Student Leaders Reflect, 20 Years After Tiananmen

Correction July 26, 2009

The audio introduction to this story said, "Back in 1989, before the dawn of the Internet, three young students at Beijing University were among those at the center of the drama in Tiananmen Square." In fact, accounts of the Tiananmen Square killings were relayed via the Internet in 1989.

Photo Gallery Promo: From Preaching Democracy To Preaching For God
Courtesy Zhang Boli and Robb Hill/NPR
Former democracy activist Zhang Boli i i

hide captionFormer democracy activist Zhang Boli discovered God while imprisoned in Russia and is now a pastor at a church in Fairfax, Va. His mission now is to bring the gospel to his flock, both inside and outside China.

Robb Hill/NPR
Former democracy activist Zhang Boli

Former democracy activist Zhang Boli discovered God while imprisoned in Russia and is now a pastor at a church in Fairfax, Va. His mission now is to bring the gospel to his flock, both inside and outside China.

Robb Hill/NPR
Former student leader Shen Tong i i

hide captionFormer student leader Shen Tong, shown at his New York apartment, had doubts about whether he was achieving anything working for political reform inside China and set up a software company.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Former student leader Shen Tong

Former student leader Shen Tong, shown at his New York apartment, had doubts about whether he was achieving anything working for political reform inside China and set up a software company.

Louisa Lim/NPR

In 1989, three young students at Beijing University became bit players in history. They were among the leaders of the pro-democracy movement that would shake China to its core.

It was 20 years ago Thursday that gunfire on Tiananmen Square snuffed out their dreams. In exile, the lives of these three student leaders have taken very different paths, but all are using new technology to try to influence China's future.

Birth Of The Movement

The pro-democracy movement started, as it ended, with death. The first death was reformist party leader Hu Yaobang, who suffered a heart attack and died on April 15, 1989.

Three days later, students at Beijing University gathered to mourn the popular leader, who had been ousted two years earlier for his liberal leanings. Among them was Zhang Boli, then a 30-year-old journalist in the university's writing program.

Zhang recalls the moment when, as if by instinct, the students marched to Tiananmen Square, and an act of mourning turned into one of protest.

"We were walking towards Tiananmen Square. We had no organization, no aim, no leader," Zhang remembers. "This was the first protest. While walking, I thought we needed to propose something to the government. So I wrote down seven requests and rode a bike to catch up with the others."

Those initial, hastily scrawled demands — for democracy, press freedom and an end to corruption — became the battle cries of the swelling protests. As the students took over Tiananmen Square, tens of thousands of workers, and even government officials, joined in, and demonstrations began in cities across China. But as positions hardened, the carnival atmosphere morphed into a hunger strike.

Violence In The Square

On May 18, 11 student representatives tried to negotiate with Premier Li Peng in China's citadel of power, the Great Hall of the People. One of the 11 was math student Shao Jiang.

"I told the government, [it's] like a crossroads in China," Shao recalls. "If [they] cannot respect students' demands, we go back to very dark times."

As June 3 wore into June 4, China's leaders — fearing chaos — sent in the army to disperse protesters still in the square.

Zhang was there.

"We saw crowds trying to stop the army by grabbing their uniforms and shouting, 'Protect the students!' Then the army opened fire," he says.

"The ridiculous thing was the soldiers were shouting, 'Love the capital, love the people!' as they fired on us. It was like members of one family murdering each other. We began crying. I was numb. There was no fear; there was no anger. We felt it didn't matter if we lived or died," Zhang says.

The Chinese government says 241 people died; human rights groups believe the real figure was much higher. Survivors' guilt haunts many who were there — among them, biology student Shen Tong, who describes himself as an accidental student leader. He witnessed killings in the avenue leading to Tiananmen Square.

"So much life [was] lost. It will be on my conscience forever," Shen says. For 15 years he had nightmares, he says, which stopped only when his daughter was born five years ago. Shen describes the memories as a "curse" that replayed over and over in his brain even after waking up.

Finishing 'Unfinished Journey' To Freedom

Shao, the student negotiator, has devoted his life to those who died.

"For me, I must finish the unfinished journey to fight for freedom and democracy in China," he says.

Shao fled to the United Kingdom, where he now has an IT job — solely to earn his keep, he says. His passion is working to change China. He believes the legacy of June 4 is the proliferation of small-scale protests on issues as diverse as human rights, pollution and last year's tainted-milk scandal. He is trying to help China's emerging civil society by disseminating information electronically.

"We publish [on] different sensitive issues and send millions of e-mails every day into China. Also, we can learn how to transform totalitarian regimes into democratic countries," Shao says.

Saving Souls, Spreading God's Gospel

Zhang, the former journalist who brought the students to the square, has taken a different path. Once, he preached for democracy; now he preaches for Jesus. Formerly No. 17 on Beijing's most-wanted list, Zhang today is a pastor at a Chinese church in Fairfax, Va.

After the clampdown, Zhang spent two years in hiding, much of it in a remote mountain cabin near the frozen Russian border, where he lived off wildlife that he caught. He also spent a month in a Russian prison. It was at that time that he found God.

"I read the Bible and began to know God," Zhang remembers. "I gained sustenance from it. People really needed God then. They needed a future. I couldn't see the future with my bare eyes."

Zhang finally escaped China through Hong Kong and sought asylum in the United States. These days, he throws himself into ministering his flock. He is planning to build a 16,000-square-foot church for his congregation, which currently numbers about 300.

Yet he reaches a far larger audience with his sermons, which are recorded and put online for converts inside China to download.

He is clear about his mission.

"Democracy is not my job. I am not a revolutionary. My job is to save souls and spread God's gospel, to let the love of Jesus Christ melt the hatred in China," Zhang says.

Using Media As 'Democratizing, Liberalizing Force'

For Shen Tong, the path hasn't been so clear. He fled to the U.S. to study. For 10 years, he also worked to bring about political change in China. But he had doubts about the efficacy of his work.

"Chinese people deserve human dignity as well as economic development. I'm glad I still see that simple truth. But I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't know if we were making any positive change," he says.

Disillusioned, Shen founded a software company, VFinity. It developed a media search engine, a sort of professional Google for television companies.

Evidently successful, he now lives in a huge apartment on Broadway in New York City. His company sells its software to, among others, Chinese universities and state-run television stations. He denies having any kind of mission, but he admits being excited by the possibilities offered by technology.

"I couldn't wait to get this technology into China, into universities and TV stations. It's incredibly empowering. The mass media, eventually, is a democratizing, liberalizing force," he says.

June 4: Reckoning Still To Come

Haunted by the past, each of these three former student leaders has taken a different approach to influencing China's future. All believe China's government will one day have to reassess its bloody suppression of the movement.

Zhang compares it to a cancer: You can deny it for so long, but if left untreated, eventually it will devour you.

Shen agrees.

"Someone jumps off a tall building. Each floor he passes, he tells himself, 'This is OK so far, this is OK so far.' So it doesn't matter how far you fall, it only matters how you land. [19]89 is not the only bomb that will explode, but it's probably one of the most important, if not the most important one," Shen says.

Those heady days of idealism, followed by betrayal and killings, are not discussed much in today's China. As lives improve and people become richer, moving has become a way of life — and the general public has become complicit.

But those who helped lead the student movement believe June 4 cannot be forgotten. It remains frozen in history, waiting for the day of reckoning, they say.

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