Dr. Wang Dan, the foremost student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, joined Heritage’s Lee Edwards today in a conversation in our Allison auditorium. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced the slender, soft spoken Dr. Wang, saying that immediately following the forceful breakup of the protests the 20 year-old Peking University student was “branded as China’s enemy #1. Quite an honor and distinction I must say.”
Dr. Wang quickly topped the list of ‘counterrevolutionaries’ for his efforts in organizing the students. He spent almost ten years in jail for his heroics and eventually earned his Doctorate in East Asian History from Harvard University in 2008.
Wang is still very active in spreading his pro-Democracy message and has ruled out running for office, wanting only to be a public intellectual. Despite what he feels is a China split by pro and anti democratic movements, he is hopeful for the future, particularly because of the influence of technology.
“They are trying everything they can do to block information, to censor, to look for any potential threat. But technically I don’t think they can achieve their goal completely. For example, even myself can have my personal blog inside China for almost half a year and the government never knew that. The government just recently shut me down, but I can use another fake name to open a new one,” he said.
“We can have this continual fight-we can just keep fighting forever. ”
The events that culminated in the June 4, 1989 massacre of hundreds, and maybe thousands, of Chinese civilians at the hands of the military began weeks earlier on April 15 when former Communist Party Gerneral Secretary Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack.
Hu supported liberal economic and political reforms during his tenure as General Secretary from 1982 to 1987, helping bring economic opportunity and some political reforms to China. However, hard line Party members, including Deng Xiaoping, the ultimate ruler of China and originator of the reforms in 1978, forced him out after he appeared tolerant of a series of student protests pushing for further freedoms in late 1986.
The relatively understated state funeral arrangements spurred thousands to begin public mourning throughout China, though the Beijing mourning centered around the vast Tiananmen Square.
Eventually, a ripple spurred on by Dr. Wang and others became a wave of tens of thousands of students, workers and civilians who filled the streets of Beijing.
“Originally we never thought a student movement could ever become so big. There had been so many in the previous years,” Wang said.
A hunger strike begun by a few hundred on May 13th grew to over a thousand and rallied many non-students to their cause. “After the hunger strike the student movement transformed into a country of political protest with a lot of other groups like workers and especially intellectuals,” said Wang. “That made our government very scared.”
One week later, on May 19th, Deng Xiaoping declared martial law. “Until martial law I didn’t say it was very serious-we had such a tradition of student protest. But when the government issued the martial law I started thinking ‘Wow, this is kind of big and very serious,” he said. “This martial law made student and government become enemies. Before that we still had hope for the government.”
The events were leading invariably towards a showdown. At 10:30 on the night of June 3rd, the tanks rolled in. Armed troops approached from all sides. By dawn Tiananmen Square was cleared.
The fallout afterwards has been immortalized by a lone man blocking the path of four armored tanks the next morning, rushing to the left and right to cut off their attempts to get around him. Estimates range as high as 2,600 people killed that night.
“There are two China’s now. One China is reality-which is totally controlled by the Communist Party. But there’s another China, a China based on the internet. That area I don’t see the government being able to control. That’s the base of the new social forces,” he said. “That’s the hope for the civil society and the civil society is the hope for democracy.”
“It will take a long time, but at least I see the starting point already.”