Student Leaders Reflect, 20 Years After Tiananmen Three Beijing University students were among the leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy movement that shook China to its core. Two decades since gunfire snuffed out their dreams, the exiled leaders have taken different paths — through disillusionment, religion and renewed activism.
NPR logo

Student Leaders Reflect, 20 Years After Tiananmen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Student Leaders Reflect, 20 Years After Tiananmen

Student Leaders Reflect, 20 Years After Tiananmen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


China has the world's largest online population. And in the past, social networks have been a powerful tool of protest, so the government is not taking chances. To curb discussion of the anniversary, it has already begun blocking Web sites like Twitter, Flickr, Hotmail. And it's also shut down message boards on more than 6,000 Web sites.

MONTAGNE: Their dreams of a democratic China were snuffed out by gunfire. Now in exile, the lives of those three student leaders have taken very different paths, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.


LOUISA LIM: It started as it ended, with death. The first death was of reformist former party leader Hu Yaobang on April the 15th, 1989. Just three days later, students at Beijing University gathered to mourn. Zhang Boli was there. He was then a 30-year-old journalist in the university's writing program. He describes the birth of the movement, the moment when, as if by instinct, the students marched to Tiananmen Square, and an act of mourning turned into one of protest.

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) While we were walking towards Tiananmen Square, we had no organization, no aim, no leader. This was the first protest. While I was 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.

LIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Those initial, hastily scrawled demands for democracy, press freedom and an end to corruption became the battle cries of the snowballing protests. Thousands of workers, and even government officials, joined in, as the students took over Tiananmen Square.

LIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In mid May, 11 student representatives tried to negotiate with Premier Li Peng in the citadel of power, the Great Hall of the People. One of the 11 was math student Shao Jiang.

MONTAGNE: I just tell the government it's like the crossroad in China. If they cannot respect the students' demand, we maybe go back to the very dark times.


LIM: Dark times, indeed. As June the 3rd wore into June the 4th, fearing chaos, China's leaders sent in the army to disperse those protesters still in the square. Zhang Boli was there.

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) We saw the crowds trying to stop the army by grabbing their uniforms and shouting, protect the students. Then they opened fire. 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.


LIM: Shooting began here about two hours ago, according to residents, according to bystanders here. They say that there has so far been dozens of casualties.


LIM: The Chinese government says 241 people died. Human rights groups believe the real figure is 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 the square.

MONTAGNE: So much life have lost. I mean, that's on my conscience forever. I mean, I have nightmares for 15 years.

LIM: Shao Jiang, who negotiated with Premier Li Peng for the students, has devoted his life to those who died.

MONTAGNE: For me, I must finish unfinished journey to fight for freedom and democracy in China.

LIM: He 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 the 4th is the proliferation of small-scale protests on issues as diverse as human rights, pollution and last year's tainted-milk scandal. He's trying to help China's emerging civil society.

MONTAGNE: We publish a different sensitive issues and send millions of emails every day into China. Also, we can learn how to transform totalitarian regimes to democracy countries.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken) Hallelujah. (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Zhang Boli, the former journalist who brought the students to the square, has taken a different path. Once number 17 on Beijing's most wanted list, today he's a pastor at a Chinese church in Fairfax, Virginia. After the clampdown, he spent two years in hiding, mostly around the Russian border and a month in a Russian prison. At that time, he found God.

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) I read the Bible and began to know God. I gained sustenance from it. People really needed God then. They needed a future. I couldn't see the future with my bare eyes.

LIM: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Nowadays, he throws himself into ministering his flock. He records his sermons to broadcast online in China. And he's clear about his mission.

MONTAGNE: (Through Translator) Democracy is not my job. I'm 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.

LIM: For accidental student leader 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.

MONTAGNE: Chinese people deserve a 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.

LIM: Disillusioned, he 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 double apartment on Broadway. His company sells its software to, among others, Chinese universities and state-run television stations.

MONTAGNE: So, for me, I couldn't wait to get this technology into China, into universities and TV stations. It's incredibly empowering. The mass media, I think eventually, is a democratizing, a liberalizing force.

LIM: 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 Boli compares it to a cancer: You can deny it for so long, but if left untreated, eventually, it will devour you. Shen Tong agrees.

MONTAGNE: Someone jumps off a tall building. Each floor he passes, he tells himself, this is okay so far. This is okay so far. So it doesn't matter how you fall, it only matters how you land, right? Eighty-nine is not the only bomb that will explode, but it's probably one of the most important, if not, the most important one.

LIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: Go to our Web site to see a slide show on Zhang Boli's journey from preaching for democracy to preaching for God.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.