Trained as a theoretical physicist, Xiao Qiang became a human rights activist after Tiananmen in 1989 and was executive director of Human Rights in China from 1991 to 2002. He now is director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He talks here about the regime's efforts to suppress memory and all discussion about Tiananmen and why all that has happened to China over the last 17 years can be explained by this one event. Political reform will one day come to China, he says, and he believes his generation -- students at the time of Tiananmen -- will have a role in that change. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 13, 2005.
- Why the crackdown was so severe
- The new prosperous class of young Chinese
- Erasing the memory of Tiananmen
Why did the demonstrations for reform in China reach such a nationwide level of support at their height in May and June of 1989?
Well, 1988 had been a time of economic reform taking rapid speed, but also inflation and corruption. Many people were frustrated about the level of corruption and worried about where [the country] was going. Students started the movement, triggered by [ousted Secretary General of the Communist Party] Hu Yaobang, who symbolized the democracy movement. He died in April 15, and very soon it turned from mourning a reform leader to a demand for political reform and a democratic movement among students.
But then, by April 27, when the authorities, essentially Deng Xiaoping, decided to rule out a possibility of dialogue with students and intellectuals and labeled them subversives, that's where the workers and people came in to support students, because the students confronted authorities by having a peaceful but powerful march in April.
Then came the next stage, the hunger strike and more firm demands from the students and demonstrators. Then the demonstrators [were] joined by workers and nurses and journalists from every level of society.
It's important to remember that there was a brief moment in the movement in May where the Chinese leadership split, and there's [Secretary General] Zhao Ziyang on one side and [Premier] Li Peng on the other. Therefore, there was a political vacuum for a while. Even the official media, like People's Daily and Xinhua [News Agency] and CCTV [Central China Television], broadcast student demonstrations in a very sympathetic tone. That sent a political signal across the nation as well. Not only [had] people [become] aware of what students asked for, what they are doing, but also being perceived as there is a hope that a reformer will be in charge, and truly a dialogue will begin, and political reform will start from here.
That's why we see the people from all walks of life pouring their support to the students in late May. … The scale is nationwide, really penetrating almost all levels of the society. …
The severity of the crackdown [was] absolutely a deliberate decision by the top. You don't need hundreds of thousands of troops, infantries and armies, to occupy the city in order to handle a completely peaceful demonstration.
The reason the highest authority, which is Deng Xiaoping and his followers, did that was because from their eyes, people cannot be … tolerated if they have any tendency to rebel. … They see these are people who rebel against their ruling, and the only answer is not just killing; it's awesome violence to make people dread them [at] the unconscious level [so they] do not ever do this again. … They must send an ultimate message. … They can only do that by ultimate violence -- by rows of tanks rolling over the capital street, by shooting people's heads, shooting people's stomachs, using the dum-dum bullets. The soldiers, not only were they fully armed, they wear helmets; they wear white gloves; they sing the military songs. They showed the ultimate, awesome power of violence in order to make people forever remember that you do not rebel. …
This is not new for China. This was done [for] thousands and thousands [of] years, [ruling] a vast country by violence, the most severe measures always against rebels. And at that moment, when the students and citizens stand up and do not shy away from the authorities' threat, this is the moment of truth. … It's a tragedy, but it's also a reality of the political logic of China for 1,000 years.
Can you remember your feelings when you first saw photographs of that young man facing a column of tanks?
The first time I saw that picture on TV was when I was still in America, a Ph.D. student doing a physics experiment in a field. … I saw what happened on the street with a young man standing in front of tanks. It took a while for that picture to sink in, because hours later I took off on an airplane on my way back to China. I wanted to do something, anything I can, to help my country and my people. …
I arrived in China, … and I was hiding at a friend's house, … my friends with tears trying to stop me [from going] to Beijing, trying to convince me to get out of China again because it's too risky. It's this image [of the Tank Man] [that] came clearer and clearer in my mind and stronger and stronger, to say, this is what a human being can do with the face of human freedom and dignity in front of this violent power.
That ultimate spirit of freedom will last longer than the strength of tanks and machine guns. … Where is Hitler's Nazis? Where is the former Soviet Union? Where is Suharto's Indonesia or Pinochet's Chile? They're all gone, and the Chinese Communist Party and its dictatorship will be gone. The men standing in front of tanks will stay. … That's what this picture stands for for me. …
… [You tried to find him.] What do you think might have happened to him?
Every year on that anniversary I get phone calls, interview requests. I have journalists, I have teachers, I have students asking my organization, where is [he]? Who is [he]? How is [he] now? But I don't have that answer. … If this man has the guts to stand in front of tanks, I don't think he can be completely silenced about what he has done over the last 17 years if he is a free person. But if he is in detention, given we understand how powerful this symbolic act is, I'm pessimistic about what this brutal regime will do to him these 17 years. I'm pessimistic about if he is still alive.
… I have made investigations, and I have met people who falsely claim that they were him. … But somehow the power of that story is not getting weaker because of the time. Because we don't know who he is, it's actually getting stronger. …
Just look how hard the Chinese authorities are trying to wipe out this memory. Temporarily they had some success among the Chinese younger generation, among the certain part they can control, but they're trying to make people completely forget what happened, completely forget if ever there [was] a Chinese man [who stood] in front of tanks. But in the long run, they are on the losing side. This memory prevails. The pictures are everywhere -- through the Internet, through the satellite TVs. The Chinese have known about their heroes, and this hero will inspire the Chinese again in the future battle for freedom.
… In 1995 we published a full list of those the Chinese government labeled rioters. These are the people who one way or another confronted the martial troops during those weeks. They were given the heaviest punishment. Their names were almost forgotten if we don't dig them out, because they're not intellectuals; they're no longer dissidents; they're not even students. Most were absolutely peaceful, and their courage and actions were no less than the person who stood in front of the tanks. Now we have many of those people's names, and even 17 years later some of them are still in prison.
Do we know much about the soldiers who disobeyed orders and what happened to them?
There are reports of not only soldiers but middle-level officers, even on the commanders' level, that disobeyed the order to massacre. They are being put on military trial, including the general who [was] the commander of one of the lead [units] responsible [for] defending Beijing. He refused to execute the highest order, and he was being put on military trial. We don't know what happened after that. There is a record of hundreds of those ministry personnel [going] through a military trial, but what we do not know is whether that is a complete record or just the tip of the iceberg.
I told you about my experience at Beijing University [also called Peking University], showing the photograph of the young man and the tanks to four undergraduates, and they didn't know what it was.
… The Chinese Communist Party regime is trying to force people to accept that it didn't happen the way it really happened and that the government did something for the interest of the Chinese people, and it's also better not even to talk about it.
So over the last 17 years, more and more younger generation of Chinese are not aware of what happened. [It's] not in their schoolbooks; [they do] not allow their teachers to talk about it. Also at the same time, the society [is] economically opening up, and there's a lot of energy going into channeling people's energy and creativity and attention to economic activities.
… China has gone through rapid and profound changes. But you cannot understand the full scale of this change without understanding the impact of the Tiananmen massacre. … It is precisely because of the 1989 massacre that the Chinese Communist Party stopped addressing the issue of political reform. … After 1989 Tiananmen, after the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countries were falling apart, the Chinese Communist Party had an ultimate fear that if the people know the truth and [become] involved in political activities, that will be the end of the Chinese Communist Party. What we see happening in China is all the business activity being encouraged, including the foreign investment and technologies. We see even Internet and the cell phones and satellite TVs are flourishing in China because that is a business imperative.
At the same time, you see an effort from the Chinese government to control the Internet, making it a market lure for the Western IT companies because there is so much business opportunity. [But] government is trying to control the information. The censorship technologies from those Western corporations' eyes [are] simply a business opportunity. I think there is a very serious ethical question we should ask [about] the social responsibility of those corporations. …
[Is all of China benefiting from the economic growth plan?]
[There are] many aspects to answer that question. It is an economic question. The economic policy that China decided to take over in 1992 is based on attracting foreign investment and [utilizing] China's cheap labor, well-educated workforces, at the expense of environmental protection and laborers' rights, to quickly build up the manufacture [and] productions along the coast. …
… The Chinese Communist Party claims it's [working] on behalf of the workers' interest. Where are the workers? Where are the peasants today in China? They are in the bottom of society. … [They] have not been included in this economic model.
These are not a small number of people. We're talking about hundreds of millions of peasants, hundreds of millions of migrant workers. We're talking about hundreds of millions of the unemployed and other people in different walks of life. We're talking about the entire state education system, the medical insurances and other sort of basic social security for the people. Those systems have been torn apart by this all-out economic growth. … If Beijing developed, if Shanghai developed, if Guangdong has thousands and thousands of exports and fancy fashion shows, they are not benefiting the peasants and the state-run employer workers. …
The second aspect of this is the growing [amount] of social unrest -- the violent conflict, the direct protest and confrontations to authorities in the last number of years. At the end of last year, the Public Security Ministry declared the number of the demonstrations was 74,000 nationwide, but a year before was 50,000, and this number is increasing. …
The moment that Tiananmen can be publicly talked about, … how many Beijingers will have stories to tell? How many pictures will come to the surface? How many memories will be explicitly in the public? It is never really gone. … There is no family in Beijing [that does] not remember 1989; there is no one [who] can completely wipe … history out of human memory and the mind. They are deep down [in] the Chinese psyche. That is exactly why the Chinese government is so fearful about even the word "June Fourth," the word "Tiananmen Square." That is why those are taboos on the Chinese Internet, on Chinese TVs. …
What is your feeling about those fellow students who … are very successful business people, prospering more in China than they might have done in the United States? What do you feel towards that generation?
The short answer is I want this generation to be successful, whether [in their] business or whether [in their] personal life or whether in their future political life. Many of those people [had] a genuine idealist vision of China in 1989, and later on, life went on. They may address that, they may change that, but still they are today a most important generation of China, because they are in their late 30s and early 40s, and they are truly taking over the society now. And there is a memory still there.
It is an undeniable fact that after the massacre, the Chinese authorities successfully co-opted the intellectual and business elite, convinced them of the story that only under the status quo of the Communist Party [can China] go on the path of economic development and build up the country. Everybody has to sort of work under that assumption. Do not ever challenge that.
If you want to succeed in today's China, that is [the] general environment that you operate with. So those who succeed economically and businesswise and social status in China, it's part of that co-opted story.
But that does not mean that this generation really forgets the memory. It's deep inside their mind[s]. I know it's still there, and it's still in a certain way a drive for a more open China in the coming years. … Deep down I believe this generation of the Chinese people are the children of that hope, the hope for a democratic China. While this generation now [is becoming] more and more successful and important in China's political and economic life, I think that [it's] only increasing the chance for China to become a democratic country.
Hundreds of thousands of troops entered Beijing in 1989. As I walked around Beijing and looked at the faces, I realized that anyone over the age of 25 would have a direct memory of this, but it is something you can't talk about. There are no public memorials; this thing is bottled inside. What does that do to the human psyche?
I think it's profound. Literally every single family in Beijing remembers this and knows someone who lost life for this. And it happened in the eyes of the world. How can you possibly suppress this memory forever? I don't think so. Yes, political power in the last 17 years has ruled out any possibilities to redress this and has created a propaganda and information environment that does not allow people to talk about it, but the deep psychological impact is there. I give you an example.
I have a young student coming from China, a successful journalist in her early 30s, in many other ways very enthusiastically trying to defend the Chinese government's economic policy and foreign policy. She came to me and asked me, "What did you see in 1989 when you went back to China?" She was not from Beijing; she only went to Beijing in the last five years. That's the first question she asked me. This is after 17 years. This is someone who is doing very well in today's Chinese society, but you can see that question in her mind all the time.
So it's a powerful political force, and that's what today we cannot ignore. That's why Zhao Ziyang cannot be publicly mourned. That's why [political secretary to Zhao] Bao Tong is still under house arrest. … And those Tiananmen mothers. It's because the powerful impact of this memory is very present. It's not being tapped, but that's exactly what the picture of the man standing in front of tanks symbolized, and what exactly this potential is.