The Unknown Rebel of Tiananmen Square
The Fight for Democracy, “Made in China”
It’s October in America. As the season turns a chilly, darker golden brown, you decide that it is time to ornament your house with spooky Halloween decorations. You go to your local Kmart, purchase a box of eerie goodies, confident that it will lure in trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. But back at your home, you open the box and learn something about the world that you did not think was possible. How? By finding a disturbing letter enclosed inside that package that was “Made in China”, as was the case for one woman in Oregon. The letter read:
Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization…Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
In 2013, the torturous practice of holding innocent prisoners captive still exists across the globe. In China, they are forced to do backbreaking work for fifteen hours each day of the week, while brutal guards loom over their every move. Enduring violent beatings and getting chained up in inhumane positions is not abnormal for the daily routines of the victims that are held there. This is the price the inmates pay for even slightly questioning their government or nation’s religion, no matter how corrupt or unfair it might be.
A man who prefers to be called only by his first name, Zhang, claims that his letter, found by the woman in Oregon, was one of the many he has written over the past two years. The 47-year-old Beijing resident was held at the Masanjia labor camp, for practicing Falun Gong, which is a religion that has been outlawed in China. He is one of the many detained for his religious beliefs, suppressed by the Chinese government. Zhang is also one of the many who have spoken out against the human rights violations that Chinese citizens have undergone for years. Though the Chinese government denies that these labor camps even exist, many voices have testified their own accounts of persecution, as evidence of the truth. Zhang is one of such anonymous voices.
Zhang’s namelessness reflects the same prudent anonymity that drew the attention of the international spotlight to another man before Zhang when, on June 5, 1989, he stood up to a column of war tanks near Tiananmen Square. This man, whose name is still unknown, refused to back away from the violent machinery that was being used to squelch a demonstration demanding democracy. As news cameras documented his every move and the live feed leaked out into the Western world, this man changed the course of the entire human rights movement in China.
The Reason for Standing Up
The Chinese people victoriously inhabited Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, symbolizing their disagreement with their undemocratic government. These people consisted of workers, doctors, students, teachers, and soldiers, all of who were making a statement by occupying such a political public place. The movement for democracy in China had begun, and it was in full force. In the square, the people set up a broadcasting system and a statue that they called the “Goddess of Democracy”, to illustrate the civil rights that they were there to demand.
The day before the unknown man stood up to the war tanks, however, something had happened that ignited his drastic action.
On June 4, 1989, the government had seized Tiananmen Square from the Chinese people, murdering hundreds of them. Many of the strikers inhabiting the square were found shot in the back, and the unknown man had had enough. He stood in front of an approaching line of eighteen tanks, moving with the tanks who swerved to avoid him, forcing a confrontation by preventing them from advancing any further. The driver of the tank did not run down the unknown man, who was risking his life with the hope that valid measures would finally be taken. What precisely happened to the courageous young man has never officially been confirmed; however, his bravery and the awareness he raised about the risks one might take to make a change have.
“We all dream of freedom in the same way.”
A key principle of the Chinese government’s reigning philosophy is that an individual is nothing more than a vehicle of labor, a commodity. A Chinese government document, which justifies why citizens are forced into labor, reads:
Our economic theory holds that the human being is the most fundamental productive force. Except for those who must be exterminated physically out of political consideration, human beings must be utilized as productive forces, with submissiveness as the prerequisite. The Laogai system’s fundamental policy is “Forced Labor as a means, while Thought Reform is our basic aim.”
Individuality in China is not emphasized, and those who promote diversity, uniqueness, and personal character are discouraged. The Communist Party of China, which rules the People’s Republic of China, declares that all people are the same. This idea, at first, has many appealing aspects. However, when taken to the extent that it does not allow room for personal growth or consideration of the individual in social politics, light is shed on the negative aspects of Communism. Families are told the exact number of children they are allowed to have. China’s laws control what is shown on all media, thus censoring, editing, and modifying any information that the government sees as threatening to its power. The Chinese government and military don’t merely have a significant influence on each citizen’s life; they have utter control. This foundation has proved an unsatisfactory means by which Chinese citizens can exercise democracy, a right to which many Chinese believe they are entitled.
One man, Wei Jingsheng, sees that humans are all the same, in a sense. His take on what this means for each person’s destiny, though, differs from that of the Communist Party of China. He says:
Around the world, you, me, our families – we all feel love in the same way. If we are in a fight and get hurt, we all cry. We all feel pain in the same way. We all feel sorrow, anger, and disillusionment in the same way. We all hunger in the same way. And we all dream of freedom in the same way.
Wei Jingsheng was imprisoned in 1979, for being one of the publishers of the magazine Exploration. This magazine spoke out about the Chinese peoples’ hopes for a democratic nation, about which Jingsheng issued an essay on the fifth modernization in China. He endured fifteen years of imprisonment in one of China’s infamous labor camps for publishing his piece. Of his experience, he wrote:
During those first fifteen years, I knew nothing of the outside world. But I always believed that there were people who would struggle for me – that they would struggle for justice, and that justice would win over evil. And what happened to me tells me that my faith in people was right. I have a great belief in a better world.”
By using the Western press and literary publications, Wei Jingsheng spread consciousness of the abuse of power that was being implemented in his country. Because the Chinese government had control over the media, what Wei could spread in his own nation was very limited. However, his word travelled as quickly as the Western press published his firsthand accounts of the labor camps. The Chinese government heard about his circulating information, and they kept a close eye on it. After being released from his first term of imprisonment in 1993, Wei was consecutively imprisoned after meeting with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. This second round in a labor camp was set for fourteen years, however in 1997 the Chinese government took an even more extreme approach by exiling him from China. The cumulative result of Wei’s struggle was a life of fighting and withstanding hardships for the improvement of his country. But he believed that there was no alternative:
It is impossible to balance personal life and commitment to your country when you face such a massive oppressor. Your responsibility has to be with those who suffer. If you do not resist, the oppressors will never permit you to exist. So there is no way to achieve a balance – you simply have to give your life to the larger responsibility.
Another Voice: Harry Wu
Several observers have verified the harsh conditions that the Chinese people have faced. Harry Wu is one of them, as Chinese communist authorities arrested him in April of 1960. Wu has a clear and haunting definition of what purpose, exactly, these unspeakable prison camps served:
Today, the blood, tears, and lives of millions of Chinese men and women testify to the awful truth about the Laogai. What is the Laogai? It is, quite simply, the Chinese Communist version of Hitler’s camps and Stalin’s. In the words of a Chinese government document, “Marxism holds that the state is a machine of violence made up of army, police, court, prison, and other compulsory facilities.”
Harry was merely a young student at a university when Chinese Communist authorities singled him out at the age of 21. The authorities had charged him as being a “rightist counterrevolutionary”, and sentenced him for life in China’s laogai prison system. He would spend the next nineteen years of his life experiencing the horrors of twelve different camps. Harry saw the worst aspects of the camps, ranging from starvation, torture, suicides, and solitary confinement. Harry’s own experience in solitary confinement verifies how demonic those in charge of the camps could be:
On the second day I waited, but again no one came to bring food or water. A sharp pain grew in my stomach, and my throat felt sticky and bitter. When night fell, I moved toward the inside corner of the cell, trying to escape the mosquitoes that swarmed near the gate. Confused images flashed across my mind mixed with fragments of memories from my childhood as I tried to sleep.
In his transitions throughout the various camps, Harry was forced to adapt and learn to survive the obstacles. In one of the camps, he met an illiterate peasant, Xing, who taught him to dig in the underground rat caves to find hidden storages of grains and beans. Though this was a difficult and beyond undesirable way to obtain food to eat, Wu was thankful that his new friend gave him one more ounce of hope to remain alive. This inhumane means of survival lends perspective on the effects and impressions the camps left on Harry and all of the other prisoners like him. Harry details another horror of the labor camps:
Inside the 585 barracks it became more difficult to distinguish the dead from the living. At a glance there seemed no difference. Much of the day and night we lay in a state of near stupor. No longer did we pay attention when someone reached the end and went into last gasps or tremors. Death arrived almost unnoticed. The only sign that a prisoner had died was that he failed to sit up at mealtime… I don’t know how many sick prisoners died that October. I don’t even know how many died in my squad. The number in my room fluctuated too much to keep track. Dead bodies went out and live bodies came in almost daily. I paid no attention. I never even learned their names.
Years later, after finally being released, Harry Wu used the imprint that the camps ingrained into him to fuel his work spreading awareness of these human rights atrocities. He has testified on Capitol Hill about the most recent abuses he has uncovered: the for-profit selling of executed prisoners’ organs by Chinese authorities, the illegal export of prison labor products, the frequency of public executions, the restrictions on reproductive rights and their shocking enforcement methods. Wu is the founder and director of the Laogai Research Foundation, which has estimated that there have been a total of fifty million Chinese people incarcerated in the laogai system since 1950. Currently, eight million people are estimated to be in forced labor camps today. Harry continues to work towards his goal working eighteen-hour days, traversing the country and globe speaking with student groups and heads of state to make this current barbarism become a memory of the past. According to his perception of how the world should be:
Human beings want to live as human beings, not as beasts of burden, not as tools for another’s use. People must respect each other enough to live with one another but retain the right to free choice: to choose their religion, their culture.
A Call for a Democratic Revolution in China
The protection of human rights in the People’s Republic of China remains a controversy today. The exact issues and how to prevent them are intricate and involve much historical and governmental backtracking. However, hope is not lost. As long as the voices of the few courageous, strong witnesses continue to be acknowledged, a more democratic future for Chinese citizens is plausible. It is important that all people in the world who hear these stories fully comprehend the precise matters at hand in the laogai prison system, and what each person can do to change them. Harry Wu emphasizes:
I want people to be aware of how many are in prison. Aware of the products made in China by prison labor: the toys, the footballs, the surgical gloves. Aware of what life is like under forced labor. This is a human rights issue, not one of imports and exports.
Awareness is absolutely critical in propelling the Chinese civil rights movement forward. Expat activist, Wei Jingsheng, couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. In 1998, he established the Wei Jingsheng Foundation in New York City. It has since become an umbrella for many groups to come together to fight for human, civil, and labor rights in China. The Wei Jingsheng Foundation website articulately points to one of the largest obstacles in attaining democracy in China:
…no amount of superficial economic prosperity or market potential should blind the international community to the simple fact that the country remains one in which people have no basic guaranteed rights, a country where human rights can be taken away at the whim of the government.
The fact that the Wei Jingsheng Foundation is located in the United States demonstrates the severity of the Chinese government’s stronghold on its people. Similar organizations have also been forced to form their central headquarters beyond China’s borders. The China Labor Union Base (CLUB), under the direction of the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, for example, is run out of Washington, D.C. Its primary function is to collect and disseminate information regarding the state of labor in China. It’s website states: “Through extensive use of various media, CLUB will provide a safe clearinghouse that mainland labor organizers can use to exchange information, notify press of recent developments and activities, and report human rights violations.” As exemplified by the horrific labor camps that Zhang’s anonymous letter uncovered in the summer of 2013, U.S. consumption of Chinese made products may support the Chinese economy at large, but it is far more harmful than helpful to the welfare of Chinese workers. CLUB’s website is full of stories that magnify the inhumanity of labor conditions in China. Though they are not triumphant stories, their dissemination to a broad global audience is a promising indication that these worker’s circumstances can change for the better.
The Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition (OCDC), another organization that is overseen by the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, held its 11th Global Conference in Nashville, Tennessee on October 5 and 6, 2013. More than 30 delegates from around the world were in attendance, including Wei himself, who chaired the conference. The OCDC also recognizes the importance of spreading information far and wide, and believes that the Chinese people, both domestic and abroad, must take it upon themselves to create change in their home country. They believe that the West is losing interest in Chinese human rights, and they have no faith in the reform of the Chinese Communist Party, “most of the powerful people within the Communist Party want to protect their own vested interests.”
Their 11th Global Conference, therefore, declared an official “Call for Democratic Revolution in China”. The Call was discussed and passed, and has already put forth a public slogan: “The reform is dead, the revolution is ahead; abolish the dictatorship, to rebuild the republic.” An article detailing the Call is said to be released soon, but tangible action items are already underway.
Tank Man, Tiananmen Square’s unknown rebel, would surely be proud to know his courageous actions and noble ideals continue to reverberate amongst Chinese activists 24 years after he took a stand for the welfare of his people.
Michael Collopy, Architects of Peace: Visions of Hope in Words and Images (Novato: New World Library, 2000) 144.
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, photo. Eddie Adams, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders who are Changing our World (New York: Crown Publishers, 2000) 204.
Harry Wu and George Vecsey, Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty (Times Books, Random House: 1996) 49-52, 54–55.
Harry Wu and Carolyn Wakeman, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994) 180.
“The 11th Global Conference of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition Held in Nashville, Tennessee, USA”