November 5, 2004

Tiananmen Protester Lectures on China

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Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, spoke yesterday to a large crowd in Uris Auditorium. Dan’s speech, entitled “Reflections on Tiananmen Square and the Future of China,” dealt with his experience during the protests and with the continuing lack of political reform in China. His appearance at Cornell was sponsored by the Chinese Students Association and Amnesty International as a commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the protests.
In 1989, Wang Dan was a 20-year-old freshman at Beijing University when protests over the lack of economic and political freedoms broke out in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The protests began in April and then grew to include more than a million people over the next month. But on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government began a violent crackdown against the protesters, mostly students and urban workers, in which more than 2,000 people were killed.
As one of the student leaders of the protests, Dan was arrested and imprisoned for the next four years. He was re-arrested in 1995 and held without charges for over a year before being sentenced to 11 years in prison. Under heavy international pressure from human rights groups, the Chinese government finally agreed to exile him to the United States in 1998.
Dan began his talk by explaining that the corruption and inflexibility of the Chinese government was one of the main factors that motivated the students to take to the streets. “Suggestions of reform were dismissed as a challenge to the [Communist] Party, [and] we thought that the only way to limit corruption would be through the establishment of democratic institutions,” he said. Therefore, the Tiananmen Square crackdown, “was not just a victory for authoritarianism, but also a victory for corruption,” he added.
Dan said that Chinese efforts at reform in the 15 years since 1989 fell far short of what was needed for a real change in Chinese society.
“1989 provided the best opportunity in Chinese history for the state and society to come together for reform, but the Communist Party missed this chance,” he said. “China today is taking a development path based on social injustice.”
Since 1992, he said, “reform has basically stopped. We don’t want gestures towards reform — we want to see policy changes.”
He challenged the Chinese government to allow open elections in Hong Kong if they really wanted reform.
Dan delivered his remarks in English but felt more comfortable answering audience questions in his native Mandarin Chinese. Audience members were invited to ask questions in either language. Jeffery Zhang ’06 translated Dan’s responses for the roughly half of the audience that did not understand Mandarin.
“The biggest part of the protest movement was the citizens of Beijing,” Dan said in response to a question about what role urban workers played in the protests.
“Some people say that students are the heroes of June 4th, but I don’t think that is the case. The real heroes were the citizens of Beijing.”
Zhang explained after the event that there are divisions within the Chinese community over whether the students bear the blame for the violence in Tiananmen Square. Some people, he said, are of the opinion that the protesters made radical demands and attempted to overthrow the government, making the government crackdown justified. In addition, Tory Lauterbach ’06, a member of Amnesty International, explained that the organizers of the event had tried to make it nonpartisan.
“As I understand it, a lot of people within the Chinese community are reluctant to criticize the Chinese government,” she said.
Several audience members did in fact question Dan about whether the students might have been partly to blame for the violence, and whether the protesters sought radical goals like the overthrow of the Communist government.
“The student demands were not radical demands,” he said. “If the government had been willing to negotiate with the students and workers, they would have avoided violence. The responsibility for what occurred should be placed entirely on the shoulders of the Chinese government.”
He noted that more than 200,000 soldiers surrounded Beijing and the 3,000 protesters in Tiananmen Square.
“The use of force was unnecessary — even the government admitted that. They could have carried the students out one by one,” he said.
He also denied that he and the other students wanted to overthrow China’s Communist government.
“A lot of people think that we hate the Communist Party but that isn’t true,” he said. He did add, however, to audience laughter, that although he did not want a violent overthrow of the government, “I would be happy to see [the Communist Party] voluntarily set down.”
Zhang said that Dan’s talk had helped sway his opinion about the student protests.
“I myself was of the opinion that many of the students were hardline but I was interested to hear that they were much less radical than I thought. [Dan] changed my perception of the student movement,” he said.
Organizers of the event like Jaclyn Chen ’05, vice president of the CSA, also praised the substance and the message of Dan’s talk.
“It was definitely very enlightening,” she said.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Staff Writer