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Tiananmen leader expected beating, but never bullets

June 4th, 2014
03:27 PM ET

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.”

MORE: Scenes from Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong

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.”

READ MORE: China's Tiananmen activists: Where are they now?

Filed under:  China • Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. ivanovfromsu

    > The logic of a mass movement is that you apply pressure and hope for your opponent to make the right choice,

    How does he know what choice is right or wrong? Typical radical logic – "There are two opinions – my and wrong one". And it doesn't matter whether you are left radical, right radical, islam radical, christian radical....
    So I think – and history shows that also – the government of China made right choice.

    June 4, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
    • BeRyan

      "all we wanted is a free dialogue and then to let the people's voice to be heard"... They wanted democracy but first they just wanted to talk but instead they got shot.
      obviously you are a main-lander who disregards your fellow countrymen shown with your poor English as well. "the government of China made 'the' right choice.

      June 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • Paul

      Only a PRC Communist Party member could possibly delude themselves into thinking that the Chinese government responded correctly 25 years ago. In any case you despise governments that listen to their people and allow freedom.

      June 4, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
      • Anthony

        Paul. I live in New York and I have nothing to do with China or the Communist Party. I used to think that the Tiananmen incident was a terrible and tragic mistake of the Chinese government. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that I cannot be so quick with condemning it. Even apparently horrible actions have to be taken into its context as a whole. China rulers are responsible for the lives of hundreds of millions of people and their efforts have successfully pulled hundreds of million of people out of poverty. The problem with large masses of poor people is that they tend to be ignorant and therefore easy prey of radical ideologies. We have all seen what happened to Egypt which has one of the largest population of people who cannot read. A dictator is removed, democracy follows, and the populations vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, a quasi terrorist organization. Democracy is good for a population that can make a responsible use of it. China rulers know it, that is why they declared the policy of "One Nation, Two Systems". One for the people of Hong Kong who can use democracy responsibly, the other for the Chinese in the mainland who cannot yet handle democracy until the majority of the population become as wise as the people of Hong Kong.

        June 5, 2014 at 9:00 am |
    • Dory Rama

      I absolutely agree with you. As a Chinese, the right choice was made. One only has to look at all the failed regime changes that brought more suffering and deprivation.

      June 5, 2014 at 11:38 am | Reply
  2. Syed Shamsuddoha

    Great guy and hats off to him for his genuine emotional sacrifice. I have enormous respect for this gentleman.

    June 4, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  3. Darketernal

    FREE CHINA!!! Long live a democractic China!!!

    June 4, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  4. inferencial

    My advice to the West is keep your nose out of other countries rules and regulations.

    June 4, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Reply
    • Paul

      What is the use of all of your rules and regulations if there is no rule of law to back them up?

      June 4, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  5. oroyalflushx

    May China be one day free from Communism along with all nations of the World, we all must help to end oppression worldwide especially in China and North Korea.

    June 4, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  6. Zubin

    In the natural world, the more diversity, the mommunity is more stable. In the social world, we should also have muti-social system. I don't know what is democracy. Free election? I really don't think free election is democracy. In the world, a lot of countries adopt free election. Why only a little country can do it ok, but not well. I think law is crucial. In the United States, eventhough it has very good law systems, still there are a lot to be amended. In the US, the middle class take the burden of the society, how can let the weathy shoulder more responsibility? In China, a lot to be modified, especially the law system.

    June 4, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  7. Hwang Te

    It is well known that the CIA and the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have for decades been involved in overthrowing the communist government of China. According to former CIA agent, Ralph McGehee, prior to Tiananmen Incident, the NED had set up two offices inside China and conducted regular seminars on democracy. NED also sponsored various Chinese writers as well as recruited Chinese students to facilitate regime change. Recruited Chinese students were assisted either by sending or fax thousands of letters to recipients in China to inflame opinions against the Chinese Government when the so-called "colour" revolution was triggered by CIA. These instigations were also done via Voice of America.

    June 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • Adam

      I fully agree with you. VOA is widely recognized as a channel for English learning but much less people are politically aware that it is also a terrific venue for anti-communism propaganda. Almost all vocal programmes of the organization have been blocked in China by the great "firewall".

      June 6, 2014 at 2:38 am | Reply
    • Jackey Lee

      I always knew there would be someone behind the whole incident. But how did they get the funding and the safe passage out of China after the movement failed. I would like to believe that CIA was involved, but there was no solid evidence

      June 28, 2014 at 4:53 am | Reply
  8. Hwang Te

    Amber Lyon, an American investigative journalist, accused CNN International of airing disinformation in favour of governments that are paying customers to CNN such as Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Georgia, while collaborated with the US government through reporting selectively and falsely to sway public opinion in favour of the US direct government aggression as in the case of Iran and Syria. Is China a victim of CNN false reporting including on Tiananmen incident, since the CIA and NED have for decades tried to overthrow the communist government of China?

    June 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  9. SLY

    Excellent coverage. Things are heating up and it should be clear to American we need to move away from China. Strengthen our allies and find other trading partners.

    June 6, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
  10. lulz

    i can see why america always likes to look at the past. they sure as hell dont want to talk about the present hahaha.

    June 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Reply
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