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Exiled 1989 democracy leaders still hope for reform in China

By Bill Smith, DPA,

Beijing : As China’s Communist Party kept dissidents and rights activists under tight control for Thursday’s 20th anniversary of the crushing of the 1989 democracy movement, exiled leaders of the protests continued to speak out and remained optimistic that political change will come eventually.

“Today, countless Chinese people see protest as a means of realising their modest dreams of affluence, or reclaiming their usurped economic rights from corrupt officials, crooked businessmen and unscrupulous employers,” Han Dongfang, who led an independent trade union in 1989, said in a statement issued for the anniversary.

“Though it has little to do with democratic theory or sloganeering, this process has become unstoppable,” said Han, who still promotes workers’ rights from exile in Hong Kong.

“Is this not a continuation of the campaign we launched 20 years ago, and an extension of the 1979 Democracy Wall movement and the protests of 4 May 1976?” he asked.

Wang Dan, a leader of the student protests that began the 1989 movement, also sees hope in the growing number of Chinese people fighting for civil and legal rights.

“Some day the power of civil society will be stronger than the state, then we will have democracy,” Wang told DPA in a recent interview in Taiwan.

The party has relied on rapid economic growth to appease many Chinese citizens and Western governments since its military crackdown on the 1989 protests, but it faces a number of social crises if it fails to keep up the speed of economic development, Wang said.

“If that speed slows down, those crises will happen and that will be a huge challenge for the government, and nobody knows what will happen,” he said.

Chai Ling, another 1989 leader who has since attracted controversy, issued a public statement this week to urge the Chinese government to release all political prisoners, hold an independent investigation into the crackdown, and allow exiled student leaders to return to China.

“The current generation of (party) leaders who bear no responsibility should have the courage to overturn the verdicts” on the protests, Chai said in the statement distributed by the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Some commentators have accused Chai of encouraging students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to risk their lives by refusing to yield to the troops June 3-4, 1989.

Others say that she was a victim of naive idealism, or that her speech to the students close to the end of the protests was misinterpreted when it was translated into English.

Wu’er Kaixi, a student protest leader who is now an investment banker in Taiwan, is among those who defends Chai.

“One of the main discussions we later had was that when we had the chance to withdraw from Tiananmen Square, why didn’t we do it?,” Wu’er Kaixi said in Taipei.

“But when I think of that now, years later, I find it’s such an unfair accusation,” he said.

Wu’er Kaixi, who early Thursday was awaiting deportation in Macao after trying to turn himself in as a fugitive to Chinese authorities, said the 1989 leaders would always defend each other against such attacks.

“We get our own fights among ourselves, but if anybody points a finger at us, everybody will come together.

“There is quite a clear bond among us,” he said.

Wu’er Kaixi believes the idealism of 1989 has given way to cynicism in China.

“We have to criticise that (cynicism),” he said. “But we understood … The people had this strong sense of powerlessness; they didn’t know what to do.”

Wang also sees cynicism as a major trend after 1989 and worries about moral degeneration, an “economy-centred ideology” and the failure of Chinese intellectuals to challenge one-party rule.

“We have to stop these three characteristics, then China can have a brighter future,” Wang said.

“So we must have a reassessment of June 4,” he said.

Han admits that the chances of the Communist Party beginning political reform in the immediate future are “seemingly negligible”.

But protecting legal rights for workers and farmers and allowing a greater say for urban and rural residents in local affairs could bring “incalculable social benefits” in the meantime, he said.

“What China most needs now, 20 years after the forcible imposition of a false social and political calm, is to learn how to conduct – and to set up real, workable channels for – a sustained process of social dialogue and reconciliation,” he said.

Wang said last year’s Charter ’08, a call for sweeping democratic reforms, was a “continuation from June 4”.

Dissident writer Liu Xiaobo was arrested in November and is believed to be facing subversion charges for organising the charter, which is modelled on the Charter ’77 written by intellectuals in the former Czechoslovakia.

“China needs somebody to take the lead,” Wang said. “We have seen some people like Liu Xiaobo and we will see more.”