On the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the student leader made famous for scolding the premier in his hospital gown discusses life in exile, guilt over the students’ deaths, and how his movement was a mere first step toward greater political freedom in China.
On June 4, 1989, the world watched as Chinese tanks and soldiers, randomly firing on unarmed civilians, rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush a student-led, pro-democracy movement, the biggest in history. One of the major forces of the protest was Wuer Kaixi. As the massacre at Tiananmen Square turns twenty, it’s instructive to listen to Kaixi today, in exile in Taiwan. Kaixi insists that economic reforms, a first step toward democracy, resulted directly from the student movement and says these reforms will inevitably lead to a demand for more freedoms.
Prior to the events that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Kaixi was more the resigned and dispirited student than the fervent political activist. Like many of the students at Beijing Normal University, he had had his hopes for economic and political reform dashed time and again. But Kaixi was deeply affected by the April 15 death of former party leader Hu Yaobang, an advocate of capitalism and political reform, who had been pushed from power in 1987. Kaixi joined a thousand students in a campus rally, which soon made its way to Tiananmen, where he became one of the leaders of a hunger strike. Over the ensuing weeks, millions joined the students to protest ongoing government corruption and to call for democracy.
The hunger strike caused Kaixi to be hospitalized. But when he heard the government would speak with students, he headed back to Tiananmen. Kaixi became known to the world when TV cameras caught him in his hospital gown reprimanding Premier Li Peng.
Though the government had made clear they would end the protest by any means necessary, the scale of force and violence shocked the world. President Bush said he deeply deplored the use of force, and Prime Minister Thatcher said she was “shocked and appalled by the shootings.” The exact number of dead and wounded will likely never be known. The Chinese government claims it is in the low hundreds; the Chinese Red Cross initially reported twenty-six hundred.
Ranked second on Beijing’s Most Wanted list, Kaixi was smuggled out of China and fled to France, via Hong Kong, where he started the Federation for a Democratic China, before heading to the U.S. to briefly attend Harvard University. In the mid-nineties, Kaixi moved to Taiwan, where he was a radio commentator, eventually taking a job as an investment banker and starting a family.
History may have written the student demonstrations off as a spectacular failure, but Kaixi insists that the Communist Party’s stepping out of people’s lives to grant economic freedom was the first step toward greater democracy. Speaking of people in China who don’t think full democracy is a good idea, Kaixi notes, these same people now want “a better legal system to protect them. They want to have a more transparent information flow, they want to be able to take part in the decision making process… All these things, without their knowing it, are longings for democracy.”
—Michael Archer for Guernica
Guernica: When you look back to twenty years ago, what are the things you remember most, including the buildup to that day?
Wuer Kaixi: You know, yesterday I was talking to a journalist from Japan who had a very strong impression that everything that is happening in China today has something to do with Tiananmen. I strongly agree with him, although Tiananmen, these days, seems to be an inconvenience. I think that people these days, more and more, tend to associate the idea of Tiananmen with trying to forget, trying not to mention it, trying not to bring it up. Tiananmen is more and more becoming an inconvenience to the world, as the world is becoming more and more dependent on China.
As a matter of fact, if you think carefully, 1989 has changed every perspective of everything about China. I remember somebody approached me and said he was also the same age as me, and he remembered that right after Tiananmen followed the independence of East Timor and Mr. Mandela emerged from prison, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He thought that the world was becoming a better place.
But after the 9/11 incident, and the war in the Middle East, the idea of the world becoming a better place was a challenge. But I can see China at least is becoming a better place. After 1989, the Chinese Communist Party decided to make a deal with the Chinese people—to have political cooperation from Chinese people, in exchange for economic freedom. And it’s a lousy deal because those political freedoms and economic freedoms belong to the Chinese people to begin with. Nevertheless, the deal worked. Chinese people took the deal and the Communist Party withdrew from Chinese people’s daily lives. So there is no longer an ideological state, and that is the only way they can keep Chinese people settled for a little freedom, even if it is only economic freedom. The Chinese people started to enjoy the newly-given freedom after 1992, which needed to develop and boom.
Guernica: Now you mentioned that everything can be traced back to 1989 and you mention this agreement with the government and the people. Can you give other examples of things you think can be traced back to 1989?
Wuer Kaixi: The deal the Chinese Communist Party made with the Chinese people was because of 1989. Therefore, that had something to do with it. And people today no longer talk about the Communist Party as an existing beast. This mentality began with [Tiananmen]. Before that, the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army, the PCP, Communist Party, all had a certain deal of credibility in China. Not now. Today it’s just a coexistence. The world, after 1989, started to realize the presence of China, too. At the beginning, as a massacre, as a mass murderer because of Tiananmen, and then right after that, as the economic super power. Before 1989, China was emerging but wasn’t there yet. After 1989, China became the world factory, the world market, and then, these days, the world city. So, I think everything can be traced to 1989.
It’s a lousy deal because those political freedoms and economic freedoms belong to the Chinese people to begin with.
Guernica: You mentioned that the Chinese government has given economic freedom to the people, but they still haven’t given democratic or political freedom. What do you think needs to be done for political freedom to come?
Wuer Kaixi: The Communist Party will not willingly give that away. A lot of people would say it’s very different now, that when you go back to China, it’s very free. People can say whatever they want, but it’s not true. If you go to China these days, you are pretty much free to say anything, as long as the door is closed, as long as you’re within your own surrounding, as long as whatever you are saying poses no direct threat to the Communist Party, then you are okay to say that. Anything else, any possible threat is tightly controlled. In China, these days, they use a very funny word called “He Xie,” harmony, that is supposed to be a very beautiful word. But that’s when Hujin [Tao, China’s president] tells you this word to say we are going to build a more harmonious society. That is how the Chinese describe internet censorship—to say, “Okay, we are going to delete this post or this article on the internet because it is going to [make us] harmonized.”
So, the police control is everywhere. When foreigners, like Taiwanese, come and go to China or westerners go to China and come back and say, “It’s very different now, it’s much more free… the taxi driver is talking politics…” Yes, the taxi driver can talk politics, as long as the door is shut. And then foreigners enjoy a much greater deal of freedom than Chinese citizens. My parents, for instance, they are, after twenty years, still not given permission to travel abroad. Not for anything they have done but for their son’s deed. Twenty years they haven’t been able to see their kids. That’s the punishment to me, punishing them is the punishment to me. That is the reality.
The Chinese Communist Party is willing to change, but not when it comes to the stability of their ruling. They are not giving away political freedom to the Chinese people and they may have to be forced to make that decision when that choice seems better off for them. From a different approach, for instance, the merchants, they may want to fight for democracy as well, not for democracy but for their own benefits. A magazine publisher from Fujian Province, let’s say, or a small remote town, they may want to fight for press freedom, not for democracy but for their benefits, for their profits. So combining these forces, dissidents taking their jobs, Chinese people [urging] for different purposes, and the world, the western world would give the Chinese Communist Party a tremendous pressure. At the same time, let them realize that choosing democracy is a better deal for the C.P. That will be the only way we can see China moving towards democracy.
Guernica: It’s interesting because the impetus of our conversation is Tiananmen Square and the anniversary and, as you said earlier, it’s not talked about in schools, it’s not widely talked about in China, and that was my experience when I was there, as well. The government has done little things. I know in 2006, they gave some compensation to a family who had lost their son in the massacre. But what if the people demanded more? What do you think would happen if a Tiananmen Square happened today, or a similar demonstration?
Harmony is how the Chinese describe internet censorship—to say, “Okay, we are going to delete this post or this article on the internet because it is going to make us harmonized.”
Wuer Kaixi: Really? Wow. I can’t think of something similar. For many years I have said, I don’t want a revolution, I have always wanted a peaceful evolution in China. I have wanted a reform. Even back in 1989, when we held a mass demonstration, when we held a mass sit-in, when we held hunger-strikes where we occupied Tiananmen Square for so long, all we wanted was the Communist Party to reform from within. And that is what I have always been saying. What would happen today?
Guernica: If there were a massive demonstration on the fourth of June this year, what do you think would be the government’s response? What sort of impact do you think it would have?
Wuer Kaixi: It is really hard to determine or predict an outcome of a mass movement. That is a lesson I learned in a very, very brutal way. I would think that would be part of the effort as I described earlier of giving Chinese authority a choice. The leaders of Chinese authority can be wiped off this earth if they realize choosing democracy over gunshots and over cracking down is a better choice for them. I am not sure. I do not have that kind of confidence from previous regimes. For the last twenty years, when China entered the world arena, they were doing it, that’s why a lot of people are describing the Asian Olympics as the coming out party… coming out into the world. When China decided to enter the world, they never showed much interest in following the rules of the game of the world, mainly democracy, mainly fair play. No, I don’t have much confidence for China to be able to handle a mass demonstration. I am not sure that it will. But I do believe it will help China set up a better course of history, but maybe it’s too high a price to pay.
Guernica: There are groups, Tiananmen Moms, among others, who are calling for the government to recognize and even apologize for Tiananmen. Do you think that’s important?
Wuer Kaixi: Oh yes, absolutely, absolutely. It is very important because that is, again, asking the Chinese government to make a choice. This time it’s a more difficult choice because it’s on the humane perspective. It’s a group of mothers of victims making a demand; they are making a minimum demand that can be understood, accepted, and supported by all one billion Chinese people. Although these one billion people may have a different thought about democracy, about Chinese political ruling, they won’t have any different thoughts from these people’s demands. They would totally understand and agree with Tiananmen Moms’ demands. They are very basic, very humane, and very humble. It is very wrong to deny them.
Guernica: And you think the apology would help do what? How would it help in a broader sense?
Wuer Kaixi: The apology would be a good [beginning] for Chinese authority to deal with rights and wrongs. Today all they have been trying to say to Chinese people is the benefit of the state. It’s all about the [national] benefit; it’s never about right and wrong. Chinese authority can never enter that arena; it won’t go into the debate of right and wrong, the discussion of right and wrong. They know how horrible they look, not only in the Tiananmen incident but so much more. A right-and-wrong discussion can really shake down the legitimacy of this region one more time, once more.
Guernica: Some have said that Russia’s struggles moving toward a democracy hindered China’s movement. Do you believe that?
Wuer Kaixi: Yes, yes, yes. The Chinese People have been enjoying their economic system for the last twenty years, for the last seventeen years. Economic growth was a very important fact that is soothing Chinese people’s lack of freedom, the anxiety of lack of freedom. At least the idea. [We don’t have] freedom but at least we have limited economic freedom, we have benefited from it, we are richer. And then also China is becoming a more important country. The Chinese authority encourages this nationalism, with the Chinese people feeling more proud of being Chinese. These ideas can be big, in a way, if we go for democracy.
The Tiananmen Moms are making a minimum demand that can be understood, accepted, and supported by all one billion Chinese people.
Guernica: On the ten-year anniversary, you said that the students were treated as heroes, but you really lost this big battle. You also told the BBC how much pride you took in your involvement in Tiananmen. Do you feel conflicted about it, all these years later?
Wuer Kaixi: Conflicted?
Guernica: Well maybe conflicted is not the right word. To hear you say that you feel as though you lost the big battle, it almost insinuates that you felt guilty being treated as a hero when you had lost. At the same time, you still took a lot of pride in your involvement.
Wuer Kaixi: We believe our contribution in 1989 is very essential to Chinese society, Chinese development, in the last twenty years. Democracy is even more needed in China. One cannot neglect that the rapid development occurred basically because of lesser involvement by the Communist Party. The biggest contribution of the Chinese Communist Party in the past twenty years is eliminating the Communist Party in China, step by step. So that is good evidence that the lesser the Communist Party in China, the better for Chinese people. And today democracy is something much needed for China to have fair and just and even faster economic growth. With economic freedom, Chinese people are more capable of pursuing political freedom. They may not be clearly aware of this, you know, so the worry they have of losing the benefit they have gained with economic freedom may also be slowing them down. When people become rich, what do they want? Number one, they want to be richer; it’s almost universal. Number two, they want to protect the wealth they have made. Number three, they want to be richer in a more equal and fair environment. And all these demand democracy. Democracy does not only exist in a classroom as a Greek contract, as invented by the Greeks two thousand years ago, but also it exists as every aspect of life. Chinese people may not be aware of that. That’s why you can sometimes see people saying that if there is no democracy, we will be better off. At the same time, the same group wants more fair and more equal opportunities and they want to have a better legal system to protect them. They want to have a more transparent information flow, they want to be able to take part in the decision making process… All these, without [their] knowing [it], are longings for democracy.
Guernica: On the ten-year anniversary, you said that you still wake up to the nightmares of the scene of the massacre. Is that still happening to you?
Wuer Kaixi: I think it’s fair to say that being a survivor of a massacre, I will carry the guilt for the rest of my life, for sure. When I said it woke me up at night, ten years ago, it’s not because of fear, [but] because of the guilt. I remember in the same interview I said, I would always think that there might be some people who died because they had listened to my speeches and went to Tiananmen Square. That idea would wake me up every night. And then also I said, the fact that puts me back to sleep is that I tried to do my best to prevent a massacre. I tried my best to urge students to leave Tiananmen Square.
Guernica: Less than a month after you had escaped, you wrote in a letter that the students didn’t expect this kind of fascist violence, that you never thought the government would be so base and beastly. What were your expectations for the students? How did you think the government would react?
Wuer Kaixi<: We were all, back then, wondering. We would sit down and talk. We would think. We knew for quite certain that we would be thrown into prison and the students who took part in the movement may be given the severe punishment of getting very bad jobs. And then of course, the bloody part, maybe the violent part, we had expected would be a group of army charging into the square with clubs in their hands, not ammunition, not tanks running over students. We were expecting a certain degree of violence, but we didn’t expect people’s deaths.
I think it’s fair to say that being a survivor of a massacre, I will carry the guilt for the rest of my life.
Guernica: Your critics, especially the Chinese Democracy Movement, label you an opportunist and some seem to insinuate that you’ve been enjoying the perks of your fame. Some blogs say it doesn’t make sense that you wanted to be part of the Pan-Blue political alliance.
Wuer Kaixi: Well, number one, I was never a part of the Pan-Blue. That was a complete rumor. I never intended to run for office. Even if I had this thought, I would never run representing KMT, that’s for sure. That’s like an insult for me, to say that I am seeking their nomination. That is a very vicious accusation. Number two, I live in Taiwan, and I am very glad to be accepted as part of it. I think for four years, if not five, I became one of the more influential opinion leaders in Taiwan about domestic politics. That is something that I was very happy to achieve. It is very soothing because, you know, living in exile, you think… okay, let me put it this way: my friends in exile envy me for that because I have ground on which to stand. It is almost contradictory to the term exile. Exile means you don’t have ground to stand on. I remember one of the famous writers who was also in exile, in 1989 he said, “We may have gained the sky but we lost the earth.” That is the feeling most people in exile feel. We have gained an opportunity not to be imprisoned by being in exile. But the price to pay for that is not being able to see my parents for twenty years. Being humble [I’ll] say, yes, we gained fame, we gained more opportunity to know people. Actually, what I highly appreciate is understanding democracy, to have a broader vision, to have the opportunity to meet with some great people in the world, like the Dalai Lama and many world leaders and great academics. Yes, this is something we have gained. These things have set us on a different course. But I would much rather be in China today.
Guernica: You mentioned that you haven’t seen your parents in twenty years. Have you been able to see any family? And as far as your parents go, are you able to communicate with them?
Wuer Kaixi: My direct family, my parents and my siblings, were prohibited from traveling abroad. I have not been able to see many other family members either, but I have been able to speak to my parents over the phone and over Skype, actually. My father, a Uyghur national, hardly speaks Chinese and he manages to comprehend the skills to master Skype so my parents can sit down in front of a computer and at least get to see their son over the internet.
Guernica: You mentioned that you are now in finance. And I believe you started a family [in Taiwan], is that right?
Wuer Kaixi: I married a Taiwanese woman, I have two sons, and I have been in investment banking for the last three years. That is a funny term these days.
Guernica: Yes, it is. A Chinese friend, from Beijing, sent me your blog. Are you blogging regularly now? And friends of mine in China were amazed that your blog is not blocked there. Did you know that?
Wuer Kaixi: No, no, actually… they tried to block my blog. I first opened a blog on the Chinese internet and that blog was shut down within twenty hours. So I opened another blog in Taiwan, on a Taiwanese ISP, that is still being blocked. But from time to time, Chinese people can manage to see that I am there. The Chinese internet police are just not as capable as they think they are. But, unfortunately, I get more reports from China saying that they can’t see my blog.
Guernica: How often are you blogging?
Wuer Kaixi: Actually, I only started this year. I had been thinking about doing a blog for years but then, in March, I started. I update it almost every three days. What you can see on the blog are all the articles that I have written and published. There are some English articles there, too. I try to write every year for June 4, so there are a few articles in Chinese or in English that can trace back my thoughts on the anniversary, only for the last five years, I think.
Guernica: What are you planning on doing on the anniversary this year?
Wuer Kaixi: I have not really decided yet. Most likely I will be co-hosting a commemoration in Washington D.C.
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