Fear is contagious

by Wu'er Kaixi

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)


Wu'er Kaixi (centre), one of the student leaders of the pro-democracy movement walks past a police line along with a fellow student in Tiananmen Square in Beijing 19 May 1989. Photo: Catherine Henriette/Getty Images

In 1989 I was considered as number two on the list of the top most wanted student leaders in China. Back then, I was 21 years old and had been studying at the Beijing Normal University. At the time, all Chinese students were somewhat political. Our motivation was not based on our extended knowledge of democracy, because we did not live in a democracy. It was based on a very good understanding of the lack of democracy.

Democracy is complicated, but freedom is not. Freedom is a basic human instinct. Living in a country where this is not the case, it is as if you can’t breathe in enough air. It’s suffocation. So that gives you a strong motivation to break the window or whatever that is keeping you from the air.

Living in a country where this is not the case, it is as if you can’t breathe in enough air

The cultural revolution ended in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping started the open reform era in 1979. From 1979 until 1989, the Tiananmen student movement took place. Every year there was a student movement in this decade. We called them student tides, because they came in and out like waves. They all lasted at longest two weeks. And they always end up going back to their campuses after they marched into the city. But in 1989, we extended the scale.

In those days it was possible to make political comments. It was possible to be active in a student organisation, in student councils. If you were a little vocal in the student union, it was alright. But if you voiced political questions, that was a big challenge. Naturally, it was all quietly controlled by the government.

The 1989 student movement that ended in the Tiananmen massacre was a spontaneous movement. It started with one person’s death, the death of former communist party’s secretary general Hu Yao-Bang. He was very open-minded and supported liberal ideas and was removed from his position because of his supportive attitude towards the previous student movements. On April 15th 1989, Hu Yao died and the whole campus started to roll. The student movement lasted for 50 days. Almost all students in Beijing took part and also in 200 other cities around the country. Also other people joined in, so estimations summed up to around 10 million people.

But there are moments when you have to make a choice between the conventional wisdom and the call of your consciousness

If you're born and raised in China the pressure not to do anything is overwhelming. But there are moments when you have to make a choice between the conventional wisdom and the call of your consciousness.  Each and every one of the 10 million people had their own personal moment of how it started. I found mine on April 17.

In the morning, I saw an anonymous poster in my dorm that told us to gather. I had computer lab time at this time, so it was already 10:30 by the time I got there. There were at least 1,000 students, maybe 2,000 gathering at the designated area, but nobody spoke. Everybody's seemed to be waiting. I was asking myself: Why is nobody taking the stage? And in that moment, I knew: I had to do it. That’s how it all started.

I was in the middle of the crowd and felt a little bit like Moses, because the crowd parted in front of me. I took to the stage without knowing what to say, but from that moment on, my life has changed enormously. Then, 10 days later, I became the key organiser of the autonomous student movement. Some 50 days of protest, five major demonstrations and a hunger strike followed.

When I took the stage at that moment, there was no way to imagine the next few days, let alone what would happen 50 days later, when the Chinese government mobilised their troops and used real ammunition and tanks to invade their own capital. When I think of this very night today, I mainly remember the sounds. The machine guns, the roaring of the tanks.

Thirty years ago have passed since, and some images from back then have faded

Thanks to a number of brave people from Hong Kong I was able to flee China after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. They organised the so-called operation Yellowbird, to rescue me and other activists, and eventually helped me to fly to France and then to the US. Since then I feel close connections with Hong Kong. Thirty years ago have passed since, and some images from back then have faded. But when I switch on the television, and see the current protests in Hong Kong, I am strongly reminded of what happened. I support the protests in Hong Kong against China for other reasons too: as a Taiwanese, as for many years I have been living in exile in Taipeh, as a Chinese activist for democracy, as I will always play that role, and as a Uyghur. Eventually I moved to Taiwan where I lived for the past centuries. Thus, it is also from a place of at the most thankfulness and gratitude that I express my support for the current protests in Hong Kong.

I don’t regret my actions 30 years ago, because I don’t think I have done anything wrong. On the contrary, I’m very proud of what I did. But if there was a time machine to travel back to that very moment, I would hesitate a lot. I would think really hard: Would there be a way to avoid the sacrifice of human lives? And would I personally want to pay the price?

Today I really want to see my parents again. They are not getting younger and they’re not getting healthier. And, most of all, they’re Uyghurs and thus closely monitored. The communication with them became very difficult over the past years. Often the phone would disconnect, it was very frustrating.  At some point I just got a call from a stranger, who told me that I should not call them anymore.

I’m by now the most unwanted most wanted

In 2009, I tried it for the first time to turn myself in to the Chinese authorities. In Macau. I thought that if I was be sent to prison, I could at least see my parents and I also wanted to continue the dialogue. Back then in Tiananmen, the main slogan of the student movement was dialogue, meaning a dialogue between the students and the government. The Chinese courtroom might not be ideal but would offer some kind of planform to start speaking again, I thought. But it appears as if the title “most wanted Chinese dissident” carries a very specific meaning when it comes to my case: I’m by now the most unwanted most wanted. The authorities said let us check if we still want you or not and it turned out they don't want me.

When you're looking at all the problems that are happening in China today, everybody blames the Communist Party. But I blame the Western world more, because it is not communist and it’s not supposed to let things like the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang happen. It took millions of Uyghur sacrifices to wake up the world: The China that we know today is a very direct threat to the world’s civilisation. China is really demanding that everybody follows its rules of the game. They are saying:  “If we start killing the students in Hong Kong, then you will just watch. You will condemn our actions, but you will not do anything against it. We understand your weakness as a democracy, but we’ve got your economy and your government in our hands.”

Being courageous is infectious. Unfortunately, being cowardly works the same way.

In 1989 at Tiananmen, I remember this phenomena: that being courageous is infectious. It's moves from one person to another. Unfortunately, being cowardly works the same way. In the last 30 years, there were thousands of people’s uprisings in China. But hardly anybody hears about it. There hasn’t been another incident like Tiananmen, because this enormous police force nips up any movement from emerging in the first place. The China of today rules with an iron fist. With the help of the rest of the world, the Chinese government has managed to develop the economy fast, censor all news and debates and frame the nationalism into the minds of young people.

I have a message that I want to pass on to my children and to the world: You can never underestimate the power of fearlessness. There's no reason for the world to be so afraid of China today, in the 21st century. I urge the world to act accordingly. 

As told to Gundula Haage within the context of a research trip to Taiwan organised by journalists.network in November 2019

Translated by Jess Smee

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