With the help of two artist friends, I recently met Wu Wenjian, a worker-turned-painter, at the 798 Arts Factory, a thriving colony of studios and art galleries converted from old factories and warehouses, in Beijing’s Chaoyang District.
It was a sunny day. Wu was dressed in a blazing red shirt and seemed to be in high spirits. After a brief chat, we went to a nearby restaurant that served food from Northeastern China to conduct the interview. I didn’t have to do much to get him started. Amidst the loud cacophony of background noises, he talked nonstop for a good couple of hours, as though well prepared for what he would say.
In the spring of 1989, university students in Beijing took to the street and staged a series of pro-democracy demonstrations that soon spread to the rest of the country. On June 4, government tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and crushed the student protests. Wu, a nineteen-year-old cook and an aspiring painter, was roused into action after witnessing the governmental brutality. Following the crackdown, he was imprisoned for seven years for making a speech on June 5 denouncing the bloodshed. Since he was neither a student leader nor a member of the intellectual elite, he served time with a group of what the government has labeled “June 4 thugs”—ordinary residents who were caught up in the fight against the government troops. “These ‘thugs’ are just like the people from the bottom rung of society that you’ve interviewed in the past,” said Wu with a sigh. “They have no place in history, and no voice in society. For the past twenty years, nobody has come out to defend them. All their suffering has been in vain.”
After dinner, we moved to a quieter location where Wu continued to talk until well past midnight. When we finally parted at a street corner, I had photographs of his oil paintings depicting the bloody Tiananmen Massacre in my backpack. He has been turning out those nightmarish paintings for years and has never shown any of them yet. “They can wait,” he said. “We’ve all been waiting for twenty years.”
Liao Yiwu: Let’s start from the beginning.
Wu Wenjian: You mean starting from June 4, 1989?
Liao: Before that. Tell me about your family and your previous job.
Wu: I was born into a family of industrial workers—the tried and true proletarian pedigree by Communist standards. There are two large state-run enterprises in Beijing: Capital Steel, and Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation located in Fangshan District, which employs several hundred thousand workers. Both of my parents worked for Yanshan. My brother and I went to Yanshan company schools.
Going further back, my paternal grandfather secretly joined the Communist Party while attending a technical school in the 1930s. He later attended a military college set up by the communists during the War of Resistance against the Japanese, and died a hero on the battlefield in 1941. My maternal grandfather also joined the Communist Party in the 1940s. He was once arrested by the Japanese and severely tortured. They even burned a huge mark on his back with a branding iron. He kept his lips tight and never confessed. The Japanese couldn’t obtain any hard evidence against him. His fellow villagers gathered two pigs to bribe his captors and traded him back. According to my mother, the arrest eventually intimidated and scared her father. He decided to abandon the revolution and become a peasant.
In addition, my father and his brother, as well as my mother’s two brothers, they were all Communist Party members. As a child, I was indoctrinated with the traditional revolutionary ideology. I vowed to live a simple life and devote my whole life to the Communist cause and to the liberation of human kind.
Although my family had such a long tradition of supporting the Communist Party, both of my parents earned an honest living as factory workers. I followed in their footsteps. After I graduated from high school, I was assigned to the Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation’s General Services Department to train as a cook. I was young and not at all happy with the assignment, but my father advised me to do whatever the Party asked of me. In 1989, I had turned nineteen and had worked at the cafeteria for two years.
At that time, I started to be obsessed with painting. I took lessons from an art teacher and spent days studying how to paint. I was cooking at the cafeteria, my mind drifting to the works of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. I wasn’t even aware of the student demonstrations that were starting. I wasn’t at all sensitive to the political climate. Several days after former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang died, I took a bus downtown to see an exhibit at the China Art Museum. After I came out of the museum, I wandered around the shopping district. I saw lots of students marching. They carried Hu’s portrait and used his memorial services as a launching pad for their demonstrations against government corruption and demanded political reforms. I stood watching on the sidewalk for a while and even dropped one yuan into a donation bucket.
Liao: You were still a spectator at that time. When did you officially get involved?
Wu: I was nobody, like a piece of sesame in a big pot of soup. It is too presumptuous to say how I was officially involved. At that time, there weren’t so many people in Tiananmen Square. Most of the demonstrations were taking place near the Wangfujing shopping district. As you know, ever since I started dreaming of being a painter, I had developed a dislike for my job and would constantly play hooky. Whenever an opportunity arose, I would hang out downtown. After I saw the student demonstrations that day, I went back to the area more frequently and would perk up my ears to listen. Everything I heard sounded so refreshing.
Ordinary residents like me didn’t join the students until May 20, when the premier declared marital law and troops were prepared to march into the city from several directions. On that day, workers at my factory orchestrated a large-scale demonstration to support the students. We first gathered in front of the Beijing Train Station. The whole of Chang-an Boulevard, which led to Tiananmen Square, was packed with demonstrators. I stayed with my group. We were all caught up in the excitement but didn’t really have any real political motives. Many residents were as simple-minded as I was. We felt that we were being patriotic and supporting the students.
Liao: How many demonstrations did you join?
Wu: About four. When things heated up in Tiananmen Square, I became excited. I would sometimes go there and stay overnight, sleeping on a lawn. Following the May 20 demonstrations, my coworkers and I went there again and tried to figure out ways to help the students. They elected me representative to seek assignment from the Tiananmen Student Command Center. I was kind of stupid and pigheaded. When people goaded me on, I would roll up my sleeves and go. In those days, the students had set up six or seven checkpoints in Tiananmen Square. They were very strict and checked anyone attempting to go in. I had a work ID with me and each time the student guards stopped me, I would go on and on explaining why I was there. It took me quite some effort to finally pass the last checkpoint. I got a glimpse of the command center, which had its tent set up near the bottom of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Several student leaders wrapped themselves up with some grayish shabby coats. They looked unkempt. I stood there and couldn’t figure out who was who. I simply yelled loudly: “We are workers from the Yanshan Petrol Chemical Company. Do you need help? We have a big group there.” I soon found myself surrounded by students. They sized me up and one of them said: “Let us think about it.”
I waited there for several minutes. As I was about to leave, someone passed me a note written on a piece of paper. It said: “Please go to the northeastern corner of Tiananmen Square and help keep order.”
With that note, about one hundred of us from the Yanshan Petrol Chemical Plant occupied the northeast corner and kept order there for a whole night. Tiananmen Square was pretty chaotic. All sorts of rumors were floating about, speculating on the government’s next moves. Many residents, rather than being intimidated, sprang into action instead. Like Chairman Mao used to say: “The great masses have finally been mobilized.”
Liao: How many people were there in Tiananmen Square?
Wu: It was a sea of people. Who could have counted? I was about to collapse from exhaustion, but the nobility of human spirit around me kept me going. Many residents showed up at the square to volunteer. They distributed food and water. An old man in his seventies elbowed his way into the square with the help of his daughter-in-law and handed me two big bags. His daughter-in-law explained: “We didn’t want Dad to come, but he insisted on bringing you food. Nobody could stop him.” I was moved to tears. Sadly, that kind of pure humanity is long gone.
Liao: So, did you stay in Tiananmen Square?
Wu: No, we were able to keep it up for two days and then my coworkers and I went back home. In the following two weeks, I only returned to the square once. I spent most of my time at home, painting. On the night of June 3, I was painting while watching TV. Suddenly, all regular programs stopped. There was an announcement, saying something to the effect that residents were not allowed to go out on the street and that the government was going to take action. I became very concerned and agitated. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. The next morning, I rushed over downtown.
Liao: That was daring of you!
Wu: I was all prepared to die. I had been brainwashed since childhood about how soldiers and civilians were close and interdependent like “fish and water.” I could never have imagined that the soldiers would open fire at residents. I just couldn’t contain myself. I had to go and see what had happened in Tiananmen Square.
The bus stopped at the Tiananmen Bridge. I got off and walked all the way to the square. I saw patches of blood stains on the ground. By the way, one of my paintings depicts the scene that day.
Liao: Were you able to walk through to the square?
Wu: No. The troops and tanks were clearing up the debris. We couldn’t get in. We would watch from a distance. I saw smoke. That was it. People could get through the streets nearby. It was just very chaotic. There was blood here and piles of litter there. Sporadic gun shots could be heard in the distance. As I was approaching Qianmen, I suddenly saw a large contingent of soldiers. They all held wooden sticks which were as tall as themselves. So, I ran over to see what was going on.
Liao: You had a death wish?
Wu: I’m a pacifist. Even though I was only nineteen that year, I detested radical acts such as throwing bricks or smashing bottles. I still clung to the belief that the soldiers wouldn’t lose reason if they weren’t provoked. So, I moved closer to them. Suddenly, some people jumped out from the side streets and threw bricks at the soldiers. I waved my hands and yelled: “Stop, stop. Don’t provoke any unnecessary conflicts.”
Liao: That was stupid.
Wu: I was stupid. The guy who threw the bricks ran away. Since I didn’t throw bricks, I simply stood there, holding my head high. At that moment, a soldier standing opposite me yelled: “He is the one who did it. He is the one who yelled the loudest.” I turned around instinctively. The whole gaggle of uniforms was moving toward me, holding sticks above their heads, ready to hit me. I was startled and ran.
Liao: Those soldiers were well-trained. How could you manage to run away from them?
Wu: Most peasant soldiers have short legs. Hard as they may train, they are no match for my long legs. More importantly, I was running for my life. At one point, my legs started to weaken and the iron tip of a stick came down on me, scraping my back. My adrenalin shot up, I bounded forward eight feet, I went crazy. I am a Beijing native and knew my way around. I turned into a small lane. The soldiers got scared and stopped following me. But I ended up with a big purplish-black bruise on my back, which didn’t go away for over half a month.
Liao: How many people were running after you?
Wu: I have no idea. It scared the daylights out of me. I didn’t have time to count.
Liao: Were they only chasing you?
Wu: No, it was like a flock of ducks fleeing. I could see people on my left, right, front and back, they were all running away from the soldiers. A young fellow, who was several steps behind me, fell after getting hit by a stick. Then, several sticks slammed down on him from all directions.
Liao: If you were running yourself, how were you able to see?
Wu: By then, I had dashed into a small lane near the old Beijing Train Station. When I saw the soldiers give up on me, I hid behind a broken wall to watch. He was about fifty meters away. I could see very clearly. Only after the soldiers left him for dead did I dare come out with several people who were hidden inside the train station to help him. I took his head in my arms.
Liao: Who was that guy? Was he still alive?
Wu: He was still breathing. His head had been smashed into a different shape.
Wu: Nope. There was no blood. But his head didn’t look like a head anymore. On the way to the hospital, I asked him: “Where are you from?” he responded: “The Capital Steel and Iron Plant.” Later on, we intercepted a tricycle and put him on it. Then, we continued to dash over to Tongren Hospital. I could see the corridor packed with wounded residents. We handed the person over to two nurses, with blood stains all over their scrubs. After I left there, I was full of anger. My thoughts were very entangled.
Liao: How many people were lying wounded or dead in that hospital?
Wu: I don’t know. We were not allowed to go in. Two nurses were receiving patients at the entrance of the corridor. When I went back to the street, my tears were just streaming down. It was getting late. June 4, 1989, that date has been forever etched in my memory. Anyway, I simply slept on the street that night. I was preoccupied with questions like: “Where is this country going? What am I going to do?”
Liao: Where did you sleep?
Wu: I found an empty bus parked near the No. 5 Bus terminal. I got on. There were several people inside—students, residents, workers, some from Beijing and a couple from out of town.
I waited until dawn. Then, I caught an early bus and arrived home by noon. But my blood was still boiling. I found a T-shirt and a paint brush. I wrote on the T-shirt: “Give me democracy. Give me freedom.” On the back of the T-shirt, I put down a well-known quotation from Dr. Sun Yat-sen, “The Revolution has not yet succeeded. Comrades, you must carry on!”
Then, I put on the T-shirt and walked around the factory yard in a protest mode. Each time I saw people, I would tell them about what had happened downtown. Soon, a crowd gathered around me at a crossroad inside the company complex. The traffic was blocked. A bus happened to stop there. All the passengers got off. The crowd egged me on to give a speech. Before I even had the chance to accept, they pushed and shoved, and then lifted me on top of the bus. But people didn’t think it was high enough. So, they led me up to a scaffold nearby.
Liao: Did you give a speech?
Wu: There I was, only nineteen years old with no talent for public speaking. I simply shouted a bunch of slogans: “Down with Deng Xiaoping! Down with Premier Li Peng! Workers go on strike! We should protest against the government crackdown!” Then, I whirled around like a grindstone, showing people what I had written on my T-shirt. You know, all this later showed up in my indictment.
Anyhow, the crowd became quite unruly that day—about one thousand of them. After I started shouting slogans, they all followed me. Some even suggested we drive a bus downtown to fight against the soldiers. At that moment, my father rushed over. Folks at the public security bureau had alerted him, telling him that “Your second son is staging a rebellion.” My dad jumped to his feet and came over. He seized me as I was coming down the scaffold and yelled: “You bastard.”
I stopped his hand in midair and yelled back like a hero: “Stop slapping me!”
A bunch of students from the Second Petrol Chemical Institute happened to be among the crowd. They didn’t know he was my dad. When they saw that someone was trying to slap their “hero,” they went over to grab my dad and tried to beat him up. I immediately intervened and said “Don’t do it. He is my dad.”
Liao: What happened later?
Wu: Things just turned around. The passion and excitement pretty much died down by that evening. My dad was really strong. He wouldn’t let go of me. He dragged me all the way home. There was such a gap between us. My belief in the forever glorious, forever correct, and forever great Communist Party, its government and its soldiers, was turned upside down, but my dad wouldn’t agree with me. He was a real macho guy. In my memory, he only showed his weakness and cried once. That was the time when my mother passed away. This time, he turned into a complete softie. When we got in the house, he didn’t try to beat me up. Instead, he said: “You went downtown on June 4 without even telling me. Do you know how chaotic it was there? You didn’t come back at night. I hardly slept a wink. Each time I heard wind blowing outside, I woke up and went to check your room. Your mom passed away very early. If anything happened to you, it would be a huge crime on my part.” He stopped and tears came out.
Seeing my father become emotional, I began to calm down. I said: “I don’t think I can undo anything. I’m sure they will arrest me. Why don’t I find a place to hide for a little while? A significant movement like this won’t be over soon. I suspect that the crackdown could trigger a civil war.” My dad didn’t want to hear my analysis. He said: “Don’t make trouble for me again. Otherwise, I may have to kill myself.”
I couldn’t argue with him. He was my dad. So, I packed up some of my stuff and escaped overnight to his native village in Hebei Province. My grandma was still alive then. I stayed with her.
Liao: When did you get arrested?
Wu: Around June 20, 1989.
Liao: That happened pretty quickly. Did your dad’s tongue slip?
Wu: Can’t call it a slip of the tongue. When police came to our house and asked about my whereabouts, my dad immediately confessed, telling them that I had gone to live in his native village. He even gave them the address in details.
Liao: So, your dad betrayed you.
Wu: He trusted the government and the Party. He had a friend who was the deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau in Yanshan. My dad visited him and asked for help. The friend promised by saying: “If you turn your son over to the police, we’ll offer him lenient treatment.” The deputy chief also contacted the local public security branch near my home, instructing them to take care of me. My dad thought that they would detain me for a few days, teach me some proper lessons and then release me.
Guess what, my dad borrowed a car from his factory and came to fetch me at my grandma’s house. He looked happy. He told me: “Wenjian, let’s go home. The situation in Beijing has been settled. Everything is okay now.” Then, the two of us chatted, laughed and walked toward the car. But when the car approached the village entrance, I saw two other cars blocking the road.
Liao: So, it was a trap.
Wu: Pretty much so. My father had reached a verbal agreement with the public security bureau. Before he left, he even called the deputy chief who told him quite light-heartedly: “He is only a kid. What he has done is quite obvious to us all. As long as he comes back and clarifies something for us, that will be the end of it.”
When I saw the police cars, I knew something had gone awry. I was surrounded by a large stretch of wheat field. It was harvest season. I got out of the car but didn’t run. Then all the policemen got out of their cars. Someone came up to me and asked: “What’s your name?” I told them that my name was Wu Wenjian. Before I even finished, I heard a loud bullhorn: “We are here to arrest you.”
Liao: How many policemen were there to capture you?
Wu: Capturing a “violent criminal” who had escaped from Beijing was a great opportunity to showcase their accomplishment. The county mobilized sixty some policemen. They drove me to the Hengshui County Public Security Department where they tied me to a big tree. Then, I heard them phoning Beijing excitedly: “Wu Wenjian is now in our hands.”
They interrogated me briefly. Before long, police from Beijing arrived. A police director from Hengshui led a group of his men to meet up with his counterparts in Beijng. He even brought a cameraman to record the moment. That director behaved like an actor. He stood at attention, saluted and then raised his voice with a solemn tone: “I want to congratulate our government on the successful crackdown on these counterrevolutionary riots.”
Despite the fact that I was tied to a tree, I laughed so hard that I almost passed out. That director was apparently living in the past era of the Cultural Revolution. He didn’t appreciate my laughing. He came over, pointed his thick fingers at my head and mumbled through his teeth: “How could you be so arrogant?” He spewed out his words with venom. It was as if I had raped his daughter. Before our departure, the chairman of the Hengshui County Public Security Department was unusually polite. He chatted me up. I said: “I hope to see you in five years, I mean five years. The verdict against Tiananmen will surely be overturned.”
I was handcuffed and taken away. They put me in a detention center for two months. Then, the municipal public security department officially arrested me, charging me with the counterrevolutionary activities of propaganda and instigation. On September 7, 1989, I was transferred, with a group of people facing similar charges, to the Beijing Municipal Detention Center. I was locked up there for more than six months.
Liao: How many people were detained in one cell?
Wu: Let me think. We called our cell a “Tongzi” or a tube. A big tube could accommodate a dozen people and smaller ones seven or eight. The detention center was actually an old prison built by the Soviets in the 1950s. It looked very formidable. Once you walked into a tube, bunker beds lined up both sides of the wall. At my detention center, I saw Ye Wenfu, the well-known poet who wrote the famous poem, “General, you can’t do this.” During the student movement, Ye openly withdrew his membership from the Communist Party. I sometimes heard him yell at guards downstairs: “Fuck you.” The guards didn’t know what to do about him. They used to complain: “He is a poet yet has such a potty mouth.”
The three people who had thrown eggs and defaced Chaiman Mao’s portrait that hangs over Tiananmen Square were also imprisoned there. One of the guys, Yu Zhijian, used to share a tube with me. I read a poem that he had written on a tube wall: “I’m going to smash, the unbreakable vat/I’m going to climb, the insurmountable mountain peak…”
Liao: Those three got a rough deal. I heard that two of them lost their sanity in jail. The third one, Lu Decheng, escaped to Thailand upon his release from jail. He applied for political asylum, but was rejected. Before the Thai police got to repatriate him back to China, the Canadian government accepted him.
Wu: Lu would have been doomed if he had been repatriated. Anyway, Yu received life-long imprisonment and Lu got fifteen years.
During the first wave of crackdown, nine “violent criminals” at Tiananmen were taken out from the detention center and executed. There was one legendary case. A guy called Zhu Zhongsheng had jumped onto a tank when the government troops first entered Tiananmen Square. He had attempted to prop open the lid but couldn’t. So, he jumped off. Later on, he was caught on camera. During both his first and second trials, he was sentenced to death. His hands and feet were shackled with heavy metal chains. They locked him up with other death row inmates. He was waiting for a final review and then he would be on his way to the execution ground. Somehow, the final review never came. So, he ended up in that death tube for two years. He was so traumatized that his body deteriorated into a skeleton. The court eventually commuted his death penalty. As you probably know, living inside that death row tube was fairly scary. Every couple of weeks, there would be people being dragged out to be executed. Each time the door opened, Zhu would go through the same fear and anxiety. He lived in constant fear for two years. Later on, while doing hard labor in prison, Zhu slept on a bunker bed above mine. We chatted quite frequently.
Liao: I used to be locked up with twenty some death row inmates. Getting your death penalty commuted was almost unheard of. He really lucked out. In comparison, didn’t you feel pretty fortunate?
Wu: I was nineteen years old and got seven years. I was lucky. On the day of my trial, they put me on a prison bus and drove me to the Beijing Municipal Intermediate Court. I was led down to the court basement where our trials were supposed to take place. A policeman shoved me into an iron cage. The whole trial process was kind of embarrassing. Since all the rooms on both sides of the basement were fully occupied, the judge simply started the trial in the corridor. He looked like he needed to take a piss or something. He ran the procedures very fast. I had a court-designated defense lawyer. He defended me by saying something like: “Wu Wenjian was young and ignorant. I asked the court to consider lighter punishment, etc.”
Liao: How long did the trial last?
Wu: About one hour or so. After brief deliberation, the judge announced that my sentencing would be delayed. A month later, they delivered my official indictment paper. I was shocked to learn that I had gotten seven years. On a second thought, it wasn’t that bad since I was only nineteen and by the time I got out, I would be twenty-six. So, gradually, I got used to it.
After I received my indictment papers, I filed an appeal anyway. The intention was to buy some time and avoid being sent to do hard labor right away. The second trial was quite formal. It took place inside a courtroom. I didn’t ask for a lawyer. I defended myself: “I simply listened to Zhao Ziyang, who was then the Communist Party Secretary. If I didn’t listen to our party secretary, who would I follow? You charged me with the crimes of overthrowing the government. I was barely nineteen. Was I capable of doing that?”
Liao: The whole indictment thing was ludicrous.
Wu: It was. You know, there was no point in defending myself. The decision had already been made. Comparatively speaking, mine wasn’t too bad. Many people had suffered more injustices. Have you heard about Zhang Baosheng? He was the youngest June 4 “thug” in prison. As an orphan, he supported himself by picking up street manure. He was only fifteen years old when he was charged with the crime of beating up soldiers. He got fifteen years in jail. Wang Weiling, the youngster who tried to stop a tank. I heard he was in prison too. Nobody knew if he was still alive or not. So, my case was not that significant.
On March 9, 1990, I was transferred from the detention center to the Beijing No. 1 prison. When I first arrived, I constantly got beaten up by guards. That seemed to be the rule. Every new arrival would get beaten up as an initiation ritual. Then, we were forced to study the Party newspapers. The government seemed to pay lots of attention to us. Different high-level officials showed up for inspection.
Liao: Were most of the June 4 “thugs” locked up there?
Wu: Those who had been sentenced to over ten years were mostly there. Those under ten years were incarcerated in Chadian near the city of Tianjin. I was sent to No. 1 prison because my charges were related to instigating counterrevolutionary riots. There were about one hundred prisoners at No. 1. Most of the elite or convicted senior Communist officials were locked up at Qin Cheng prison.
Liao: I heard that Chen Ziming, a well-known scholar who was branded a “black hand” for his leadership role in the student movement was also at No. 1.
Wu: He was at No. 2. The No. 1 prison used to be located inside Beijing. When the city decided to apply for the Olympic Games, the prison was closed. All the inmates were moved to No. 2. I saw Chen Ziming frequently. He would walk about in an area downstairs. He refused to wear the prison uniform. In the wintertime, he would wear a blue down jacket and a set of track jackets and pants in the summer. He had shaved his head. I heard people say that a prison official wanted to chat with him one time. He turned him down by saying: “You are not qualified to chat with me. If you want to talk with me, get the minister of Justice here.”
Liao: He did have an attitude.
Wu: He was sentenced to fourteen years. He was the only one at No 2 who refused to wear the prison uniform because he said he was innocent. He suffered from cancer later on and was released on medical parole. When opportunities arose for him to get treatment abroad, he refused to go. Among the Tiananmen elite, he was quite a hero.
Liao: What was it like for the “thugs” to receive reeducation through hard labor?
Wu: Pretty brutal. We just worked and worked. Upon arrival at the prison, we undertook some brief training and then we began to work on export-related jobs, sewing coat linings and buttons for over ten hours a day. After the crackdown, the Chinese government’s propaganda machine claimed that most of the “thugs” were ex-convicts. The government media report incensed Wei Xiaoru, the then director of China’s Reform and Reeducation Bureau. Since he was approaching retirement, he was bold enough to come out and dispute the media claims. Using charts and statistics, he showed that most of the “thugs” didn’t have any past criminal history. Among those who were arrested during the Tiananmen movement, ex-convicts only took up a tiny percentage. His remarks created quite a stir.
I personally believe that that Communist director from the Reform and Reeducation Bureau was more admirable than many former student leaders on exile overseas. At least, he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, no matter what his motives were. For the past twenty years, are you aware of anyone who has stepped up to defend the so-called “thugs” of Tiananmen? There’s been none. The “thugs” are mostly ordinary residents who had taken action out of anger with the government: They had thrown bricks or tossed bottles or baskets at the troops. Some had gone to halt the military trucks or stood up to deliver an anti-government speech. Another had jumped on a tank. They all had one common goal—to stop the troops from entering the city and slaughtering students. Later on, after students had retreated from Tiananmen Square, those guys became the core targets for persecution. But, in a world where history was mostly created by the elite, people like us had no place in this historical event.
Let me give you some more examples: I met a disabled person who got ten years in jail. I found it strange when he told me about it. So, I grabbed the indictment papers from him. He was charged with “slamming his crutches on a tank many times repeatedly before staggering away elated.” Another person, whose last name was “Zhu,” found an abandoned military supply truck. He and his friends emptied the vehicle and tossed the food to residents and students. He gave all the food away altruistically. When the truck was emptied, he realized that there wasn’t anything left for him. So he searched around and dug out a package of roasted chicken in the corner of the truck. When he was caught, that piece of chicken became part of evidence against him. He got thirteen years. When he told me about this story, he sighed: “That was an expensive chicken.”
Liao: You seemed to get along with the “thugs” very well.
Wu: We shared a similar fate and worked together all the time.
Liao: In addition to sewing, what other kind of jobs did you do?
Wu: All sorts of work. We conducted inspections on rubber gloves used by sanitation workers or by medical professionals. We would put each glove closer to our mouths and blow air into the gloves to check for leaks. It was very tiring.
One time, a big overweight guy had a terrible time sewing suit linings. His fingers were too thick and couldn’t do the sewing properly. He began to stab himself with the needle. He didn’t intend to commit suicide because that would be construed as “anti-reeducation,” a more serious offense. He was merely trying to maim himself.
During that time, I also shared a tube with Wu Xuecan, former editor at the People’s Daily newspaper. We worked in pairs. I would sew and his job was to remove the extra threads with scissors. After a year, I was so skillful that I could sew buttons with my hands behind my back.
Liao: Which factory did you work for?
Wu: The Beijing Friendship Clothing Factory. We sewed summer clothing in the winter and winter clothing in the summer. Lint floated all over the rooms. Sometimes, we sweated so much that my underwear got all wet. It was so hard that I wished that I could smash and topple the whole workshop. One time, I couldn’t take it anymore and went on a hunger strike for four days. One inmate advised me: “Are you for real? Just pretend you are staging a hunger strike. If it affects your health, nobody cares.” He then threw down a piece of stolen sausage on my bed.
I was released in 1995. They had reduced my sentencing by several months. I had not expected that the reunion with my father would take that long. But his trust in the Communist Party remained unchanged. He didn’t want to say a single bad word about the government. He still threatened me with the same thing: “If you continue to make trouble, I’m going to kill myself.” What can you do? No matter how hopeless his situation is, he is still my dad.
One by one, most of the Tiananmen “thugs” have served out their sentencing. Like the saying goes—silent and odorless farts don’t get people’s attention. Nobody cared about us. As time goes by, the aspiration and passion we held dear dissipated like passing clouds. We have been thrown into a merciless world. Most of my former inmates have developed a strong distaste for politics.
To make a living, I first tried my hands at selling clothes at a local market. Since I was a painter, I began to design advertising graphics. These are simple and technical jobs. My mind still lingers over that period. When I was first released, a constant motif in my painting was about tanks crushing innocent residents, blood flooding Tiananmen Square, the statue of liberty…Every stroke in those paintings seemed to scream with pain. This will be an eternal motif. My paintings might not be good enough yet. I probably need to reexamine myself before I start to paint the subject again. But, I can’t control my dreams and my hands. I will never sell these paintings. I won’t sell them even if the verdict on June 4 is overturned. Hopefully by that time, there will be a museum to showcase our national disgrace in that period. I will donate the paintings to the museum.
Forgive my digression. As far as jobs are concerned, many of my former prison buddies have not been as fortunate. Most of them were ordinary workers. Times have changed and they now have problems finding jobs and making a living. One buddy of mine ran a restaurant before 1989. He was quite rich. When the democracy movement started, he gave away food and drinks to students. He ended up in jail for more than ten years. After his release, he opened a night club and helped many of our former inmates. He acted like the welfare agency. But when you mention the democracy movement to him, he doesn’t even care to talk about his past involvement.
Not long ago, I had a phone conversation with a former inmate. He is a Chinese seal carving artist. We really clicked. I told him that I had done a series of paintings depicting the June 4 massacre. He interrupted me by saying: “Why are you still messing around with June 4? Didn’t you have enough in jail?” I answered: “We still haven’t avenged our sufferings yet.” He said: “The passion in me has long gone. Don’t touch politics again. It’s too brutal and dirty.”
He might be right. In the past two decades, the so-called Tiananmen elite both inside and outside China has written hundreds of articles about the movement. I would read some every year. Not a single piece has been written about us “thugs.” It is as if we had never existed. The whole world seems to know only about the confrontations in Tiananmen Square between soldiers and students. Anything that happened elsewhere in the city has long been forgotten.
How do we define our group? The Chinese government calls us “thugs.” And people like you—historians, literary writers, journalists and sociologists, or the elite, who have the opportunity to air your views—what will you say about those “thugs” who formed the core of the Tiananmen movement? The students and scholars delivered some stirring speeches in Tiananmen Square. They talked about fighting for democracy and freedom for the country and for the people. They sounded so altruistic as if they had been determined to risk everything. They were so passionate that the residents of Beijing were touched and aroused by their passion. People like us went to block military trucks so bullets wouldn’t hit the elite. Little did we know that the student elite ran faster than rabbits. … Chai Ling stood like an innocent angel near the Monument to the People’s Heroes. She instigated and urged us into action. Then, she ran away to the West and has completely dropped out of the democracy movement. She made a name for herself in Tiananmen. Once she took full advantage of it, she quit. Of course, it’s her freedom to quit. But don’t forget about the fact that residents joined the student movement because they were inspired by people like her, like Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, Li Lu, and Feng Congde.
In my case, on June 4, I heard rumors saying that student leaders like Chai Ling and Wuer Kaixi had been killed. I was full of grief and anger. That was what inspired me to go up on that scaffold. Too many people have paid too big a price. However, in one memoir after another, the writers only focus on what the students did. Right now, most of the former students involved are doing fairly well. They are smart and figured it out faster than we do.
I want to mention another person—professor Fang Lizhi. When we needed him to step out and defend us, he ran and hid inside the American Embassy in Beijing. Then, the Americans shipped him away. Professor Fang used to be one of my most respected scholars. In one of his speeches at the Chinese Science University, he preached: “Democracy cannot be given to us as a charity. We must fight for it for ourselves.” If we need to fight for it, why didn’t he come out of the embassy and join the thousands of Beijing residents on the street? Why did these intellectual elites drop their weapons at critical times?
Liao: You probably expected too much of the intellectuals. To tell you the truth, Hu Yaobang’s death in the spring of 1989 heralded a time for change. Many intellectuals joined the movement out of different motives. Some thought that it would be a change of dynasty and they didn’t want to be left out. They realized that if they didn’t seize that historical moment, they would be deprived of the right to speak in the future.
Wu: Those who don’t have the right to speak won’t have a place in history.
Liao: Historically, that’s the rule. The only thing that we can do is to dig out the truth and change the history written by the elite.
Wu: I’m not a writer. Many people probably won’t even bother to read or listen to what I have to say. Families who had lost their children in 1989 are fortunate to have professor Ding Zilin as their spokesperson. Who can speak for the “thugs” of June 4?
I read Wang Dan’s memoir several years ago. He forgot to mention one incident that happened to him at the No. 1 prison. One day, he crossed paths with those “thugs” inside the jail. They were about several meters apart. Wang howled at them: “How did you guys end up here?” Some “thugs” answered: “We were here because of June 4.” Wang became excited and said: “I’m Wang Dan. We are in the same boat—we are in jail for democracy. Hang in there.” One “thug” responded: “You’ve only gotten four years. I have fifteen years to go. Buddy, how do you expect me to hang in here?”
His words brought total silence. Elite and ordinary citizens pass by each other. The wall between them is insurmountable.