was too powerless to prevent the tragedy from happening. Out of conscience, he had probably refused to kill and chosen instead to be a deserter. If that was the case, he was a real hero.
But within the tragic events of the day, anger and irrationality got the better of me. I saw him as my enemy and struck him. This might be the biggest sin of my life. I cannot imagine the pain he suffered when he was dying and what was on his mind at that moment.
As I wrote in “The Unusual June”:
“Millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my life / millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my birth /millions of heads / like a grand explosion of planets /disappear suddenly, all at once /millions of steps / all disappear, little by little / Oh, my dearest”
“Every time / my poems cannot stop my tears / my agitated eyes and lacerated heart /all pain, not a disease / not even my compassion / I’m not an outsider.”
We have been living with this wound all these years. We should keep looking for the Tank Man, for Wang Weilin. And we should keep looking for the other tank man, who halted his advance. We should look for the loved ones of the young soldier who died in the violence in which I took part. I look forward to the day when I find his family and share with them my guilt: I too have been mourning him all these years.
Chimerica is an excellent play that has been performed in Britain and America over the past two years. More performances are planned, which will bring renewed attention to both tank men. Their stories have not yet ended, nor the history of which they are a part.
November 11, 2015