1989 tiananmen protests

Wang Dan, a Veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests, Writes Open Letter to the Hong Kong Students

June 4, 1989. In the predawn darkness we were forced to evacuate Tiananmen Square. Negotiations with the army were completed. The terms we agreed upon were simple: We should leave before daybreak. A peaceful conclusion to the occupation of this largest of public gathering places in all of China seemed within reach. Helmeted soldiers allowed us to pass through the narrow corridor at the southeast side of the square, all the while pointing their bayonets, as if we were prisoners of war. Army commanders had promised to give the demonstrators an opportunity to disperse. 

The process, time-consuming because the crowd was huge, seemed under way. “Fascist!” a female student cursed furiously. Immediately, several soldiers rushed at her and beat her down with the butts of their rifles. Her male comrades hurried to help her back into the march . And thus commenced the last phase of a major confrontation between nonviolent demonstrators led by university students and the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China. On the one side, words: speeches, pamphlets, poems, petitions, the weapons of persuasion. On the other side, dictatorial power: guns, bullets, and tanks, the weapons of destruction (Zhang Boli: Escape From China, 2008, Chapter I).

History is always full of paradoxes. In the spring of 1989 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used tanks and rifles to suppress dissent. Unable to gain the support of the people by rational arguments, it had to impose its ideological truths upon them by force. While the peaceful students were dubbed ‘counter-revolutionaries’, the memory of June 4th was extinguished by censorship and threats. Only a handful of students that escaped the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as people outside the Communist state, can commemorate those tragic events. 

The CCP’s strategy is all too clear. It claims to be the only political organisation that has the right to govern China. Therefore, China is the Communist Party. Whoever is against the Communist Party, is against China. Those who oppose the will or reject the propaganda of the Communist Party are regarded as enemies of the Party and of China. Single-minded Chinese are deemed ‘traitors’, while ‘obstinate’ foreigners are likened to imperialists which interfere in China’s internal affairs. It is sad that many foreigners who simply sympathise with the suffering of the students who risked or lost their lives in 1989 are insulted and vilified, while those who ordered to shoot depict themselves as patriots. It is sad that compassion for those whose blood was shed is regarded as ‘interference’.  

Zhang Boli was one of those students. His autobiography is an underrated masterpiece. It is an honest, beautifully written account of his life before and after June 4 1989. If it was not the recollection of real events, it could be a magnificent piece of fiction, one of the best adventure novels of all time.

But it is not. Death and suffering were real. Zhang Boli’s words describe the tragic outcome of that spring full of hopes, passion, energy, and freedom. Freedom – a term which some governments’ propaganda has almost managed to turn into a bad word. Reading the pages written by him, one can’t help but think of the students of Hong Kong who face a situation that is astoundingly similar (although by no means identical) to that of 1989 Beijing. 

After cementing its rule on the mainland through a mix of violence, propaganda, and economic and social policies whose astounding success no one can deny, the CCP is now extending its style of government to Hong Kong, a city whose greatness is rooted in its freedom. The freedom to grow unimpaired, without nationalism, communism, or any other form of ideology enforced by the state. 

Another leader of the student movement of 1989 was Wang Dan. For a short time, he was one of the world’s most recognizable faces; the charismatic, bespectacled young student, only 20-years-old at the time, the organiser of the ‘Democracy Salon’, and one of the figureheads of the Tiananmen student protests (‘Occupy Tiananmen’ we would call it nowadays).

In ‘Prison Memoir‘ Wang Dan writes:

June 4, 1989, is without doubt one of the darkest days in Chinese history. I quit my studies, left Beijing University, which I had attended for two years, and began my journey of escape. For a month I tried to avoid arrest by the authorities, and I travelled around the four Yangtze provinces, before at last returning to Beijing. This ‘walk right into the trap’ was the beginning of a strange chapter of my life. On July 2, 1989, I was caught near Fusuijing, in Xicheng District. First I was taken to a secret place in Xiaotangshan, Changping County, and the next day I was transferred to Qincheng prison. From this day until June 2, 1991, I lived here, in China’s biggest maximum-security prison, until I was taken to Beijing Prison N.2, where my official prison sentence began. On February 17, 1993, I was released on parole for ‘obeying the administration’ and ‘participating in productive labour’ (王丹: 獄中回憶錄 [Prison Memoir], 2013).

After his release, Wang Dan went to the United States, where he received his PhD from Harvard University. He now lives in Taiwan, where he teaches at Tsinghua University.

Wang Dan recognises all too well the parallels between the 1989 reform movement in China and the current struggle of the pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. On October 26, Wang Dan published an open letter to the students, which appeared on the Hong Kong liberal newspaper ‘Ming Pao‘. In his message, he praised the students, but he also issued a warning, which stems from his own bitter experiences.

The students and citizens of Hong Kong are fighting for a concrete purpose: universal suffrage,” he writes. “However, the enthusiasm they aroused, the international attention they received, and, above all, the political engagement of the young generation they produced, are more important for Hong Kong’s future than universal suffrage itself.

Wang Dan praises and admires the students who, he believes, “have already won” by awakening Hong Kong’s spirit and mobilising the people for a righteous common cause. But he also understands the dangers that lie in this unprecedented act of open defiance to the central government in Beijing. His lesson from Tiananmen is: it is better to fight a long battle and achieve gradual improvements step by step, rather than try to obtain everything immediately and in the end gain nothing at all.

As far as your concrete demands are concerned,” he warns, “I have to say that I am not very optimistic. Perhaps, Leung Chun-ying won’t resign, at least for now; perhaps, the Communist Party is determined to reject every proposal for a reform of the electoral system. Neither I nor you know how your movement will end. But, as a person with a certain experience, I would like to tell you one thing: Brace yourself for a defeat and for how you’re going to react to this defeat.” 

This month of protests has been remarkable for Hong Kong. But the big question marks remain. Can the demonstrators achieve their objectives? Will Beijing tolerate open dissent? Is it time for the ‘Occupiers’ to leave the streets and go back to their normal lives? 

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