Long after Tiananmen, a simmering dissent

Note: As I’m taking a respite from the rivers, a dispatch from the Far East… 

By Neal Moore

TAINAN – Li JiaBao wasn’t born when automatic weapons fire rang out on Tiananmen Square in 1989, when “Tank Man” brought a convoy of People’s Liberation Army tanks to a halt on the street of Beijing, or even when the Brits handed Hong Kong to Mainland China nearly a decade later. A post-’97 youth, Li, a twenty-year-old who hails from Shandong, is a pharmacy student in Taiwan who calls Xi Jinping “Emperor Xi” in a startling pro-democracy video entitled “I Oppose!”

As the world pauses to remember the students lost at Tiananmen thirty years ago June 4, we can see the unquestionable resolve of those they’ve inspired, like young Chinese exchange student Li JiaBao, and veteran dissident-in-exile Cai Lujun.

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Cai Lujun protesting on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Liberty Square, Taipei. Photo by Neal Moore.

Cai, now age 50, was one of China’s first cyber-dissidents. He was a curious and sympathetic bystander at the protest at Tiananmen Square before the massacre. Only later, when a friend, a young lady, was detained for penning an essay critical of the state, did he find his own voice of dissent. The government gave him every out possible: “Just sign this confession,” they said. The secret police visited his parents and his wife. His family pleaded for him to sign. But he would not.

Cai went to prison in his home province of Hebei in 2003 for “incitement to subvert state power”, serving a three-year sentence for an online Radio Free Asia essay, in which he argued “all of us are people” … “we should do our best to get our freedom, our human rights.”

Soon after his release in 2006, Cai smuggled his way onto a Chinese fishing boat headed for Taiwan. Ten years later, safe with Taiwan ID card and passport, Cai looks out for his fellow Chinese dissidents here on Taiwan. He claims rightly that most desperately want to stay, but the Taiwan authorities are likely to send most of them back to China.

“What does that feel like? What fate awaits them?” I asked in a joint interview with Li and Cai on Li’s campus of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.   

“I know about thirty people that the Taiwan government sent back to China,” Cai said. “They call me on the way out when I couldn’t help them.” Cai explained this with a nervous laugh, fighting back tears. Li, the student dissident by his side, looked on in shock. “Nobody knows what will happen.”

Li is not a child of wealth. But both his parents are teachers back in his hometown of ZiBo City, a small city by Chinese standards, in Shandong’s ZiChuan District. His dad teaches English and Math. His mother teaches English.

Although Li says he knows full well what he’s up against, Cai understands the reality of “the hard road”. Cai gave forceful advice. “You need to speak loud, loud and loud, let more people know those things.”

IT FEELS LIKE STANDING IN FRONT OF A TANK

In his essay “I Oppose!” live streamed on Periscope back in March, Li says, “I have the courage to declare that I am prepared to stand up, just like … those fellow students who were crushed under the tanks and massacred in their youth by the bullets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square that June 4th night. Those fellow students never got to go home.”

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Li JiaBao, who is currently making news from the BBC to The Economist, at his university in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

But Li seems likely to be forced to face that regime, certainly not by choice. He’s a vocal critic of China’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, railing against President Xi, and the direction he’s taking the country.

The denouement will come when his exchange student status ends on July 2. Although he applied for political asylum in Taiwan on April 28, he most likely will be forced to board a plane returning him to face Chinese retribution.

“After you did the livestream, what did you think would happen when you go back to China?” Cai asked Li.

Li replied, “Nobody will know what will happen the next second. But the only thing I’m sure of is your life will start changing the moment you stand up.”

“Li is on the road from which he cannot return,” Cai told us. “I think China is predictable. Nothing will change. Because most Chinese people don’t change. Also, the Chinese Communist Party won’t change. Like I said, if you give China 5,000 more years, will they change? I’m not sure.”

Li interjected, “I have to say, as a Chinese student, that everyone got brainwashed when they were very young. But when you graduate from school and enter society, you will discover the real world is totally different from what the Communist Party told you. Everybody, so everybody, don’t just listen to the teachers. Don’t listen to your parents. And don’t listen to the Communist Party. Walk boldly. Walk bravely. Be yourself boldly. Just be yourself.”

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Cai Lujun and Li JiaBao share a smile, Tainan, Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

 

Cai smiled at Li, and with his fist in the air, he saluted “jiā yóu, jiā yóu,” keep going. To which Li pumped his own fist, and smiled right back, responding, “jiā yóu.”

A TICKING CLOCK

Unless he’s awarded asylum in Taiwan, or can find another government willing to help him, Li will be forced to fly back to China when his visa runs out on July 2. He probably will be charged with the same crime as Cai, “incitement to subvert state power.”

“If I’m able to stay in Taiwan, to continue my studies, I’d like to finish,” Li said. “And devote myself to the democracy and freedom movement. But I’m really worried that the Taiwan government will … not let me stay in Taiwan. I hope other countries can help. America and Europe.”

When Li self-recorded his speech denouncing Xi back in March, all communication with his family was cut off within three hours.

“He doesn’t know it,” Cai told me in confidence, “but the police would have visited his home directly after. They would have definitely shut down all communication between him and his family,” including (as it turned out) his parents’ financial assistance.

As a result, when Li ran out of money a short time later, friends in Taiwan assisted. To help him stay on as a student, even as the date of a forced departure looms.

True to Cai’s prediction, Li has not heard from his parents since.

When asked if he’ll have the courage to board the plane, to pay the consequences for speaking out against the most powerful man in China, Li said, “I think I’ll have courage to face anything that happens but when that day arrives, I will feel sadness.”

And then Li linked his personal struggle to his homeland. “We still need somebody, the young people, to speak out. When the seed of the revolution is snuffed out, I think that will be a sad ending.”

ECHOES OF TIANANMEN

Thirty years ago this week, the crackdown on civilian and student protestors at Tiananmen Square, also known as the June 4 Massacre, would leave hundreds, if not thousands dead. The government’s response against unarmed activists was beyond brutal, and it played out on television screens and newspaper front pages worldwide.

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Photo courtesy Wang Dan.

Wang Dan was the most visible leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. You might remember him. He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn. After the massacre, Wang was No. 1 on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” student list. He was captured, and served four years in jail before going into exile – first in America, where he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, and then to Taiwan, where he taught cross-strait history at National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University.

I caught up with Wang Dan for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and asked if he could remind people of the message he was trying to deliver to the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square.

“We had two appeals,” Wang told me. “No. 1: Dialogue directly with the government, and No. 2: To modify the April 26 editorial of the People’s Daily.”

The April 26 editorial, titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil,” was broadcast on national radio and television in China, and appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, a Beijing-based mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The editorial, penned by deputy chief of propaganda Zeng Jianhui on behalf of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed the protestors part of “a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.” The piece effectively changed the party’s attitude toward the protestors, based on misinformation. The students had not called on the government to step down, as alleged in Jianhui’s editorial, but for a dialogue of reform and openness first initiated by Deng in 1978.

Tiananmen Square remains a pivotal, game-changing event in the history of modern-day China. Although the students lost their bid for freedom, their argument for a voice carried weight with the rest of the world, and shaped how the world would view China, as well as themselves, in the foreseeable future.

In retrospect, I asked Wang what lessons he believes China, and the world, have taken away from the Tiananmen Square protest?

“The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization,” he explained. “Anytime they think they have a chance, like in 1989, they will not hesitate to stand up.”

My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today, and his answer, I believe, could apply to himself, to all those who stood up at Tiananmen, along with the next generation of dissent, like Li JiaBao.

“Think about the party’s future,” Wang replied. “There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.”

 

 

 

 

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