In the second of a two-part series, two individuals whose names appeared in China’s “Most Wanted” list for their role in the Tiananmen protests in 1989 shared their experiences with Amnesty International.
Shao Jiang: ‘In China, you still can’t talk about what happened’
When Shao Jiang and a small group of friends gathered in secret in a university dormitory near Beijing in 1989, they never imagined they were writing history.
An 18-year-old student leader at the time, he used to smuggle pro-democracy magazines and organize talks in his university, criticizing corruption within the communist party.
“At the beginning, it was a very small group. We had to be very careful and work at night. We used to talk to some foreign media about what was happening in China. It was all done in secret,” he explains from London, where he now lives in exile.
What started as informal gatherings quickly became larger. By 1989 students from across the country had created a movement and, shortly after, the idea of organizing a protest in Tiananmen Square came about.
Wearing a T-shirt with the iconic Tiananmen image of a man standing in front of a tank, Shao Jiang describes the days of the protests and the ensuing crackdown as if it had happened only yesterday.
“It had never happened before. First it was some students and then many people joined in,” he explains.
“On 3 June, you could smell the tear gas in Tiananmen from a few blocks away. I remember walking around and seeing all those people injured. I saw a doctor screaming ‘I’m a doctor, don’t shoot me’ as he was trying to help some of the wounded.”
After the crackdown, Shao Jiang went back to his dormitory, took a few belongings, and hid all his political magazines. Like many others, he went into hiding, scared about what would happen if the police were to find him.
He managed to evade the Chinese authorities for three months until he was arrested trying to leave the country.
Shao Jiang was eventually released a few months later. After years of harassment by the authorities because of his work, he managed to move to the United Kingdom, where he now campaigns for justice for Tiananmen.
“In the first 10 years after Tiananmen, people were very scared. If you are in China, you still can’t really talk about what happened. What Tiananmen taught us was that even small actions can make a great difference. I continue to work for justice and human rights because a change is still needed in China.”
Wang Dan: ‘I never feel regret’
After the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Wang Dan was Number One on China’s “Most Wanted” list and subsequently spent six years in prison.
Before it happened, in the spring of 1989, he was a 20-year-old student at Peking University, where he organized talks on democracy.
“I was only one of [many] leaders during the movement. I don’t know why I was Number One on the list,” he explains in a soft voice.
“We were a generation concerned about the political situation. We cared about our political future. We appealed to the government for democratic institutions to prevent corruption.”
On 26 April 1989, the government branded the students “counter-revolutionaries” in a People’s Daily editorial. For Wang Dan, this was a critical moment that only strengthened the students’ resolve.
“That editorial enraged us. We were almost about to go back to school before that. It labelled us enemies of the government.”
The government ignored the students’ calls for a public renunciation of the editorial’s assertions.
“[The government] hoped as time went by, we’d lose our willingness to fight. That’s why we went to Tiananmen Square and went on hunger strike. We needed a higher level of protest.”
The hunger strikes began on 13 May and drew widespread support among ordinary workers, turning a student’s movement into a genuine people’s movement.
“I didn’t feel worried about the future. We never expected the government would send in the troops against their own people. We thought they only wanted to frighten us.”
When troops opened fire on the night of 3 June, Wang Dan was in his university dorm.
“My classmate called from somewhere near Tiananmen Square. He told me: ‘The crackdown has started. People have died.’ I tried to go to Tiananmen but the police had blocked the highway.
“I was in shock. For three or four days I couldn’t say anything.”
For several weeks, friends helped Wang Dan to hide, but the authorities tracked him down on 2 July.
Wang Dan served nearly four years in prison before his release in 1993. He could have left China then but decided to stay and speak out for democracy instead.
“I wanted to continue my fight. For the people that died it was my obligation to do something more. I still saw there was the possibility of change. That’s why I chose to stay.”
Less than two years later, Wang Dan was back in jail but this time with an 11-year sentence.
He was released after two years on medical parole on the condition he went into exile.
“It was a difficult decision to leave. It was very hard, knowing I wouldn’t see my family. But if I refused to leave I would stay in jail. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything there.”
Wang Dan went on to study at Harvard and Oxford and now teaches politics at a university in Taiwan.
“If I was still in China I could do nothing. I’d be followed by the police and would not be able to contact people. Outside China at least I can speak freely.
“I’ll never regret what happened. For our future we need to make sacrifices. I never feel regret. It was a big enlightenment; democracy touched the soul of normal Chinese people. It enlightened future generations.”