WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two survivors of the Tiananmen Square protests broke their 25-year silence today on an emotional edition of the Voice of America Mandarin Service’s weekly Pro & Con TV program.
Huaguang Zhao and Zhaohui Rui, both university students in Beijing in 1989, joined Pro and Con host Xin Chen at VOA headquarters in Washington, to discuss for the first time on-air how the June 4th military crackdown on the student movement changed their lives.
“Mr. Zhao and Mr. Rui weren’t the student leaders, whom we hear from on major news outlets every time an anniversary passes, but their lives were permanently changed by simply being at Tiananmen, and they suffered greatly– emotionally, physically, financially, in every aspect,” said VOA Director David Ensor. “It is important for people like them to be able to tell their stories, too.”
Mr. Zhao was arrested for writing poetry throughout the Tiananmen Square movement. He was sentenced to 100 days in prison, attempted suicide, and managed to escape after police let him out of jail temporarily to receive medical treatment. He spent years in hiding, drifting in and out of small fishing villages, unable to return to his hometown even for his father’s funeral. Zhao eventually escaped the country via Thailand in 2009, and came to the United States in March of 2013 with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, leaving behind an 8-year-old son.
“If I had a chance to talk to my son, I would ask for his forgiveness for leaving him. I would tell him that everything I do today is so that he and his generation can live what I describe in my poems – with freedom and dignity,” Zhao told Chen.
Today, Zhao is an activist in New York City with the “League of Roar,” which aims to bring attention to the plights of Chinese people whose land and houses have been confiscated illegally by the government.
Mr. Rui was only 19 years old in 1989, and told Chen the Tiananmen event was “a life-altering experience that changed all my beliefs and shattered my hopes for the government.” On the third anniversary of Tiananmen Square, Rui said he tried to organize a small memorial for those who had lost their lives. The government found out about his efforts, and he was sentenced to three years in jail.
He now leads a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong that provides support for activists within China. When asked whether it was difficult to do such work under China’s current political climate – Rui still lives in China – he said, “I feel like I have to do it because I don’t want these people to feel that they are alone.”
Along with Rui and Zhao, Gao Wenqian (senior researcher at Human Rights in China) and Xiaonong Cheng (Princeton University) joined the conversation from New York. Both were officials in the Chinese Communist Party in 1989.
The special episode of Pro & Con is one of several VOA programs dedicated to next Wednesday’s anniversary. The Mandarin Service has interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses and survivors to cover all aspects of the events at Tiananmen Square and its aftermath. Starting Monday, June 2, VOA Mandarin will air an original one-hour special on VOA Weishi satellite TV. June 4: Tiananmen Anniversary Special will run for seven days at 8:00 UTC and 15:00 UTC. The special will also air tomorrow (May 31) during VOA Weishi’s regular program time (12:00 – 14:00 UTC).