Thirty years after they fled the bullets and tanks, Tiananmen exiles say their dream of returning to a democratic China are more distant than ever as their homeland descends further into authoritarianism and state surveillance.

Zhou Fengsuo has always erred on the side of optimism.

Zhou Fengsuo
Zhou Fengsuo. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Five years ago, to mark the 25th anniversary of Beijing’s deadly crackdown, he took advantage of a 72-hour transit visa to sneak back into China on his American passport.

It was an act that would be unthinkable now.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has returned to a level of oppression not seen since the Mao era, its security apparatus bolstered by cutting edge technology and the party’s ability to silence critics virtually unchallenged.

“There is no reason to be optimistic for China now if you look at what’s happening,” said Zhou, a former student leader who was number five on Beijing’s ‘Most Wanted’ list in the aftermath of the crackdown and who now lives in the United States.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

“It’s darkening day by day, (what) was unimaginable a year ago, now it’s becoming reality. Even ‘1984’, the novel, couldn’t go that far,” he told AFP in New York, referencing George Orwell’s seminal novel on life in a totalitarian state.

Most of those young protesters drawn to Beijing’s streets in the spring of 1989 are now in their early fifties and there is a profound sense of urgency that time is running out to keep alive the memory of what happened.

The ‘Great Firewall’ and eagle-eyed party censors have proven adept at scrubbing the web inside China of any reference to Tiananmen.

HRIC Tiananmen Square 1989
A standoff between citizens and troops. Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

And in more recent years university campuses in the West have witnessed increasingly strident nationalist rhetoric from overseas Chinese students.

“There is nothing to be optimistic about the younger generation at campus today, they grew up completely under the shadow of the firewall, so that means they are indoctrinated by the brainwashing when they are babies,” Zhou told AFP

 Crushed by tanks 

Fang Zheng, a Tiananmen survivor who lost his legs when they were crushed by a tank, is similarly grim in his projections.

The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was seeing the shattered white bones of his legs exposed to the air.

Few survivors have suffered so physically as Fang. Yet each spring he has flown all over the world to tell his story.

But he has little hope for China’s future.

Fang Zheng
Fang Zheng in Hong Kong in 2012. File Photo: VOA.

“I’m getting more and more pessimistic,” he told AFP by phone from his home in San Fransisco.

“Especially since Xi became leader, the government now uses all sorts of means to control residents. High-tech devices help the government to monitor the people.”

Most of the politically active Tiananmen survivors have made their homes in the States, often after serving prison sentences and years spent persuading the Chinese authorities to give them passports.

Wu’er Kaixi stayed closer, chosing the democratic island of Taiwan.

Hailing from China’s Uighur minority — who now face unprecedented levels of forced incarceration and state surveillance in western Xinjiang province — Wu’er became one of the most outspoken student leaders during the 1989 protests.

Wu'er Kaixi
Wu’er Kaixi. File photo: VOA.

He famously rebuked Premier Li Peng on national television, an unprecedented dressing down of a top party official, one who later went on to oversee the deadly crackdown.

Wu’er said he had spent the last three decades watching with horror as western nations embraced China, hopeful that economic growth might nudge the party towards political liberalisation.

“They call it engagement, I call it appeasement, and that has led to the consequences that China is a clear threat to the world order and universal values,” he told AFP at the sidelines of a Tiananmen conference in Taipei.

There is a sense of fatigue in his voice, that every June it has been up to a small coterie of survivors to remind the world of Tiananmen’s legacy.

“It is no longer just the Chinese democracy activists’ responsibility to bring China to freedom and democracy, nowadays the whole world share a piece of blame and responsibility,” he said.

june 4 tiananmen vigil victoria park
Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

In an illustration of China’s growing ability to counter dissidents, the conference which Wu’er was attending used to be held in Hong Kong. But with the international finance hub witnessing its own crackdown, organisers moved it to Taipei.

Ailing parents 

Years of exile have taken a heavy toll on the Tiananmen survivors, especially when it comes to being so far away from ailing parents.

Fang’s father died in February and he desperately wanted to return to China for the funeral.

To his surprise, he was initially given a visa by the consulate in San Francisco only to see it rescinded hours later.

“I was very disappointed. And my daughters, they dislike China even more now,” he recalled.

tiananmen massacre vigil 2018 hong kong
Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Wu’er dreads getting that call from family members in China.

“My parents couldn’t see their boy for 30 years,” he said. “I can take the consequences for the path I have chosen, but (the) barbaric Chinese regime has prevented my parents from seeing their child, their grandchildren, so the sacrifice is great.”

Of the Tiananmen survivors AFP interviewed, Wang Dan remained the most optimistic.

Like Wu’er, he emerged one of the most prominent student leaders and was rewarded with being placed at the top of Beijing’s most wanted list.

He spent four years behind bars before eventually making it the US.

Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square mao zedong
The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

He describes Xi as “a second Mao” but he takes solace from the fact that even Mao’s reign of repression came to an end.

In the long term, he believes, China’s party cannot control the population indefinitely.

“Any kind of dictator or authoritarian regime cannot change human nature,” he said. “Believing in this, I still have hope for the future. I don’t know when or how it will happen, but I know it will happen.”

Long term, Zhou also thinks China’s authoritarianism will fold, but it is not something he expects to see in his lifetime.

“I believe history is on our side,” he said. “But I don’t know how long it will take, how many generations.”

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