Exiled Tiananmen student leaders find that home remains out of bounds

26 years ago, pro-democracy protesters filled Tiananmen Square for weeks before government troops brutally dispersed them. Student leaders who fled into exile did not dream then that they would never be allowed to return.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Tens of thousands of people attended an annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong today to mark Beijing's Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Xiong Yan helped lead his fellow students 26 years ago at Tiananmen Square and then escaped China to become a US Army chaplain. Now he is praying for one main thing: to see his ailing mother before it is too late.

But his mother is in China. Despite Maj. Xiong’s pleas to President Xi Jinping for clemency, the government is not allowing him back into the country.

“There is no legal basis for this,” says Xiong, who was turned back by officials at the Hong Kong airport last month. “I hold a US passport and I just want to see my mother.”

Xiong is one of a dozen former student leaders on China’s 1989 most-wanted list who fled or were forced into exile, and who have been banned from their homeland ever since the June 4th  massacre. In those heady and dangerous days, the students never imagined they would not come home, and would pay such a heavy personal price for their decision to leave China.

Two years after Hong Kong gangsters smuggled out Su Xiaokang, a liberal intellectual also on the most-wanted list in the aftermath of the massacre, he learned from exile in the US that his mother had died.

“In the speedboat taking me to Hong Kong I thought that I would be back in a couple of years, that China would change,” recalls Mr. Su. “But it didn’t.”

“We all hoped that if we went to a free society we could learn something and go back to China to build democracy,” adds Xiong, the chaplain. “We never thought the Communists would still be there 26 years later.”

Tiananmen still taboo

The Tiananmen Square protests and the deadly military action that ended them are still taboo subjects in China.

Some of the June 4 student leaders, cheered on by ordinary people in Beijing who found themselves caught up in dreams of a freer and more open nation, are now in the US working as stockbrokers, running NGOs, or writing and teaching.

Those who were caught and imprisoned and who stayed in China after their release, have withdrawn into anonymity. None of them could be reached for this report. But their friends say they remain under close surveillance and that some have “struggled on the fringes of society,” in the words of Zhou Fengsuo, a Tiananmen exile.

“None of them are politically active,” Mr. Zhou adds. “That would be impossible.”

Since political activism at home is out of the question, Wang Juntao is particularly bitter at the way the Chinese government has kept him out of his country. Mr Wang was expelled from prison in China to the United States in 1994 after serving three years of a 13-year sentence for his role in the Tiananmen protests.

“There is no need to keep me in exile,” Mr. Wang says. “There would be no space for me to do anything against them. They do it just to make trouble for me.”

The Chinese prison authorities told Wang he was being taken to the US for medical treatment. Only when he arrived did he realize he realize he had been exiled. Though the Chinese consulate has repeatedly refused to renew his Chinese passport, he does not want to give up his nationality.

In the US, he is joint chairman of the Chinese Democratic Party. “I realized that I don’t have a chance to be a Chinese citizen” while the Communist Party rules his country, he explains, “so I decided to dedicate myself to the political cause of the end of the one party regime.”

Wang says he has made several efforts to return home and twice discussed with Chinese officials the possibility of a secret visit, but that the talks came to nothing.

'Of course we miss China'

Su Xiaokang, on the other hand, who has remade his life as an author in the US, says he no longer has any desire to return to China. He did appeal in 2003 to then President Hu Jintao to return and visit his father, a senior government official, who was seriously ill. But the Chinese authorities moved slowly and the visa finally came too late.

“Of course we miss China,” Su acknowledges. “But we have to do the best we can. I am a writer; if the Communists control everything, I cannot live like that.”

Zhou Fengsuo is one of only two on the wanted list who have been allowed to return home, and he does not know why. (The other is Li Lu, now a hedge fund manager, who advises Warren Buffett, and who accompanied the investment wizard on a brief 2010 trip to China.)

Mr. Zhou says he was twice given a tourist visa, in 2007 and 2010, when he presented his US passport, bearing his English given name, to the Chinese consulate in Washington.

During his second visit the police tracked him down in his hometown in Xi’an, and “seemed surprised to see me,” Zhou remembers. But the officers told him then that if he steered clear of politics during his trips to China he would be allowed to come.

“I told them that the only reason I would come back to China would have to do with Tiananmen,” says Zhou, who founded “Humanitarian China” which supports political prisoners.

So last year, just before the 25th  anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Zhou arrived at Beijing airport and was given a 72-hour transit visa by an immigration official who apparently did not know who he was.

His first stop in the Chinese capital was the prison where noted human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was being held. (After a year in detention, Mr. Pu was recently indicted on charges that could put him behind bars for a decade.)  Zhou enquired after Mr. Pu’s well-being and tried unsuccessfully to visit him.

The prison guards asked to see Zhou’s papers, “and that’s when they identified me,” he says.

That evening, exactly 25 years after troops advanced toward Tiananmen Square,  Zhou and a friend drove along the route the soldiers had taken. “It was very intense ... very eerie for me,” he says. “It was a very emotional journey to come back and to think of the people who died and what we were hoping for 25 years ago.”

On his return to his hotel later that evening, Zhou found the police waiting for him. The next day he was put on a plane back to the United States.

“I knew I would be arrested,” he explains. “But my purpose was to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre and to show the government that we are still here to fight for the truth and for memory.”

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