TAIPEI: A quarter of a century after Communist authorities crushed the Tiananmen Square demonstrators and their hopes of reform, protest leader Wu’er Kaixi still lies awake at night, haunted by the dead and their unrealized dreams.
Students rallying for de–mocracy and freedom had filled the symbolic heart of Chinese power with euphoria, drawing in workers and intellectuals, and inspiring protests around the country.
But after seven weeks in the square, their aspirations were abruptly shattered by an overnight military crackdown that ended on June 4, 1989, leaving hundreds of people dead—by some estimates, more than 1,000—and a ruling party hell-bent on preventing any future such challenges to its power.
“During the time, it did seem quite promising that the Chinese authorities may yield, may actually answer to our call for Chinese political reform,” said Wu’er, then a charismatic 21-year-old activist, who became number two on the government’s most-wanted list of student leaders.
“I think at the beginning [of the killings], everybody was in a state of shock. So was I,” he told Agence France-Prees at a university in Taiwan, his adopted home.
The movement, fueled by frustration from years of economic upheaval, gathered pace in mid-April as public mourning for the reform-minded former party chief Hu Yaobang morphed into calls for political change and curbs on corruption.
Students began to pour into Tiananmen Square. Thousands later went on hunger strike and eventually erected a Goddess of Democracy resembling New York City’s Statue of Liberty facing the portrait of Mao Zedong hanging on the wall of the Forbidden City.
During a meeting between student leaders and politicians broadcast live on state television, Wu’er publicly interrupted the hardline then-premier Li Peng, becoming an overnight celebrity.
“We apply pressure and we are hoping for the regime to make a positive choice,” he said.
“The choice for them was also clear, they could dialogue and by doing so they would certainly be able to maintain a leading position in the Chinese further political development,” he added.
“But instead they decided to take another choice—military crackdown,” Wu’er said.
The protests came under the global spotlight as foreign reporters flocked to Beijing to cover a May 15 visit by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—a historic event that was quickly overtaken by domestic turmoil.
China’s Communist leaders were split over how to respond, with moderates led by party general secretary Zhao Ziyang eventually losing.
Zhao last appeared in public on May 19, pleading tearfully on the square for the students to go home before being ousted and confined under house arrest until his death in 2005.
Hardliners, among them China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, took charge, branded the protest a “counter-revo–lutionary rebellion” and declared martial law.
For two weeks, they were unable to take control of the square, until the People’s Liberation Army moved in to clear it on the night of June 3-4 while soldiers flanked by tanks opened fire elsewhere. Fighting broke out with students who defended themselves with sticks and makeshift weapons.
“The bullets flying above your head, that is something you would never have learned in any movies or in any of the literature, until it actually happens in your life,” Wu’er said.
Authorities hunted down protest leaders, imprisoning many even as sympathizers in Hong Kong mobilized to smuggle students out and Western governments offered asylum.
“Wherever I go the people of China supported and helped us, helped me to escape. I managed to go all the way to the border, to the south,” Wu’er said, and supporters in Hong Kong helped him escape