Twenty years ago this week, Chinese students began their occupation of Tiananmen Square, a protest that ended in a massacre. In an exclusive extract from the next issue of Index on Censorship, Wang Dan, a leading figure in the 1989 movement, talks to writer Xinran about the fallout and the legacy
Xinran: Let’s talk about where it started, Peking University. You graduated from Beijing 41st Middle School in 1987, and enrolled in the International Politics Department of Peking University. But in 1988 you transferred to the history department. Why the change?
Wang Dan: There was a very simple reason — for politics I had to study advanced mathematics, and I was no good at it, I hate maths. That was only one of the reasons. Another is that history is in the family. My grandfather — my mother’s father — was one of the first students to graduate in history from Sichuan University, and he taught the subject all his life. My mother graduated in history from Peking University. And I was interested in history, and I wanted to avoid maths. You might think politics is a sensitive subject, but even after a year at Peking University I wasn’t learning the things I wanted — the theory of western democracy, human rights, etc. They couldn’t teach that, even at Peking University, so it wasn’t very interesting.
Xinran: In that year, from 1988 to 1989 when the democracy movement started, was the history department a significant influence on you?
Wang Dan: I don’t think it mattered much which department I was in. But the university itself was a huge influence. Peking University has a liberal tradition across all faculties. There was a lot of debate during the 1980s, and Peking University was at the forefront of that.
Xinran: You were one of the leaders of the Beijing Autonomous Students Federation?
Wang Dan: That’s right.
Xinran: When was that founded?
Wang Dan: It would have been in April 1989, after [leading politician and reformer] Hu Yaobang passed away. All the universities had their own autonomous groups.
Xinran: How did it all come together? What was it that had the students, the professors, even reporters and the public, getting to their feet?
Wang Dan: There was a tradition of student activism right through the 1980s, and even more so at Peking University. So the death of Hu Yaobang naturally raised political concerns among the students. Hu was a representative of the more liberal factions in the Party, and his fall from power was linked to student demonstrations. So there was a lot of sadness over his death. And every year students would take any opportunity to call for political reform — 1989 was no exception.
All of society had been wanting democratic reforms. Right through the 1980s, that had been fermenting, accumulating. There had been plenty of setbacks — the anti-bourgeois liberalisation campaign, the campaign against spiritual pollution — and by 1989 it was ready to explode. Hu’s death provided an outlet. Another cause was that by 1989 people were becoming more and more aware of issues with economic reform, and corruption was a major cause of concern. Back then, perhaps, people were a bit naïve. Nobody is surprised about corruption now, but in the 1980s it made people angry. That, combined with the desire for political reform, meant widespread support for the movement in 1989. Everyone agreed on the need for more democracy and less corruption.
Xinran: Where were you when the shooting started in Tiananmen Square? How did it happen?
Wang Dan: I wasn’t actually in Tiananmen Square on the night of 3 June — I didn’t actually see anything. But that evening I got a call from a friend telling me he’d felt brains, seen people die by his side. A classmate of mine died, also the son of a teacher. But on the night of the massacre I was at Peking University, not at Tiananmen.
Xinran: Did you consider if there had been tactical errors, or immaturity, or a misunderstanding or underestimation of the government?
Wang Dan: I thought about that in the following decade, but in that month there just wasn’t time. And I was only 20 — I didn’t have the maturity of thought to really sum it all up.
Xinran: After Tiananmen, you didn’t go into exile like a lot of students, you stayed in China.
Wang Dan: Yes.
Xinran: And you were imprisoned in 1991.
Wang Dan: I was imprisoned in 1989, 2 July, when I was arrested. The actual formal sentencing wasn’t until 1991, but I was detained after my arrest.
Xinran: How did you feel when you were arrested? Did you see that as a part of your pursuit of national ideals?
Wang Dan: There was nothing grand about it, it was just a relief. I’d been on the run from when the shooting started on 3 June up to 2 July, and I was exhausted. I’d been all around the south of China, but I’d had enough. I decided I’d rather be arrested than on the run like that, so I came back to Beijing — that was where I was most likely to be picked up.
Xinran: You were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Where did you spend those years?
Wang Dan: Qincheng Prison
Xinran: Qincheng, that’s a prison for political criminals.
Wang Dan: I was there for two years, and then I was moved to Beijing 2nd Prison, almost four years in total.
Xinran: What was it like?
Wang Dan: Pretty bad, as you’d expect. Large shared beds, bad food . . .
Xinran: How many to a bed?
Wang Dan: I had my own cell.
Xinran: You were an important criminal.
Wang Dan: If you want to put it like that, I guess so. As far as they were concerned, anyway.
Xinran: How did you pass the time?
Wang Dan: Reading, doing what exercise I could.
Xinran: And these were books they gave you?
Wang Dan: I was able to send a list home, and my family sent the books.
Xinran: What about the legal processes?
Wang Dan: China has no law, let alone legal processes. It was all a sham.
Xinran: But they went through the motions?
Wang Dan: Yes, all of them, all by the book. I could even have appealed. But there was no point to it all.
Xinran: Did those four years change your views about what you’d been pursuing?
Wang Dan: Not change, strengthened. Initially I had a somewhat vague idea of the pursuit of freedom, but those four years made my ideas.
Xinran: Do you think you made the right choices?
Wang Dan: Yes, I’m very clear, very firm, about that. Only those who’ve been jailed know how precious freedom is. Everyone else wastes it. They don’t know its value.
Xinran: Why has the democracy movement become so much less active?
Wang Dan: It’s complicated. The length of time, those 20 years, is a factor. The movement has lost energy over time. I don’t know about anyone else, but for us it’s the case. People have got married, they’ve got lives and jobs in the US, so they’ve got less time and energy to put into it. Second, there are issues within the movement. There are differences over approaches, quarrels, even financial problems. That has disappointed many people, and it leaves me sad too. Third, the economy is king now, and many people have lost interest in politics. It’s a social characteristic of post-totalitarian society. There’s no surge of interest in politics like there was in 1989. So some of the reasons stem from us ourselves, some from the times we live in, and some are just a natural process.
Xinran: How have you changed in the 20 years since Tiananmen?
Wang Dan: When we were 20 we gave ourselves too large a responsibility, we set ourselves a task and thought we had to succeed. But now I think as long as you do your best it’s not actually important if you succeed or not.
Xinran: If you could relive that period, would you do the same?
Wang Dan: Well . . . starting the student movement, organising student demonstrations and so on, I’d do the same thing, but there would be changes. It’s been 20 years after all, and China’s changed — the demands we’d make would be different, there’d be changes in the use of technology.
Xinran: What three things would you change?
Wang Dan: First, once the hunger strikes and sit-ins had run up to the end of May, we should have pulled back, but we didn’t. It would have been better if we’d left earlier. Second, we were too concerned about our purity as a student movement, so we were wary of advice from intellectuals, scared of being used. Similarly we were wary of contacts from Party insiders. I wouldn’t do that again, I’d do my best to seek out support and suggestions.
Xinran: If you could speak to China’s youth, or persuade them to do something, what would you say?
Wang Dan: I’d tell them that it is not unpatriotic to oppose the Party. We all want China to be strong, but economic and military strength alone won’t earn us respect. A truly strong country needs to be civilised, democratic. We can all agree that we want China to be strong, it’s just a matter of how to earn genuine respect we need to talk about.
Xinran: In these two decades, have you tried to understand your enemy?
Wang Dan: Absolutely, very much so. My mother studied Party history, my PhD thesis was on the Party. If I hadn’t studied that in depth, I wouldn’t have got my doctorate. I understand the Party.
Xinran: So how do you explain their attitudes, their actions, towards the student movement?
Wang Dan: The Party was founded on violence and lies, and used violence and lies to come to power. So naturally that’s what they use to protect that power, public terror. The idea behind the massacre was to create fear — and of course, it worked. And so even today the majority are unwilling to stand up against totalitarianism.
Wang Dan was released from prison in 1998 and exiled to the United States. He completed his PhD at Harvard University. He is chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association and on the advisory board of Wikileaks
Xinran worked as a journalist and radio presenter in China. She now lives in London. Her books include The Good Women of China (Vintage), Sky Burial (Vintage) and China Witness (Chatto & Windus)
This article first appeared in Index on Censorship magazine, Volume 38 Number 2. Click here to subscribe.