In an exclusive series for Words without Borders, dissident leader Wang Dan speaks out on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In his first post, below, he describes the climate at the time of the demonstrations and compares it with the situation in China today. —Editors
I’m very grateful to Words without Borders for publishing an essay from my book Prison Memoirs. This is the first time my work has appeared in English. I’m pleased that Westerners will be able to read this essay on the anniversary of the Tiananmen student pro-democracy movement.
From when I was arrested in July of 1989 to when, released on medical parole, I arrived in the United States via Northwest Airlines in April 1998, I had spent a total of six years in China’s No. 1 prison and have had ten short-time detentions.
In my solitary incarcerations, I had a lot of time to reflect on the 1989 student democracy movement, and evaluating what had happened, its legacy and consequences.
The events of June 4, 1989 proved to be a turning point for me and for members of what we call “The Tiananmen Generation.” Before 1989, we were encouraged by the government’s unprecedented relaxing of the political environment and held false hopes that change would come from the Communist Party. In fact, it was precisely this fantasy which emboldened us to take to the streets, calling the government to fight against corruption and demanding a free society. We petitioned the senior leadership in hopes of triggering a top-down reform. Gunshots on the streets of Beijing shattered that fantasy.
The military suppression and the spilling of blood shocked many: and raised the question: how could a government which once had exhibited some degree of enlightenment be transformed overnight into such horrific evil? The suppression clearly did not stem from the personal problems of a few Communist leaders. To understand why the government reacted as it did, we must examine the basic element—the system.
During the past twenty years, as I have watched closely political developments in China, I have become more determined in my conviction. Since the Chinese leadership, be it the reformists or the conservatives, strives to preserve the current political system, the problems, such as corruption and lack of government accountability, that we students were concerned about, still plague the country. To the outside world, China has achieved enviable economic growth. However, many people have failed to consider the fact that the economic prosperity is built on the unfair exploitation of ordinary people’s interests. Corruption is rampant. Economic reforms have only benefited a few, providing the opportunity for political powers to turn public assets into private fortunes. The gap between the rich and poor is widening.
Moreover, one would have thought that the stability of the past twenty years would have given enlightened Communist Party officials incentives to initiate meaningful political reforms. So far, political reforms are still a taboo subject in Beijing. Press freedom is still non-existent; political dissent is being crushed.
In the past, the Chinese Communist Party has reversed the official views on several major political events in contemporary Chinese history. However, when it comes to the student democracy movement of 1989, nothing has changed. This is because opening fire on innocent students and residents constitutes nothing more than a criminal act. Many leaders, with blood on their hands, know that they will be put on trial if the current verdict is overturned. The leadership knows that the movement of 1989 will shake the very foundation of the Communist system.
Avoiding the issue of 1989 does not mean it will disappear. On the contrary, the cries for justice will get louder. This year, Chinese around the world have organized all sorts of memorial activities and continue to urge the government to reverse its verdict. Moreover, as the Internet and telecommunication technology have become a part of their everyday lives, more people have begun to break through the government’s control of news and information and to organize themselves to fight for their rights, be it their private property rights or their rights to free speech. This means that the progress of Chinese democracy can now have a stronger, more realistic foundation.