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For Tiananmen leader, a permanent exile

Wu’er Kaixi in a recent photo.   | Photo Credit: Wally Santana

The image stunned a nation: a young student with unruly hair, voice raised, interrupted the then Chinese Premier Li Peng mid-sentence, scolding him on live television as he sat in the grand Chinese Parliament building still wearing his hospital pajamas.

The most charismatic of the student leaders, Wu’er Kaixi, rose to fame during the turbulent summer of 1989, becoming the face of the student movement that challenged the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

His meeting with Premier Li Peng, on May 18, 1989, was in one sense a victory for the students, who were campaigning for dialogue to bring political reforms and an end to corruption.

But barely two weeks later, it proved to be a tragic failure. On the night of June 3 and on June 4, exactly 25 years ago, then leaders Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li sent in troops to end the protests and clear Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed around the capital as the tanks moved in.

Mr. Wu’er fled to Hong Kong, named as number two in the 21 “most wanted” list of student leaders the Party was hunting, behind fellow student leader Wang Dan.

He has never returned.

Prepared for trial

Mr. Wu’er today lives in exile in Taiwan. Speaking to The Hindu in an exclusive interview in Taipei, his first with Indian media, Mr. Wu’er spoke of his hope of returning home — he is ready even to face trial — and called on India to play a greater role in the world’s stage to promote democracy and freedom, one that it has largely failed to do.

Mr. Wu’er has, since 2009, made four attempts to return to China: boarding flights in Taipei and Tokyo, and trying to cross over from Hong Kong. He was prevented from doing so on every occasion, leaving him in a unique position of being a “most wanted” fugitive who has, ironically, failed to turn himself in.

“The Chinese government is afraid to have me back,” he said. “In 1989, we called for dialogue, that is the slogan we introduced. They answered our demand with tanks. That dialogue never really occurred. I still want that, even if it has to happen in a Chinese courtroom, even if it is in the form of an indictment.”

He said, 25 years on, he was “very, very homesick.” “Living in exile has become a mental torture, it has become intolerable,” he said. “I have not seen my parents for 25 years.”

Mr. Wu’er is an ethnic Uighur, the Turkic minority in China’s western Muslim-majority Xinjiang region. His parents live in the regional capital, Urumqi, which was recently struck by bomb attacks on a market place amid increasing ethnic violence and terror attacks in Xinjiang.

He is worried for their safety.

Considering recent violence and ethnic riots in Xinjiang, it seems all the more remarkable that a Uighur was the most recognisable face of the 1989 protests. Today, Mr. Wu’er says conflicts between Uighurs and Han Chinese have “passed the point of no return,” evinced by riots in 2009 that left at least 197 people killed.

“In the past we could still be looking for political solutions and hoping that maybe with the system’s evolution, Uighur people would find hope to claim their future. Today a nation of 10 million people is facing despair,” he said.

Mr. Wu’er was among the group of student leaders 25 years ago who saw fasting as a non-violent method to make their case for reforms and pressure the Party to have dialogue. The tactic helped re-energise the movement in May 1989 when the protests appeared to have run their course.

Among his sources of inspiration is Mahatma Gandhi. “India earned your independence with an amazing struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi on a moral level,” he said. “A non-violent movement completely shook the world.”

‘A lousy deal’

Despite the two decades of unprecedented growth in China since 1989, he believes the Party will face growing calls for political reform and anger against rising corruption — the same two demands that propelled protests 25 years ago.

“They struck a deal with the Chinese people in 1992 to give people a certain degree of economic freedom in exchange for political submission. That was a lousy deal because both economic freedom and political freedom is something that, to begin with, the Chinese people are entitled to. But this deal is also expiring. Once you give people economic freedom, they will become a little bit more powerful and they want more freedom. Because they want to be able to protect the money they made, they want rule of law, fair competition.”

The former student leader thinks Western countries, and India too, should have a broader agenda with China beyond “hurrying to sign trade agreements.”

“The world has adopted an appeasement policy towards China,” he said.

“Take the 130 Tibetan self-immolations for example. They were hoping the world intervenes. What did we see? We saw trade delegations sent to Beijing. That is the message the world is sending to China.

“If Indian people surrendering to the clubbing of British police officers could shake the world at a moral level, 130 Tibetan self-immolations could not,” he said. “That is a question I have to the world, and maybe Indian people can give me an answer.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:38:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/for-tiananmen-leader-a-permanent-exile/article6083033.ece

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