A Cry for Democracy Ends in Bloodshed

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When Hu Yaobang died on April 15, 1989, I thought it was a chance for the younger intellectuals and students to appeal to the government for political reform. I gathered some colleagues and friends who had participated with me in a Peking University democracy salon earlier that year, and on April 18 I led about 1,000 students to Tiananmen Square. We carried six appeals to the government--but the results were very disappointing. The government criticized us in an editorial in the People's Daily on April 26, accusing us of causing turmoil. This angered us, but the situation later became even worse. When the government refused to meet our dialogue delegation, we decided to stage a hunger strike to try to put more pressure on the leaders. Finally, we met with Premier Li Peng on May 19. But the two sides just quarreled with each other, and our negotiations ended in failure. From the expression on Li Peng's face, I knew in my heart that our movement would not be successful. Only one day later, the government declared martial law. In early May there had been feverish excitement in the square, a sense that something great was going to happen. But after the declaration of martial law, the atmosphere became tense. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, and many of the demonstrators felt angry and impatient. Toward the end of May, I wanted to withdraw from the square and take our movement back to the university campuses. I tried my best to convince the other student leaders, but I failed. Still, for the rest of my life I will always feel some responsibility for what happened. When the final crackdown began on the evening of June 3, I was at Peking University. One of my classmates called me from the area around Tiananmen. With a trembling voice, he told me that many students had already been killed. He had just fled from the Square, his hands covered with blood. I knew that the darkest day in the history of the People's Republic had arrived. I immediately fled Beijing. On a ship from Wuhu to Nanjing, I heard a radio announcement in the barber shop where I was having a haircut. The government had published a most-wanted list and my name was at the top. I didn't know what would happen to me. I was totally numb--not angry and not afraid. I decided that I had to maintain control of myself or otherwise jeopardize my safety. But it didn't matter. When I returned to Beijing about a month later, I was arrested. Even though China is such a large country, there was nowhere I could hide. I was imprisoned twice between 1989 and 1998. Altogether I served in three different prisons. Some of the time I was in solitary confinement. Other times I was put in with common criminals. Sometimes I would go on a hunger strike to protest my situation, but this was very difficult because the prison guards treated me like an animal and tried to force-feed me. During these 10 years I rarely had peace. Even when I was out of prison, I was constantly interrogated and followed by the police. The government even deprived me of the right to hold a job. Yet, I continued with my political activities. In 1995, together with other dissidents, I signed an open letter to the government demanding human rights, the release of political prisoners and the abolition of unjust laws. As a result, I was sentenced again, this time for 11 years, for attempting to overthrow the government. I served only about three years of my sentence and then, on April 18, 1998, I was suddenly released on medical parole and exiled immediately to the United States. When I was still a high school student in Beijing 15 years ago, I had participated in the celebrations for the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. As Deng Xiaoping stood in an open car, looking out and waving to the crowds of people gathered in Tiananmen Square, I believed that the Chinese people, together with others all over the world, shared great dreams for the future of China. The hearts of the people were full of hope. On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping ordered military tanks to enter Tiananmen Square. In place of the flowers and cheers of earlier anniversary years, the area around the square was covered with blood. There is no other place in the world that has witnessed such a radical change from hope to sadness within such a short time. After the tragedy at Tiananmen, Chinese people began to worry about the future of their country. Now, on Oct. 1, 1999, the PRC is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Many changes have occurred over these decades. The cold war, which enveloped the entire world for 40 years, has finally ended. China experienced this nightmare in terms of three major disasters: the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, the chaos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Although the number of deaths of those who were peacefully appealing to the government for democracy and freedom was far less than the totals during the other disasters, the wounds left in the hearts of the people are just as severe. Many believe that China is opening up, but its citizens still lack basic political freedoms. The recent arrests of founders of the fledgling China Democracy Party are an example. After a trial of less than three hours, Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years in prison last December for inciting to overthrow state power, and my good friend from Peking University, Wang Youcai, was sentenced to 11 years. If China truly intends to proceed on a path of hope, its political and social system must change. The party that runs the country, its organization of power and the ideology it uses to justify its rule need to be radically transformed. If the country is to become modernized and take its place as an important member of the world community, it needs to adopt new ideas about values and morality--in short, a whole new way of thinking. Such a complicated process will certainly take at least another 50 years. Wang Dan was a leader of the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square. He is now studying for a master's degree in modern Chinese history at Harvard University