BEIJING—The ruling Communist Party’s deadly 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests never ended for Fan Baolin, who served 17 years in prison and says he sneaked out of China last year to escape surveillance that included cameras trained on his apartment and pressure on his family to deter him from more activism.
Fan, who took part in the demonstrations and later worked for the party’s vast security apparatus, was arrested in 1999 for giving activists abroad confidential documents about surveillance of Chinese pro-democracy exiles. Released in 2016, he became among those who still are watched by the party a generation later in an effort to erase public memory of the protests in the heart of Beijing.
“Once you are on the Chinese government’s blacklist, you will be tracked for life,” Fan told The Associated Press ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military attack on protesters. He spoke in another Asian country and asked that it not be identified while its government considers his request for asylum.
Party leaders have imprisoned or driven activists into exile and largely succeeded in ensuring young people know little about June 4. Still, after more than three decades and three changes of leadership, they are relentless in trying to prevent any mention of the attack that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of people.
Relatives of those who died are watched and, ahead of the anniversary, some are detained or forced to stay temporarily away from home to prevent them from doing anything that might draw attention. Public memorials on the mainland always have been prohibited. Vigils used to be held openly in Hong Kong and Macao, Chinese territories with fewer political controls, but authorities banned events this year.
“They have only deepened repression,” said Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch in a report this month.
Following his release from prison, Fan lived in his hometown of Xi’an, in China’s west, under surveillance and restrictions. He said police discouraged him from leaving the city, tracked his mobile phone, and listened to his calls.
To protect his family, Fan said he had little contact with them and told them nothing about his activities. He said he worried they might be punished if he were accused of more wrongdoing.
“They looked for my brother and sister,” he said. Authorities wanted “to make my family members persuade me, control me, not to participate any more in this sort of thing, not to know these people any longer.”
As for other relatives, “I take initiative to keep my distance from them,” Fan said.
“As they all know, my phone is monitored, so as soon as I call and as soon as they answer, they are frightened,” he said. “This is the atmosphere of fear created by the Communist Party’s domestic high-pressure policies now.”
Fan said when he traveled to other cities in 2017 to see friends, police called every day to ask what he was doing. He said when he took a package vacation to Yunnan province in the southwest in 2018, police detained him and sent him back to Xi’an.
Fan participated in the 1989 protests, joining thousands of students from across China in Tiananmen Square. But he left Beijing at the end of May, before the military attacked. His eyes fill with tears when he describes the event.
Later, Fan studied law and worked as a legal consultant before joining the police in Shaanxi province in the west. He moved to a state security agency in 1994 and was assigned to watch the public and read their mail, looking for possible foreign ties.
But he held onto hopes for a democratic China.
Fan was convicted of “illegally providing state secrets abroad” for faxing security agency documents to a pro-democracy movement group in Los Angeles and “expressing sympathy and support,” according to a document Fan provided to the AP that he said was his sentencing report. It said he had promised to use his post to pass along intelligence reports about the group.
That report gave no details of the documents Fan was accused of leaking.
“I didn’t do it for money from Taiwan or the U.S. government,” Fan said. “I was on the side of the pro-democracy movement and provided intelligence to friends in the pro-democracy movement.”
Fan’s case was disclosed to human rights groups in 2007 by a former fellow inmate, Zhao Changqing, according to the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, which researches Chinese prisons. After that, Fan was listed as a political prisoner by Duihua and human rights groups.
Fan said after his release, police took him out for meals ahead of politically sensitive dates—part of extensive efforts to keep track of him.
“They would go back, list the details of our meeting and report regularly to higher levels the so-called dynamics of my thoughts in the sensitive period and in what activities we took part,” he said.
Fan, who turns 57 next month, never married or had children. He said his parents died while he was in prison but he didn’t learn that until he was released, more than a decade later.
Fan said video cameras were installed to watch the apartment his parents bought for him before their deaths. He said that made friends skittish about visiting.
Today, Fan lives in a studio apartment with a roll-up bed and a fan for furniture while he waits for word on his asylum application. He has become a Christian and passes time by reading a Bible on his mobile phone.
Fan said for his first two years out of prison, he rarely went outdoors because “the world was very strange.”
Fan said when he visited Beijing on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests in 2019, police called from Xi’an and ordered him to return home.
Fan said he told no one after he decided to leave China. He discarded his mobile phone to prevent authorities from using it to track him. He made his way to the southern border and walked across.
“I will not return to China,” he said. “This is a road of no return.”
By Joe McDonald and Dake Kang