I’ve read Wang Dan’s book Prison Memoir and it is great that Words Without Borders featured part of the book in its current issue. The chapter has triggered some of my past memories. Like Wang Dan, I was also locked up in China’s Qincheng prison.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed. Since Wang Dan has described his life in prison with the readers, I just want to share what I experienced and saw on the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4.
In 1989, I had just turned twenty-eight and taught at the Chinese University of Politics and Law. My specialty was China’s constitutional law and I was very actively involved in pushing for democracy and constitutional reform in China.
On June 2, as the student movement lost momentum in Tiananmen Square, four well-known scholars and musicians joined the students and staged a hunger strike. When I arrived that morning, I was told out of the blue that I had been designated as the spokesperson for the scholar group. Without any hesitation, I accepted the assignment.
A tent had been set up on top of a monument in a corner of Tiananmen Square which could accommodate a dozen people. Doctors and nurses were hovering over the hunger strikers, making sure they were okay. Outside, throngs of people gathered around to offer their support.
The hunger strike generated new interest from the media and the public. The focus had been shifted from students to scholars. The loudspeakers at Tiananmen Square broadcast again and again the hunger strikers’ declaration:
“We are on a hunger strike! We protest! We appeal! We repent! We are not in search of death; we are looking for real life. Under the irrational and militantly violent pressure from the Li Peng government, the Chinese intellectuals must cure their thousands-of-years-old soft-bone disease, of responding with only rhetoric and no action. We must act to guard against martial law, to call for the birth of a new political culture, to make up for our past mistakes of being meek and weak for so long. We all share responsibility for the Chinese nation being left behind by many others.”
People were gravitating toward the tent, which was surrounded on all sides by layers and layers of onlookers. Interview requests poured in from both Chinese and foreign media. On June 3, I coordinated two press conferences, one outside the tent and the other in a separate corner of Tiananmen Square. Most of the attention was focused on Hou Dejian, a Taiwanese poet and singer, who had a huge following in mainland China. When Hou grabbed the microphone, the crowd began to jump with joy. He told students in his hoarse voice that the artistic world in Hong Kong was fully behind the movement. His words met strong applause.
Part of my job was to help keep order and answer questions from the media and the public. At about five o’clock that afternoon, I was exhausted. I realized that I hadn’t touched any food or water for the whole day.
I decided to go home, take a rest and come back. On my way home, I could see tension building up in Beijing. When I arrived home, I heard that soldiers had entered the city and several of my colleagues were looking for more students to gather in Tiananmen Square to rally support.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I went out and stood by Jimen Bridge with hundreds of students, teachers and residents, waiting for news from Tiananmen Square. Soon, I saw a resident passing by. He was riding a flatbed tricycle. He kept screaming uncontrollably: “The troops have started shooting. We need more bottles to throw at the soldiers, as protest.” Another bus drove by. Some people on the bus were yelling: “Students need help in Tiananmen.” News kept trickling in from passersby.
I lingered around the main entrance of the university until early the next morning. Then, I began to hear gunshots in the distance. The air seemed to reek of blood. Then, someone came up to me, saying that he saw four bodies had been carried back from Tiananmen Square. I was gripped with fear, worrying that they might be my students. Later, we confirmed these were not students from my university. In the morning, as the crowd started to disperse, a student came up to me and said: Teacher Chen, you should run. If the university starts to arrest activists, you will be their first target.
When I got home, I saw an old man sitting on the stairs of my neighbor’s house. He was crying. His daughter had gone to Tiananmen Square the night before and he was worried that she might have been killed. Soon, another of my colleagues came back and showed up at my apartment. I could see blood stains on his sneakers. Fortunately, I was told that all the students had returned safe and sound. I let out a sigh of relief.
Following the bloody crackdown, my friends and I met secretly and then decided to escape. With the help of a friend, we bought train tickets and went south. Several days and weeks later, we retuned to Beijing, and were caught and arrested by the Chinese security police.
I ended up in China’s Qincheng prison for eighteen months I was released one year after being convicted of subversion, and was released on medical parole in 1992 before the Spring Festival.
In 1997, I arrived in the United States and became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.