By Mick Krever, CNN
The students who led China’s Tiananmen Square protests 25 years ago genuinely believed that success was a possibility – and though they foresaw a crackdown, they never expected the government to use live ammunition.
“We did expect some kind of crackdown. The logic of a mass movement is that you apply pressure and hope for your opponent to make the right choice,” Wu'er Kaixi, who was one of the main student protest leaders, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “We never really expected real ammunition.”
Wednesday marks 25 years since the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds – perhaps thousands – of protesters were killed. The government has never acknowledged how many were killed.
June 4, 1989 was a “very dramatic night after seven dramatic weeks,” Wu’er said.
“We made very emotional demands. We went through hunger strikes. And one of the Chinese poets wrote that … the students moved the God but they failed to move the emperor.”
“Of course that time the square is in extreme emotional state,” Wu’er said. “But all the students there were almost ready, almost ready to sacrifice our lives.”
Desperate to be arrested
Wu’er was spirited out of China soon after that bloody day. He has lived in exile, in the United States and Taiwan, ever since.
He is desperate to see his elderly parents, and has gone so far as to try to turn himself in to the Chinese several times.
“Exile by definition is an escape from China, from my mother country, to avoid imprisonment.”
“But when exile [became] already intolerable, I decided even I have to go back into prison, I will rather take that chance so that I can meet my ailing parents – even if it has to take the form of a prison visit between glass walls.”
The government, perhaps trying to avoid the publicity around an arrest that would require a conversation about what happened in 1989, has turned him away.
“They deny it. They deny any request of taking me in, extradite. They decided just to play mute.”
Climbing the censors’ wall
Many Chinese live in ignorance of what happened during those dramatic days in 1989, sheathed by the government’s powerful censorship efforts.
In a new book on China, NPR journalist Louisa Lim says only 15 in a 100 Beijing university students could identify the iconic image of a protester facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.
There are many people, though, who are “climbing the wall” of China’s censors, Wu’er said.
“Chinese people have learned how to climb the wall. And when they do, they try to contact me. So I know great numbers of people … are trying to defy the government's effort and then trying to learn what really happened.”
The flip side of the coin is that as China experiences meteoric economic success, many young people may prefer stability and growth over an airing of all the country’s political skeletons.
“These are uninformed ideas,” Wu’er told Amanpour. “The biggest paradox here is that I can't say anything to them. Our voice has been blocked.”
“I would very much like to sit down and have a long debate – just like when Communist Party said democracy will bring chaos to China.”
“I would like to say [the] Communist Party is lying to you. Totalitarianism leads to cultural revolution, leads to chaos.”
In Poland’s footsteps
June 4, 1989 is a symbolic day not just for China, but for Poland, which began to free itself from the shackles of communism on the very same day 25 years ago.
Indeed, Wu’er said, the students in China were inspired by events around the world.
“We were following a role model that is Poland.”
“They pressed the government, they pressed the Communist regime, and then their pressure worked.”
“And so why wouldn't that be possible for China? We thought it would be a genuine possibility, and that if China did that time give in to students – just [a] little inch – all we wanted is a free dialogue and then to let the people's voice to be heard, to let it to stay alive.”
Despite the bloody crackdown, the protests in Tiananmen Square may have irrevocably changed China.
“By the year 1992, [the] Communist Party admitted, acknowledged, and gave in to the demand that we put forward – economically, only on the economic aspect. We demanded free market. We demanded acknowledgment of private property rights.”
Getting tough on China
In the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown, the world shunned China’s government; but as China has become more economically powerful, some have questioned whether the international community is doing enough to challenge its government on political freedoms.
“The world has not been tough on China,” Wu’er said. “In fact, the world has been – the Western democracies, especially those people who have some power, who can make a difference – have adopted an appeasement policy, especially the United States.”
“Every time when they send in a trade delegation to Beijing, of course they have to raise a question about human rights because of their tremendous pressure from back home. But the trade delegations never wait for an answer, and don't link their answer to the trade talk they're having.”
“They are sending a message to Chinese government to say, okay, we don't really care if you're a democracy or not. All we want is your market. All we want is your world engine capability.”