Yang Jianli witnessed the killings of protesters by soldiers on Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. Now a democracy campaigner in the US, he says China will not be able to hide its history from its people for much longer.
In 1989, Yang Jianli was 26 years old and a student at the University of California, Berkeley. He organized demonstrations in the United States in solidarity with students calling for democracy in his homeland, China. After seeing television footage of protesters being mistreated, he felt he had to join them in China. He arrived in Beijing a few days before the massacre on June 3-4.
DW: What did you see when you were heading towards Tiananmen Square?
Yang Jianli: On the way we heard a lot of gunshots and when we got there we saw troops move slowly to Tiananmen Square and then we joined the crowd to try to get close to them. The lights went off and on [it was evening - ed]. When the lights came on and we realized that they [the soldiers] were peaceful at that moment, we would try to get very close. We tried to persuade them not to open fire. We sang songs to them and I could clearly see the soldiers were motionless. They did not even want to have eye contact with us.
But on one occasion when we got very, very close and tried to talk to them, an officer ordered them to open fire. One person was killed just a few feet away from me and whenever we heard gunshots we went to the ground to avoid the bullets. We did that back and forth a few times. During that time I saw a few more killings and in the morning my friend and myself were able to get very close to Tiananmen Square. There we met the students who had just retreated from Tiananmen Square.
Were these the students who were driven off the square with tanks?
Yes, exactly. And the students got very emotional and began to shout slogans.
What were they shouting?
They were shouting "Freedom! Democracy! End of corruption! Down with Li Peng! Down with Deng Xiaoping!" and at that moment we saw that from our right, from the direction of Tiananmen Square, four tanks moved at high speed toward us. The first tank just threw teargas into the crowd at both sides of the street. The second tank opened fire with machine guns, and the third and the fourth tank just chased the students. The students were screaming and moving to the sidewalk to avoid the tanks. Some students were run over, and when the tank passed we swarmed to collect the bodies. We counted 11 students who were run over. There was a moment, a quiet moment, but after that people were screaming. Now I cannot even remember what was in my thoughts. Maybe my thoughts were just empty. I didn't believe this was real. I just saw it happening in front of my eyes. And a few moments later I began to cry.
How did you escape?
I managed to go to a suburb of Beijing and hide there for two days. A friend helped me to get to the airport on the very early morning of June 7. The Beijing airport was chaotic. The police officers did not want to work because they protested against the killings. Many, many people swarmed to the airport, trying to leave China. One after another they passed the passport checkpoint and got on planes. When the plane took off, everybody in the plane applauded. The wanted list was issued four days later.
So if I understood you correctly, the police actually assisted you in leaving?
The police did not support the killings. They openly criticized the government. We heard them talking about it while waiting in line.
The image of a lone man temporarily blocking four tanks came to symbolize the events of Tiananmen Square
Even though the pictures of the protests and the massacre from 1989 went around the world, the Chinese authorities have been very busy trying to erase this event as if it had never happened. How successful have they been in deleting this incident from China's collective memory?
They have been successful to a certain degree. This can be seen through the fact that a lot of the younger generation of students do not even know what the Tiananmen movement is and what a massacre is. But I don't think they will always be successful in this regard because with of the Internet, information disseminated everywhere, despite the best effort on the part of the [Chinese] government to control it. People are eager to learn what happened.
Every year in the run-up to the anniversary we see that the authorities in China tighten the noose, monitoring and detaining rights activists. According to reports, it seems that this year the crackdown kicked in not only much earlier, but that it is also far more severe. Is it really just because of the 25th anniversary, or is there something deeper? Is China's leadership perhaps frightened of something else too?
I think the deep cause is in the nature of the government itself. Because the leaders of the government understand this kind of government would not be supported by the people. So they are living in fear themselves. They do not have confidence. Any time people can rise up to try to topple this regime.
Do you see this happening any time soon?
I cannot predict when it will happen, but I think it can happen any moment. Each year there are a lot of protests for different reasons with different grievances. So the only thing that it takes to have a big demonstration to topple the regime is people coming together. That is why the government is trying to control information, control the Internet. It's because the Internet has become increasingly a tool for organization.
You now live in forced exile in the US, but you were born and raised in China. How hopeful are you that you will ever be able to return and settle peacefully in China?
I think it will happen pretty soon. People will continue to stand up for their own rights. Sooner or later the government will have to be responsive to the demands of the people, and I will see the crack in the government itself. So at that time when the people's power grows to the point and there's cracking in the government, I see the opportunity.
Yang Jianli is a Chinese activist based in the United States. He is president of Initiatives for China, which describes itself as a grassroots movement for advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China.