BEIJING – Some went missing. Some lost their freedom. Some can’t escape the images inside their head, or the guilt they feel for surviving.
The June 4, 1989, military crackdown to end weeks-long student protests is a key moment in the history of Communist-ruled China for the outside world. Within China, it is all but erased. Even personal acts of memory are considered subversive.
While China’s economy, society and cities have transformed in the past 25 years, the demonstrators and their supporters are keen to remind the world that other things haven’t changed – that China’s political masters are still suppressing dissent and freedom of expression.
They call for the Communist Party to stop hiding what happened on that bloody night in which an untold number of people were killed. Some cling to their democratic fight.
“I am the captain of a sunk ship,” Wu’er Kaixi, who was a 21-year-old protest leader, said in an interview conducted in English. “I will always question of myself, ‘Why didn’t I die?’ I believe, for the rest of my life. ... I will try my best to remember the guilt and try to realize the dreams of those who died that night.”
In 1989, as a hunger striker, Wu’er rose to prominence when in hospital clothing he harangued then-Premier Li Peng during a televised meeting with protesters. Just more than two weeks later he witnessed “the atrocity, the killing” that he still finds difficult to talk about today.
After the crackdown, he escaped. His last glimpse of China was a fading shore from a boat that smuggled him out of the country on a cloudy summer’s night.
Now 46, Wu’er has spent longer in exile in the United States and on the self-governing island of Taiwan than in his homeland China. He is an investment banker in Taipei, husband to a Taiwanese and father of two sons, aged 19 and 16.
“I still consider myself as a democracy activist, an active dissident. It just unfortunately doesn’t pay, so I have to find another way to support the family,” said Wu’er, one of the most-wanted student protest leaders, by Internet video phone from his Taipei home.
He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “Free LXB” – a reference to Liu Xiaobo, the activist and Nobel Peace laureate who is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges.
Wu’er’s most despairing time in the years after 1989 came on the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown. China had won admiration for the Beijing Olympics the previous year. It was gearing up for its first global fair – the Shanghai Expo – and many were touting it as the economic engine to help pull the world out of the global financial crisis.
“I felt like the world was betraying the idea of democracy ... giving in to China,” he said. “But we the Chinese democracy activists want to carry on our own mission, to finish the unfinished business.”
In the past five years, he has tried four times to go home to see his ailing parents, kneel before them and beg for their forgiveness for their suffering - even if he must do it within the walls of a prison. But like many other dissidents, he is not only wanted for arrest, but prevented from returning. His parents have been denied permission to visit him.
“Not being able to see the parents, being able to step back on the country that you care so much about, that is painful and that is harsh and unjust,” he said. “But my parents that I haven’t seen so much have also brought me up to be a person who does the right thing. And I know what I have done in 1989 was the right thing, the right thing to do.”
While some have spent the past quarter-century in exile, others have been consigned to a life under surveillance. The reform-minded Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who expressed sympathy for some student demands during the protests, was accused of splitting the party and spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest.
His aide, Bao Tong, was imprisoned for seven years. Since his release in 1996, he has lived under house arrest, his moves observed, his visitors screened by security services who sit at a desk in the lobby of his high-rise apartment building. A reporter from The Associated Press was followed into an elevator and stopped from going up to Bao’s floor, but another managed to go up in a second elevator in the meantime.
In his apartment in western Beijing, with photos of Zhao on the shelves and walls, Bao spoke of his disappointment as how, despite the passing of 25 years, “It is as if time has stopped for China.”
“Back then, they feared the students, and deployed tanks and guns against these students,” he said. “Today, they don’t dare to tell this to the public. They don’t dare to tell the truth to the Chinese people, tell the whole world what really happened.”
Bao says at least 99 percent of the responsibility for deploying the army in 1989 lies with China’s then-leader Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997.
“I think Deng took this decision because he wanted to safeguard one-party rule, and its governing of China,” said Bao. “He feared the people would become the masters of this country, and would leave the party out, and then the party would not be able to continue being the master of China.
“He has already passed away, and his successors, his heirs in the party still do not dare to point out and say: ‘Deng Xiaoping made a mistake,’” he said.
Wang Nan, 19, was about to finish high school. Out of curiosity, he took his camera and joined groups of people who had occupied the square in the heart of Beijing.
His mother, Zhang Xianling, spent days looking for him, only to be told through unofficial channels that Wang had been shot in the forehead by troops enforcing martial law. Medical students had tried to help him but couldn’t get him to a hospital because the area was sealed off. Zhang was told her son died at 3:30 a.m. on June 4 near the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s ceremonial legislature.
She keeps his letters, photos, student card and library card in a box in her living room, along with his death certificate and a photo, taken by one of the medical students, of his half-buried, plastic-wrapped body. She has never looked at the photo.
Now she is a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that campaigns for the truth about the event to be revealed and for criminal and historical accountability, and acts as a support network when a member falls ill.
Every year, Zhang’s freedom is restricted from the first weekend in April to the end of the June 4 anniversary to stop her from speaking out about the event. Sometimes, police drive her to the cemetery to visit her son’s grave to make sure no journalists or sympathizers accompany her.
“The scars will be in my heart forever,” said Zhang at her Beijing home.
“Perhaps the way we commemorate this tragedy has changed. Before, I used to cry and cry. Now I have no more tears. I have become stronger, but my determination has not faded, and I will continue with my peaceful and rational quest to condemn the brutality of using violence to suppress the people. We Chinese people have suffered too much already.”
A teenage soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, Chen Guang was assigned to clean up the protest site the morning after. He later left the army to become an artist, but his memories of ashes, hair and burning have influenced his oil paintings, some of which are as realistic as photographs.
He depicts items that he saw there — bikes, books, an athletic shoe — or recreates scenes from photographs contained within two rolls of film that he took and kept, including one of soldiers from his unit posing in front of Tiananmen Square. He collects hair and ashes, and uses cut locks to create paintings, such as one of a shaven-headed man with his bare back draped with pieces of hair.
Chen has urged unfettered discussion of the crackdown, and was detained in early May ahead of the anniversary. Witnesses saw police carry away some of his paintings. A few days earlier, he had commemorated the 25th anniversary with an art performance in a borrowed studio with a dozen friends.
In the dark, they watched as a girl walked slowly around the studio, shining a torch on the walls and the painted numerals of years from 1989 onwards. The light was suddenly switched on and Chen started slapping white paint over them, including a prominent “1989.”
“The history is like a blank,” he says. “It has been wiped out.”