Mobilizing the Millennial Generation: Former Tiananmen leader Wang Dan speaks out

Grace Wong
Dec 18, 2017 · 5 min read

For some, the power to tell the truth trumps any notion of fear accompanied.

“I never think I did anything wrong to be punished,” former political leader Wang Dan proclaimed without flinching from his chair. Shortly following the Juny 4, 1989 crackdown, Wang came at the top of China’s most wanted list. He faced up to 17 years imprisonment in mainland China, only narrowly curtailed due to medical circumstances. Despite constant harrassment from the Chinese government, Wang till today continues to use teaching and educational opportunities to spread his democratic ideals while under exile.

Wang Dan stopped to offer me some insight in his current work.

Can you talk about your connection to Tiananmen and the series of events that have led you to where you are now?

You probably know most of the story already, since I’m so publically affiliated with June 4.

In 1989, I was a student at Beijing Univeristy. I was elected as one of the leaders for the protests and that led me to become at one point #1 on the Chinese goverment’s most wanted list. Shortly after in July, I was arrested and imprisoned for 2.5 years. After being released, I traveled around the country for 2 years in order to mobilize people in China. In 1995, I was arrested again, this time for 11 years. However, I was able to get released in ’98 through medical parole. From then on, I went in exile.

I went to the US to get a masters in Harvard. A while after that, I left for Taiwan to teach at a university. I actually just came back to the US after teaching for 8 years in Taiwan. I’m trying to start a new life, so right now I’m in working on a think tank which seeks to mobilize the younger generation to be more interested in the opposing party.

How’s the think tank going?

I’ve been really busy recently because of that. I’m planning a US and Canada tour where I host conversations with students in various universities. In the past 15 weeks, I was able to host 14 salons. My most recent one last weekend was with a group of Chinese students from University of Maryland. The discussion wasn’t completely academic since we talked more about Chinese nationality and characteristics, but it’s a start in the right direction. I’m hoping that these meetings can serve as a grassroots initiative to provide deeper analysis for Chinese people.

But why a think tank?

My main purpose is prepare for potential change. China’s Communist party is still very loved and many youths are born without any exposure to alternatives. I’m not trying to guide them, but I think there is some importance to influencing their understanding of what democracy is like.

How much do youths in China really know about the June 4th?

In reality a lot of them do know, but they don’t know the details. There’s no information at all about the massacre in Chinese textbooks. It’s also totally blocked on the internet, including WeChat, Weixin and Weibo. For international Chinese students in the US, a lot of them stay silent even if they are interested in the events. They have family in China and the goverment might want to cause trouble. But still there are a lot of Chinese youths who are actively interested. Two of my assistants for my think tank are actually old students of mine from Taiwan.

What about your generation? How do they feel?

For my generation they’ve experienced those events so the memories still survive deep in their minds. However, they stay silent about what happened. I trust that someday they will speak out. I worry much more about the younger Chinese generation because they’re so brainwashed by the government. I think there is also some value for Chinese Americans to be more curious about the protests. That would be my next goal.

I don’t think many Chinese Americans even know about the Tiananmen Massacre, though. I don’t recall it ever being in our history textbooks. How do you get them to care?

That’s a good question. I don’t really know, honestly. I think that’s a population we need to target more, because there’s a lot of first generation students born under immigrant Chinese parents who still remember.

Do you have any hopes of going back to China?

Well, I can’t. The government has no interest in welcoming me back. So I have no future there. But, I put a lot of hope in the new generation. When I was teaching in Chinese contemporary history in Taiwan, I got a lot of positive feedback from Chinese students studying there. That gave me a lot of hope. I think there’s still a chance to teach people the truth.

Wang Dan (centre) giving a speech to the crowd, 1989

So what’s your motivation for continuing?

I never think I did something wrong to be punished so harshly. I still think what we [the youth protestors] did was good for the country, but we failed 28 years ago, so I must keep going. I’ve thought about giving up many times, but this is both my obligation and my dream, to envision a democratic future for China. And I have no reason to give up. I think people should do something meaningful with their lives, and I hope Chinese youths today continue to find meaning in this cause.

I think people should do something meaningful with their lives, and I hope Chinese youths today continue to find meaning in this cause.


Wang Dan is one of the former leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests. He just moved back to the US this year and is currently spending his time mobilizing Chinese youths in universities around the US and Canada through his new think tank.

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.

You can find her on Instagram, Are.na or LinkedIn

Grace Wong

Written by

The world is an exciting place as long as you open your mind to its potential. www.gracewcreative.com

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