Posts tagged: China

Putting One’s Life on the Line: Criminal Liability for Xinjiang Documents Leak

By , November 26, 2019

A prison camp in Xinjiang

Last October, after denying the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang for over a year, the Chinese government finally admitted to their existence but claimed that they were nothing more than “vocational education and training centers.” Places where “students” – over one million of them and almost all Uighur and other Turkic Muslims – could rid themselves of Islamic extremism while simultaneously upgrading their job skills.  But camp survivors’ stories paint an entirely different, and much darker picture.  In story after story, former detainees talked about the prison-like conditions, of being held for months to years without access to the outside world, of physiological and physical abuse, and punishment solely for practicing their faith.  Women have consistently spoken of rape, forced sterilization and forced abortion.  Unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s refusal to allow outside monitors unfettered access to the camps, these survivors’ stories could not be corroborated.

Until now.  In the past two weeks, both The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) have published two different troves of confidential Chinese government documents (the “Xinjiang Papers” and the “China Cables,” respectively) that confirm the unlawfully detention of Uighurs in what are essentially prisons.  According to the Xinjiang Papers, any direct inquiry by relatives as to whether their detained family member has committed a crime, officials are to answer no but immediately follow it up with the assertion that the their family member still needs  “education” to rid themselves of “unhealthy thoughts,” likening Islam to a disease.

Inside a Xinjiang Camp – looking more like a prison than a job skills class

ICIJ’s China Cables provide even more detail into the everyday operations of the prison camps.  Detainees are kept in “double-locked” rooms at all times and are constantly watched, even in the bathroom. Preventing escapes is paramount and there must not be any “blind spots” in the video surveillance of the detainees.  Guards are trained in “combat exercises” to ensure their immediate response if “something happens.”  Detainees are forbidden from having cell phones and family visits are never in person; only periodic phone calls and occasional video chats are permitted. Detainees are forced to remain in the center for at least a year.  And while the government documents refer to the camps as “vocational skills training centers,” it is apparent from the guidance provided to the camp administrators that the focus is to Sinicize the Uighurs and stamp out their religion.  In fact it is only after a year of ideological indoctrination do some – not all – detainees continue on for a three to six month “skills improvement” training, a training that is more responsive to future employers’ needs than to the individual’s.

In no way did the Chinese government ever want these documents released.  And the people who leaked these documents to the New York Times and to ICIJ put their lives on the line to stop the mass atrocities in Xinjiang.  According to Margaret K. Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, at least some of these documents would be considered state secrets.  “What is a state secret is very vague, can be defined retroactively and doesn’t need to be stamped ‘state secret’ to be considered a state secret,” Lewis told me when I asked her about the leak of the Xinjiang documents. Under China’s Criminal Law (“CL”), leaking state secrets is a serious offense, carrying a sentence anywhere from 10 years to life where the circumstances are especially serious (CL, Art. 111), which one would think is present here.  A death sentence is possible if the leak causes particularly grave harm (CL, Art. 113).

“They could also be charged with subverting state power,” Lewis told me.  “It’s not just what the documents were but also why they were giving these to foreigners” Lewis continued.  Like state secrets, subverting state power (CL, Art. 105) can carry up to a life sentence and if the person colluded with foreigners in the subversion, arguably what the whistleblowers did here, then the law requires that the punishment be severe (CL, Art. 106).  But, unlike state secrets, subverting state power is not subject to the death penalty.  In pressing Lewis further on what she thought the whistleblowers would be charged with and what type of sentence they would get, Lewis was clear: “This is less of a legal question and more of a political one.”  To Lewis, it will come down to what is best for President Xi Jinping: is it better to make an example of the whistleblowers, or are the whistle blowers high enough officials that publicly identifying who they are could be an embarrassment to the Chinese government, and thus their prosecution may never be public.  Under Article 183 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, state secrets trials are closed to the public.

“The one thing that is certain,” Lewis told me “is, if the whistleblowers are caught, they will experience long-term detention and suffering.” And their families. “You’re not just putting yourself at risk, but also your loved ones,” Lewis said. “Whoever this person is, I am grateful for the risks taken to bring the documents to light.”

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

These whistleblowers must have known the high costs associated with leaking the documents.  But still they determined that it was worth it; that the world must know precisely what is happening in the Xinjiang prison camps; that Uighurs are unnecessarily suffering at the hands of the Chinese government; and that it must be stopped.  But since the release of the China Cables on Sunday, only the United Kingdom and Germany have demanded that China provide unfettered access to United Nations human rights observers.  But where is everyone else?  Where is the United Nations’ response?  Will Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General who has stayed mum for the last two years about China’s treatment of Uighurs, finally condemn China’s actions?  And while the United States issued a strong statement, it could do more. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is just sitting in the House; the State Department has yet to call call for the UN to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang; and Treasury makes no mention of  Maginsky Act sanctions against some of the high-level officials named in the Xinjiang papers.  And what about Australia, Japan, Canada, or any of the Arab nations?  Finally, where is the International Olympic Committee?  Do we really want Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to be a replay of Nazi Germany’s 1936 Games?

I can only hope that in the next few days I can add more countries to this post as ones that spoke out. But more than anything, I hope that these countries and organizations unite to take action to stop the crimes against humanity currently occurring in Xinjiang.  Individuals in China have put their lives on the line.  It’s time the rest of the world follow suit and have the courage to act.

 

Why What We Are Seeing in Xinjiang Is Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 27, 2019

Uighur protester outside of China with a mask with the flag of East Turkestan and a Chinese flag covering her mouth

Last week, the Washington Post published my op-ed where I argued that what is being perpetrated against Uighur and other Turkic Muslim women – rapes, forced sterilization, forced abortion – are all crimes against humanity.  Since publishing that piece, many have asked why I decided to describe these acts as crimes against humanity?  Why am I not calling it genocide?  Or at least cultural genocide?

In the past few months, many have stated that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang are akin to cultural genocide.  The government’s widespread razing of mosques; its destruction of Muslim burial grounds; its prohibition against certain religious baby names; its mass internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims for no crime other than being Muslim; all of these reflect a Chinese government intent on destroying the Uighur culture and “Sinicize” them, making it cultural genocide.  But cultural genocide is not a crime under international law and thus, brings with it no legal duty for the world to stop it nor any punishment for the perpetrators.  In fact, the drafters of the Genocide Convention intentionally rejected the concept.  Instead, genocide under the Convention is limited to the biological or physical destruction of the group coupled with an intent to destroy.  When I spoke with Deborah Mayersen, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy and an expert in the field of genocide studies, she was clear that she didn’t think that the situation in Xinjiang was genocide. “I do think there are warning signs, but at the moment [China] is not heading toward genocide” she told me.  “There would need to be some sort of disruption – an economic disruption perhaps that can be blamed on the Uighurs – for [China] to be on the trajectory toward genocide.”

“But we do have a fairly clear case of crimes against humanity” Mayersen emphasized.  Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity is not governed by a specific treaty.  Instead, it has developed through international customary law, with its use at Nuremberg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda among other instances. Crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid.  It might sounds a lot like genocide, but unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy, an element we don’t yet have in Xinjiang.  Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.

Because crimes against humanity is a legally recognized doctrine, it “brings with it the responsibility to protect” Mayersen told me, citing to a 2005 U.N. Resolution, signed by all 193 UN member states.  Under that Resolution, the international community is required to take quick and decisive action to protect the targeted group.

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

The unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and the removal of Uighur children from their families alone constitute crimes against humanity.  And rape and forced sterilization have been considered crimes against humanity for decades.  Sexual violence against women was a basis for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the Former Yugoslavia and of the ICT for Rwanda.  In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council, in its inquiry report on North Korea and after conducting a number of victim interviews, found sufficient evidence for a charge of crimes against humanity for the rape, forced abortions and sexual violence perpetrated against women.

Because there is more than sufficient evidence that what is happening in Xinjiang is crimes against humanity, activists, journalists and others must refer to it as such.  Only then is the world required to act.   To call it anything less gives the world a free pass and permits the Chinese government to continue to engage in its destruction of the Uighur people and their culture.

China’s Attacks on Uighur Women are Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 21, 2019

Originally posted in the Washington Post

Mihrigul Tursun (L), testifying at the CECC hearing

Sitting in a hearing room in Congress, in a gray plaid hijab, her dark blond hair poking out, Mihrigul Tursun begins to cry. She is there to share the plight of her fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang. Her translator reads aloud Tursun’s prepared statement about her three separate detentions by the Chinese government in Xinjiang’s internment camps. As the translator recounts Tursun’s first detention — upon her release, she learned that one of her 4-month-old triplets had died — Tursun struggles to hold back tears. Click here to read the entire op-ed

Crossroads: The PRC At 70

By , September 30, 2019
October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declares the founding of the PRC

October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declares the founding of the PRC

This October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) and to all our friends in China, China Law & Policy wishes you a happy birthday!

On Tuesday Chinese flags will be everywhere, flying outside of most homes across the Mainland.  And make no mistake, flying these flags come from a place of pride for most Chinese.  Seventy years ago, Mao Zedong, standing atop the gate at Tiananmen in Beijing, didn’t just declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China.  He also declared the end to China’s “century of humiliation.”  Starting with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking between the British and the decaying Qing dynasty, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties – treaties that gave up their land and sovereignty to foreign powers and that opened them to the ravages of the opium trade all to the economic benefit of these foreign powers.  In 1931, Japan did physically what the Western countries were essentially doing on paper: invade China, taking full control of the northeastern provinces in Manchuria and setting up a puppet government that solely served the Japanese.  This invasion would mark Japan’s start of a murderous march through the rest of China, eventually extending its control down to Hong Kong and brutally ruling China for more than a decade.

In the seventy years since the founding of the People’s Republic, and after multiple setbacks by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – think the Great Leap Forward, Hundred Flowers Bloom, the Cultural Revolution – China has become a the second largest economy in the world, a global superpower with ability to influence other countries, and more than 850 Chinese people have lifted themselves out of poverty.

As National Day nears, protests in Hong Kong continue

As National Day nears, protests in Hong Kong continue

But this year’s celebration finds China at a crossroads, where the government is discovering that its influence – and the model that will celebrate on Tuesday – is not necessarily welcomed in other parts of the world let alone in its own backyard.  The Chinese government’s massive human rights violations in Xinjiang – with the unlawful internment of 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs – has subjected it to fervent criticism from Western governments and Japan.  The semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong has been roiled with protests for the last four months, with most Hong Kongers rejecting Beijing’s model and increasing encroachment on their rights.  And Taiwan remains a thorn in Beijing’s side, with Beijing trying to further isolate Taiwan from the global community, only to further alienate the Taiwanese people from ever wanting reunification with the Mainland.   And even on the Mainland there continues to be demands for reform, even with the Chinese government’s constant assault on human rights lawyers and activists.

Tuesday morning, the CCP will put on a spectacular show – thousands of soldiers marching perfectly in unison; some of Beijing’s newest military toys will be shown off; and the Chinese people will be there, celebrating their spectacular rise.  But birthdays are more than just a chance to celebrate how far we have come; they are also a time to contemplate where we want to go.  And hopefully, for the Chinese people and for continued peace in this world, the CCP will take the time to think about who it wants to be .

Want to read more about China’s National Day?  Here are some new pieces/shows that have come out for National Day that are worth your time. 

Yangyang Chang, A Birthday Letter to the People’s Republic, ChinaFile (Sept. 28, 2019)

Jerome A. Cohen, Communist China’s Painful Human Rights Story, Council on Foreign Relations Blog (Sept. 26, 2019)

PBS Newshour, China: Power and Prosperity, PBS Newshour Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 5, 2019)

China Law & Policy Turns 10!

By , July 15, 2019

Today marks China Law & Policy’s (“CL&P”) tenth anniversary.  And like any good anniversary, it’s an opportunity to look back at where we started, where we have been and where we would like to go.

On July 15, 2009, we published our first post, a simple two-part piece to explain the riots that had recently engulfed Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province.  Ten years and 374 posts later, we are back where we started as Xinjiang continues to fill the news.  This time for the Chinese government’s unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighur and Kazak Muslims, perhaps the world’s greatest human rights violation perpetrated by a current superpower (although the United States doesn’t have a firm leg to stand on right now given its inhuman treatment of undocumented immigrants).

Similarly, since CL&P’s inception, we have covered the Chinese government’s increasing suppression of human rights advocates and civil society.  No doubt that the suppression has become more severe since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, with his passage of restrictive laws on civil society and his July 2015 nationwide crackdown on human rights advocates.  But our posts show that the Chinese government had already moved in this direction even before Xi took power.  Posts from 2009, when Hu Jintao was still president, called on the Obama Administration to raise the issue of the Chinese government’s harrassment of human rights lawyers and discussed the unlawful detention – and the eventual release – of key activists including Xu Zhiyong and Ilham Tohti.  Both would again be arrested under Xi and be given harsh prison sentences in 2014: Xu, a four year sentence for disturbing public order and Tohti given life for separatism.

Another constant during the life of this blog has been the Chinese government’s use of the visa process to try to censor foreign journalists.  We first covered this issue back in 2012, with the what was effectively an expulsion from China of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan.  Since then we have written about the denial of a visa to veteran China journalist Paul Mooney in 2013, the forced departure of New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy in 2014, the effective expulsion of L’Orbs reporter Ursula Gauthier in 2015 and the effective expulsion of Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan in 2017.  In fact, three posts concerning foreign journalists’ visas rounded out our top five most read pieces, including Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone, Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship, and the post about Gauthier.

But our most popular post by far was Parallels in Authoritarianism: Trump and the Chinese Communist Party, a post written only a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration that compared his leadership style to those of authoritarian rulers like Mao Zedong.  Over the past two years, these parallels have only become more apparent.  Our second most popular piece was one that took me a long time to come to terms with and write, Chen Guangcheng and the Commandeering of Our China Human Rights Policy, but I am glad that I did.

Oddly, our most read posts are not necessarily our most commented.  Those all happen to be some of our “lighter” pieces and posts from our “Just For Fun” category.  Our most commented post was our movie review of Zhao Liang’s “Petition: The Court of Complaints,” with many commenting on China’s unique petitioning system as a away of handling disputes.  Another heavily commented post was my critique of Maureen Dowd’s criticism of Bob Dylan performing in China, with many noting that I was too harsh on Dylan’s Christmas album by calling it “abysmally bad.” Since I have written that post, I have listened to Dylan’s Christmas album and it is surprisingly endearing; I now no longer skip it in my Christmas playlist and find myself singing along.  Thank you to those who raised this issue in the comments and forced me to change my view.

And that is what has been great about this blog for the past ten years.  It has forced me to more carefully analyze a country that I care deeply about and that has seen seismic change in this past decade.  Additionally, I hope that my passion for understanding China has been communicated to our readers.  CL&P was created to overcome simplistic views of China and to explain, in easy to understand terms, why non-China people should care about some of the underlying issues about China’s rule of law development.  Since its inception, I have strived to ensure that our analysis is always well-documented and informed.  With Trump as president and the fact that he has few China experts working for him as he deals with a more powerful China, understanding the country now is more important than ever.  And we will continue to blog and offer our perspective on US-China relations as well as the continued rise of China in a world where the U.S. seeks to exit the world stage.

In closing, I want to note that this blog would not be successful – and been able to continue for ten years – without the support of many friends and family and the readers who have emailed me to correct a fact or just to give me encouragement.  Your support has been instrumental to me over the years.  For my Chinese friends who have often provided me with a more nuanced understanding of what is happening on the ground in China, I want to say thank you for that and all that you do in China.

So join me in wishing a happy birthday to China Law & Policy!

The Human Cost of China’s One Child Policy – A Must See Documentary

By , June 18, 2019

To say that co-directors Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing’s One Child Nation is a tour de force is a ridiculous understatement; it is a scathing critique of the Chinese government’s continued willingness to sacrifice the souls of its people for its unilateral desire for economic development.  Last week, the world remembered that trade-off when it commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s killing of peaceful protesters around Tiananmen Square, all in the name of stability and economic success.  In One Child Nation, Wang and Zhang expose yet another of the Chinese government’s one-sided bargains: its violent enforcement of the one child policy.

In an effort to curb its rapidly growing population, between 1979 and 2015, the Chinese government instituted a one child policy.  In a society that prizes children, and male children especially, restricting married couples to one child was never going to be a hit.  And that’s how Wang and Zhang begin their film, showing the intense propaganda that was necessary to get the people’s buy-in.  Reaching every city, town and village, the government indoctrinated the people into believing that having one child was their patriotic duty; those who had more than one were to be socially shunned.  Even that propaganda took its toll.  Wang, who was the first of two children during that era, admitted that growing up, she was embarrassed that she had a sibling, internalizing the propaganda that her family was using up the state’s resources and hindering China’s progress, all for their selfish interest of having a second child.

But as One Child Nation shows, propaganda was only the start. Quickly, the movie descends into the more horrific aspects of the Chinese government’s one child policy: the forced sterilizations, abortions and killing of babies.

By merely reading about these acts in the pages of the New York Times and other western newspapers over the years, it has been easy to shrug them off as isolated incidents.  But One Child Nation makes clear that these were not one-off acts.  And in showing the pictures of women being dragged, kicking and screaming, to be sterilized, or the almost full born fetuses that an artist collected after finding them in the trash, wrapped in a yellow plastic bag labeled “medical waste,” or the almost catatonic expressions on the everyday people who experienced the policy firsthand, either because they had to implement it or because it was their baby that had to be killed, One Child Nation ensures that you never forget.

Co-directors Zhang Jialing (L) and Wang Nanfu (R)

And this is what makes One Child Nation so powerful and so successful in its condemnation of the one child policy and the Chinese government’s insistence on economic development no matter the human cost.  Like nothing before it, One Child Nation visualizes the pain and suffering of the Chinese people, both the perpetrators of the policy and its victims.  And the prevalence of these forced abortions and sterilizations become readily apparent when Wang interviews the village midwife. In the 20 years that she practiced, she preformed between 10,000 to 20,000 abortions and sterilizations.  Quickly your mind does the math – if this is just one midwife in one rural village, the number of force abortions and sterilizations country-wide must be staggering.

But to truly understand the human and societal toll of China’s one child policy, Wang centers the film on her family in rural Jiangxi province, a brave choice that is a testament to Wang’s commitment to letting the world know what happened as opposed to protecting the privacy of her family.  While Wang is very much aware of the cruelty of the one child policy, her family do not appear to be.  There are moments in some of Wang’s interviews with her relatives  – where they can speak so nonchalantly about the abandonment of a baby – that makes one cringe.  But then it is easy for us in the Western world to cringe; we never had to experience a policy that required such a choice.

Propaganda poster from the time period

One example is Wang’s interview with her mother, when she admits that she helped her uncle abandon the uncle’s newborn daughter, in a market, hoping someone would pick her up.  For Wang’s relatives, the logic was clear: abandon the girl and try for a son. But no one else wanted a baby girl, and by the second day, with a body covered in mosquito bites, Wang’s cousin died.

Another of Wang’s female cousins was sold to a trafficker.  Luckily, this cousin was born later than the first one, when the market for international adoptions began to flourish with the Chinese government lifting of its ban on foreign adoptions in 1992.  Instead of leaving girls to die, mothers could sell them to traffickers for placement in an orphanage.  Unfortunately, as One Child Nation demonstrates, the market for these adoptions became so profitable that traffickers and government officials began stealing girls from rural families that had more than one child, even if these families had paid the fine.

For almost 40 years, the Chinese people – especially women in the rural areas – have had to undergo tremendous suffering under China’s one child policy.  In a particularly moving montage, Wang and Zhang splice together each of their interviewees’ response to one question: why.  And each says the same thing: there was nothing they could do.  Only one person was able to express the pain of the one child policy  – the 16 year-old whose identical twin sister was stolen from her family, sold to traffickers and now lives in the United States.

As One Child Nation makes clear, the question “why” needs to be asked of the Chinese government: why must the Chinese people continue to suffer because of its unilateral decision to seek economic gain at all costs, including trampling on people’s basic human rights.  After the government-made famine of the Great Leap Forward, the shattering of traditional bonds in the Cultural Revolution, the murder of unarmed civilians near Tiananmen Square, and now the societal toll of the one child policy, when will the Chinese people be able to have a say as to whether their sacrifice is worth it?  

The human toll of China’s one child policy; this girl’s identical twin sister is in America

Masterfully directed and powerfully curated, One Child Nation finally gives the Chinese people their voice. And what they are saying – that denying them their dignity could never be worth it – is not something the Chinese government wants to hear, especially as it peddles abroad its model of economic development above all other human rights.  Unfortunately, the United Nations has become a receptive audience.  In an April speech in Beijing, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ sole focus was on economic development and how Beijing’s current international economic platform of the Belt and Road Initiative was perfectly aligned with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.  There was no mention of the danger to other human rights that could arise if the singular focus is economic development or the need to ensure that those human rights are also allowed to flourish on an equal footing with economic development.  But One Child Nation makes clear that those other rights desperately need to be protected; if they are not, then governments will be able to inflict any human rights violations they want all in the name of economic development.  While this is a movie everyone must see, Antonio Guterres in particular would be well-advised to see this movie before he once again applauds the Chinese government for its economic development.  It’s time he – and the world asks – at what cost?

Rating: ★★★★★

Next Showings: Nantucket, MA – June 19 – 24, 2019 at the Nantucket Film Festival; and Washington, D.C. – June 19 – 23, 2019 at the AFI Docs Film FestivalOne Child Nation is supposed to have a nation-wide release on August 9, 2019.  To stay up to date on One Child Nation, check out the film’s website here.

Andréa Worden – The Cries of Changsha

Andréa Worden

Today, China Law & Policy concludes its interview series for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Today, we are joined with Andréa Worden. Andréa is a noted China expert, human rights advocate and she will be teaching a course on human rights in China at John Hopkins University this fall. But back in the spring of 1989, she was an English teacher at Hunan Medical University in Changsha, China. And as a result, experienced firsthand the student protests that were happening in Changsha and then the subsequent crackdown.

Andréa has written about her experience, first, as a chapter in a book containing accounts of some of the pro-democracy protests outside of Beijing and then 15 years later, for China Rights Forum. Today, she’s going to talk to us about some of her experiences there.

Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 40 minutes):

Additionally, you can read the transcript below or Click Here To Open A PDF of the Transcript of the Interview with Andréa Worden

CL&P: So Andréa, just to start, what started the protests in Beijing, for the Beijing students it was the death of Hu Yaobang back in, I believe, April of 1989 and that kicked off a lot of the pro-democracy protests there. For your students in Changsha, what were their reactions to Hu’s death, or did something else cause them to start protesting?

AW:  Well first, Elizabeth, it is great to be with you again in the run up to the anniversary of June 4, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about this incredibly important event. I wanted to mention that, just first off, something that is not particularly well known is the fact that in more than 340 cities in China during the spring of 1989, there were protests. Likely that number is much higher. That figure comes from the compiler of the Tiananmen Papers.

I recently saw a figure online, unfortunately without a cite, it was the Wiki on the Tiananmen protests that mentioned the number 400 [cities with protests in 1989]. But my own feeling is that it’s probably even more than that becau

The distance between Changsha and Beijing.

se some of my students in Changsha were from fairly small towns in Hunan. When they went home during this period of April and May of 1989, they said even in their very small hometowns, villages even, there were protests. So it was truly nationwide and unfortunately, we probably will never know the full scope of the pro-democracy protests in China.

So right, April 15 was the day that Hu Yaobang passed away. We know that was obviously a critical moment in Beijing, and that’s what launched the student protests in Beijing. Also, in Changsha, many people were very sad when they heard the news. Hu Yaobang actually is from Hunan, so there was this sense of “he’s our native son” who was viewed very much by many people as being sort of a hero and somebody that they really had hope for, as somebody who supported intellectuals, who supported the students, and was very much involved in the economic reforms and some political reform under Deng.

My particular school. . .so Hunan Medical University medical students, they have a reputation for not being particularly political. But there were a few universities on the other side of the river that goes right through Changsha that were known to be very active politically both earlier in 1979 and 1980, and there’s also an election movement during that time period at those colleges. Those colleges include Hunan University, South Central Industrial University, and Hunan Teachers College. Then it was also known as Hunan Normal University. Over on that side of the river, the other side of the river, there were mourning activities or events [for Hu Yaobang], but no major protest as far as I know, yet.

CL&P: When your students in Changsha at the Hunan Medical University, when they started seeing the students in Beijing protest at Tiananmen Square, what were their reactions to it? Did they talk to you about it? Did they feel like they could talk to you about it?

AW:  A few of my students that I had become quite close to as good friends, they felt very comfortable I think speaking with me about it. They were excited. They were sort of amazed, and there was really this sense of hope that students could come together on such a massive scale and speak out about the things that they also very much felt. Those things ranged from inflation, which was really a huge problem then at that time. My students felt it personally when the prices at the cafeteria went up, like doubled, and some of them said, “My parents can’t afford this.”

CL&P: Right.

AW:  So there was that on a very personal, practical level. But then also corruption was everywhere. That became a big theme of the movement both in Beijing and in Changsha. Corruption, inflation and then certainly freedom, democracy. Regardless of what they might have viewed democracy as being or how they might define it, my clear sense was a lot of this was about personal freedoms, more personal freedom, certainly freedom of speech, freedom of expression.

Protests in Changsha the Spring of 1989; taken by Andréa Worden

CL&P: So in Changsha itself, when did the protests really take off? You mentioned that they were two different areas of universities and you were in the area on the other side of the river with Hunan Medical University. When did your students start participating in the protests or most of the university students at Hunan Medical start participating?

AW: So the students on the other side of the river – the more politically-active side of town – they had organized demonstrations, we could say a smaller-ish demonstration or just a gathering, on April 15th. Just really, truly mourning this leader. And of course, in China mourning a leader that has passed invariably ends up commenting on the current leadership, even implicitly. So that was happening.

The other folks, the more active folks organized demonstrations for April 22nd, April 26th and May 4. I should say also I don’t have complete information. So there may well have been more than this. This is what I have noted and I’ve written in my article that you’ve mentioned.

So at this point still my students were definitely, I think, interested in watching. Some I’m sure went out to maybe peek and take a look, but the students, the Hunan Medical University students were not yet actively involved en masse.

CL&P: Did they ever become involved en masse?

AW: Yes, they did. Yes. Let me tell you a little bit about that. It was this sort of. . . they were watching things very, very carefully. They were able to get information from the VOA and the BBC over. . .

CL&P: Yeah, a shortwave radio.

AW: Yeah, exactly. So Voice of America and the BBC from England, they were able to get that over a shortwave radio. And so what would happen – of course not everybody had a shortwave radio – but the people who did would write out on large poster board or pieces of paper, they would write out news from Beijing. They’d plaster these large pieces of paper of all over the city or actually in main areas, certainly at all universities and at big intersections people were watching, were looking around.

Also, there were certainly, there were hints on the evening news. A dialogue with the students in Beijing was coming up. This was also of course televised. [Ed. Note: During the course of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing, the central government held three dialogues with the Tiananmen student leaders – April 29, May 14 and May 18. All three were televised; some live, some on tape-delay]

So there was that and there were also of course at this point too, it’s something called chuanlian [串联], which is the students networking or people networking across cities, across boundaries, across the country to try to mobilize other students as well as workers. This was a term I think that came from the Cultural Revolution. Some of the Changsha student leaders were going up to Beijing and they were bringing back information.

So basically what happened at my school – again, probably one of the last schools to get very involved – was one [dorm] room of male students from my class, they decided to fast, to hunger strike or fast [after] one of the days the students had started their hunger strike in Beijing on May 13, and this really moved people. [Ed. Note: Andréa clarified this timeline in a follow up conversation with CL&P. She recalled this group of her students going on their hunger strike a few days after Beijing students did, on May 17, 1989.]

So they [the small group of Hunan Medical male students] were inspired and moved by the students who were hunger striking in Beijing and they said, “We had to do something. We couldn’t just sit here and go to class and not do anything, right?”

A photo from Andréa taken on May 17, 1989 in Changsha showing some of the hunger strikers in front of the provincial government headquarters

So anyways, on May 17, one group of this one room of these young [male] students put a sign up on their door and they said that they would just fast for one day and they weren’t encouraging anybody else to do anything. This was just something these however many boys, I can’t remember, six, eight, had decided they were going to do as a group. So that also inspired so many people at Hunan Medical University. So when some of the girls in our class found out what the boys were doing, they thought “oh, we can’t [not do anything]. We have to support this too.”

So anyway, it kind of went room by room, or dorm room by dorm room. The girls got involved and the students from other classes heard what was happening. Word travels fast. Basically very soon there was a lot of hubbub and momentum, people were fasting for the day, wanting to show support for the students in Beijing.

I wanted to share this story in part because it shows how important one person – or here seven people – deciding to do one thing, this personal act of protest, how that can just totally truly spark a much larger movement or event or action because it has a sort of amazing ripple effect of just inspiring other people to take action.

So that evening the students, the student union leaders, got onto the loud speaker, and announced on the loud speaker that the Hunan Medical University was going to participate in the city-wide demonstration that was going to be held that night. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. It might have been, but. . . .

CL&P: Right. So at Hunan Medical University, once this started around May 17th, the hunger strikes and then the student union leaders announcing that the university was going to participate, what happened with classes? Did they kind of just stop or did students try to balance classes or was it. . . .

AW: So that’s a really good question and they were like on and off. My recollection of this whole period was not a whole lot was happening in terms of classes. I think there was some coursework happening. I recall my students were feeling very stressed about missing classes. They were very obviously concerned about their grades, but they certainly also wanted to participate so there yeah, some classes were being held on certain days but there were other times when basically it was like every day seemed to be a demonstration; there were class boycotts, there were hunger strikes, there were sit-ins. Also, there started to become worker strikes as well. And some students just went home.

CL&P: In the reaction of the female students, I know in your essay “Despair and Hope: A Changsha Chronicle,” you actually do discuss about how the 1989 protests and the movement that was catching the nation was actually in some ways empowering to female students who engaged in the protests. Can you talk maybe a little bit more about that? And put it in a little bit more of a context?

Changsha shopowners providing free tea to the students to show their support – a photo by Andréa Worden from May, 1989

AW: Changsha came alive during this period of time, so roughly let’s say early May or mid-May through June 4, and it was incredible to witness that. There had been such a feeling of hopelessness beforehand and also this feeling of just total boredom and depression that people felt like they had no [choices]. One student had said, “Oh, I thought I was going to go to college and leaving my parents, and was excited about more freedom,” and he said, “When I got to Hunan Medical University it was like I was in prison.”

They had so many rules and were so tightly controlled and they had to sort of watch every step that they took and just be very, very careful. They just felt truly oppressed or repressed, suppressed. They couldn’t really express their individuality. There was a lot of conformity. You had to say the right the thing, you had to act a certain way, and I think students kind of particularly enjoyed our English, not just mine but my fellow English teachers, our classes because we were sort of like, “Okay, you can come to English class and you can say whatever you want.”

We encouraged them obviously to say how they felt and write essays about kind of interesting topics. I think they also felt that they could say more in English than they could in their Chinese classes in terms of maybe possibly “sensitive issues.” They were still kind of watching because they had to still be careful, they were watching sort of what they were saying but it was a breath of fresh air, our classes. I think that they didn’t have much of that elsewhere. So that period when the demonstrations had started, when people were sort of writing these wall posters, when they are out and about looking at and watching the demonstrations or just talking among themselves, the students were talking among themselves, what’s happening? What’s happening in Beijing? Where is this going? Or analyzing what was happening on the political level. Clearly there was a split that was coming to the fore between Li Peng and the hardliners, and Zhao Ziyang. People were very busy talking about that, analyzing this, where was it going to go? What was happening? They were talking about also the dynamics among the schools in Changsha. So it was just this heady time. Basically everyone I think, many people felt they had now the space and the freedom to speak out, including women.

So that was fantastic to see both because they looked so alive, they looked so engaged and happy and sort of free, really free. Anyway, both the men and the women, so the female and the male students, but I think it was interesting because the male students would kind of be quite surprised and sometimes I was too when they would see one of their female classmates who had been perhaps quite maybe fairly demure, shy, didn’t seem to be thinking about much of anything, making speeches on the corner, on the street corner in Changsha about large ideas and large principles of freedom, transparency, accountability, democracy, what do we do about corruption. Just talking, talking, talking.

So in that respect I think everybody felt empowered and that was wonderful. It was inspiring to see and it was also, I think they all inspired each other and I think just people took a particular pleasure at seeing the female students step up into that role.

CL&P: Then so on May 20th, 1989, martial law was declared. What was the reaction in Changsha?

AW: I also should back up a little bit. April 26 [1989] was the day The People’s Daily issued this editorial that declared the Beijing protests, what was happening in Tiananmen Square, declared it to be “turmoil.” So dongluan [动乱]. These sort of naïve – they didn’t use the word naïve – but students were being taken advantage of by a small handful of people who were anti-party, who were anti-socialist.

Very hard line, they didn’t acknowledge the students’ patriotism, which was very much front and center in Beijing and also Changsha. People [protesting] were very, very clear that they loved their country; they loved China. They were unhappy about the political system. They were very unhappy about corruption and they were looking for change and more freedoms. So that editorial, just like in Beijing, caused a huge reaction [in Changsha]. Anyways, so more protests, then in terms of May 20, Changsha, the people in Changsha were reacting to what was happening in Beijing.

When martial law was declared – it was the night of May 19th but actually it was supposed to take effect May 20 – people were very upset, very despondent. They felt like okay, this is done. Again it was despair. Our country is going to mobilize the army against us, against the people, against the students and so it was horrible. They felt betrayed.

CL&P:  So just. . . and when martial law was declared, how did you feel? Were you scared?

AW: So I sort of felt similarly to my students. I had noted in my article, there was this feeling of “how could our government be so cruel?” So it was this alternation between feeling hopeful and feeling disempowered and just feeling despair. I felt, I couldn’t believe it. I was also just felt absolutely. . . .I also felt depressed and just thinking “oh, this is not going to end well,” but I wasn’t actually scared in Changsha.

As it became clear pretty quickly that troops were not going to proceed into the sort of inner city of Beijing or to Tiananmen, they were sort of stuck on the outside of suburbs, and that there was so

Army troops in Beijing when martial law was declared. The students were able to push them back without incident

much popular support. That then, once the students in Beijing went back out on the streets after May 20th, or maybe that was even the night of May 20th. Anyway, they went back after this [martial law] was declared because they saw that the people were essentially on their side and so when that happened there was this other wave of . . . . [Ed. Note: When martial law was declared, the Chinese government had organized the Beijing division of the army to stop the protests. However the student, workers and citizen protesters stopped the troops from entering the city and, with no shots fired, pushed the troops back.]

CL&P:  Wave of hope.

AW: . . . hope. It’s like okay, there is a possible hopeful outcome for all of this.

CL&P:  Then did the students in Changsha continue to protest when they saw the Beijing students?

AW: They did, yes. They absolutely did. Right, so that news from Beijing, about essentially the people of the city stopping the advancement of the troops, definitely gave the people of Changsha and the students in Changsha sort of a renewed sense of hope, yes. They continued to protest in various ways.

CL&P:  Then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th is the massacre at Tiananmen Square. So the massacre [also] in and around Tiananmen Square that occurred the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th, how did you learn about it?

AW: So I learned about. . . I learned about it from my students actually. So they had gotten up earlier than me on Sunday morning. That was a Sunday morning, June 4. And a handful of them came running over to our, excuse me, to the Yale-China house where the teachers were and were yelling to us from outside and just to say what had happened and they again had heard from. . . not only I guess at this point VOA but also the government was starting to spin this.

Actually one other thing I wanted to say that was also actually incredibly hopeful there was a three week period in May where the newspapers, the journalists probably throughout China, were actually reporting the real news, which was incredible, including in Changsha. So the Changsha Evening News – it’s just something I would read – they were reporting what was happening in Beijing, actual real news because there was sort of this opening.

CL&P:  Ostensibly the newspaper would still be government-controlled. . . .

AW:  Right.

CL&P:  . . . but they were still writing the truth.

AW: Right, because they were protesting. The journalists, journalists were protesting on Tiananmen Square. Yes. They’d gotten involved. And also Shanghai there were large journalist protests, so that’s a whole other piece of the story that’s fascinating.

But anyway, so the morning of June 4, people were just incredibly upset, everybody. Some people were showing it more vividly. They were manifesting their emotions in sort of a more visible way than others, but we were just. . . . I remember just personally being floored, amazed, sort of incredibly depressed and also really felt for my students; they were very upset about the news.

We also just kind of couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelievable, right? The People’s Liberation Army opening fire on unarmed protestors. Peaceful protesters. So that is a vivid memory of learning about that from my students that morning.

Then after that, so June 4 later in the day and June 5, probably even into June 6th there were – yes, definitely into June 6 – there were definitely, there were protests against the military suppression.

CL&P: In Changsha?

AW: In Changsha. They were protesting. Also again, this is another part of the untold story. There are many, many untold stories of the spring of sort of April 15 to June 6, 7, 1989 and this is one of them. There were many, many, many cities throughout China where residents, workers, students were protesting against the violence in Beijing.

Photo taken by Andréa on June 5, 1989 - sign in Changsha that says

Photo taken by Andréa on June 5, 1989 – sign in Changsha that says “People of Changsha take action/rise up to support Beijing!”

CL&P:  So after the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, other cities, including Changsha continued to protest even though they knew full well that there was a possibility their army could open fire on them.

AW: Yes. Right, so we know Louisa Lim has done a very nice job in her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, telling what she could find out about the Chengdu story. Still, she’s like, “There’s much we don’t know.” But she does a great job laying out what she’s been able to discover. I think also from other things that I’ve read it’s clear that the mobilization at that time of the military – June 3, 4 – that that very likely was a call across the country to all major cities. Because basically in Changsha, people kept saying there’s a rumor that troops are right outside the city. [Ed. Note: In our interview with Frank Upham about his experience in Wuhan during this time period, he too recollects the “rumor” that there were troops outside of Wuhan, ready to suppress the post-June 4 protests.]

And they’re going to come in at any time. And if you read other accounts in the book that you mentioned, The Pro-Democracy Protest in China: Reports from the Provinces, I see many of the other reports from the provinces, same thing. People were hearing that the troops were right outside the city ready to sort of. . . ready to come into the city and suppress protests as necessary. So there was basically a nationwide mobilization.

So people were kind of scared about that. That’s one moment where I was definitely feeling a bit scared because there was clearly an anti-Western turn, particular anti-American turn at this point. Not among the students or friends or faculty, but just overall politically.  The CCP, the party secretary at the school and in Changsha, it was like this is an American. . . .Americans are behind this. Fang Lizhi taking refuge in the [US] Embassy with his wife. So this was all unfortunate because we then, the American teachers, were very concerned that we were going to become targets.

What was interesting about that time was that these protests also, sort of in a way became a bit more radical in they basically were causing – it was workers, it was students, it was residents. Many people were involved in blocking the train tracks so no trains could move. So the whole railroad operation was at a standstill.

Also, blocking major intersections. So they would corral buses and trucks. It was really, it was anarchy but it was peaceful anarchy in a way. These were actions that the Changsha populace supported.

There was debris in the streets. I remember the ride out to the airport. [Ed. Note: Andréa left Changsha on June 11, 1989]. The driver was trying to figure out how to get around all these roadblocks. We just saw there was a lot of sort of debris in the streets. So anyway, yeah, I’m not sure if I answered your question, but yeah, so they went on for a couple days but there was also a sense of who’s really in control? Also, again this fascinating feeling of this is so incredibly unusual.

With constant surveillence, don’t expect a Tiananmen protest anytime soon

CL&P So your experience in the spring of 1989 in Changsha, what impact did it have on you?

AW:  It was an incredible moment, incredible time. It was very dramatic. So our exit [on June 11, 1989], our leaving, we left very abruptly. It was really sort of an evacuation. Yale-China Association essentially said, “There will be a plane and you are getting on it and you are coming back.” Our parents were of course like, “Get out of there.” As we were leaving, many people said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen and you have to tell the world what happened here in Changsha.” Because people knew that they wouldn’t then be able to write about it or talk about it or even develop their photographs.

I was thinking about this recently. When I was out watching the protests and sort of taking photographs and documenting, just noting down some of the wall posters, some of the slogans, everyone had a camera, or some people had cameras and were taking photos. Where are  all those photos? After June 4 people could not get that film developed. So where did all that go? There’s all this sense of this missing history and I think also people realizing they were not going to be able to tell their story. [Ed. Note: On May 31, 2019, Jian Liu, a student protestor in Beijing in 1989, developed some of his rolls of film from that time.]

I think they were very proud that they came out to support Beijing, to support the students and the workers. So the Changsha workers also got very involved in all of this, which of course made everybody in the government, Party folks, the most nervous. They felt really proud because this was such an empowering moment for them and they were like “we did something here. We didn’t succeed in the end. We want the world to know. We want people to know.” So I did feel this sense of like wow, returning to the US, I had this new sense of feeling very appreciative of the freedoms we have here and the rights that we have here. And that the absence of these rights and freedoms were just so apparent immediately once it was clear that the hardliners [Li Peng, etc.] had won this battle. That people wouldn’t be able to talk about this, and that. . .again, they had to toe the party line. My students had told me that they had two weeks of mandatory political education in the fall of I think it was, yeah, fall or maybe the summer, later in the summer.

Some of them said it was horrible. Some of them totally bought the party line. So anyway, so I felt very much like I wanted to do something to help support the democracy movement in China because it wasn’t going away. These feelings were. . . and these desires, these wants, were felt widely in China and I wanted to do what I could with the freedoms that I have to support their efforts. So when I got back I was starting a PhD program in Chinese History at Stanford, but I was quite involved in Human Rights in China [HRiC], it was just starting to get going – the organization Human Rights In China – doing what I could to help. Also to try to tell the story I helped put the book together, Children of the Dragon, for Human Rights in China. So, I have been involved on and off in various ways over the years in this cause. It’s basically taken on different forms and shapes over the years.

CL&P:  What do you think ultimately is the legacy of the Tiananmen Massacre?

AW: So probably there are a few different answers to that. I think it’s an important question. One aspect of the legacy, or one legacy. . .there is very much, what did the Chinese Communist Party learn from this? Deng Xiaoping early on said that this is all – it’s in the Tiananmen Papers and it’s in Zhao Ziyang’s “secret journal,” The Prisoner of the State – the transcription of his audio tapes – that Deng felt that they had been too lax with ideological work.

So early on, in ’87, maybe end of ’86, there had been student protests then followed by the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign and the anti-spiritual pollution campaign. It’s right when I arrived in China. I was a little bit nervous about that. But the people, they were like, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” I was in Tianjin. I spent the first six months in Tianjin and the teachers and the folks that I interacted with in Tianjin were like, “Oh, don’t worry.”

I’d see signs up everywhere about anti-this, anti-that. Essentially anti-western kind of everything. They [the people] would just say, “No, you’re so welcome here. Don’t worry. Don’t pay attention to any of that. We’re not paying attention to it.” So basically Deng was like “this  [Tiananmen] is because of lax ideological work.” So we see now 30 years later, Xi Jinping, you cannot say that he’s lax.

CL&P: Yeah. He’s anything but.

Current Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) – is he just a little Mao?

AW:  He’s anything but. Right. Over the years, since 1989, there have been moments that were a bit more open. But the overall trend has been “not lax.” And control of information of course, censorship as the internet grew, of course media censorship – so not lax.

So there’s that aspect of essentially political education and indoctrination, ideological education. We see that now tenfold, a hundred fold in Xinjiang with what’s happening with the Uighurs.  They’re in concentration camps, probably 1.5 million all told and very much of this is about political education, forced education among other things. So forced ideological kind of education. So one aspect is this, that we have to sort of control information, control thought.

But there’s also just the physical, this physicality, if you will, of the protest. Now it’s physically impossible with all of the surveillance cameras and everything. They want to prevent you from even having the thought of protesting. That’s what a lot of the ideological education is about. And also of course everything is watched and surveilled. So you can’t even mobilize people, like five people. . . . it’s very difficult to mobilize even five or 10 people to do anything. So, it’s extremely hard to imagine a scenario where people are back on Tiananmen Square.

Also, of course another lesson was we need to train people’s armed police, armed forces. We need to be able to also have trained police, quasi-military forces, whatever, to deal with anything that might happen. Like essentially riot police, if you will. So they’ve got that whole aspect of things totally also nailed down.

Obviously we do see these sort of spontaneous or very small efforts here and there, but they’re immediately shutdown. So I think no more Tiananmens is of course a big legacy, and no little Tiananmens in terms of the protest. Then also of course in terms of the legacy, this is such a sensitive issue for the Communist Party, this whole period, particularly the massacre and the incredible spin they put. The story they’ve told that they continue now 30 years later to detain people who might mention June 4 or write something trying to commemorate June 4. One recent example is the folks, the four people in Chengdu I believe with the June 4 liquor labels. [Ed. Note: In 2016, a few people in Chengdu created a liquor label for a few bottles of Chinese rice wine – called “bai jiu” – a sound similar to the word for 1989 – “ba jiu” – with pictures of a man stopping a line of tanks. These men were arrested for subverting state power and were recently sentenced.]

CL&P:  Yes. Yes.

The baijiu bottle that resulted in arrests and sentences for four indivduals

AW:  I think it was even like one bottle. Then it was like three-year or four-year sentences for that.

So, it’s that level of insecurity, of absolute intolerance toward any sort of expression around June 4 and commemorating the dead, those who were killed. Some have also called to re-designate those protests as patriotic and as not turmoil, something that is going to continue to be something that people will continue to call for. But the CCP, I can’t imagine them really doing that. It would seriously have to be major political reform for that to happen. But one day I’m hopeful, one day that that will indeed happen. [Ed. Note: Rights Lawyer Teng Biao echoed a similar sentiment in his interview: that the Tiananmen protests will not be remembered on mainland China unless there is significant political reform. For him, that is democracy in China.]

And that particularly I wanted to also just mention the group The Tiananmen Mothers. [These are] family members who lost loved ones in Beijing June 3 and 4 in 1989 and who have just been an amazing force to try to uncover – because the Chinese government isn’t and is trying to suppress this information – trying to uncover the names and identities and sort of details about who was killed that night. They’re still at it. They’re calling for an investigation, for compensation and for an apology. Anyway, it’s important to also honor their efforts and their loss.

CL&P:  Yeah. Well, I want to thank you and also echo your sentiments that there’s still a lot of brave Chinese that are still trying to commemorate what happened on June 4th and the bravery of their fellow citizens. But I want to also thank you for also writing down your stories and remembering for the Chinese people who can’t right now develop their photos of what happened during that time period and commemorate it in the way they can. So thank you again, Andréa for sharing and do you have any last words?

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) protesting at Tiananmen, spring 1989. He would latter be sentenced to 11 years for participating in 2008’s Charter ’08 and would ultimately die will serving his term.

AW:  Yes. Thank you so much. Although it’s a grim topic, if you will, I appreciate the opportunity to sort of share this with you. I do actually want to end on another note of hope, which is that another legacy of Tiananmen is also those people who continue to fight for democracy and human rights in China. For example, Charter ’08 and the Charter ’08 Movement, Liu Xiaobo and many others, many of the human rights lawyers, there is a direct line from 1989 through Charter ’08 to today.

So a lot of the activism is happening outside of China now, but there still are activists in China doing what they can in the very limited space that they have to essentially fight for human rights, for rule of law, and political freedom.

CL&P: Yes. Thank you for reminding us of that.

AW:  Okay, thanks, Elizabeth.

CL&P:  Thank you.

***********************************************************************************************************************
This ends China Law & Policy’s interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History. If you missed our interview with Frank Upham who was in Wuhan in May and June 1989, please click here. If you missed our interview with human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who recounted the indoctrination he received after Tiananmen and then his awakening to the truth, click here.

Never forget the murder, but more importantly, never forget the hope

Teng Biao – His Tiananmen Awakening

Human Rights Lawyer Teng Biao

In commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, China Law & Policy continues its interview series of various eyewitnesses to this history. Today we are joined by Teng Biao. Teng Biao received his doctorate of law in 2002 from Peking University. He became a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law while he continued as a rights lawyer and advocate. Teng Biao litigated and represented some of China’s most important civil rights cases, including the Sun Zhigang incident, he served as counsel to rights advocates Chen Guangcheng and Hu Jia, and also worked on overturning a death sentence in the Li Peng case in Jiangsu province. In addition to his individual work, Teng Biao is the co-founder of two important Beijing based NGOs that seek to protect the rights of China’s most vulnerable, China Against the Death Penalty and The Open Constitution Initiative. As a result of his advocacy on behalf of China’s most vulnerable, Teng Biao has been detained many times by the police and authorities in China.

Since 2014, Teng Biao has been living in the United States where he was a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU Law School. In the United States, Teng Biao has continued his advocacy for the rule of law in China, and for rights protection there, co-founding the Human Rights Accountability Center. But more importantly for today, back in 1989, Teng Biao was in China.

Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 26 minutes):

Additionally, you can read the transcript below or Click Here To Open A PDF of the Transcript of the Interview with Teng Biao.

CL&P: So, Teng Biao, I want to thank you again for joining us today. Just to get started, can you tell us where you were in the spring of 1989 when the pro-democracy demonstrations started in Beijing?

TB:  I was a high school student in Jilin province. I lived in a small town in a rural area.

CL&P:  What year were you back then, in 1989? How old were you in high school?

TB:  First grade [of high school], I was 16 years old.

CL&P:  And in your high school, when the pro-democracy demonstrations started in Beijing, were the students aware of them? Did you hear the news about them?

TB:  Yes. We watched the official television, but we didn’t talk about that too much.

CL&P:  Okay.

Protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, spring 1989

Protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, spring 1989

TB:  I think almost all the high school students in rural areas and small towns work very hard to prepare the college entrance examination. So I knew, but I didn’t know the truth of the Tiananmen movement and massacre.

CL&P:  Yeah. And then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th 1989, when there was the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square, do you remember hearing the news about that?

TB:  No. Actually, most of the students, including me and most of my classmates, maybe 100%, were brainwashed. We were brainwashed so much that we didn’t know everything other than the textbooks or what the teacher told us, and we never challenged what the teachers, what the official media told us, and we didn’t have any access to the books, any materials that the Communist Party prohibited.

CL&P:  So you’re saying that when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, you guys weren’t aware of it, and then afterwards they tried to brainwash you into thinking. . . .What was the party line that they were teaching at that time, if you remember?

TB:  Yeah. We saw something on the television, and we knew that students were on the street protesting against corruption. But we were taught that it was a violent riot, and some soldiers were killed by the students and the Beijing citizens. And we were even actually forced to memorize the names of the soldiers who were killed.

CL&P: Oh wow.

TB:  Yeah, and I can remember their names even today, two of the three, that Liu Guogeng and Cui Guozheng, and because we had to memorize these names. They were a part of the political examination. So, for me, I didn’t have the capacity to challenge the official version of this, of Tiananmen.

CL&P:  Right, right. And I think it’s important that you mention that they were soldiers that were killed in the Tiananmen protests, but at the same time the students themselves were also injured and killed. When did you start realizing or learning that you hadn’t been taught the full truth, and the full facts about Tiananmen?

Wang Dan, one of the protest's leaders, stands in front of a sign that says Peking University

Wang Dan, one of the protest’s leaders, stands in front of a sign that says Peking University

TB: That’s two years later. Two years later I went to Peking University, but because of the Tiananmen, all students, the first year students of Peking University and Fudan University had to go to junxiao [军校], military college, to have a whole year of military training. But some classmates of mine brought some books, underground books written by the overseas dissidents and some other democracy thinkers. So I personally knew the truth of Tiananmen from these books, and also some classmates from Beijing, Shanghai, these big cities also told us a lot of stories they saw. They participated in the movement, and they were eyewitnesses of the Tiananmen massacre. So, two years after 1989, I knew the truth.

CL&P:  And when you learned about what really happened in Tiananmen, what was your reaction? Or how did you feel?

TB:  I was really shocked, and that’s the beginning of my awakening. You know, I was brainwashed, and I didn’t have the ability to think independently. So that’s the beginning of my thinking independently. And I was so shocked that I started to read a lot of books, and I realized that many, many history knowledge that I was taught [in school] was false. So I realized I had been cheated by the Chinese Communist Party for so many years, since primary school.

CL&P:  And when you were there in Peking University, this would have been a couple of years after the crackdown, were other students. . .I mean I know some stories from Beijing and Shanghai, as you said, introduced you to what really happened, but what was the majority of students? Did they talk about it? Did professors talk about it? Because Peking University, they played a large role, their students, in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, right?

TB:  Yeah. Between 1989 and 1992, 93 the political atmosphere was very, very supressive. People were so disappointed and they were so afraid of talking about these sensitive things. So, some of my classmates were interested in talking about political issues and human rights, but the majority of the college students never talked about it. And the majority of Chinese people, not only students, became more and more cynical and politically indifferent. Yeah, so only a few of my classmates later participated in some political activities, and they also, of course, got punished.

CL&P:  And when did you decide that you wanted to go to law school, or to study law, I’m sorry, to study law?

TB: In China we have law school in undergraduate, so because I was brainwashed, so I didn’t know the meaning of entering the law school, the meaning of law, or human rights, or democracy before I went to college. So I had really good scores, so I just registered at the best university in China, and I went to Peking University. So, only four or five years later I got my bachelor degree, master degree, and PhD in law school. So I think four or five years after studying law, I gradually knew the meaning of studying law. Especially in the Chinese context, I think it’s really useful to know the law and politics and we should do something to improve, to promote rule of law in China.

CL&P:  In your study of the law, when did you really become, or maybe you started out very passionate, about human rights and taking your career in that direction? In deciding to be a human rights lawyer, as opposed to a corporate lawyer or something like that? When did you decide that’s what you wanted to do? Or did it happen by accident, that it wasn’t a decision?

TB:  In 1999, when I started my PhD program, I decided to become an academic. I was so interested in doing research, and I want to be a professor. And to me, the idea at that time was to use my academic research and my teachings as a tool to promote rule of law in China. And at that time, human rights was not allowed to be discussed publicly. There were some academic papers on human rights, but most of them were propaganda papers. The scholars can only say that human rights is, what’s the word? Hypocritical?

CL&P:  Hypocritical, yeah, yeah.

TB:  Yeah. It [human rights] is a hypocritical theory of western capitalists. But several years later though, human rights was written into the Chinese constitution, and it’s more open to talk about human rights. So, after I got my PhD I began to teach at the China University of Political Science and Law.

CL&P:  So, as an attorney who worked on human rights in China, and also supports rule of law, and has worked with the group of rights lawyers, the weiquan [维权] lawyers in China, as a member of that group, is there any influence of the Tiananmen crackdown on that group? Does that drive you, does that drive them to keep doing what they’re doing?

TB: Yeah. I became a lecturer and soon I practiced law as a part-time lawyer, and I dedicated myself into human rights cases. Most of my cases were related to civil rights, to these politically-sensitive cases and I was one of the earliest promoters of the rights defense movement. I found that there was a close connection between the rights defense movement and the previous democracy movement. Many human rights lawyers were influenced by the Tiananmen movement, and they were inspired by the courageous students of 1989, and some of them were also activists or witnessed the Tiananmen [protests]. Some Tiananmen activists and democracy activists joined in the rights defense movement and became part of the human rights movement. And some human rights lawyers, like me, defend not only constitutional rights using the existing legal system, but also promote democracy in China.

So, we gradually politicized the human rights movement. For example, we worked together with the dissidents, the democracy activists. And we joined the Charter 08 movement. We defend dissidents and human rights activists. And we challenge the abuse of power and corruption. So, the human rights movement in China gradually became a movement promoting democracy.

CL&P:  So, you have the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown where the Chinese government opens fire on its own people. I understand why the protests are inspiring to the weiquan lawyers now and to you. But why isn’t it also something to be frightened of, that the government is willing to do something so rash? Where does the Chinese human rights lawyers and the advocates, where does their courage come from, in light of the fact that the shadow of Tiananmen hangs over them, that there could be a violent crackdown? And there has been violent crackdowns, just different, in the detentions, the mass detentions, your detentions you’ve experienced. I guess, where does that courage come from to keep going?

Sun Zhigang, migrant work killed while in police custoday.

TB:  Yeah. So, for me, I think it’s my responsibility as a lawyer, as an intellectual to bear more of a burden for a democratized China. I had my PhD and I was teaching in the university, and I became a bit famous after the Sun Zhigang incident. So, [I thought] I should do more to promote democracy and rule of law in China. And in the process of human rights movement, more and more lawyers joined, and we got more and more support from the ordinary people. So, we had this feeling of solidarity, and we support each other. We were harassed, and punished, and persecuted by the authorities again and again. But we didn’t give up, and we were admired and praised by the people every time after we were targeted.

And for some other people, especially the young generation, they don’t know the Tiananmen. They may have heard of Tiananmen, but they don’t know the details of the massacre, and they are not witnesses of the Tiananmen massacre. So, of course that’s bad because they don’t have that part of the memory. But it’s also good because they don’t have the fear. They’ve never thought about the possibility of a bloody crackdown on the protesters. So, that lack of fear also inspires some people of the younger generation.

CL&P:  And going back to the fact that a lot of young Chinese people don’t really know the full facts of Tiananmen, which can be good in that they don’t have the fear, but 30 years from now when we have the 60th anniversary of Tiananmen, what do you think the legacy of Tiananmen will be in China especially? Will people be able to talk openly at that point about Tiananmen?

TB:  The Chinese government has been suppressing the memory of Tiananmen, suppressing the truth. And some Chinese people who commemorated the Tiananmen massacre were even been arrested and convicted [of crimes]. Chinese people now don’t enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of demonstration. So even the Tiananmen Mothers are harassed again and again for these 30 years, only because they want to commemorate their lost children, their loved ones. So, it is not possible to have a real true history, a true memory of Tiananmen if China is not a free and democratic country. So, the answer is that one, the Chinese Communist Party will step down when China can achieve legal democracy. So, I don’t know another 30 years whether or not China becomes a free country, and an open society. It’s possible, and that’s the biggest dream of many of us human rights activists and democracy activists. So we have to keep the memory alive, keep the hope alive. We have to fight for democracy and human rights. So I really hope that 30 years later, Chinese people can freely talk about Tiananmen, to commemorate the victims, and to have the freedom of expression, and a meaningful democracy.

CL&P:  Well, I want to thank you again, Teng Biao, for sharing your experiences and your thoughts about Tiananmen, and also for preserving the memory for the many Chinese people in China who can’t talk about it just yet. And I also want to thank you for the amazing work you have done in China, and continue to do in trying to promote greater rights and rule of law in China. So, thank you for sharing.

TB: Thank you.

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China Law & Policy will concludes its series “#Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History” with Andréa Worden, a noted China expert and, in the spring of 1989, an English teacher in Changsha, China. Hear Changsha’s story on Tuesday.

If you missed our interview with Prof. Frank Upham who was in Wuhan on June 4, 1989, please click here.

Introducing #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History

Hong Kong Tiananmen Massacre Rememberence Vigil

For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate its murder of hundreds – if not thousands – of Chinese students, workers and civilians. Thirty years later, the question now is, will the Chinese people ever know their own history? As memories fade, Tiananmen mothers die, and the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, the answer seems to be leaning toward no.

That is why those outside of China must never forget June 4, 1989 and continue to memorialize and investigate the events. Someday, the Chinese people will be free to remember their history as they choose to; not as the Communist Party tells them to. When that moment happens, the Chinese will be able to access the memories that the rest of the world has temporarily maintained on their behalf.

In that effort, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, China Law & Policy sat down with a couple of eyewitnesses to that history. One, who was in Wuhan at the time, still remembers the eerie music that played the morning that the students learned of the killings in Beijing. Another cannot forget the names of the soldiers that were killed during the crackdown that he and his high school classmates were forced to memorize in their political indoctrination classes, only learning about the hundreds of students killed years later. A third witnessed the citizens of Changsha who, in their euphoria during the hopeful days before June 4, took thousands of photos. She now wonders, 30 years later, if those rolls of film will ever be developed.


When the students ruled the Tiananmen Square, May/June 1989

Please join us over the next week, where we post these stories of remembrance. Our interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History, will kick off tomorrow with Professor Frank Upham who recounts his memories from his time in Wuhan in the spring of 1989.

30 Years Ago Today, the Chinese Government Declared Martial Law

To deal with the student and worker protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on May 19, 1989, the Chinese government instituted a news black out and declared martial law to go into effect the next day. Read a news account of that day – May 20, 1989 – from the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, tanks would enter Beijing killing hundreds to thousands of students, workers and civilians. #Tiananmen30

MARTIAL LAW IMPOSED IN BEIJING


The government Saturday imposed martial law on Tiananmen Square and the center of the city, ordered a news blackout and moved in soldiers as part of a crackdown on tens of thousands of students demonstrating for democracy.
There were reports that hundreds of people fought hand to hand with troops trying to enter the capital. Witnesses told Reuters news agency that workers and peasants battled unarmed troops on the main road leading into Beijing . . .[read full article]
Chinese students and civilians peacefully stop the troops from entering Beijing. May 20, 1989.

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