China: 10 Years After Tiananmen FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Zhang Weiguo, Shanghai Correspondent

Zhang Weiguo, in 1989 the Beijing bureau chief for the liberal, Shanghai-based newspaper, Shijie Jingji Daobao (World Economic Herald), spent twenty months in prison for his role in funneling information out of Beijing to Shanghai. After his release on February 10, 1991, Zhang continued to be harassed by Shanghai authorities until he was finally permitted to leave two years later.He now lives in exile in California.

Zhang Weiguo believes that the 1989 student movement served to awaken Chinese society to the realization that individuals have rights, to the need for political reform, and to the link between a one-party system and rampant corruption. For the first time, many saw the true nature of the Party. "People awakened from the dream that the Party could do everything for them. There were no more false expectations or illusions. The Party lost its legitimacy to rule."

"But the momentum pushing toward political change didn't last, because the movement was suppressed with such cruelty," he said. "The cruelty was beyond anyone's expectations."

Another reason why the momentum stopped was that after the Communist Party's adoption of an open market system and the rising standard of living that followed, ordinary citizens, students, and intellectuals switched their attention away from politics. "The intellectuals' loss of enthusiasm for politics was a particular blow," Zhang said.

"With the economic reforms, people have more social rights," he said. "They can start businesses. [They can] move from the countryside to the city. They are free to talk about whatever they want as long as they don't get quoted by the media. They are more familiar with the concept of human rights."

But since June 4, Zhang said, "The Party has been using economic reform to buy political rights from Chinese citizens."

He said there had been a clear deterioration on the political front. "Ten years ago, with the movement happening," he said, "journalists could discuss political reform in the media. Now they can't."

Economic reform brought not just political tightening but vastly increased corruption. "It's a lot worse than before," he said, "even in journalism. Now we have 'compensated news.' Journalists make money by reporting a story for a company, almost like an advertisement."

Actually, Zhang said, the swings within the journalistic profession mirrored those within society as a whole. "After the Chinese Communist Party took over the country in 1949, journalists had no awareness of press freedom. It took the June 4 movement to make us realize that a free press was our 'ideal,' something we had to fight for. But ten years later, journalists are like everybody else, less enthusiastic about pursuing freedom. Some have made compromises with the system, those that didn't changed careers because they can't write any more."

"I want to make clear that none of this is to say I would have changed the students' goals," Zhang said. "From a political point of view, they were successful in that they aroused the support and sympathy of the entire population, but the tactics and strategies they employed were wrong. The first strategic stage, before martial law was declared on May 19, was one of peaceful demonstrations. They should have changed their strategy to deal with the military. But they didn't behave rationally enough. They had too many objectives and too many of them were overly broad. Since they couldn't accomplish everything at once, they should have stopped once certain goals were met. For example, the students got corruption on the national agenda; all Chinese knew what the issue was about. The government promised to investigate corruption, and that was a victory. The students were not in a position to force the issue. They should have asked the National People's Congress to convene, the left the square on May 20 and pursued their goals through legal means and through the media."

"I don't think the students were really responsible for the mistakes they made after May 20. Since 1949, all political movements have been suppressed, so the students started from zero. They didn't even know much about the Democracy Wall movement."

Another problem was the lack of organization, especially on the part of intellectuals. "If I were going to advise those in China working for human rights and democracy today, I'd ask them first to learn something from the Party about how to organize."

"I became a Party member when I was eighteen and was a member in good standing for fifteen years. It was only in 1989 that I lost confidence in the Party," Zhang said. "Here in the U.S. I've learned what freedom is. Now I'm waiting for the day when I can take it home."