When Will Beijing Say Sorry?
The butchers of Tiananmen owe their victims an apology.
BY WU’ER KAIXI
Saturday, June 5, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
Shortly after he was released from prison in 1998, Wang Dan came to visit me in Taiwan. It was the first time two of China’s most-wanted student leaders from the 1989 Tiananmen protests had met in nearly a decade, and we had a lot to talk about.
It had been almost 10 years since the June 4 massacre set our lives on different trajectories. Wang Dan had spent most of the intervening time as a political prisoner in China, before finally being forced into exile in 1998. I escaped shortly after the massacre and spent my time living the good life in France, the U.S. and finally Taiwan. That didn’t mean we didn’t have a lot to talk about. Indeed, we were still talking the next day when the sun came up.
Above all, we wanted to try to work out whether we had done the right thing in encouraging the 1989 protests that culminated in the killings. Neither of us could be sure we had, and the more we talked the more I realized that there was someone to whom an apology was long overdue. That person was Ding Zilin, who, as head of the Tiananmen Mothers’ Campaign, has been relentless in her efforts to press China’s government to accept responsibility for the bloodshed.
On the night of the massacre, when I had already begun my flight to freedom (within a month I reached the safety of Hong Kong), her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielan, joined the protesters trying to stop the advancing troops–even though his mother had begged him to stay home. He was one of so many ordinary Beijing residents who took to the streets to protect us, and paid the ultimate price for doing so–shot dead three hours later, while Wang Dan and I survived. Much of what happened that night and early the next day is still a mystery. We don’t know, for example, how many others were killed along with Ms. Ding’s son. It could be hundreds, or even thousands, I don’t think the true figure will ever emerge.
But Ms. Ding, at least, has spent the last 15 years bravely reminding us that there was a massacre. She does still, by persuading other families to stand up and count the ones they lost. She gets arrested on a regular basis, especially as June 4 approaches, but she continues to remind us–as she put it five years after she lost her son–that the "blood-splattered streets of Beijing have been paved over with a new concrete–brand-named ‘economic progress.’ " She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and in a braver, more honest world she would get it.
When her name came up that night with Wang Dan, I felt guilty about having survived and made it to France and the U.S. when so many others died. I felt guilty that I had not stayed behind and gone to jail like Wang Dan. I felt guilty that I was in some way responsible for the death of Ms. Ding’s son. I felt so guilty that we finally made a phone call that I’d been putting off for far too long. “Sorry,” I said to Ms. Ding. “I can’t even ask you for forgiveness.”
“I’m just happy that you finally called,” she replied.
All three of us began to cry, and I said: “We can’t replace the son you lost, but Wang Dan and I want you to think of us as your sons.”
That telephone call, more than six years ago, was so painful that I have never publicly spoken or written of it until now. Some of my pain lifted when I spoke to Ms. Ding that night, but not all of it. I will spend the rest of my life regretting the lives that were lost in 1989. And I want to take this opportunity to publicly express that regret to Ms. Ding, and everyone else who lost someone they loved.
Wang Dan and I were young men who thought we could change the world. Instead we inadvertently led a lot of people to their deaths. That has caused a lot of pain to a lot of people, and an apology is a first step toward healing that pain. However, ours is not the most important apology, the apology that will allow my exiled generation to go home. That apology is still to come, from the men who ordered the killings.
I spent months thinking about how yesterday’s 15th anniversary of the June 4 massacre should be marked. It was difficult to decide. The world has changed. These, in so many ways, are less idealistic times than those giddy days of the fall of the Berlin Wall–when anything briefly seemed possible.
But, if we could return to that idealism–in the spirit of the students who took to the streets of Beijing in 1989–I would ask the world to spend it looking hard at the China with which it has struck business deals, and remembering the mother in Beijing who is still waiting for that apology. Until it comes, China will remain a dark place.
Without that apology, China’s progress in the past 15 years will be incomplete. The acceleration of economic freedoms that has brought such prosperity to urban China since Tiananmen was an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that students of my generation had a right to protest. But the wait for an apology is a reminder of what we failed to achieve: freedom of speech and democracy.
The apology that all of China awaits is the long-suppressed next stage of the unfinished revolution that began on the streets of Beijing in 1989. Sooner or later–whether through people power, or reforms initiated by Chinese leaders–that stage will have to come.
Mr. Wu’er Kaixi, a Tiananmen student leader, is now exiled in Taiwan.