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Wang Dan in 1989
Human rights groups reported that 50 to 100 people were executed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, some for things as minor as setting a police motorcycle on fire or taking photographs of tanks around the square. Another 15,000 to 20,000 were detained, with 99 of those still in prison in ten years later.

More than 100,000 Chinese people went into exile after June 4. “Operation Yellowbird” in Hong Kong went on for years, helping people escape. In 2007, 18 years after the event, 13 Chinese were still behind bars for their involvement in the Tiananmen square protests. The Obama administration has called for China to release all those still imprisoned, stop harassing those who took part and open a dialogue with victim’s families. The Chinese government said these requests amounted to “crudely meddling in Chinese domestic affairs.”

In 2016, a U.S.-based advocacy group, reported that the last person jailed over the Tiananmen Square protests would soon be released from prison. Tim Daiss wrote in Forbes: “ When Miao Deshun was arrested for throwing a basket at a burning People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tank, he was 25 year old. Now, he’s 52 and suffering bad health, reportedly diagnosed with hepatitis B and schizophrenia. [Source: Tim Daiss, Forbes, May 15, 2016].

Websites and Sources: Amnesty International amnesty.org ; Human Rights Watch hrw.org ; Chinese Government Position on Human Rights China.org ; United States State Department Report www.state.gov ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Dissidents Wikipedia

Tiananmen Square Political Activists

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Wuer Kaixi in the 1990s

A number of dissidents and political prisoners that achieved notoriety in the 1990s were associated with the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Bao Tong was the most senior member of the Communist party linked to the Tiananmen Square protest other than Zhao Ziyang,. A former top advisor to former party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, he was arrested and imprisoned shortly after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was released from prison in 1998 and lives outside of Beijing and has been denied his political rights.

Zhai Weimin, a student leader at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations was snatched off the streets in 1994 by plain clothed policemen. Ma Saofand, another student leader, disappeared and was believed to be in detention.

Chinese labor organizer and Tiananmen Square dissident Han Dongfang was imprisoned for two years. While in prison he came down with tuberculosis and was sent for treatment to the U.S., where he had his lung removed. When he tried to return to China he was literally pushed back into Hong Kong.. Han decided to stay in Hong Kong after the handover. He publishes the Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, hosts a call in radio show and serves as a watchdog on human right abuses..

Yu Dongyue was jailed for throwing paint on a portrait of Mao Zedong during the Tiananmen protests. He was released after 16 years in February 2006. He was the last major figure from Tiananmen Square to be released.

In May 2009, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tainanmen Square crackdown, five men who were jailed for supporting the 1989 democracy movement, called on the Chinese government for economic redress, saying they are struggling to survive because of their punishment. In an open letter to Chinese leaders, released via US-based group Human Rights in China, the five former prisoners from Zhejiang province claim that they are suffering financially because they are still labelled as “June Fourth thugs” . [Source: Tania Branigan and Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 31, 2009]

"Since our imprisonment after the 4 June 1989 crackdown, we not only lost our jobs, we were also stripped of the cumulative benefits of our past labor and lost our pension rights,” wrote Wu Gaoxing, Chen Longde, Wang Donghai, Mao Guoliang and Ye Wenxiang. ‘some are now past retirement age, yet have no source of income to cover living expenses and no medical insurance; others ... have no choice but to drift from place to place doing temporary manual labor to support their families, while living apart from their wives. If we get sick, we can only wait to die, and all this just because 20 years ago we were sentenced for political reasons.”

Operation Yellowbird and Celebrity Abroad

Operation Yellow is alliance of human rights advocates, business, smugglers and Chinese mobsters who have smuggled 500 Chinese out of China after the Tiananmen Square protests and resettled them abroad. Tiananmen leader Wuer Kaixi escaped from China—in a $13,000 operation masterminded by Operation Yellowbird and financed by the Chinese mafia—on speedboat to Hong Kong, where he was given a visa, a passport and a plane ticket to Paris.

The Operation Yellowbird teams used scrambler devices, night-vision goggle and infrared signalers in their runs for freedom and used make up artists to disguise the escapees. The group had contacts with border guards, local police and radar operators. Shen Tong, one of the "21 most wanted counterevolutionaries" was simply boarded on plane at Beijing airport with the help of customs and immigration officials. [Source: Newsweek]

The twenty-something Tiananmen Square leaders that managed to escape from China became big stars. They met with world leaders, were invited to the White House, were interviewed by the major networks, were offered movie deals and funneled money from supporters in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many of those that made their way to the United States got degrees at Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley or Columbia,

Li Lu was a key organizer at Tiananmen Square got a law degree and M.B.A. at Columbia and got a job heading a hedge fund. Liu Gang, an imprisoned student leader and for a whole the no. 3 person on Beijing’s most wanted list, got a degree in computer science from Columbia after he was released from prison in 1994.

Wang Dan

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Wang Dan in Washington in 1998

Wang Dan, one of the most well leader from Tiananmen Square, was a student at Beijing University and an organizer of the Beijing Student Autonomous Federation at the time of the protests. After being declared No. 1 on the government’s most wanted list he was arrested.

In 1989, Wang was sentenced to four years in prison for "counterrevolutionary crimes" and trying to topple the Chinese government. He was released after 3½ years in 1993—along with writer Liu Xiaobo—, after great efforts by the Bush administration. After Wang was released he and his mother was closely watched; he had articles calling for political reforms published in Hong Kong; and organized a petition calling for the government to move towards rule of law and tolerate dissent.

Wang was jailed again in May, 1995 after being charged with "trying to subvert the Chinese government." Among the charges brought against Wang were taking a University of California correspondence course on history, illegal fund raising and writing articles "aimed at inciting unrest." His crimes carried a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum penalty of death by execution. Wang's 61-year-old mother, who has no legal training, served as Wang's lawyer.

In April 1998, at the age of 29 Wang, was released on medical parole, even though he didn't seem very ill, and exiled to the United States. He studied at Harvard, worked as an interpreter for the U.S. State Department, became a U.S. citizen and wrote a book: "Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen." In 2008 he received his doctorate from Harvard in history.

Chai Ling

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Chai Ling in 1989
Chai Ling, a psychology student and commander-in-chief of the Tiananmen Square Headquarters Command, was not on on the government most wanted list after the protest. She escaped from China after the protests—according to some reports — squeezed into a wooden crate by smugglers. She appeared first in Hong Kong and later went to France and then to United States. She got an MBA at Harvard, worked as a government consultant in Boston and founded her own Internet company.

Chai Ling was born in 1966. At the time of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations she said: "I think these may be my last words. My name is Chai Ling. I am twenty-three years old. My home is in Shandong Province. I entered Beijing University in 1983 and majored in psychology. I began my graduate studies at Beijing Normal University in 1987. By coincidence, my birthday is April 15, the day Hu Yaobang died. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The situation has become so dangerous. The students asked me what we were going to do next. I wanted to tell them that we were expecting bloodshed, that it would take a massacre, which would spill blood like a river through Tiananmen Square, to awaken the people. But how could I tell them this? How could I tell them that their lives would have to be sacrificed in order to win? If we withdraw from the square, the government will kill us anyway and purge those who supported us. If we let them win, thousands would perish, and seventy years of achievement would be wasted. Who knows how long it would be before the movement could rise again? The government has so many means of repression — execution, isolation. They can wear you down and that's exactly what they did to Wei Jingsheng."

Wuer Kaixi

Wuer Kaixi was the charismatic leader of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation during the Tiananmen protests. An ethnic Uighur, who was 21 at the time of the protests, he made a name for himself debating with Li Peng while television cameras were rolling and became the second most wanted man in China after the protests were over.

Wuer escaped to France using Operation Yellowbird and then made his way to the United States. He studied at Harvard for a while and then lived in California with his Taiwanese wife, Chen Huiling, and ran the Ranch House restaurant near San Francisco International airport. At that time he told journalist Orville Schell he had two ambitions: either to go back to China to "do something really politically meaningful or...to become a billionaire."

Wu'er ultimately made his way to Taichung, Taiwan, his adopted home since 1996. Wuer was given permanent residence in Taiwan where he became a talk show host. In 2004, he came to Hong Kong to attend the funeral of his friend, the pop singer Anita Mui. Authorities in Hong Kong gave him permission to visit.

Wuer Waixi was arrested by Japanese police when he tried to break into the Chinese embassy in Tokyo in June 2010. He said after he was released two days later, “I tried to enter the embassy to turn myself in. I wanted to return to China and probe my innocense in court. I haven’t given up of returning [to China]."

In July 2015,Wu'er Kaixi, backed by the Constitutional Reform Fraternity Coalition, launched an unsuccessful second bid for the Legislative Yuan — the Taiwanese legislature. J.R. Wu of Reuters wrote: “Wu'er, a Taiwan citizen of nearly 20 years, and a rival from the pro-independence party have struck a gentlemen's agreement whereby the one with the least support will endorse the other in a bid to unseat the incumbent from the ruling pro-China Nationalist Party. [Source: J.R. Wu, Reuters. July 24, 2015]

Weng Juntao and Chen Ziming

Wang Juntao founded the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences research Institute with Chen Ziming. In 1976 he led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in support of Deng Xiaoping. In 1979, he was involved in the Democracy Wall movement and supported the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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Weng Juntao

In 1991, Weng was labeled a "black hands" and sentenced to 13 years in prison for speaking up for those who lost their life at Tiananmen Square. "The dead are unable to defend themselves.” he wrote. “Many of them intended to fight for China and her people, for truth and justice. I decided to take a chance to defend some of their points, even if I did not agree with all of them at the time...A defense should not be limited to saying 'I do not oppose leaders,' but should allow for the legitimate right of people to oppose leaders." Wang was released in 1994. He escaped to the United States, where he attended Harvard Kennedy School and became president of the China Strategic Institute.

Chen Ziming was also labeled as a "black hands.” He tried to mediate between the students and the government during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. After the protests he managed to escaped from Beijing and was captured, accompanied by his wife, in the southern city of Zhanjian, He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1991 on sedition charges.

Chen had been involved in earlier uprisings and mainly played a behind the scenes role at Tiananmen Square. He was given a longer sentence than anyone else associated with Tiananmen Square. As a concession to the Clinton administration, Chen was released in May 1994 and then arrested again in June, 1995 even though he had been diagnosed with cancer. After spending most of the time after that under house arrest he was formally released in October 2006.

Surviving Tiananmen Square Only to End Up Crazy, Homeless and in Jail

Liao Yiwu wrote in The Nation: “Wu Wenjian was only 19 in 1989, the same generation as the Dings’ only child. Against his parents’ wishes, he joined the street protests on the morning of June 4, and he was lucky that the bullet only grazed his scalp rather than piercing his heart. He published a speech he’d written expressing his outrage, titled “We Demand the Repayment of This Debt of Blood.” It earned him a long spell in prison. [Source: “All You Want Is Money! All I Want Is Revolution!: Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, everyone loved China; now everyone loves the renminbi” by Liao Yiwu, The Nation, November 17, 2015 ]

The dictators had won. The murderer Deng Xiaoping finally made a public appearance to reward the troops who had succeeded in imposing martial law. Amid the endless rumors, many of the “thugs” were arrested, and several were publicly executed by firing squad. “I was lucky, too,” said Wu Wenjian. “I only got seven years. Many of the so-called thugs my age were ordinary workers, peasants, street hawkers, who took to the streets to resist the army. If the judge decided to convict them of ‘property damage and looting’ and gave them a harsh sentence, they might spend decades in jail.

“These were boys who’d never kissed a girl when they were arrested. By the time they were released, they were middle-aged men who knew nothing about society or about women, and had no skills worth speaking of—what could they do? Many have been reduced to sharing the apartments and the pensions of their aging parents. Some of them are afraid to even leave their apartments. Beijing has changed so much, they’re afraid of embarrassing themselves by getting lost in their own hometown.” I winced in recollection. I, too, knew the feeling of getting lost in my own hometown. From 2005 on, I spent a few years following Wu Wenjian’s lead into the world of these marginalized people who had been forgotten by an economically booming, authoritarian China.”

“On June 4, armed police arrested scores of fleeing protesters, and many people were beaten to death. Of the first eight “thugs” convicted of arson because they had set cars on fire, seven were promptly executed. The only one left was a man called Wang Lianxi, a sanitation worker. He was found to have severe mental disabilities, as a result of which his sentence was commuted to life in prison on appeal. After 18 years in prison, he was released shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then he was evicted from his apartment like many other Beijingers, as the city forcibly removed thousands in preparation for the games. Wang Lianxi ended up homeless and was eventually sent to a mental hospital. Those who knew him said that Wang had been sleeping on the streets and scavenging in dumpsters for food. Another man called Lu Zhongqu, who’d also committed property damage by setting cars on fire, was nearly beaten to death by incensed troops. “We saw the soldiers drag him into a tank and take him directly to a detention center,” Wu Wenjian said. “By then, he’d already lost his mind—either he was mentally unstable to begin with, or the beating had driven him mad. He was covered from head to toe with bruises. He also had no bowel or bladder control left, and he would just pee in his pants. He walked around in his own world, and spoke to no one. He eventually disappeared, just like Tank Man, and no one knows what became of him.”

Sex Life of Ex-Tiananmen Square Prisoners

Liao Yiwu wrote in The Nation: “Almost no one I interviewed was willing to speak publicly about sex. That said, among former prisoners who are single men, the conversation inevitably turns to women. Many of the men I spoke to couldn’t stop talking about sex. Only afterward would they suddenly realize that the recorder was on, check themselves, and tell me that their outpourings were not for public consumption. There must be tens of thousands of people all over China who were arrested after the 1989 protests: In Beijing alone, thousands were arrested. Many of them were teenage boys, virgins, like Wu Wenjian. Having spent years or even decades in jail, many suffered from various forms of sexual dysfunction. [Source:“All You Want Is Money! All I Want Is Revolution!: Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, everyone loved China; now everyone loves the renminbi” by Liao Yiwu, The Nation, November 17, 2015 ]

“Upon their release, they were middle-aged men dealing with erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, and their recovery often took months or years. Wu Wenjian, whose sentence was relatively short, said that his erectile dysfunction lasted at least two years. “I was an art student, and not long after being released from prison I found a job in an ad agency, so I was doing well compared to the other June 4 thugs,” he said. “I often traveled for work, so I would be staying in hotels and frequenting places full of sexy women. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that the police might still be following me and could catch me in the act. My first kiss was a disaster: I managed to crack the skin on her lips, and as soon as I put my arms around her I came, which gave me a huge wet patch on my pants. I was nervous and extremely horny, but the hornier I got, the less I could get it up. That lasted all night. The girl was patient, and she kept stroking me and comforting me, but I was on the verge of tears, and I just wanted to slap myself in the face. Eventually she left and never came back.” “That’s what happens when you’ve been sexually starved for such a long time,” I said.

“Wu said, “Every time I saw a girl who was even a little sexy, I would feel the urge to walk up and strike up a conversation—but then I would worry about not being able to perform. In Chongqing, I managed to pick up a girl who worked at a hotel. She had real nice boobs. We sneaked into a room and started making out. She clung to me, her legs wrapped around my waist. I couldn’t hold it in, and seconds later I came. Damn it! She was really turned on, and I was done. She shot me a derisive look. We tried halfheartedly to keep going, and I was sort of feeling it, but as soon as we tried again, I realized it wouldn’t work. ‘Piece-of-shit loser!’ she hissed.” “That was worse than what the Communists did to you, right?” “If we’re losers, then how about the officials, tycoons, yes-men, and sellouts? What did we do to land in prison, and what were you doing that whole time on the outside—whoring with your ill-gotten gains? And when you’ve made enough money and whored enough, you figure you can call us losers… is that right?”

“It’s true, times have changed.” “No, it’s me, really—I’ve become a freak. If I can’t perform, I can’t be wallowing in self-pity and blaming the girls. Recently, Kun and I were hanging out at the Front Gate in town, not long after his release. It was sunset, and we were having fun people-watching. Then a girl with long hair walked past us, trailing a faint scent of perfume. A hot piece of ass. I said nothing—I’ve been on the outside for long enough to have seen everything a man could possibly want to see. But 40-year-old Kun, who had once leapt up onto a car to make speeches while bullets whizzed past him, looked at her as though he would grab her ass with his gaze if he could. No ordinary person can imagine that degree of sexual craving. When the girl walked away, Kun collected himself and whispered to me: ‘Wu, I can’t get it up anymore.’”

“I met Kun once. Wu Wenjian tried to talk him into giving me an interview, but he declined. Kun had been honorably discharged from the army. He was a real patriot. The night of June 3, he was at Muxidi Bridge, the exact place that Zheng Yi described in his recollections—in fact, he’d been one of the people directing the crowds from a height to collectively resist the tanks. He was later betrayed to the military police, convicted on charges of subversion, and given a death sentence that was later commuted to life in prison. His wife left him not long after, taking their child with her. By the time he was released, years later, he was single and living with his 80-year-old parents. “It’s hard finding a job,” he said. “If my boss finds out you’ve interviewed me, I’ll be fired right away.”

Jobs of Ex-Tiananmen Square Prisoners

One ex-Tiananmne Square prisoner told Liao Yiwu: “My first job involved standing outside big department stores, watching their customers’ bicycles. It paid next to nothing. Out on the street on snowy days, I’d be constantly stamping my feet so as not to be frozen into a pillar of ice. Then my friends pulled some strings to get me the job I have now, working in a public bathhouse as a janitor. I clean toilets day and night, but at least it’s a stable income. In the ’80s, we learned from the movies that nightclubs are shady places full of playboys and bad guys. In the ’90s, as restrictions on the free market became looser, so did the morals of the hostesses at nightclubs, so that was what you were looking for if you went to one. In the first years of the new millennium, nightclubs went out of fashion. Now bathhouses are the new thing. Drinking, karaoke, mah-jongg, bathing, full-body massages, foot massages, back massages, hand jobs… We’ll satisfy the full range of the customer’s desires. You might think it’s not your thing, but let’s say you’re half-naked, a hostess comes into the room and starts giving you a massage. Then she works her way down to your thighs, groin, and starts playing with you. You think you wouldn’t get hard? [Source:“All You Want Is Money! All I Want Is Revolution!: Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, everyone loved China; now everyone loves the renminbi” by Liao Yiwu, The Nation, November 17, 2015 ]

“In that den of vice, I’m just the janitor who cleans the toilets. When the fat cats and magnates come in with girls hanging off their arms, I stand respectfully to one side and hand them paper napkins. In the 1989 student movement, we ordinary people supported the students because we were sick of corruption. We wanted the top Communist officials to disclose their side income and private assets. We wanted a fresh start for our country. Government officials are still in league with big business, while ordinary folks can barely make ends meet. Society is suffering from a crisis of trust. Those of us who paid the price for supporting Chinese democracy are left waiting on the fat cats.”

“Once, two businessmen came into the toilet. Neither of them was wearing a shirt. They actually recognized me: ‘Hey, it’s Kun, isn’t it?’ one of them said in astonishment. ‘I’m your old neighbor Hai. We were both there resisting the tanks on the night of June 4, remember? I got lucky and slipped away in the crowds. They had no proof that I’d taken part in the protests, and I denied my involvement strenuously. Eventually I got away with nothing more than making a self-criticism at work. Then Deng Xiaoping made the 1992 tour of South China that signaled economic reform. It was getting too costly to be patriotic, so instead we all responded to the Party’s call like good Communists and went into business instead. I work in food processing, and you don’t ever want to know how that sausage is made. I’ve made a fortune selling dead pigs as live ones, so to speak. As long as you never breathe a word of 1989, never reopen those old wounds, you can keep making money. Kun, it’s too bad you’ve come to this. Back then, you were literally on top of the world! There’s no predicting what will happen to anyone.’”

Chinese Students Abroad Expose Tiananmen Square

Mary Ellen McIntire wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “A letter about the Tiananmen Square massacre signed by 11 Chinese students in the United States and other countries is gaining traction after a state-run Chinese newspaper wrote that the students had been "brainwashed" while studying overseas. Yi Gu, a graduate student from China who is studying chemistry at the University of Georgia, published the letter online detailing the violence that took place in Beijing nearly 26 years ago. His letter, presented as discoveries Mr. Gu has made since coming to the United States three years ago, addresses a subject that is rarely discussed publicly in China and is widely censored by Chinese authorities. As such, it marks an unusual move for a Chinese student. "This part of history has since been so carefully edited and shielded away that many of us today know very little about it," the English translation of the letter reads. "The more we know, the more we feel we have a grave responsibility on our shoulders." [Source: Mary Ellen McIntire, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 2015 ~]

“Mr. Gu said he’d learned little about what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 before coming to the United States, but he was able to conduct his own research online and in the library when he arrived at the University of Georgia. He said he even spoke with survivors of the massacre who gathered in Washington, D.C., last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the incident. "I believed it was the moral responsibility to reveal the truth and show students in China how the truth has been hidden," he said in an interview on Wednesday with The Chronicle. With the 26th anniversary coming up, on June 4, he said it seemed like an appropriate time to share his findings, which he has posted online to be read back home even though the Chinese government censors Internet sites there. ~

“Mr. Gu’s letter was signed by students at the University at Albany, the University of Missouri, and Columbia and Missouri State Universities, as well as at universities in Europe and Australia, before publication. It has since gathered about 100 signatures more. He said he hoped to inform peers in China about the killings, since they are given few details about the massacre in Chinese schools. It’s unclear how widely the letter has been read in China. But it has attracted attention from the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, which posted an editorial denouncing the letter and arguing that the student signers had been influenced by "some overseas hostile forces." The vocal response has helped increase the number of signatures on the letter, he said. ~

“Fear of Returning, Mr. Gu said he had received a few threatening messages, written in Chinese, since the letter has drawn notice. But he said he’d also received more uplifting responses. "We have been living in this constant fear for several decades, and if we continue to keep silent, and no one rises up, we and our friends will continue to live in this fear," he said. "What we are doing is trying to stand up and fight for our future where everyone can live free without fear." Still, Mr. Gu said he wonders when he might be able to return to China now that he has spoken out about Tiananmen Square. "I miss my parents, and I want to be with my family, but it seems almost impossible for me to go back right now," he said. "But I hope that one day I will be able to go back to China." ~

“Perry Link, a well-known China scholar at the University of California at Riverside who has been barred from China for nearly two decades, said that Chinese students in America will typically seek out such information on their own but avoid talking about it even among themselves. In class discussions about their home country, the students typically avoid politics altogether, he added, although they will sometimes speak privately with a professor. "Even for Chinese students outside China, they feel watched, and indeed they sometimes are watched," he said. Mr. Link noted that American universities seeking partnerships with Chinese institutions know that self-censorship and limits on academic freedom come with the territory. "When an issue like this letter comes up," he said, "it just raises the stakes for U.S. college administrators on the academic-freedom side."” ~

Image Sources: AP, China.org

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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