Dream Deferred

The Chinese democracy movement is thriving-outside the mainland


Until last June, Lu Jinghua was the owner of a small but thriving clothing store located near Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Since then, she has been one of China's most wanted, a "big counterrevolutionary" who would face almost certain execution if she were captured by Chinese security forces. Although Jinghua has reached sanctuary in the United States, other members of her family have been punished in her stead. Her husband, innocent of any involvement in the democracy movement, languishes in prison, a hostage to her continued freedom and political activity in the West. She has not seen her 20-month-old daughter in a year.

Jinghua's experience, filled with personal tragedy and yet inspired by a vision of China's democratic future, is typical of many leaders in China's democracy movement. Like the movement itself, it gives cause for both hope and despair.

To all appearances, the democracy movement inside China has been crushed. Tens of thousands have disappeared into the Chinese gulag without a trace. And the symbolic leader of the democracy movement, Fang Lizhi, remains a virtual prisoner in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Outside of China, however, the transplanted movement has taken root and is growing in strength. Overseas Chinese, traditionally divided by parochial considerations of province and dialect, have come together in their horror over the massacre in Beijing and their antipathy to the old tyrants who ordered it. Literally thousands of prodemocracy organizations have been formed, the more important ones headed by those who have escaped by underground railroad from China. Not since the closing years of the Manchu dynasty, which was overthrown in 1911, have the Chinese people been so united in their opposition to a government.

Jinghua is an ordinary-looking woman of extraordinary ambition and energy. Until 1982 she was a worker in a state textile factory, paid perhaps $25 a month, with little prospect of ever earning much more. "When Deng Xiaoping told us that it was all right to get rich, I took him at his word," Jinghua recalls.

Jinghua opened a small shop near Tiananmen Square, selling blue jeans and other popular Western apparel. She bought only the best cloth and paid village women generous piece rates to carefully sew the latest fashions. By the spring of 1989, Jinghua's shop employed well over 100 people.

When the young people of Beijing began demonstrating against one-party dictatorship, a stifling bureaucracy, and government corruption, Jinghua was immediately sympathetic to their cause. She knew the problem first-hand. Greedy officials on the take had cost her dearly. They had once shut off the electricity to her shop—even though she had paid her power bill—when she balked at paying a bribe.

Jinghua was generous with the students who came to her shop asking for gifts of food and money for the demonstrators. Soon she herself was going daily to Tiananmen Square—staying for hours at a time to read the bulletin boards and listen to the students' speeches. "The students and the intellectuals who supported them loved to talk," Jinghua remembers. "But they talked right over the heads of the people. They lacked experience with the practical problems that ordinary people face." So Jinghua, drawing upon her own experiences, began speaking to the workers and small-business owners.

On May 19, Jinghua joined with a dozen other activists and established the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union, the first of its kind in the country. With her gift of gab, Jinghua became the union's spokeswoman. Her voice, swelling with sarcasm whenever it touched upon the mistakes and follies of Communist officials, attracted huge crowds.

But after tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on June 3, the democracy movement's leaders were forced to flee for their lives. Like many others, Jinghua went south. After weeks of traveling, often with the assistance of sympathizers she knew only by nicknames, she reached the city of Canton. There an underground railroad had been set up by friends of the democracy movement, and she was able to slip across the border to safety in Hong Kong. In December, five months after she applied for political asylum at the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, she arrived in Los Angeles.

Many others were not so fortunate. Even before the city of Beijing was pacified by arms, the regime was issuing lists of "counterrevolutionaries" to be arrested and shot.

At first, these executions were widely publicized within China, but international criticism soon shamed the government into secrecy. The new policy was contained in a top-secret Chinese government directive, known as "Document No. 3," promulgated two weeks after the massacre. According to this directive, all "counterrevolutionaries" would still be executed, but the "number of executed and imprisoned people is not to be published" beyond a certain minimum number of executions that should receive publicity "in order to make examples."

Amnesty International is among the many human rights organizations that have protested this calculated use of terror to silence dissent. In September 1989, it sent a telex to Premier Li Peng calling for an end to secret executions. It dismissed the official death toll of several dozen people as a gross underestimate of the number of those who had actually been executed in the months since the Tiananmen massacre. One year later, secret executions continue. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been shot.

Many times that number of students, workers, labor-union activists, small-business owners, and officials have been arrested. It is difficult to know the exact number, but it is surely in the tens of thousands. The democracy leaders in exile say it is even larger. On July 20, 1989, dissident leaders Wuer Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, Wan Runnan, Su Shaozhi, and Liu Bin Yan jointly asserted that in just the first five weeks after the massacre more than 120,000 democracy supporters had been arrested throughout China. They based their estimates on information given to them by "a Beijing official sympathetic to the Democracy Movement" who was privy to internal party documents on the purge.

"Document No. 4," the next in the series of top-secret government directives dealing with the democracy movement, listed 10 categories of people who are to be "resolutely attacked": those who planned and led the demonstrations; top leaders of dissident organizations (such as Jinghua's Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union); those who led the masses in blocking advancing troops; those who protected "counterrevolutionary elements" after the massacre; those who took weapons from soldiers; those who attacked the soldiers, and so on. Anyone suspected of such activities is routinely arrested.

There is an 11th category as well, never explicitly stated but critical to Beijing efforts to terrorize the overseas democracy movement into silence: those who are closely related to the dissident leaders who have fled the country. Jinghua's husband was in Guangdong province throughout the demonstrations, and he continuously warned his wife in letters of the dangers of participating in the union's activities. He was arrested immediately after Jinghua came to the United States. No one, not even his elderly parents, has been informed of his whereabouts or told the nature of the crime of which he is accused. Many of the young men and women seen on America's television screens last spring have similarly disappeared without a trace into Chinese labor camps.

One indication that the Chinese gulag is bursting at the seams is Beijing's recent effort to offer prisoners as cheap labor to Western firms willing to open factories in China. According to the Hong Kong Standard, a representative of the Beijing regime formally offered "criminals" to Volvo for use on the shop floor if they moved into China, a deal the Swedish car manufacturer rejected as "revolting."

The system of police-state controls that has been reimposed upon China in the aftermath of Tiananmen is reminiscent of that in place during the Cultural Revolution. Armed guards have been posted at the country's fax machines to monitor incoming messages. Border patrols have been beefed up, and severe restrictions have been placed on foreign reporters. The old Maoist campaign to emulate Lei Feng, a long-dead corporal in the People's Liberation Army whose sole desire in life was to be "a worthy screw in the Communist machine," has been cranked up again.

The student population, especially, is under close surveillance. The entire first-year class of Beijing University has spent the last year at a remote camp undergoing ideological indoctrination. Even at universities unaffected by the demonstrations, political study is now required. As during Mao's days, political reliability, rather than academic ability, is now the primary requirement for university matriculation.

The controls in China are by no means absolute—the escape of several dozen democratic activists from China is proof of that—but they are effective enough. The democracy movement, to all appearances, has been crushed in China.

A recent effort to mobilize the Beijing population "to take a walk on Tiananmen" fell flat. The occasion was the Ching Ming festival on April 5, when the Chinese traditionally honor the dead. The authorities aborted the demonstration by declaring Tiananmen off-limits to strollers for the five days of the festival and posting thousands of armed guards and plainclothes policemen to enforce its edict.

Still, the people continue to find ways to express their outrage. Since the Tiananmen massacre, thousands of Chinese have left bits of broken bottle glass in public places. Xiaoping, as in Deng Xiaoping, means "little bottle." Ten years ago, when Deng came to power, hopeful Chinese hung little bottles in their windows. Today, the people break bottles to symbolize their shattered dreams.

If the Chinese democracy movement has been all but eliminated at home, it continues to thrive in other countries. From the first days of the Tiananmen demonstrations, Chinese students studying abroad actively supported the movement. One of the earliest and most important organizations was the China Information Center, founded by students in the Boston area in late April 1989.

Dedicated to the proposition that the open flow of information is the defining characteristic of a free society, it rapidly became the communications hub for Chinese students throughout North America who wished to lend their support to their fellow students in Beijing. The center had a direct "hot line" to Tiananmen Square, manned 24 hours a day by activists, which it used to pass along encouraging messages to the demonstrators, as well as receive constant reports and updates on events in and around the square as they transpired.

After the massacre, the center's mission changed. With the Western media first silenced and then sent home by the Chinese government, the center became one of the few reliable sources of up-to-date information on China for the West. At the same time, it worked to communicate the truth to people in China who were being informed by the government-controlled media that no one had died in Tiananmen Square. By fax and telephone, center activists fought against what they called "The Big Lie," sending news reports and photographs to Chinese citizens.

The organization now works with Amnesty International and Asia Watch to maintain a human rights archive, in which information regarding arrests and executions is stored. The Chinese Information Center remains the center of the communications network that links together the 60,000 Chinese students in the United States and other countries who are unable to return to their homeland for fear of persecution.

While Chinese living overseas were sympathetic to the students' cause from the beginning, it was the Tiananmen massacre that galvanized them into an active resistance movement. Wuer Kaixi, one of the best-known student leaders, estimates that more than 8,000 different groups were formed in the summer of 1989, so great was the sense of outrage at the events in China.

And, despite decades of misunderstanding and a lack of close ties, Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits have begun to work together to bring democracy to the mainland. The continuing repression on the mainland, and the progressive democratization of the Republic of China on Taiwan, have brought many democratic activists to Taiwan. The heads of the major democracy organizations, such as Wan Runnan, general secretary of the Federation for a Democratic China, Hu Ping, chairman of the Alliance for Democracy in China, and Li San-yuan, head of the Voice of June 4th, have all visited Taiwan in recent months. The coming together of the new organizations based in the West and the older political forces in Taiwan and on Hong Kong has created a formidable united front against the Communist regime.

Wan Runnan seems an unlikely candidate to be the head of a counterrevolutionary organization. But his Federation for a Democratic China is one of the two largest dissident organizations. Starting with a small electronics shop 10 years ago, he had built his Stone Corp. into China's premier computer manufacturer and its largest privately owned corporation. Because of his success at the game of capitalism and his outspoken support for democracy, he was a natural target for the old hardliners who want to reimpose central control on China. His name was high on Beijing's most-wanted list, and he had to flee the country. We spoke on board a 747 bound for Paris, where the headquarters of the federation are located.

Paris, he notes, wasn't the federation's first choice. But, he says, "the Bush administration made it clear in various ways that they didn't want us in Washington or New York. Some of our people found it difficult to get visas to the United States. The French government has a tradition of supporting human rights movements. They welcomed us."

Wan remains optimistic about the chances for democracy in China. "We expect changes when Deng Xiaoping dies in a year or two," he says. "Before we can go back and work for democracy four things must happen. Li Peng, who along with Deng ordered the massacre, must step down. The false verdict that June 4 was a counterrevolutionary coup attempt must be reversed. The government must declare that we are not counterrevolutionaries. And there must be an end to one-party dictatorship. Until these four things happen, we will work outside of China to build up our organization."

But the former businessman realizes that democracy alone will not be enough to free China. "Property must be held privately," he says. "The land must be given back to the villagers. Factories must be turned over to the workers. The transformation must take place in stages. First we will privatize the coastal zones, then the backward interior. Only the communication, transportation, and energy sectors will remain in government hands."

Hu Ping, the head of the other major democracy organization, the Alliance for Democracy in China, is Wan's opposite. He is the prototypical Chinese intellectual, the kind who can get lost in thought in the middle of a conversation.

Hu holds the distinction of being the first democratically elected public official in the People's Republic of China. In 1979, the government enacted an election law that theoretically allowed campaigning for candidates and the direct election of "people's deputies" at the county level. Unlike local party authorities elsewhere, school authorities at Beijing University permitted a genuine democratic election. Hu Ping, then a graduate student in philosophy, decided to run. Largely on the strength of an essay entitled "On Freedom of Speech," he defeated the Communist Party's candidate and won.

As punishment for his success, the party refused to assign him work upon graduation. When he applied to various organizations for employment, he was rejected as "too dangerous." Only after his term as a "people's deputy" ended three years later was he able to join the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 1985 he came to the United States to do graduate work at Harvard and in 1987 he became chairman of the Alliance for Democracy. As punishment for joining a "counterrevolutionary" organization, Hu had his passport revoked.

The alliance is best known as the publisher of the magazine China Spring. More recently, it has conducted a series of "Conferences in Democracy" with the Claremont Institute. Held in major cities throughout the United States, these conferences bring together leaders and activists in the democracy movement for three days of discussions of democratic fundamentals. Those who come from China have little understanding of such principles as the separation of powers, the rule of law, and individual rights. These conferences provide activists with a framework for their efforts to bring liberal government to China.

Perhaps the most daring initiative of the democracy movement, and one in which all the major organizations have been cooperating, has been the outfitting of a radio ship, the Goddess of Democracy, to broadcast into China from international waters. The ship was christened on March 9 by film star Yves Montand and Wuer Kaixi. Manned by Chinese dissidents, it sailed to China and began its uncensored broadcasts on April 30. Its broadcasts have included detailed accounts of the occupation of Tiananmen Square, the hunger strike that led to the imposition of martial law, the massacre, and the postmassacre purge. A more direct challenge to the Beijing regime is hard to imagine, and the Chinese government has threatened to use force against the ship.

While the leaders of the democracy movement may have their differences, they all agree that the Tiananmen massacre was a defeat for the forces of Communist reaction, not a victory. Similarly, the continuing crackdown in China is the desperate cruelty of an aging oligarchy—a sign of weakness, not of strength. They point to the fact that China's hardline stance has relegated it to the dwindling ranks of orthodox Marxist states, a kind of international Gang of Five that includes Castro's Cuba, Kim Il Sung's North Korea, Albania, and Vietnam.

Many in the Chinese democracy movement believe, with some justification, that the blood that flowed in Beijing had a sobering effect on the reactionary regimes of Eastern Europe and that the fully perceived dimensions of its horror may have prevented other massacres. For them the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful ousting of entrenched leaders in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania all began with the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. Part myth and part reality, this belief encourages the democracy movement in its struggle for human rights and representative government.

What is certain is that the future of China lies with her youth, not with the current corrupt and entrenched elite. Eastern Europe is a testament to how fast the totalitarian glue that holds systems like China together can be dissolved with the proper solvent.

Contributing Editor Steven W. Mosher is director of Asian studies at the Claremont Institute. His latest book, China Misperceived: From American Illusions to Chinese Reality, will be published in September by Harper and Row.