Next month marks the 25th anniversary of a bloody crackdown on dissent in Beijing. China is unlikely to acknowledge the incident on June 4, 1989, which left hundreds or more dead around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. But survivors of the student democracy movement have hardly forgotten.
One protest leader, Wu’er Kaixi, lives in exile in Taipei, where he works in finance. The 46-year-old ethnic Uighur, who was born in Beijing, fears China has changed little. He said the country may face more bloodshed as people get fed up with domestic problems such as corruption. He spoke to Ralph Jennings in Taipei about the Tiananmen anniversary, the unrest involving Uighurs in western China’s Xinjiang region and whether he thinks he can ever return to his ancestral land.
Q: What has changed, what hasn’t changed in China and what does that mean?
A: Look at China. A lot of people would say China is very different today than it was 25 years ago. Twenty-five years make a lot of developing countries very different, both in the economic and socio-political aspects. However, it is also important to see what didn’t change in China. China remains, at least to me, still the totalitarian regime blocking me from going back to my home. They are still the Chinese government who ordered the (June 4, 1989) massacre not been held accountable for. They are still the same government trying to use every available means, often very brutal and iron-handed means, to suppress dissent, persecute dissidents. They probably have improved their technique. They probably have some artificial differences. For instance, today the police wear different uniforms and they are perhaps more professional, but the fundamental core is very much the same. It is a totalitarian regime. It’s a police state. It is a state where we do not have freedom of expression.
The biggest sensation I have is that it’s been 25 years. It’s a little too long for the things that didn’t change. It’s a little too long for me to be in exile. It’s a quarter of a century. In 1989 we started a campaign against communist totalitarianism under the flag of democracy. I don’t think we should be kept waiting for another 25 years.
Q: What has allowed China to not change over such a long period?
A: Deng Xiaoping basically turned China into capitalism and it partially answered our demand in 1989. I call it a deal the Chinese Communist Party has struck with the Chinese people, that is to give Chinese people economic freedom in exchange with political cooperation. It’s a lousy deal, but nevertheless the deal worked, but the question is for how long. The Chinese government is also realizing the deal they have struck in 1992 is expiring. They need to come up with something new.
Q: How do you know from the popular point of view that the deal is expiring?
A: Many different sectors of the society have come to the point of exploding. I’m pretty sure the Communist Party is well aware of the danger of total collapse. They admit that they’re also doing a lot of things about it, for instance their campaign of anti-corruption. But in China the corruption is systematic. The Chinese Communist Party built a structure to allow them to loot China legally. When they are waving the flag of anti-corruption they are basically just trimming a poisonous tree, one or two of the branches that is out of the seam. They are not really curing the problem.
Q: What does it take to go from today, a lot of discontent, to a situation where people are doing things to change things?
A: There is no way to stop the corruption, the greed. These things happen sometimes almost coincidentally. Then there are hundreds of thousands of incidents reported in China every year. They call it social unrest. Which one will become the next thing, I don’t know. For instance, the one in Shanghai; a couple of years ago there was a fire that took place and many people died. It’s a public hazard issue, but tens of thousands of people went on the street.
There are also signs the Communist Party wants to be in control of the social change. They may even initiate it. They did that before, in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping had the ‘open and reform’ policy. It gave the Communist Party 35 more years. If they’re smart enough, and I hope they are, maybe they can avoid a revolution-like change of the society.
Q: For people such as yourself, who are exiled to different parts of the world, do you think there is one sentiment that is crossing people’s minds around this time?
A: Return to China. Living in exile, we lost our stage. Back in 1989 we were important because we were on Tiananmen. If we can emerge ourselves onto that main stage, then we have a role. Definitely we are determined dissidents, true believers in democracy. We will pursue this idea at all costs.
Q: At all costs, like what? What’s your next move?
A: Freedom. Exile is in no way an ideal life for anybody. Exile is a mental torture. The will of ending the exile is very strong. My struggle to end my exile, to go home to see my aging parents, will not stop.
I have to refrain from talking about the details of my operations, but basically the idea is in 1989 we called for dialogue. We want to sit the Chinese government down and tell them we have a say on the table. We want to take part in the decision-making, policy-shifting. I will continue seeking every opportunity to initiate that counter-talk that we demanded 25 years ago, even if that counter-talk has to take place in a Chinese courtroom. Even if it has to come in the form of indictment and plea, I am willing to carry on the mission that we started 25 years ago.
Q: What will the anniversary itself do? Will it change anything, or just be another day on the calendar?
A: If there’s anything we’ve learned in exile it's to stop making predictions in China. Even if it’s just a day on the calendar on the wall, that calendar on the wall in front of people’s faces is a reminder of unfinished business. They will tighten their security. That is unfortunate. If the Chinese regime is smart enough to do this, this would be a good day to make peace with your own horrible history.
Q: Do you follow the events in Xinjiang? What do you expect as the fallout?
A: It’s a very sad situation in Xinjiang these days in my home country. Those are terrorist attacks where you kill innocent people, bystanders. But I really hope people can see beyond that and realize this is the last call of a despaired nation, an ethnic group that is giving up on life. It’s also a suicide attack. And it has been repeating. Uighur people are committing suicide these days. When they decide to take their own lives they want to take a few Chinese people together with them. It’s a very sad fact. It may keep happening.
Chinese also control their borders. They don’t want them to just leave. And it’s hard for the rest of the world to accept Uighurs as refugees.