GAO HONGMINGI first became aware of the democracy movement on April 27, 1989, as I walked home from a bus stop near Tiananmen. There was a big traffic jam, caused by a street demonstration. Students talked of holding another on May 4, so I went that day to Jianguomen bridge to witness it. I was quite moved and felt the sacredness of freedom. Tens of thousands of students lined up in neat rows, carrying banners with slogans like down with corruption. For the next several weeks, I stopped by Tiananmen Square every day after work. I was mainly a spectator. I spoke with the students and watched them start their hunger strike.
The demonstrations moved me to write letters to China's leaders, a practice that I continue to this day. On April 29, I wrote to both Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang, stating my opinions on the movement and proposing that they hold a dialogue with the students. I also suggested to Deng that he retire, to keep his historical legacy intact.
On June 3 I spent virtually the whole day on Tiananmen. I was there when Mao's portrait was defaced. That night, I joined other residents near the Xidan district in trying to talk approaching soldiers into turning back. Exhausted, I went home to sleep at 11 p.m. The following morning, I heard neighbors talk about the killings. I was incredulous. I biked around the area and saw how badly things had turned out. I went to hospitals and saw the dead.
In the ensuing years, I wrote repeatedly to President Jiang Zemin, calling for restitution for the victims. In the spring of 1994, frustrated that no one was responding to my pleas or speaking up for the victims, I drafted a one-page manifesto, made 300 photocopies and biked toward Tiananmen to distribute them. I was intercepted by police and taken to a detention center in Beijing, where I languished for a year. Then I was moved to a labor camp in Heilongjiang where I met other detained activists. I was released in May 1996; later, my friends, themselves freed from prison, introduced me to other dissidents, including Xu Wenli. Xu asked me to serve as his assistant, and in October 1998 we set up the China Democracy Party.
Tiananmen, to me, was a turning point. Before the tragedy of June 4, I viewed politics only through the prism of the Communist Party. Now, I look through the eyes of the people. It was a necessary sacrifice that educated our government and our people; a cleansing process that will advance us toward democracy.
In 1989 Gao Hongming managed a state-run guest house. Today, at 49, he is a vice chairman of the China Democracy Party, the country's first opposition political party