Wall Street Journal Article 6-3-2009: Survivors Confront Unsettled Legacy of Tiananmen

This is reasonably balanced article, and it’s fair. Though the nuances of current China could not be covered by an article like this in the Journal. Here are several points:

Twenty Years Later, Members of China’s Student Uprising Still Hope for Democratic Reform, but See Only Economic Progress


As Chinese soldiers marched into downtown Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989, Shen Tong was west of Tiananmen Square with a group trying vainly to get the troops to turn back. The 20-year-old Peking University undergraduate, a prominent member of the democracy movement that swept the Chinese capital that spring, narrowly avoided injury. The girl next to him was shot in the face and killed.

Mr. Shen survived, and days later fled to the U.S., where he was hailed as a hero. He cowrote a book about the Tiananmen protests, and for years worked as a democracy activist.

Shen Tong was a member of the movement at the time

Democracy for China Fund

now, he struggles to define its impact.

The Wall Street JournalShen Tong was a member of the movement at the time (top) but now, he struggles to define its impact.

But Mr. Shen’s future didn’t unfold as he had expected. Today he runs a software company in New York that does business in places including China. He has returned to Beijing several times. While still a strong believer in democracy, he has grown increasingly uncertain about the meaning of the events of 1989.

“I’m not sure that we really made the difference that we intended,” Mr. Shen says. “We do know it was a tremendously significant event, but we don’t know what it really means.”

The historical significance of most big events seems to crystallize over time. But the legacy of Tiananmen has, if anything, become less clear in the subsequent two decades.

There is little uncertainty about what happened — though the details remain shrouded in official secrecy. In April and May of 1989, students, workers and others in Beijing and other Chinese cities held peaceful demonstrations for democracy.

The leaders of the Communist Party on June 3 sent armed forces into the capital to end the protests. By the time they cleared Tiananmen Square the next day, hundreds of people in the city were dead, mostly unarmed civilians. No one outside the leadership knows exactly how many.

The crackdown put a freeze on major political reform that has yet to thaw. But in the years after Tiananmen, the Communist Party claimed a new legitimacy with a re-energized program of economic development. China’s economy is now six times its size in 1989, adjusted for inflation, and could soon surpass Japan as the world’s second largest after the U.S.

Development has been uneven — farmers and factory workers have benefited much less than the urban middle class, and corruption and human-rights abuses are pervasive. But at the same time, economic liberalization and technological change have given many Chinese the independence to live as they choose, as long as they don’t challenge Communist Party rule.

Within China, the government has largely buried the history of 1989. Most young people know little or nothing about those events. Most of those who do have accepted the government’s claim that it was forced to act to prevent chaos. Those who know what happened generally speak of it only among friends or family.

To stifle discussion of Tiananmen around its anniversary, the government detains or warns dissidents, and blocks access to Web sites that could carry sensitive content. On Tuesday, Twitter Inc. users across China reported that the popular micro-blogging service appeared to be blocked, the latest in a series of sites carrying user-supplied content that have experienced access disruptions recently in China. Chinese officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, a world that recoiled at the bloodshed in June 1989 has accepted China’s leaders and their central role in global affairs. Some of those most opposed to the Communist Party’s practices have felt compelled to deal with it.

Last week, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a longtime China critic, who was expelled from the country in 1991 after unfurling a banner in Tiananmen Square memorializing those killed in the crackdown — returned to Beijing to talk to Chinese leaders about cooperation on climate change.

Those who helped shape Tiananmen also have differing views of its legacy.

Wu’er Kaixi, a student leader in 1989 and No. 2 on the government’s most-wanted list after the crackdown, says the democracy movement should be credited with much of China’s economic progress in the past 20 years, as the government accelerated economic reforms to regain legitimacy it lost on June 4.

“The longer the time passes, the more I think of it as a great movement,” says Mr. Wu’er, who has lived in exile since 1989.

Wang Juntao, whom the government labeled an orchestrator in 1989, believes China’s people are closer to forcing democratic change now.

[A Chinese couple take cover at an underpass as tanks deploy in Beijing to stop the 1989 demonstrations. ] Associated PressA Chinese couple take cover at an underpass as tanks deploy in Beijing to stop the 1989 demonstrations.

The Chinese people have “learned a lesson. They’ve found that we were right — without democracy the Chinese government will become more violent and self-interested,” says Mr. Wang, now 50, who was imprisoned before being expelled in 1994 to the U.S., where he has lived ever since. “I think I will definitely return to China, and I will be successful. Finally, we will win [China] back.”

Other participants have returned to China, or never left. Most lead lives that have nothing to do with politics. “People generally have tremendous difficulty linking that part of their life with their life today — except the extreme minority who carried on the movement at great cost,” Mr. Shen says. For many people in China, he says, June 1989 is “frozen in history.”

Mr. Shen first returned to China in 1992. After arriving in the U.S. in 1989, he cowrote “Almost a Revolution,” about his involvement in the democracy protests, completed his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University, and started graduate studies at Boston University and Harvard University. He also started a group called the Democracy for China Fund.

In China, he traveled around speaking to other activists. Back in Beijing, the night before a scheduled news conference, police arrested him at his mother’s apartment. He was released after eight weeks and put on a plane back to the U.S., where he vowed to continue the fight for democracy.

Chinese authorities also detained several people who met with Mr. Shen. One wasn’t released for nearly two years. Fellow democracy activists criticized Mr. Shen for endangering his collaborators. Mr. Shen said that the others were aware of the risks. Still, he says today, “They are on my conscience.”

Mr. Shen stayed away from China for nearly a decade. He continued to work for democracy, but his interests broadened. In the mid-1990s, he started businesses in publishing and television production. He stopped his doctoral studies without a degree.

In May 1999, U.S.-led forces in Yugoslavia bombed China’s Embassy in Belgrade, killing three. Washington said the incident was an error, but the bombing triggered protests by college students in Beijing outside the American Embassy.

Watching the protests on TV, Mr. Shen was struck by how effective the government had been in replacing the democratic ideals of previous generations with a combination of nationalism and economic growth.

“I felt profound sadness,” he says. “What I hadn’t realized is that this combination, that rests upon very systematic repression of historical memory, was working.”

In 2000, Mr. Shen founded a new company, VFinity, which sells software that clients use to manage and search video and other digital content. He married and had two children — changes that he says also realigned his thinking.

“I realize how much involuntary suffering my family went through” during his initial years of activism and exile, Mr. Shen says.

In 2001, Mr. Shen returned to Beijing to visit family. It was the first of about half a dozen return visits — each requiring agreements in advance with Chinese authorities not to engage in political activities while there.

As his business developed, China’s market beckoned. In 2006, VFinity opened an office in Beijing. Some critics have suggested VFinity’s software could be used by Chinese authorities for surveillance purposes. Mr. Shen says VFinity hasn’t sold its product to police agencies, though he says it is impossible to ensure they don’t ultimately get access to the software.

Mr. Shen says there is no simple formula to reconcile his feelings about the Chinese government with the practical considerations of doing business there.

“The more distance I have, the more I realize what I don’t know,” he says.

Overall, he says, the country’s economic reform policy, without political change, “is clearly not sufficient, but it’s better than the alternative” of no reform at all.

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