A funeral eulogy is not usually the time to apologise for the behaviour of the deceased. But the lives of China’s exiled dissidents are rarely straightforward. So when Wei Jingsheng, who is often known as the “father of China’s democracy movement”, paid tribute to his dead brother earlier this year, the tangle of conflicting emotions could not be concealed.

Wei Jingsheng did not attend the funeral in Paris of Wei Xiaotao, who died in exile of cancer aged 65 in January. But the recorded message he sent left no doubt that the human cost of China’s Tiananmen massacre is still being counted 30 years after the communist leaders sent in the tanks on June 4 1989.

Xiaotao had been in his youth one of the brightest Chinese of his generation. In spite of an education disrupted by the chaotic Cultural Revolution, he became an award-winning nuclear scientist and the youngest person in China to win the then-coveted title of “senior engineer”.

BEIJING, CHINA: A 20 September 1993 file photo shows prominent Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng (C) reunited with his brother Wei Xiaotao (L) and sister Wei Ling (R) after he was temporarily freed after serving over 14 years in jail for his role in the pro-democracy movement. China's public security bureau has summoned Wei Xiaotao the younger brother of Wei Jingsheng, for talks which a Hong Kong newspaper said 16 November, could be related to his release. AFP PHOTO/FILES/Manuel CENETA (Photo credit should read MANUEL CENETA/AFP/Getty Images)
Wei Jingsheng, centre, is reunited in 1993 with his brother Xiaotao and sister Ling after being released from a 14-year sentence © Getty

Xiaotao’s life as a high-flying member of China’s communist elite had come crashing to earth because of the secret assistance he gave to his brother’s underground activities. At the time of Tiananmen, Jingsheng was still serving a prison sentence for his role in the 1978-1979 “Democracy Wall” movement, a precursor to the convulsions in 1989 that brought millions of Chinese on to the streets across the country demanding greater freedoms.

After he was released in 1993, Jingsheng began working underground on behalf of the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, including the mothers who were officially forbidden to openly mourn the children they lost to the army’s bullets. Xiaotao helped to finance Jingsheng’s activities, but when the authorities found out they deported him to France, even though he did not have a French passport.

“Thus my brother . . . could only stay in France as a refugee. Because he could not speak French, he could not find a corresponding job, so he was depressed. He used alcohol to release his stress and often vented some nameless fire and thus offended many friends,” Jingsheng said.

“Here I want to apologise to everyone here at his memorial service because all these problems started from me. In the past, he was a handsome guy with a good temper and a cute personality that everyone loved,” he added.

“Many friends have sacrificed for democracy and freedom. It is not only they that are making sacrifices but their relatives are also paying a huge price for the rights and interests of the Chinese people,” said Jingsheng, 69, who was himself exiled to the US in 1997 after spending a total of 18 years in prison at different times for his activism.

“This is a pain that most people cannot imagine.”

I covered Tiananmen Square as a young Reuters journalist. Trying to trace its legacy is like attempting to count the number of bends along the winding course of the Yellow River; so much of what China is today — and how it is seen in the world — derives from the brutality of a crackdown that smothered the hopes of a generation.

My job in those days was to spend days and nights in the square interviewing the protest leaders and phoning back quotations to our news bureau. The mobile phone I was issued with was the size of a brick and it cost several thousand dollars. As he handed it to me, my bureau chief said: “If you lose this, we will lose you.” So when I slept on the steps of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the centre of the square, I would wrap the phone in my shirt and put it in my cloth bag to make a burglar-proof pillow.

The mood was that of a festival of youth. Although the common description of the Tiananmen demonstrations in the western media is that they were “pro-democracy”, the reality was much more complex. Romance and sex reinforced a sense of ideological experiment, while the makeshift tents in the square afforded more privacy than university dormitories that often housed eight to a room.

A Beijing university student waves a flag from the top of a bus parked in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 23, 1989, during the students strike for democracy. In the background is the Great Hall of the People. (AP Photo/Shing)
A scene from Beijing in 1989 by Liu Heung Shing, a photographer who was present throughout the protests in Tiananmen Square. The image is taken from ‘A Life in a Sea of Red’, recently published by Steidl

Some students such as Li Lu, a student leader who is now an associate of investor Warren Buffett in the US, entered into pop-up marriages in the square. Unofficial marriage certificates were prepared and embossed with the stamp of the “hunger strike headquarters”, an impromptu body that oversaw more than 3,000 hunger strikers.

The students’ actions were rooted in a time-honoured tradition of Confucian dissent, which holds that helping rulers to improve without trying to overthrow them represents a pure form of patriotism. Their main demands were for an end to corruption in official circles along with the special privileges of the elite, freedom of expression in society and in the media and, ultimately, a more democratic political system. But there were also more personal attacks, especially against Li Peng, the conservative premier who was later dubbed the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the massacre.

Over the course of the spring of 1989 in cities all over the country, millions of Chinese took to the streets calling for reform. The reason that Beijing did not act sooner to snuff out the demonstrations was mainly because a group in the ruling politburo led by Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Communist party, was sympathetic to the students’ demands. But after Zhao lost a power struggle, Deng Xiaoping — China’s paramount leader — ordered in the troops.

The world’s media had taken rooms in the Beijing Hotel, a leviathan of socialist architecture that looked on to the Avenue of Eternal Peace and beyond it to the square. It was from balconies in the hotel that cameramen filmed the searing footage of “tank man”, the willowy student with a cloth satchel who stood in front of a column of tanks, stopping them temporarily in their tracks.

Such acts of heroism were in fact common on June 4 and 5. Back then I spoke to several people at the entrance to Nanchizi, a street that gives on to the avenue near the square, who told me that their hearts were so full of hatred for the Communist party that they did not care if they lived or died. A few of them then walked out into the avenue and were shot dead.

Injured students are rushed from Tiananmen Square to the Peking Medical College Hospital on the back of a flat-bed bike on June 4 1989 © From ‘A Life in a Sea of Red’, published by Steidl

I particularly recall an elderly professor in a grey Parisian beret who courteously shook my hand before walking out into a hail of bullets.

More often, though, people were seized by panic and despair. Slowly in the ensuing days, the 200,000 troops sent to quell what the Communist party called a “counter-revolutionary revolt” brought the capital under control. “White terror”, a term that originated from the Russian civil war, was the phrase people used to describe the expanding security chokehold.

I fled out of the easternmost door of the Beijing Hotel when I saw soldiers entering an entrance to the west, leaving all my belongings — including a pair of leather Oxford brogues that my father had given me — in my room. For months afterward, I would surreptitiously check the footwear of Chinese men in uniform.

One of the protest leaders I would interview on most days in the square was Han Dongfang. He was not a student but a railway electrician and his camp of fellow workers was positioned toward the north-west, away from the student headquarters.

Now 55 and living in Hong Kong, Han runs the China Labour Bulletin, an organisation dedicated to workers’ rights in China and elsewhere. He looks remarkably similar to the charismatic 26-year-old with flowing locks who won a broad following in the square for his fiery speeches.

When we meet, he is too polite to say that he does not remember me, deflecting my attempts to jog his memory with strategically timed chuckles.

The story of his life since the crackdown gives a sense of how the twisting legacy of Tiananmen has played out. After the troops stormed in, he fled to watermelon fields outside the capital. His father had once grown them, so he had something to talk about with the farmers who gave him shelter.

Han Dongfang poses for photograph at his office in Lai Chi Kok, Hong Kong on 21 May, 2019. Lam Yik Fei/ Financial Times
Han Dongfang, photographed in Hong Kong, was one of the protest leaders on Beijing's 'Most Wanted List'. He now runs the workers' rights organisation China Labour Bulletin © Lam Yik Fei

But then he saw a TV newsreader reading out the names and physical descriptions of protesters on “Most Wanted” lists. To his shock, he found his name was at the top of the list of worker participants. He considered going into hiding but then remembered his pledge in the square that he would “walk into prison by myself” rather than betray the movement.

So he decided to turn himself in. He rode his bike back into central Beijing, hiding during the day and moving at night, always scared that if he was discovered before he got to the police station, he would be beaten up as a “counter-revolutionary” and then given a harsher jail sentence.

Eventually, he made it to the police headquarters. There were two entrances; outside one was a queue of some 200 people hoping to get passports to leave China. So Han summoned his courage and went up to a young soldier standing in front of the other entrance.

“I told him the bureau has asked for me and so I am here,” Han remembers. “But the soldier looked at me and said; ‘Who in the bureau?’ And I said; ‘I don’t know’. So he shrugged and told me to go join the queue for passports.”

At that moment, he was thrown into inner turmoil. “I thought everyone will know me because my picture is on TV every day and in all the newspapers and therefore I should turn myself in. But now I find out that even at the police station, they do not recognise me.”

But just as he was deciding what to do next, another policeman spotted him. He presented himself for arrest, spent almost two years in jail and then later was expelled to Hong Kong.

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One legacy of Tiananmen, as Han sees it, is that it set China on a path towards its current brand of authoritarian capitalism. Following the crackdown, the coercive power of the Communist party grew stronger at the expense of people’s — and particularly workers’ — rights.

“Over the past 40 years in China we have had a creed of the market as a magic wand,” he says. “It is ironic that people are waving the communist flag but in fact the party is the biggest believer in capitalism, in the market and in jungle rule in the world.”

Thus in his work at the China Labour Bulletin he tries to bolster workers’ rights in disputes that take place all over China. For Han, collective bargaining for better wages lies at the heart of true democracy.

Other activists see Tiananmen as a different type of watershed for the world’s most populous country. Bao Pu is a Hong Kong-based publisher and the son of Bao Tong, the former political secretary to Zhao Ziyang, who at the age of 86 remains under 24-hour surveillance at his home in Beijing because of his role in the Tiananmen events.

I ask Bao what he sees as the legacy of Tiananmen. “Tiananmen actually divides the history of the People’s Republic of China into before and after,” he says. “What was before was that people still trusted the Communist party. They never imagined the party would send in the troops and tanks and shoot them. But after that event, the trust has been broken.”

Bao Pu poses for photograph at a Hong Kong Park, Hong Kong on 21 May, 2019. Lam Yik Fei/ Financial Times
Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher and son of a prominent activist, says 'you need to have a basic trust between the government and its people' © Lam Yik Fei
Joseph Cheng poses for photograph at a hotel in Tai Koo Shing, Hong Kong on 21 May, 2019. Lam Yik Fei/ Financial Times
Hong Kong professor Joseph Cheng has warned against the spread of Beijing’s authoritarianism and has expressed concern about a new extradition law © Lam Yik Fei

I am sceptical. Has not China’s extraordinary economic transformation over the past 30 years done something to salvage Beijing’s reputation, I ask. Some might say that authoritarianism has been shown to be an effective system of government for China, given the vastly improved living standards of its people, I add.

But Bao does not see the massacre as the precursor of success. “That is like cutting off someone’s limb and when he survives you say that he is still surviving because you cut off his limb,” he says. “The person is actually crippled and that is what China is. In any society you need to have a basic trust between the government and its people.”

I put a similar question to Wei, who is known for saying that only with democracy can China throw off poverty. But isn’t it doing a pretty good job throwing off poverty without democracy? “It is going backwards,” is his only reply.

Chart showing trust in government in selected countries

However, opinion polls by reputable international providers show that Chinese people currently have a high level of trust in their central government. Such facts sit uneasily with the western narrative that an emerging middle class is destined always to demand more choice — including at the ballot box.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Hong Kong-based professor, describes in a forthcoming book, China Tomorrow, the view that Beijing after much practice has installed a “new authoritarian equilibrium which should help with maintaining its dictatorship for a long time”. The essence of this system’s sustainability, he argues, is the capacity of Beijing to adapt quickly to a fluid set of challenges.

One aspect of China’s adaptiveness is evident in the way it treats its dissidents. The former Soviet Union dispatched political activists to camps in Siberia to perform hard labour on starvation rations in temperatures that could plunge to minus 60 degrees centigrade. But China’s gulag is the west.

Beijing has realised that imprisoning dissidents at home can turn them into heroes. But to exile them to the US, Europe or elsewhere deprives them of their context and dilutes the source of their idealism.

When dissidents arrive in exile, a flurry of excitement greets them. But as time passes they often fall victim to a groundhog day dynamic; every year around the Tiananmen anniversary the same people are asked the same questions by the same journalists and, eventually, the public gets bored.

Han Dongfang, for one, recognises the perils of becoming a broken record. “Twenty years ago I made a decision that I was not going to talk about [Tiananmen] once a year to the media just like some dinosaur being brought out into the museum,” he says.

Beijing, meanwhile, is feeling emboldened by the success — on its terms at least — of the uncompromising rule that followed the crackdown. It is now packaging autocracy for export. Some places, such as Hong Kong — which was promised political autonomy from the mainland until at least 2047 — are feeling Beijing’s grip tighten.

Joseph Cheng, a Hong Kong professor, says that an extradition law that the territory is preparing to adopt this year following pressure from Beijing is one example of this spreading authoritarianism. The law could allow for Hong Kong citizens who criticise the Communist party to be hauled over to the mainland to stand trial.

The prospect is heightening a sense of anxiety. “Ordinary people in Hong Kong accept more or less that it is extremely difficult to fight China,” Cheng says. “Up to 1m people in Hong Kong have foreign passports or rights of residence in other countries, and these people may well leave Hong Kong in the coming years.”

But for many victims of Tiananmen, the feelings remain deeply personal. The “Tiananmen mothers” — an informal group that Wei Jingsheng was helping when his brother Xiaotao was sent into exile — have created a commemorative montage of photographs of their children for the 30th anniversary of their death.

In an open letter signed on the website of “Human Rights in China”, a human rights group, 127 relatives of those killed in the massacre remember 55 of their number who have died in recent years, including one man of 73 who took his own life after finding it “unbearable to live after all these excruciating years” while the authorities ignored all pleas for justice.

The “mothers”, who are based in mainland China, live under constant electronic and police surveillance. Any attempt to hold group mourning sessions in public for their children are pounced upon by police and stopped, human rights groups say. As old age and declining health winnow their ranks, many “mothers” fear they will not live to see Beijing reverse its official condemnation of the protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot”. Thus they are investing their hopes in the judgment of history.

Previously unseen footage of the army moving in to quash the student-led demonstrations of 1989 © Still from FT video. Original footage by Terril Jones

“Thirty years later, while the criminal evidence has been covered up by the façade of ‘prosperity’ made up of towering buildings and clustered overpasses, the hard facts of the massacre are etched into history. No one can erase it; no power, however mighty, can alter it; and no words or tongues, however clever, can deny it,” they wrote in the open letter.

They recall how harshly history now judges the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the disastrous policies of Chairman Mao Zedong caused tens of millions of Chinese to starve to death. “Considering this, we can’t help but wonder: Wouldn’t the People’s Liberation Army’s mass killing of innocent people in full public view also be recorded in history? How can these numerous murderers escape the trial of history in the end?”

James Kynge is the FT’s global China editor, based in Hong Kong

Photographs of the Tiananmen protests used in this article were taken from Liu Heung Shing’s book ‘A Life in a Sea of Red’, recently published by Steidl

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