Broken China

Wang Dan, a student leader of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, received his doctorate in history from Harvard University in 2008.

In May 1989, I was a 20-year-old history student at Beijing University. By June 13 of that year, my name was at the top of the list of the 21 “most wanted” student leaders of the Tiananmen democracy movement. I was arrested and spent nearly four years in jail, was rearrested in 1995, and then exiled to the United States in 1998.

I believed then and I believe now that the reforms that my fellow students and I were advocating -- for democracy, workers’ rights and free speech, and against corruption -- are the central challenges that will shape China’s destiny.

Secret memoirs by Zhao Ziyang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, have just been released. They reveal his conviction that our demands for economic and human rights reform were not only reasonable but could have accelerated China’s modernization. Zhao lost a power struggle with hard-liners in 1989 -- after his last public appearance, meeting with students in Tiananmen Square -- and died under house arrest in 2005.

In the 20 years since our landmark demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, economic reforms have allowed millions of Chinese people to lift their families out of poverty, and many in China find their lives changed for the better.


But the central causes that the Tiananmen generation -- students and citizens alike -- took up remain unresolved. Today in China, corruption is endemic because the Chinese Communist Party and its vast network of officials remain above the law. Workers still face rights abuses, a problem likely to grow as the global economic downturn affects factories, sending home many millions of migrant laborers. The Chinese government’s censorship of free speech is a central concern as the Internet gives voice to young people and critics.

China’s economic growth has not led to liberty, a free press or democracy. On the contrary, like his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, Chinese President Hu Jintao has invoked economic development to justify suppressing the Tiananmen protests and maintaining one-party rule.

Riddled with corruption, the system has benefited a privileged few, with local party secretaries becoming capitalists overnight and using their political power to accumulate huge sums of money from the profits of state-owned enterprises.

Our demonstrations in the spring of 1989 hit a nerve among the Chinese population. Within weeks, joyful and peaceful protests took place in major cities, involving not just students but factory workers, academics and even employees of government-controlled newspapers and television stations. For me, it was the proudest moment in China’s long history. For the first time in our lives, people dared to exercise the most basic human right: freedom of speech.


On the night of June 3, the army moved in to clear Tiananmen Square, and the ensuing military crackdown became another bloodstained page of China’s turbulent history. We still do not know how many people were killed in the square. The government said only soldiers and some citizens were killed, but we have photos of hundreds of demonstrators crushed along Changan Avenue and of bodies lying in the morgues at Beijing’s hospitals.

In the last decade, I have watched from afar as China has reasserted its role on the world stage. The economic growth is impressive.

But what about media censorship, which contributed to the high number of victims in the 2008 tainted-milk scandal? And government corruption, which led to shoddy construction practices in Sichuan and its devastating consequences during last year’s earthquake? Or the widening gap between the rich and the poor?

China’s power is limited to the “yang,” or the hard power of military and economic might, whereas in the 21st century, the “yin,” or soft power based on moral principles and human rights, is equally important.


The Chinese people yearn not just for economic benefits but for basic human rights. A pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08, released online in December, has garnered thousands of signatures despite every effort by the Chinese government to block its distribution and punish its authors. Leading intellectual Liu Xiaobo, one of the charter’s signatories, was detained in December and is still being held with no legal justification.

The Chinese government should take four steps if it wishes to convince the world that it is a “responsible power”: pay reparations to the Tiananmen mothers who lost their children; allow me and other forcibly exiled Chinese citizens to return to our homeland; release the remaining political prisoners who were jailed for peacefully protesting in Tiananmen Square and the more recent prisoners persecuted for their efforts to encourage human rights reform. Finally, China’s leaders should address the long-term objectives shared by the Tiananmen students and the authors of Charter 08: establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing basic human rights and ending corruption.

Only then can China begin to turn the tragic page of Tiananmen.