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20 Years Later, Chinese Dissident Wang Juntao and US Journalist Philip Cunningham Look Back on Tiananmen Square Uprising

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Twenty years ago, the Chinese military gunned down student protesters in Tiananmen Square. As twentieth anniversary events are held around the world, we speak with Wang Juntao, a prominent Chinese dissident who was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment and now lives in exile in the United States, and Philip Cunningham, an American journalist who marched with the students and is author of a new book Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: An estimated 150,000 people turned out in Hong Kong Thursday to remember those killed by the Chinese military twenty years ago this week, when student protesters were crushed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On June 3rd and 4th, 1989, the Chinese military killed an untold numbers of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities. The crackdown occurred after weeks of nonviolent protests.

While the anniversary has been marked around the world, no memorials were held in Tiananmen Square itself. On Thursday, foreign journalists were barred from the square and plainclothes police officers patrolled the area. Many Chinese dissidents were put under house arrest leading up to the anniversary. In recent days Chinese authorities blocked access to social networking and email websites, including Twitter and Hotmail.

AMY GOODMAN: For the past twenty years, the Chinese government has dismissed international condemnation of what happened at Tiananmen. In January of 2001, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the use of deadly force as, quote, “extremely necessary for the stability and development of the country.” Human rights groups have long called for the government to publish a complete list of those killed, injured or jailed during the crackdown.

Today, we’re joined by two eyewitnesses to the events of June 1989, but first we turn to an excerpt from the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

    ZHAO HONGLIANG: [translated] We wanted to see what was happening, so we headed south and ran smack into some soldiers. They weren’t shooting into the sky or at the ground; they were shooting straight at us.

    Five workers beside me fell. At first we said, “Come on, guys. Stop fooling around and get up.” But then we saw the blood. Some had been shot in the chest, some in the head.

    I rushed back to the workers’ headquarters. Though I was really scared, I still managed to burn all the membership lists.

    PROTESTER: [translated] Ambulance!

    NARRATOR: By now, many people — no one knows how many — had been killed or wounded. So far, most of the casualties were bystanders and people blocking the advance of the troops.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests.

Wang Juntao is a prominent Chinese dissident who was sentenced to thirteen years in prison following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. At the time, he led an influential think tank that supported the student protests. He was released in 1994 and was exiled to the United States. Last month, he was denied a visa to enter China to attend a conference in Hong Kong commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the massacre.

We’re also joined by the journalist Philip Cunningham. He’s just written the book Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. He marched with the student protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen and conducted interviews with student activists for BBC and ABC News. Philip Cunningham joins us by DN! video stream from Japan.

Actually, let’s start with you, Philip. Talk about that day twenty years ago. Where were you?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: OK, I was on Tiananmen Square that day and that evening, and I was with a BBC crew, and some of the footage that was seen around the world was taken by the crew.

But I do want to stress that there was a lot of confusion about what happened that night, including with my crew and John Simpson, who did some of the reporting. And, you know, I think now we can look back and be reflective and have to admit to certain media mistakes. There was not a massacre on the Square, as some people initially thought. There was a lot of confusion. It was blind me touching a very big and dangerous elephant, and we didn’t really know what was going on in other parts. We sometimes assumed the worst was happening not near us, not realizing that where we were was one of the worst places.

As we retreated from the Square, we moved towards the Beijing Hotel, and that’s where we witnessed violence there. There was a crowd violence against soldiers. There were soldiers shooting people. There was lots of tracer bullets. It was very dangerous. And we eventually went back to the hotel. But it was a nightmarish evening.

And I was, you know, very proud of the BBC crew on the one hand, including the Chinese students who were helping us and helping soldiers who were hurt. I mean, there was a lot of humanitarian feeling on the part of students who didn’t want it to get violent. And it was — it’s unforgivable that the government used violence. I think that’s — that’s the main point, is that lethal weapons should not have been introduced into the mix. Everything else is relatively minor, can be discussed and argued about, but it should not have come to violence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Philip Cunningham, as you were covering it, for those who don’t recall the events of those days, what led up to the protests?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, this is part of the reason I wrote a book. And I also teach film now, and if you can excuse a film comparison, there is a scene in Rebel Without a Cause where they watch — they go to the planetarium in Los Angeles, and they see, you know, the end of the world, the end of the solar system, and it’s very depressing. And so, if something ends bad, does it mean that everything that came before has no meaning?

And, you know, we always talk about how it ended. We always talk about June 4th. But one of the reasons why I wrote the book is because May in Beijing, 1989, was one of the most amazing, beautiful, uplifting, fantastic months in the life of China, in the life of people who were there. It was just tremendous. It was beautiful. And it was a million people, not a single casualty. I mean, the accomplishment of May 1989 sometimes gets eclipsed by what happened afterward. So it did end badly, but I don’t think that should take away from the example that was set and, indeed, the example that went on to influence people in eastern Europe, in Russia, around the world. May 1989 is part of the story, and I wrote a book to remind people that it’s a very — the positive message of Tiananmen is a very important part of the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Juntao Wang, you were about ten miles away from Tiananmen Square at that moment. Tell us what you were doing in those days leading up to and on June 4th, 1989.

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah. You know, in 1989, the Chinese government charged me as a black hand of the movement. That means I organized a roundtable meeting every day to discuss a policy to Asian and the West —-

AMY GOODMAN: They called you the “black hand” of the democracy movement?

WANG JUNTAO: Black hand, yeah, yeah. You know, I got a long sentence [inaudible] students after the crackdown in Beijing. And they charged me as a black hand, just because I organized a roundtable meeting, all group actively involved in the meeting to discuss about the situation, what’s the next move every day. So, every evening we met there to -— in a small hotel to discuss about situation.

June 3rd, you know, the evening, I just remembered, nobody came. And then my driver came back, told me he couldn’t return home, because the major road blocked by the military soldiers. I asked him to drive me there at about 10:00 p.m. The Chinese government — Chinese soldiers fired at the people, and I saw a lot of dying bodies, you know, lying on the road, the middle of the road. And the eyes still open [inaudible]. So I realized, you know, the bloody date in the Chinese history.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, again, why did they all come to meet with you? You were running a journal at the time? Or, what was your involvement?

WANG JUNTAO: Because, you know, actually I’m a — at that time, I was a senior democrat. It’s the second time I was jailed. The first time, I was jailed in 1976 for political activity. So, you know, also I was the first generation of students’ movement leader in Peking University after Cultural Revolution. So when the movement started, the students took me as an adviser, asked my advice.

And then, when the Chinese government issued the martial law and the military army entered — tried to enter the Beijing, I organized a roundtable meeting, involved all active groups to discuss about situation. Before that, you know, we just — we tried to keep a distance away from the student movement, because if we involved, the government will crack down earlier. You know, they will say, “Oh, it’s not a student movement; it’s some senior, you know, professional revolutionary involvement.”

AMY GOODMAN: And your major concern at that time, at the beginning of June 1989, why people were going out into the streets?

WANG JUNTAO: Just because, you know, after Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Chinese debate how to develop their country. Deng Xiaoping want to maintain political stability with, you know, the new non-democratic regime. However, people wanted political reform to solve the problem, not only economic development, but also social justice. But Deng Xiaoping, you know, the — and then Deng Xiaoping just postponed the political reform. Then people demonstrated, and they demonstrate actually from 1979, 1980, 1955, 1986 — ’85, ’86, and ’88. Every year, they demonstrated. Just because 1989 so large, you know, then you saw it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Juntao Wang, prominent Chinese dissident, was sentenced to thirteen years in jail following the Tiananmen massacre. Philip Cunningham is with us from Japan. He was interviewing the students in Tiananmen on June 4th, 1989. We’ll also be back with excerpts of The Gate of Heavenly Peace in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, on this week, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Our guests are Juntao Wang, prominent Chinese dissident, served more than four years in jail, the second time he served in jail that was after the Tiananmen massacre, called the “black hand” of the democracy movement, and Philip Cunningham, author of Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. He was a reporter with the students in the Square. But I wanted to turn to another excerpt of The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

    NARRATOR: On the night of June 3rd, 1989, tanks and armored vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army moved into Beijing and put an end to seven weeks of peaceful protest.

    WANG DAN: [translated] After the shooting on the night of June the 3rd, when I found out that so many people had died, I felt neither anger nor sorrow, nothing. I was completely numb. There was a huge emptiness. I just couldn’t believe they would open fire.

    DING ZILIN: [translated] In the first few days after my son was killed, many friends, colleagues and students came to express their sympathy. They all said that soon the official verdict would be overturned. But as investigations and arrests began, fewer and fewer people came to see me. When people ran into me, they were silent. It was as though nothing had ever happened.

    NARRATOR: Events to not deliver their meanings to us; they are always interpreted. On the morning of June 5th, there was a moment that would come to symbolize the hope and the tragedy of those spring days. He disappeared into the crowd afterwards, and no one knows where he is now. No one is even certain of his name. But for the millions who saw this scene all over the world, its meaning was clear: here was human hope and courage, challenging the remorseless machinery of state power.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, produced by the Long Bow Group. For our radio audience, that last sequence focused on the lone Chinese protester who stood in front of a line of Chinese tanks rolling past Tiananmen Square. That was twenty years ago today, on June 5th, 1989. You can see that at our website at democracynow.org.

Philip Cunningham, one of the most iconic images of the June 1989 massacre was actually taken — was it from your hotel room? Were you there?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: I wasn’t in my room when it was taken. There was video footage taken from my room. That was taken from about six different locations. The AP photo is the best known. But we just saw today in the New York Times, there was one photo taken on the ground, as well, a ground-level view of the same thing. There was a lot of people taking pictures of that. And I appreciate — I saw it very shortly afterwards in the BBC office, but —-

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what it was.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, the man standing in front of the tank is -— I know it’s a powerful image, but I’m actually going to say something you might not expect. It really wasn’t that impressive to anyone who’d been there that night, because in the course of the evening before — remember, this — he stood in front of the tank after it was all over. During the evening before, there was hundreds of people jumping in front of the tanks, playing chicken with tanks and eventually stopping a tank. And I was part of a crowd that stopped a tank with its bare hands. And so, yes, visually speaking, the man in front of the tank is very powerful, but it was just one of hundreds of equally moving and powerful and courageous acts of defiance. I don’t — as someone who was there, I don’t single that out. But I understand, you know, in media terms, why it’s a powerful image.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Juntao Wang, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the impact of the protests on the Chinese leadership, obviously, there was the leader of the Communist Party at the time, Zhao Ziyang, was — as a result of his trying to prevent the bloodshed, was then removed, wasn’t he? And the impact on the leadership since then of the protests of those days?

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah, but actually, to know what happened in the high-ranking of leadership in China, exactly the same as in other countries. You know, the party divided, and some country want to use the military way, the violent way, to crack down the movement. But Zhao Ziyang was a majority leader who wanted to, you know, solve the problem according the law and the democratic way and [inaudible].

But Deng Xiaoping controlled the army, and the army supported him. Then Deng Xiaoping kicked Zhao Ziyang away from his post and then cracked down the movement. And now they just released a book from Zhao Ziyang. In the last days before the crackdown, Zhao Ziyang didn’t know anything about what happened, and it was a military move.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, there was almost like a military putsch within the Chinese leadership by Deng Xiaoping?

WANG JUNTAO: Right, it’s covert. Actually, it violates the Chinese law and also violates the charter of Chinese Communist Party, because, according to the party, Zhao Ziyang should have controlled the situation, but Deng Xiaoping organized a meeting in his home and established, you know, the martial law commander and then mobilized 250,000 soldiers from fifteen army groups, and with tanks and machine guns also, they isolated Zhao Ziyang from the movement.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the role of the United States, because didn’t the government at that time basically support the efforts of Deng Xiaoping?

WANG JUNTAO: No, they did not provide any support and any help to victims of the moment, at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Philip Cunningham, about what was just referred to, the secret memoir of Zhao Ziyang, who was in charge at that time, that has just come out, and the significance of it.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Well, the significance is that this is the first time we have it in someone’s own words. This is something we thought all along. It was pretty obvious that the demonstrations couldn’t take place and last as long as they did if there wasn’t high-level support from at least one faction in the Communist Party. And Zhao Ziyang’s last words, recorded as they were, confirmed what we long felt, is that there was a Zhao faction, and that was basically the liberal faction. It was a pro-student faction. Most students identified with Zhao and felt antagonistic towards Li Peng. And I think that’s a very important impetus to explain how you got a million people in his square. It couldn’t have happened in China if you didn’t have people in high places allowing it to happen. The police were gone. For a month, Beijing was a city with almost no law and order, but people created their own law and order. That was what was so beautiful about the month of May.

But just one thing, Amy, if I could say, just to correct you. You mentioned the word before “Tiananmen Square massacre,” and I really think that’s not the right term to use, because it was a massacre, there was terrible killing, what happened was terribly wrong, but it really wasn’t mainly in Tiananmen Square. And that is part of a media debate that’s gone on for a very long time. So, for lack of a — I call it “uprising,” but you could say the “Beijing massacre” or something like that. But let’s not call it “Tiananmen Square massacre,” because that plays into the hand of those who — that want to deny it and say, “Well, see, it didn’t actually happen there; it happened somewhere else. So the Western media has it all wrong.” We have to be very careful about that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to this issue of the media. Let’s turn again to an excerpt of the Long Bow documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

    NARRATOR: Almost as soon as the struggle over Tiananmen Square ended, the struggle over the story of what happened there began. The official account was this: no one had died during the clearing of the Square at dawn on June 4th; in the approaches to the Square, some ruffians who had incited counterrevolutionary violence had been killed, as had a small number of innocent bystanders. The government went to extraordinary lengths to hunt down and punish anyone whose story strayed from the official line.

    One outraged bystander telling atrocity stories to a crowd was interviewed by ABC News.

    XIAO BIN: [translated] Is this what the people’s government does? Using tanks to crush people?

    NARRATOR: The Chinese government intercepted the satellite relay and used part of the interview in a nationwide broadcast. It called on informers to turn the man in. He was spotted in his hometown, hundreds of miles from Beijing.

    WOMAN: [translated] She said, “Look at that man! We just saw him on TV!” I said, “Where?” She said, “There!” I looked, and there he was!

    CHINESE MEDIA: This vicious counterrevolutionary instigator is Xiao Bin. He is a forty-two-year-old laid-off worker.

    XIAO BIN: [translated] I realize that I’ve committed a crime. I’ve taken a stand against the people. So, of course, I’m a counterrevolutionary. However the party decides to deal with me, I accept it.

    NARRATOR: Xiao Bin was sentenced to ten years in prison. His case was a warning to all. There was only one correct version of events: the government’s version.

JUAN GONZALEZ: An excerpt from the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace. Juntao Wang, I’d like to go back to this issue of how, in the middle of the protests, you tried to get some sort of assistance or at least get out to the outside world, to the United States, of what was happening. What occurred?

WANG JUNTAO: In the 1989 movement, some activists tried to contact to embassy. You know, they had the —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: The US embassy.

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah, US embassy. You know, they had a connection before the moment. However, at that time, the embassy reject to offer any help, any aid, to the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the embassy -—


AMY GOODMAN: — under President George H.W. Bush, who had actually served as ambassador to China, hadn’t he, years before?

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah, I think that James Lilley is the ambassador at that time. And on June 4th, the most famous dissident, Fang Lizhi, tried to enter the embassy to get help, and they rejected him.

AMY GOODMAN: The most famous dissident.

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah, most famous. And he’s top on the wanted list by the government. But the embassy rejected him to enter. But under the help from Time magazine, the reporter and he got in, because James Lilley wrote the memo about it, said if — he knew if he rejected again, American people would overthrow the Bush government. So, and then he let him enter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking both of you about US policy to China today. Philip Cunningham, from your vantage point in Japan, just having finished this book on China — President Obama just gave his famous Cairo address, addressing, I would say, not only the Muslim world, but the world, over US policy and US approach to the Muslim world — what do you see from your vantage point?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think US-China relations are pretty good right now. And I think that’s how they should be. I mean, twenty years is a long time, and we can’t hold China to this any more than countries would hold US accountable for the war in Vietnam, which is, you know, not so far back, or even the war in Iraq, which is very recent. I mean, countries have to move on and have to engage and so on. So, I’m all for engagement.

But I also think that the US might have had a little more credibility talking about human rights issues and treatment of prisoners and so on, if its own behavior had been better. And the US has sort of lowered the bar so much that I think, for now, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense for US officials to be chastising China for something that happened twenty years ago, when the US is doing things of equivalent or even greater violence, you know, in this day and age.

So I think — on the other hand, I think citizens and NGOs and the media can continue to talk about it, and it’s very important that the truth come out. And it’s important not because it’s one up for the US and one down for China, but because to heal, for reconciliation, you need truth. And I don’t think you need — I think South Africa provides a model for that. I think we need truth and we need reconciliation, but this really doesn’t involve the United States at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Juntao Wang, where you think US policy should be in regards to China, and President Obama’s address in Cairo, the significance?

WANG JUNTAO: Yeah, I know that we understand, you know, at the finance crisis moment, the United States needs the Chinese government to cooperate with them to pass the moment. However, we think — we believe the United States government needs also to defend the human rights issue in China. You cannot just sacrifice human rights issue, you know, to get cooperation from the Chinese government. Also, we believe you just a voice of human rights values, you still can cooperate with Chinese government on economic issues. You don’t need to keep silent about the human rights issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Juntao Wang, prominent Chinese dissident, served in jail twice in China, the last after the Tiananmen massacre for more than four years. And Philip Cunningham, author of the new book Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989.

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