The photograph of the so-called “tank man”, that of an anonymous citizen facing a row of tanks ready to crush the Tiananmen protesters, went around the world in 1989.
This image is the icon of the massacre that, on June 4, was carried out by the Chinese regime, claiming the lives of between hundreds and thousands of demonstrators, who had been demonstrating for 50 days throughout China. The promoters sought, among other things, a democratic turn in the wake of the death of Hu Yaobang, the leader who had tried to create reforms and therefore had fallen out of favor. With the death of an undisclosed number of people -despite the fact that some calculations reach 1 million throughout the country- the only flame of democracy that shone in the regime, which 2019 turns 70 years in power, died out.
At that time, Zhou Fengsuo was a student at Tsinghua University and became number five on the list of most wanted subjects of interest in the Chinese regime.
As a representative of the Tsinghua student federation, he articulated the movement together with other student leaders in the capital, taking as a guide the peaceful civil disobedience and the “Western” democratic values. For his subversive ideas he was arrested for a year, exiled to an interior province. Zhou managed to escape to the United States in 1995. For him, “1989 was the turning point. The Communist Party had the choice of a more democratic route but instead (…) it started a massacre”.
Zhou is the president of Humanitarian China, it is dedicated to helping the survivors, and telling a story that has been totally forgotten by the Chinese people. In addition, it denounces the present violations of the Human Rights, the corruption of the regime and to expose possible financial frauds on the part of Chinese companies.
1.From Lincoln to Tiananmen
Author: When Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of China – as head of the Qin dynasty – he decided that his next step would be to seek immortality.
His obsession with such an objective even led him to drink mercury, and his death came suddenly while he was in search of the island of eternal life. However, at the end he got what he wanted. His mausoleum, a gigantic structure newly discovered in 1974, has been immortalized as one of the wonders of the world. While the Terracotta warriors, more than 8,000 unique statues, guard his grave.
Millions of foreigners travel every year to see the legacy of Emperor Qin. Fengsuo Zhou, the son of peasants from a town nearby, was always fascinated to see how people from all over the world came to see his culture and visit his city. However, his birthplace also complicated his chances to develop.
How was your childhood, where were you born and how did you get to the Tsinghua University?
I was born in a Village in the suburbs of Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, where the Terracota Warriors were. As the son of peasants, I was basically a second class citizen to the state. When I realized it, I started to notice the injustice of the Chinese communist system.
So I decided to become the best student I could, in order to break that barrier. I was admitted in the Tsinghua University, one of the bests in China. Due to my achievements in high school, they gave me the privilege to select any mayor I wanted. And I chose a Physics mayor, which was considered the most challenging subject for smart students.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really like Physics and I was not as good at it as I would like to. But I did really well at other subjects. I was really good at mathematics, and english as a foreign language. But I couldn’t transfer, because in China at that time was impossible to change mayor, so I ended up studying a lot in my spare time. Reading books, some in english.
How did you get involved into politics?
As I was raised in a touristic city, I meet with foreigners a lot. That is how I started to learn about their culture and history. I still remember that we talked about President Lincoln, as I admired him very much.
Actually, when I was applying to the Tsinghua University, I told the teacher who was interviewing me about Lincoln and why did he inspired me. I think the teacher really appreciated that, and luckily he was on my side. Actually, after the massacre, the teacher was one of the most critical figures against the measures of the regime among Tsinghua faculty members, and he was expelled out of the educational system because of that.
What pushed the consolidation of the movement?
There were a lot of milestones leading up to 1989. In the summer of 1988 we organized a free election for our Student’s Union in the faculty. Despite the situation of political prisoners like Wei Jingsheng, the environment was open to some sort of change, and we were able to talk about China’s direction. We were able to participate in some organizations, like the democracy movement started at the Peking University. In fact, there was a pro-democracy student’s demonstration in 1986, which led to the removal of Hu Yaobang as the party’s secretary, as he sympathized with some ideas of a more open system in terms of democracy. When he died in 1989, his death became a trigger for the Tiananmen events.
The movement itself was not ideological, but at the same time, very organized. So it spread so quickly. From the beginning to the end it was less than two months, but it spread all over China to hundreds of cities and in Beijing millions of people participated in the protests. The overwhelming majority supported the students, so in the end it started with the student protests but at the end there where people from every level of society. For one short and unusual period Chinese people felt they were able to express themselves, talk on political topics, for the first time in decades.
How did you feel, on those days?
It started with anger, but then we were driven by our sentiment of duty and courage to challenge the authorities because we believed we needed change and we wanted to express it peacefully. So the students started spontaneously but we quickly formed many students organizations. like the Beijing’s Autonomous Student’s Union. That was the federation of the student’s Union across Beijing, and I was one of their leaders representing the Tsinghua University.That’s why I was on the most wanted list, number five, after the massacre.
I think 1989 was the turning point. The Communist Party had the choice of a more democratic route but instead, Deng Xiaoping, who was much more paranoid, took control over the legitimate leader Zhao Ziyang and he started a massacre. For that reason the party loss their legitimacy after the massacre, as they used their military force to kill innocent people, and all the world saw that.
Author: The demonstrations ended with tanks throwing poisonous gas and driving over civilians. The scene is described so horrendously that many dissidents prefer avoid referring to the details.
Fengsuo was exiled within his own country. A very different experience from what an expatriate in the West goes through. When he was incarcerated, he existed, but within the confines of some of the least populated regions of his country, he disappeared completely, and could be watched at ease by those who still remained frozen in the days of the Cultural Revolution, the one where fanaticism killed any level of development that was not included in Mao Zedong’s red book. To this day, those born in an interior region – where there is still no right to private property – must have government approval to, for example, move to large cities.
You were in jail, then exiled to a marginal province and you were denied a passport for several years, but eventually you got to the US. How did this change your life?
I had always dreamt of coming to the United States. Sometimes, when I had free time, I studied english, and even in prison I was preparing for for the GRE TEST: I was inspired by the Declaration of Independence and American Democracy.
But when I came here, I was just struggling for a good life. I had to borrow money to attend business school, break my back to earn living, because I didn’t have any support.
Author: Leaving China meant leaving his family, his history and the dream of a less repressed society. Since, although the giant continued to promote certain elements of economic reforms, these factors were controlled and directed by the party. They remain the same until today.
Fengsuo Zhou (FZ): On the other hand, this country’s liberties and thus I was allowed to express myself and to talk about the truth of Tiananmen, that is something I would have never been able to do if I stayed in China.
So I decided to speak out and denounce the violation of Human Rights, the darkness of the regime and its illegal activities abroad through the China Human Rights Accountability Center. For example, the HNA case, when people’s money was withdrawn outside of China to a foundation in United States under questionable conditions.
I Also, we were advocating the exposure of Human Rights violators which, with the Global Magnitsky Act, but we are very frustrated with that, as it has been hard to get those people on the list.
We also created Humanitarian China to help the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre: the Tiananmen Mothers, the prisoners or the persecuted. Over the years we helped them, we documented their testimonies and what they had witnessed and we were able to provide financial support for their families. We even managed to bring some of them here.
For example, Fang Zheng. He was helping some other students to escape when the tanks attacked the demonstrators. Within the crowd, he saw female student who was fainting because the tank had thrown poisonous gas at her. He pushed her to safety before the tank reached her, but it crashed him and he lost both of his legs. He is a true hero.
The government wanted him to lie about it, but he wouldn’t, and as a result he wasn’t able to graduate, even if he was offered a job, they wouldn’t allow him to take it. It turned out that in China, of all the people we have met, none of them was able to talk about what happened, the tank attack. They were all forced to corporate, including the ones who were injured.
Why do you think the government puts such and effort in hiding what happened?
Because this is a totalitarian regime. They want to hide their corrupted and illegal actions and keep their power, no matter what. A mandatory complicity has arisen, and many of us didn’t know what happened until years after the massacre. There is a very good report from Louisa Lim he wrote about the massacre in Chengdu, between 50 and 100 people died, but nobody, even people the protest leaders in Chengdu, who I know, had any idea of what was happening. That’s what censorship does.
You said people in China are brainwashed. Do you think that is related to the rise of nationalism and the lack of dissidence?
Yes. This is a very sad reality. The firewall which started 19 years from now, when China joined WTO around year 2000. That means the college students in China pretty much grew up under the shade of this firewall. Every word they use is filtered in this system. It is very sad just to see how people are becoming machines when it comes to political issues. People are losing their dignity and independence. Collectively this would be very dangerous for the world.
3. Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare
Author: Remembering the Tiananmen massacre is bold. For most Chinese citizens searching for that word on the Internet, the only thing they find is a series of kind images of the place, no drop of spilled blood reaches young people born after the fateful day. It is a nation without memories and without an iota of access to the truth, because the government that ordered the deployment of the army is the same one that maintains power today and decides what is censored and what is not. The internet, and everything related to it, are filtered by the regime. So is the press, and the same survivors of the massacre have been forced to forget, under the threat of being socially erased from their circles, or exiled to interior areas of the country.
It is an awkward surprise, even surreal for those who cross the border. When leaving the limits of the Great Digital Wall (The Great Firewall), they find the reality of a world that still remembers, or that has even a partial notion of what happened in 1989. Many have a hard time facing the lie of more than 30 years in which they grew up, others simply do not believe it.
You have said people are too brainwashed to fight against the government in China, do you think this has to do with social credit, internet censorship, surveillance and the data provided by the main companies, (Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei) will affect democracies?
They are all part of it. And people don’t realize what is happening. People think China is leading to a free market economy. Yes, there is a market, but there is no private enterprise en China. That is what we need to be clear about. Any company in China must follow the Party’s will, or otherwise you cannot exist. So, any company that does business in China, outside of China, if there is a political strategy, they will have to execute it. That is why we cannot treat all these business, and the One Belt One Road initiative as “just trade” with China. It is not. This is completely different from the former world. It is a challenge to the market economy and towards democracies.
As dissidents, initially, we were all optimistic, because it seemed that internet and social media were considered like a way to empower the individuals. But, the last five years in particular have proven the other way. China can take advantage of these new technologies to enhance its centralized control, with big data on everything and artificial intelligence, for example, they will even detect what are you going to do, before you really do something, just following everything you have done. This is beyond the imagination of “1984”. This model brutalices people, controls everything and restrains freedom, there is no room for any dissent.
The idea of the Communist Party is to rule the globe, they want to be the engineers of the humanity and the human soul
The regime has claimed several times that they reject the western values and they do it just because they are oriental, just because of their philosophy. Even Xi Jinping has returned to Confucianism, because of its harmony and patriotism. What is harmony for the Chinese people and how has the regime altered this meaning?.
Everybody knows that they are just faking it. It is a camouflage of their ideology and there is nothing real in it. Of course, they are trying to manipulate the image, but this is why 1989 was important, because it showed to the world that chinese people loved freedom and democracy and they want to express their individual aspirations.
China presents itself as a peaceful country. What’s behind that friendly face?
I think they are using money, basically bribing its way. It is a form of corruption.
Around 30% of our exports in Chile go (and depend) to China.Do you think there is a lack of political consciousness, on the strategy, on China’s lack of economic freedom in Latin America?
I Definitely, as I said, this is a very dark force, globally. Even though you are not among its adversaries now, eventually China won’t stop. The idea of the Communist Party is to rule the globe, they want to be the engineers of the humanity and the human soul. No country will be neutral.
What do you think of Xi Jinping, what’s his role?
He represents the the system. He has shown how dark and far this country, with its powerful economy and technology, can go, against the universal values. For example, he declared himself permanent leader. He wants to stay in power as an emperor. And he put over a million people in concentration camps, the Uyghurs. And the Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, in Jinzhou, Liaoning in 2009.¡Liu Xiaobo died in jail around two years ago! There is a strong resemblance to what was, almost 100 years ago, Hitler’s Germany. A country that attacks its own people wont ever be source of peace in the world.
You have said: We cannot be optimistic about China situation; Xi Jinping madness and stupidity is a representation of this country. China will pay a heavy price for it in the future. How do you see China in the next twenty years?
It is hard to forecast. The fact that he is still in power and not openly challenged, actually more followed and admired in China is very bad sign. So, this country, if it goes down the path of Nazi Germany, that means the things have to change from outside, which is unfortunate.
What are the challenges for the Chinese dissidents today?
I think we must be hopeful. History is on our side. The last thirty years are a very short time in history. We have to carry on, we have to believe in universal values, human dignity, freedom. I think this is very important for Chinese dissidents in particular, given how dark it is now. I think it is a challenge like the man against the tank and the people are living against the machine. They may seem very powerful now, but I think this system is against the human nature. Eventually, the human dignity and freedom will prevail, we just have to fight harder.
Regarding Tiananmen Square. You went to the Tsinghua University, the same one Xi Jinping attended to. Is he among the people who were benefited from the massacre?
Of course, there are reports about his family. Most of his sibling had a foreign Green ard, even before his ascendence into the top leadership. But the immediate beneficiaries were the family members of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng. For example, Li Peng’s daughter, Li Xiaolin, was revealed to have a Hong Kong Passport and many accounts offshore when the Panama papers were released. The corruption networks now, are a consequence of 1989, and it is because of that corruption that in 1989 the students had two demands: Press Freedom and Disclosure of the powerful family assets.
What is the milestone for the 30th anniversary of the massacre?
One of the most important projects in the future is the Tiananmen Museum we are building now in New York City, we are going to preserve the truth and the tradition of China’s freedom and democracy here. And then a huge statue of democracy in Los Angeles. So that will be our future work, because we have the freedom to do it here. There is not possibility to do it in China, so we will speak for those who can’t do it anymore.
Note from the author: This interview was conducted weeks before the Tiananmen massacre anniversary. The interview was held in English, digitally, through a direct contact with Fengsuo Zhou.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.