I first met up with Chen Pokong, former leader of Guangzhou’s student democracy movement, in his New York office. He was a gregarious, well spoken man, who was equally concerned about making me feel comfortable as with voicing out his political ideas. Over several encounters, Chen welcomed me into his workplace and favorite food places, where he opened up about his life with little reticence.
What is your connection to Tiananmen and the series of events that have led you to where you are now?
When I was 17, I went entered college in Shanghai. It was there when I first got involved in pro-democracy activities. Six years later in 1986, I became leader of the democracy movement in the Shanghai division, which was the largest of the time before Tiananmen happened. In that same year, Hu Yao Bang, then Secretary General of the CCP since 1981, stepped down from power. We held 26 protests around this event.
This was a devastation because Hu Yaobang was a reformist. He sympathized with the students and I think to some degree his agreed with our democracy ideas. But Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the time, did not like what we were doing. He wanted to punish the students. Hu Yaobang supported our efforts.
In 1987, I moved to Guangzhou to be an assistant professor at a distinguished university and continued my democracy activities in the south. All across the nation, we and other democracy divisions were preparing to have a huge democracy movement, not just involving students but with scholars and teachers as well. We had scheduled this to happen on May 4, 1989, which is a significant date for three reasons: 1. It is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, 2. It is the 70th anniversity of the May Fourth Movement, when students protested for political reform in response to the Treaty of Versailles, and 3. It is the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
However, when Hu Yaobang suddenly died on April 15, our plans were suddenly pushed forward and Tiananmen happened overnight.
Wait, so you mean to say that the Tiananmen Movement was actually planned?
Yes, it was not just a movement that existed in Beijing, contrary to popular opinion. The movement in fact involved up to 300 cities, where local democracy units also held protests locally. We had been planning for this event for a while.
Guangzhou was one of the largest democracy units and because I was the leader of that division, I stayed in the south. Our nationwide movement lasted for two months before Deng ordered soldiers to begin shooting people.
I don’t think Hu Yaobang’s death was a coincidence. He died of a heart attack on April 15, but I know Deng had something to do with this. Hu must have died out of depression or desperation.
At what point were you in danger following the movement?
There was a nationwide crackdown immediately following the protests. Deng ordered arrests on all leaders involved in the movement. I was the most wanted man in the Guangdong province. For the first two months the Canton authorities were lenient on me, but after Beijing put more pressure on the crackdown, I was eventually arrested. For 3 years, they locked me up in a detention centre. I was then jailed in a cell for 2.5 years. There were no windows, no fresh air, no source of society. I was spiritually tortured.
There were no windows, no fresh air, no source of society. I was spiritually tortured.
After I got released, I was arrested again one year later for continuing my democracy activities. Apparently the police were following me. I tried to flee to Hong Kong, since it was still a British colony at the time, but I was deported and sent to the police. Without any trial, I was immediately sentenced to 2 years in detention.
They sent me to a re-education camp. In the daytime, they forced me to move stones onto ships. In the nighttime, they forced me and my roommates to make artificial flowers.
Isn’t that essentially using prisoners for free labor?
Yes, it was. And after a while, I realized that these flowers were being shipped to a company in California. I knew that our activity was illegal under Chinese and American law, so I attempted to secretly send my letter to a friend, who could then send it to international human rights organizations.
I found out a few months later in 1994, that Human Rights Watch in Asia and Voice of America had in fact received the letter and published it. ABC News, Voice of America and LaoGai all reported my case because this was the first time a Chinese prisoner had sent a letter directly from jail, exposing China’s inhuman labor practices. The US Government urged China to release me and I was finally released on March 16, 1995, 3 months earlier than my original sentence.
The re-education labor program shut down after my letter got big publicity, but I heard from other prisoners that right after I got released, they resumed the program again.
When did you come to America?
For a while after my release, I was still in China looking for a job and just trying to survive. The government was still watching me. They feared me and the “trouble” I was causing. The security department told me I had two options: 1. Either stay in China and keep getting jailed or 2. Leave the country as an exile. I chose option 2.
On November 23, 1996, Columbia University gave me an invitation to come to America as a scholar and I accepted it. I never imagined that even after 21 years, China would still be the same. Until now, China still treats me at an enemy.
Nowadays, I spend most of my time maintaining an ESL school which I began working at while studying in Columbia. After I became president and chairman of the school, it became financially successful. I’ve been helping build BlueData for 18 years already. We have two locations now, one in Manhattan and another in Flushing. This is completely separate from my democratic activities, but it is also what supports me financially.
My main democratic work is in speech and writing. Every year, I publish a few books, which are quite successful in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. I’m not allowed to publish in China, but there are still Chinese people who find me on the Baidu search engine. I also do a lot of talking on TV shows, including Voice of American, Radio Free Asia, and my own Youtube channel.
Wow, you have a lot of followers! That must be encouraging.
Yes, the government tries to block American websites, but Chinese people still have a way of finding us. People in Japan and Taiwan are also very interested in China’s history, since they are democratic nations.
From the millenial Chinese perspective, how do they view 1989 and what is their opinion on democracy?
A lot of them are brainwashed by the government. They’ve been raised to think that economics is everything. During Mao Zedong’s rule, everybody was so poor and hungry. When Deng came in power, he promised the people food and money to try to mold them.
However, as Chinese education levels are increasing and millennials are communicating more with the outside world, I would say that about 30% of Chinese people are awake, in the sense that they’re aware of their human rights. Most don’t do anything about it though, because the CCP scares them with threats of jail, torture, oppression, any form of state terrorism. In my opinion, only 5% of Chinese people are constantly awake and brave enough to push forward. Every generation has this 5%. They know the truth.
Only 5% of Chinese people are constantly awake and brave enough to push forward. Every generation has this 5%. They know the truth.
For the 5%, it’s not easy. When I was in Guangzhou, I had two students who were involved in democracy activities. In the last two years, they were sentenced and put into jail. I kept pushing for help from the media and they were just recently released. A month ago, a brave man named Hua Yong reported the government for allegedly trying to kick out migrant workers from other parts of China out of Beijing. There were many protests going on surrounding this event, but the movement got stopped in the middle. Hua soon got caught by the police.
For US international students, I’ve heard cases where they would first hear about 1989 while overseas. Some chose not to believe it and accuse the information as fake news from the US. Some were heartbroken at the reality. Others chose to join the democracy movement in the US. However, most are still scared. They have families in China
Some people will recognize me when I am outside participating in protests. They shake hands with me and send in their spiritual support, but most say they cannot join. They still want to go back to China.
Even for students, the government continues to put pressure on them. The CSSA, the Chinese Student Scholars Association, is actually financially backed by the Chinese consulate. So anybody in the CSSA will report suspicious activity to the government. If a student gets reported, the consulate will contact their family members to silence the student or will get in trouble when they go back to China.
That’s terrifying. My university also has a CSSA. I wonder if the same case happens for our students as well.
The government often uses family members to put pressure on students. I don’t blame students for being hesitant about our democracy cause.
If the student movement in 1989 had been successful, what would success have looked like?
First, we have to consider China’s current economic situation.
The Chinese economy has improved overwhelmingly in the past decade or two. China’s GDP growth was around 10% this year. But in reality, much of this is due to corrupt government practices, not just locally but internationally.
Yes, China is rich now, but most of this money belongs to party officials or those on good terms with the government. So there is a huge inequality of wealth because much of the profits goes towards unnecessary expenses meant to keep the CCP in power. For example, the #1 government expense goes towards public security. #2 goes towards military spending. This is because the government saw 1989 is a success on their part. They were preserved by the military. It’s officially called the People’s Army of China, but in reality, it’s the party’s army.
The government also admitted that 50 million apartment spaces in China are empty. Why? Because most of these belong to party officials who own multiple properties. There are many poor people who don’t own a house or have a bad apartment, yet the government reserves much of the property for themselves. 50 million apartments can easily house 20% of the population.
If we had been successful, there would have been a much more fair distribution of wealth and dignity for the people. The government would have been less corrupt and we could have avoided the huge public security expenses. The money would have been put to the people.
If we had been successful, there would have been a much more fair distribution of wealth and dignity for the people…The money would have been put to the people.
How is the government corrupt internationally?
Because China is so economically powerful, they will use their money to punish other countries. For example, China placed an economic sanction on Norway when Norway rewarded Liu Xiaobo, one of the most well known exiles from 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. When the Dalai Lama visited France, China threatened leaders with money, by attempting to cancel economic contracts or investment plans. Even if this has no direct effect on the Chinese people, the Chinese government will bring corruption overseas just to influence their “corruption culture.”
How does this affect US-China relations, since Trump is now in power?
Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” proposes two interesting points for US-China relations. The first point is that the US has realized that pushing democracy in China has no use for them. China still acts as a one party dictatorship and this has not stopped the goverment from growing ecnomically. So the Trump administration is putting less focus on human rights and more on global power. This in turn hurts democracy. The second point is that the Chinese government often uses the US to build themselves economically by neglecting trade agreements. They do what they want. When an American company wants a piece of the Chinese market, they only allow 49% acquisition. US in the past 30–40 years has weakened and so the Trump administration is calling for change by putting money where it should be.
So there is a good and a bad to the Trump administration. The good is that Trump is trying to put the US back into global power by becoming more economically successful. The bad is that there is little focus on human rights.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
I believe there is still potential for China to become more liberal. There will be a long way to go to reach that point, but dissidents will continue to make big efforts. The current international trend is that countries are becoming more democratic by considering freedom of speech, human rights and justice. China is still very behind.
Chen Pokong is president of BlueData International Institute, an author and political commentator, and one of the former leaders of the 1989 movement. He is a frequent speaker on Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and his Youtube Channel.
Grace Wong is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator. She is interested in the potential for photography, writing and media to address humanity and human rights.