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China's Tiananmen activists: Where are they now?

By Anjali Tsui and Esther Pang, CNN
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
  • After the June 4, 1989 crackdown, Wang Dan was top of China's "Most Wanted" list
  • Chai Ling was another student protester forced to flee -- she did so in a cargo box
  • Fang Zheng lost both his legs on June 4 when a tank rolled over him near Tiananmen Square
  • Zhang Xianling's son was shot dead while taking photographs of clashes between students and soldiers

Hong Kong (CNN) -- To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, CNN spoke to several key pro-democracy dissidents, some of whom were among the thousands of student protesters that fateful day on June 4, 1989.

Chai Ling

"I want to offer President Xi a new form of 'China Dream': no 'China Dream' can be accomplished by sacrificing individual rights to further national dream. It has to be done other way round. The only way China can achieve its dream is to protect very basic rights for each individual," activist Chai Ling told CNN's Patricia Wu in an interview ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown.

Chai Ling today.

Chai was one of the most outspoken student leaders during the 1989 protests. Then 23 years old, Chai was shocked when troops moved in on student protesters.

"I grown up in the army, the soldiers were my aunt and uncles, so I can't believe they would turn into monsters using machine guns shooting at innocent students. That was such a shock," said Chai. Both of her parents had served in the army.

Chai fled Beijing, hidden in a cargo box to Hong Kong. She later moved to the United States. Now, 25 years on, she remembers those who sacrificed themselves fighting for their dream of a free and prosperous China.

"Some of us spent months and years in hiding and some spent months and years in prison. We lost much: families, possessions, education, freedom," said Chai.

Political and non-profit work continues to be a part of Chai's life in the United States. A two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Chai established All Girls Allowed, an organization fighting gendercide in China.

Chai Ling in Washington on the first anniversary of Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1990.

A defining moment for Chai was when she found Christianity in 2009. Her book "A Heart for Freedom" (2011) talked about the effect faith had on her perspective of China's past. She says she now prays for the soldiers and for China's current leaders, especially President Xi, whose father was rumored to be one of the few leaders who opposed using military force.

There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.
Wang Dan

Wang Dan

"The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization. Any time they think they have a chance, they will not hesitate to stand up," activist Wang Dan told CNN iReporter Neal Moore ahead of the 25th anniversary.

Wang Dan, a student leader in 1989.

Wang was another high-profile student leader of the pro-democracy movement. "He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn," says Moore.

After the June 4 crackdown, Wang was top of China's "Most Wanted" list and subsequently spent six years in prison. He eventually fled to the United States and is now a politics professor at a university in Taiwan.

iReporter Moore reached out to Wang by email recently and reported the following:

Wang Dan today.

"Will China enter into a dialogue of openness suggested by Deng Xiaoping in 1978? Will it carry out 'political restructuring' as promised by Wen Jiabao at the United Nations General Assembly in 2010? Or will it stay the course and straddle what some observers refer to as a Leninism-plus-Consumerism strategy? According to Wang Dan, the choice is simple. My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today. 'Think about the party's future,' Wang replied. 'There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.'"

Wu'er Kaixi

"Nobody really forgets, but there are people willing to turn the other way," Wu'er Kaixi told CNN. The activist rose to prominence as a 21-year-old student leader in 1989.

Alongside Wang Dan and Chai Ling, Wu'er became one of the faces of the student-led hunger strikes at Tiananmen Square. He famously chastised former Chinese Premier Li Peng on national television while dressed in a set of blue and white striped hospital pajamas.

Wu'er Kaixi today.

For years after the crackdown, Wu'er would wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about the bloody massacre.

The chronic nightmares have stopped, but Wu'er, now 46 years old, cannot shake off the guilt he feels for escaping Tiananmen Square alive.

"This survivor's guilt I will have to carry for the rest of my life," he said.

Twenty-five years later, Wu'er still sees himself as an activist and political dissident. He lives in Taiwan and works as a junior partner at an American financial consulting firm.

There is a collective amnesia. A lot of young people don't know the details, the general population don't talk about it, this is a big terrible secret, a big public lie that people lived through.
Shen Tong

In the China that Wu'er left behind in 1989, it was impossible to buy Nike sneakers or have a quiet drink in a bar, he wrote in a op-ed in 2009. Now, China has gained a market economy and property rights but they have come at the price of political freedom.

"It's a lousy deal," he said.

Fang Zheng

"Although it was a quarter of a century ago, June 4 is not over for many who witnessed the crackdown that day. The oppressive government that was in place 25 years ago still exists today. It has not apologized for its crimes, victims have not received any compensation and China's human rights record is still deplorable," says Fang Zheng, who lost both his legs on June 4 when a tank rolled over him outside Tiananmen Square.

Fang, then a 22-year-old college senior, joined the student protest to campaign for political reform in China.

"Our aim was simple: we wanted a better China. We saw many problems: corruption, a lack of freedoms," he said in a recent interview with CNN.

Tiananmen survivor Fang Zheng in Hong Kong in 2012.

At 4 a.m., student leaders negotiated a ceasefire with the People's Liberation Army and agreed to leave the Square. Fang was accompanying a student from his university down Chang'an Avenue when a gas grenade exploded next to her. He pushed her out of harm's way but got knocked over by oncoming tanks.

"I felt my entire body being crushed. In my last moments of consciousness, I looked down and I could see out of the corner of my eye, the white bone sticking out of my thigh," Fang said in an interview with CNN in 2012.

Both of Fang's legs were amputated and he spent the next 20 years living under constant surveillance in China. He moved from Beijing to Hainan, an island south of China, and was forced to sell cigarettes on the side of a road to make a living.

"No matter where we were, we were restricted. Our home was monitored and our phones were tapped," said Fang.

In 2009, Fang emigrated to the United States with his wife and daughter. They now live in San Francisco and recently welcomed a third child. Fang, who trained as an athlete, has found ways to walk and drive.

He is hopeful that the annual candlelit vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary can educate and remind people about the crackdown's legacy. Fang was greeted by thousands of supporters when he was invited to speak at the vigil in 2012.

"In Hong Kong, not far from China, the candlelight at Victoria Park can shine a light on the darkness in China," he said.

Shao Jiang

"China has become much worse since 1989. I think that the pro-democracy movement and government crackdown was an important historical turning point. Because after that, the government uses violence to create Tiananmen massacres every day," said Shao Jiang, who in 1989 drafted the key demands for the pro-democracy student movement and presented them to government officials.

He now blogs regularly on the Amnesty International website and has been working on human rights campaigns for over 10 years.

Shao Jiang in London, 2011.

For Shao, the student democracy movement started four years prior to 1989, in a university dormitory where he met like-minded students. They smuggled political magazines into the university and criticized corruption in the communist government.

The casual gatherings grew into more organized discussions. Students across China joined the discourse and there were talks about protesting in Tiananmen Square, at the heart of Beijing.

Shao now lives in exile in the UK.

The 1989 movement inspired Shao to focus his political science doctoral research on democracy and globalization. He studied how the process of building communities can allow democracy to flourish.

When asked whether there is a straightforward way for China to achieve democracy, Shao paused before admitting: "It's quite a challenge."

Shen Tong

"There is a collective amnesia. A lot of young people don't know the details, the general population don't talk about it, this is a big terrible secret, a big public lie that people lived through," says Shen Tong, regarding the success of the Chinese authorities' censorship of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Now a 45-year-old father of three who lives in New York, Shen remembers being in shock when the army opened fired on students. He refused to believe that the government would use violence to stop a group of peaceful protesters and civilians.

Shen Tong

"I was trying to calm both sides down by standing in the middle between the two groups and telling people that it was only rubber bullets, he told CNN's Kristie Lu Stout. "It was not until someone was shot right next to me -- on her face -- that's when I realized it was real."

A week after the crackdown, Shen escaped to the United States and enrolled as a biology major at Brandeis University in the fall. When he arrived, the scenes of bloodshed were still being replayed on cable news networks.

"As I was watching American TV, the crackdown and the massacre, it started to really sink in," he says.

Shen Tong is now a partner at SOS Ventures, a venture capital firm and innovation incubator. He's passionate about food security and finding solutions to end global starvation.

Zhang Xianling

"It's the 25th anniversary and we're still not allowed to speak. This year, they've actually increased the number of patrols and cars. It's laughable. It's despicable. It's because they're guilty and afraid," said activist Zhang Xianling, referring to the Chinese authorities' attempts to contain her dissent ahead of the 25th anniversary.

Zhang's 19-year-old son Wang Nan was shot in the head on June 4, 1989, while taking photographs of the clash between students and soldiers on Chang'an Avenue.

Almost three decades later, Zhang is still waiting for answers to her son's death.

"The students were peacefully protesting on June 4. They loved their country. However the government is choosing to ignore the facts, using lies to cover the truth," said Zhang, who is now 76 years old.

Zhang Xianling (front row center) with other prominent activists at a seminar on the "June 4" incident, held in Beijing in May 2014.

Zhang co-founded the activist group Tiananmen Mothers with Ding Zilin, another mother who lost her son during the tragic crackdown. Other parents of fatally wounded students quickly joined, petitioning for truth and accountability through interviews and open letters.

The mothers' outspoken beliefs were met with warnings by the government. Zhang and two other members were briefly detained in 2004.

Today Zhang is still under 24-hour surveillance.

In a recent televised interview with Hong Kong media, Zhang said she once had faith she would live to see justice and the CPC owning up to its wrongs. But that hope has since diminished.

For the Tiananmen Mothers, their efforts are now focused on reaching out to their scattered members, to feel a sense of solidarity on another anniversary of their loss.

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