In May 1989, Wang Dan was 20 years old. With a megaphone held up to his thin face, which was in part masked by his large glasses, he rallied the pro-democracy crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Little more than a month later, after a deadly crackdown by Chinese troops, he found himself on the top of the country’s most wanted list.

Wang dan
Chinese dissident Wang Dan speaks during an interview in Boyds, Maryland, on May 14, 2019. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP,

Now, 30 years on, the US-based dissident still remembers every minute of those pivotal days, when student-led pro-democracy activists demonstrated for weeks –  a huge embarrassment for the ruling Communist Party.

Ultimately, early on June 4, 1989, Chinese tanks and soldiers crushed the movement, killing hundreds, and by some estimates more than 1,000.

“We never expected that,” he told AFP in an interview near his home in the Washington suburbs. “To open fire on people, that was beyond our expectations.”

Top of most wanted list

He recalls that he was “very surprised” once the bloodshed had ended to find himself atop China’s list of student protest leaders wanted by the police.

1989 Tiananmen Students
Students from the Academy of Song and Theatre joining the demonstrations from a pick up truck on May 4th, 1989, with brass instruments. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala.

“I was not the most famous student leader at that time. I was one of them,” he said. “After so many years, I realized there must be some reason, and that reason is that I was different from other student leaders in only one thing.

“I had a very close relationship with intellectuals, and the government wanted to label these protests as provoked by intellectuals.”

When the People’s Liberation Army sent tanks and machine-gun-toting troops onto Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, Wang was not on the sprawling plaza facing the Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People.

“I was in a dorm on my campus. But I got a lot of phone calls from my friends along Tiananmen Square… so gradually I learned that more and more people died,” he said.

From “I am a journalist, my June 4 story.” Photo: Screenshot.

He tried to make it back to the square with other students on bicycles, but “every street was blocked by the police and the soldiers,” he recounted.

“We didn’t make it.”

‘Totally numb’

The scale of the bloodshed – the real toll is still a mystery – left Wang devastated.

“I remember feeling totally numb. I couldn’t think about anything. That situation lasted for at least two days,” he said.

But he eventually realized he needed to think about going into hiding. His face was plastered all over state television. He fled to northeastern China, in Heilongjiang province. He also spent some time in Shanghai.

After about a month, he understood that his situation was desperate.

“Hiding in my friends’ houses could bring a lot of potential danger for my friends. I didn’t want to bring trouble to them,” Wang said.

So he returned to Beijing, his hometown, and was arrested almost immediately.

But given his high profile, he received a relatively light sentence: four years in prison for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

“Life in jail in my case is not very representative, because my case is very special. I drew a lot of international attention about my situation, so they treated me ok,” he said.

“They didn’t beat me, there was no serious torture,” he added, though he was placed in solitary confinement.

Wang earned a conditional release in 1993, but became quickly disillusioned with the concept of freedom.

“I was followed by the police every day. Anywhere I would go, some police would follow me,” he said.

“That was just another kind of prison”

Return to China someday?

Though Wang was well aware that any human rights activism or defence of democratic ideals could land him back behind bars in his homeland, he chose to travel in China and promote his beliefs.

“I still felt I had some obligations and responsibilities towards those persons who died in 1989 or sacrificed their youth,” he said.

Of course, he was arrested again. This time, he was handed an 11-year prison sentence.

But in 1998, he was again freed, ostensibly for medical reasons, and sent to the United States, where he has continued his fight for democracy in China while earning a degree in history from Harvard University.

The dissident has not returned to China in 20 years, but his parents still live here, and he thinks about going all the time.

“Sooner or later, I am very confident. I just don’t know when,” he said.

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