BEIJING—Wu’er Kaixi was among the most outspoken of the student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, famously reproaching then-Premier Li Peng at a meeting broadcast on national television.
Three decades on, he’s more circumspect but remains just as harsh a critic of the Communist regime and just as committed to bringing democracy to China.
While many former leaders and participants in the protests have moved on, embracing lives and careers that have little direct relation to the movement, others remain wedded to the cause, either by vocation, through survivors’ guilt or because their actions permanently put them on the wrong side of the authorities. They remain determined to keep the memories alive even as China’s rulers seek to sandblast the protests and the military’s bloody crackdown from history.
“Sometimes remembrance is one of the most humble forms of resistance,” Wu’er Kaixi said in an interview in Taiwan, where he now lives with his wife and children.
While Wu’er Kaixi, 51, escaped abroad after the June 4 crackdown after finding himself at No. 2 on the government’s most-wanted list, then-graduate student Pu Zhiqiang remained in China despite his role in the protests as a high-profile advocate of speech and press freedoms. Looking at old photos of his younger self, Pu reflects on the motivations of the protesters that were mostly pure, if somewhat naive.
Thirty years ago, Dong Shengkun was a 28-year-old worker at a printing factory who listened to students' speeches at the Tiananmen Square and joined the protests out of a desire for change.
“We hoped that China could change for the better,” said Pu, 54. “As a 24-year-old, presented with this chance to serve society, had I not played a role at all, not made my voice heard, I would not have been able to forgive myself.”
The military crackdown, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died, put an end to more than seven weeks of student-led protests in 1989 calling for an end to corruption and for a more open and fair society.
While many who took part wonder what could have been done differently to avoid the bloodshed, Feng Congde, a graduate student that year at elite Peking University, is convinced the students didn’t push hard enough.
The experience of 1989 was “both positive and negative,” Feng said. “But we have to learn the lesson, that even though we had these large numbers of people on the street, we didn’t know what we should do. We should have asked the military to overthrow the regime.”
Feng maintains that now, as back then, the regime remains resistant to reforming itself in the way that Taiwan’s Nationalists evolved from an authoritarian police state into a multiparty democracy, eventually handing over power to the opposition through elections. Like many in the democratic movement, Feng idolizes Chiang Ching-kuo, the son and successor of Chiang Kai-shek, who began the process of Taiwan’s democratization during the 1980s.
While few echo Feng’s ruing of the lost chance of a military coup, hostility toward the regime and frustration with perceived foreign gullibility are near constants among members of the movement who remain active, especially those based abroad. Their impressions appear permanently colored by the shock, horror and disbelief they felt when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened fire on the people they’d been charged with protecting and who’d grown to trust and revere them.
Wang Dan, 50, who was imprisoned after being named No. 1 on the most-wanted list, is among those who doesn’t mince words.
“It is time for us now, for the whole democratic countries now, to re-recognize the true face of the (Communist Party) and try to learn some lessons from the Tiananmen massacre,” Wang said, using another term for the crackdown of June 3-4. “This is a very important challenge for the whole world, because now China is a rising power, and seems like a threat for the democracy and freedom of the whole world.”
Wu’er Kaixi is similarly scathing, deriding the regime’s claims to patriotic zeal as a cover for their desire to maintain their wealth and privileges at any cost.
“Let’s look at what the Chinese regime is clearly. It’s a group of people who stole the position of ruling China, one of the largest countries in the world and they’re taking advantage of that position to do one thing: Loot,” he said.
Pu, a lawyer who was disbarred for his political activism, bemoans 1989 and the years since as a lost opportunity to develop a new, possibly alternative, political class.
Tiananmen “was an excellent training opportunity for taking part in society, taking part in politics for young people of my generation,” Pu said. “But the distinctive characteristic of Chinese politics—this long-term totalitarianism—is that it cannot permit a political force or political party to take organized action.”
Things have grown only more difficult amid tightening social controls, making it much harder to rally forces in society to do things “either good or bad,” Pu said.
Yet Wu’er Kaixi, now the honorary chairman of Reporters Without Borders at its East Asia office in Taipei, says those actions—the increasing repression borne out in policies such as the internment of 1 million or more Chinese Muslims in re-education camps—provide a constant reminder of the unchanged nature of the regime.
“The reason people still remember (1989), other than the mere importance of it, is also because the Communist Party is still conducting all of these brutal acts and atrocities within China against Uyghur people, against Tibetans, Hong Kong, Macau, and even conducting threats against neighboring countries like Taiwan,” he said.
“That will remind people that this regime, today’s acts of this regime, is the same regime that massacred peaceful demonstrators 30 years ago,” he said.
Feng, who is studying acupuncture and administers pro-democracy websites, and Wu’er Kaixi say their continued zeal for the cause is bolstered by a sense of obligation to those who fell in 1989, to see their names rehabilitated and their goal of a democratic China achieve fruition.
“So I have to live with this survivor’s guilt ... but I will try to make the dream of those who fell 30 years ago come true sooner,” Wu’er Kaixi said.
Pu, who continues to work as a legal adviser, said he sees his generation as a link to the past. Veterans, those around 50, are now the “backbone of society” who are obligated to pass on their experiences and ideals to a younger generation.
Apart from the leaders, who to varying degrees have had some say in how they have lived their lives since, Tiananmen left many scarred for life or saddled with criminal records that have severely restricted their choices.
Since serving a 17-year sentence for allegedly attacking martial law troops—a charge he denies—Dong Shengkun has been unable to find a steady job and is forced to live with his elderly mother while receiving the government’s minimum living allowance of 1,000 yuan ($145) per month. Though he wishes to marry his girlfriend, the government would take away even that meager stipend were he to do so due to her somewhat better financial circumstances.
Still, Dong, who picks up odd jobs for extra income, has no regrets for having joined in the protests out of a sense of outrage and desire for change.
The 1989 movement “was about justice,” Dong said.