DURING THOSE heady days last spring when Tiananmen Square was boiling over with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, it seemed unimaginable that the Chinese Communist party would be able to reassert its control and turn back the clock on political reform. So enormous in numbers and social diversity — and so confident in their cause — were these protesters that, during this brief historic moment, it was all too tempting to believe the “power of the people” might prevail over that of the state — that China might be set off on some miraculous, new and more hopeful course. When the troops finally succeeded in storming their way to the square, the Chinese people were left not only stunned with horror at the carnage but also mourning the sudden loss of hope that their country would soon find a path to peaceful democratization. In a way that the exuberant days of spring had left them ill prepared to accept, they were suddenly and bitterly reminded that even in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s much-vaunted reforms, power in China still grew out of the barrel of a gun.
For tens of thousands of young Chinese students, many of whom have now been arrested, jailed or forced underground or into exile — some have even been executed — the tumultuous events of this spring will live in their psyches for the rest of their lives. Two such students — twenty-one-year-old Wuer Kaixi, an education major at Beijing Normal University, and twenty-one-year-old Shen Tong, a biology major at Beijing University — played critical leadership roles in the Democracy movement. Both were at the scene of its tragic and bloody finale, and both managed to escape afterward to the United States, where they have been thrown precipitously into entirely new lives — at the same time that they have been called on to help lead a new Democracy movement in exile.
During the night of June 3rd and 4th, Shen Tong found himself at Liubukou, an intersection on the Avenue of Eternal Peace west of Tiananmen Square. As troops moved down the broad, treelined avenue, tens of thousands of students and ordinary citizens surged into the street in a desperate attempt to block their advance. Shen was among those students, frantically trying to use his influence to calm the situation, pleading with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army not to attack their own people. But after seven long weeks of demonstrations, confrontation was inevitable, and the scene quickly turned into a blood bath. Liubukou, which in the end would metamorphose into one of the worst killing grounds of the massacre, has come to be known as Blood Alley.
“I went to the middle of the street and spoke to a soldier, asking him, ‘Do you know where you are?'” recalled Shen. ” ‘This is Changan Avenue. This means the Avenue of Eternal Peace.’ But he had no reaction.” Shen continued to try to reason with the young infantryman: “I kept talking and talking…I just stood on the street, and bullets flew near my body and around my feet…I couldn’t believe it. Then the solider looked back to his officer, who then shot the girl beside me.”
Hit in the face, the girl died instantly. Only then, in a state of hysteria and shock, did Shen allow himself to be dragged by friends from the melee. Kept in hiding for a week by supporters during the military occupation of the capital, Shen was ultimately able to escape to the United States.
Wuer Kaixi, as head of the banned Beijing Autonomous Students’ Union, was one of the most important, charismatic and eloquent leaders of the Democracy movement. On the night of the massacre, Wuer, dangerously weakened from weeks of fasting, was in the middle of Tiananmen Square with four fellow hunger strikers. “We have only a few freedoms left,” said Wuer, knowing the troops were massing outside of Beijing. “We may choose when to die, how we will die and for what we will die.” Only when the square was finally surrounded by troops and advancing tanks did Wuer allow himself to be hastily evacuated in an ambulance carrying several wounded students and soldiers. Placed on the blacklist of China’s twenty-one most-wanted criminals. Wuer eluded a massive government manhunt, finally escaping on the “underground railway” to Hong Kong.
“Many of my friends laid down their lives under those tanks,” Wuer later recalled, near tears. “Each time I smile and pose for a photo here, my heart cries out, and I see the faces of the others in my mind’s eye. I see bodies lying in pools of blood. Then I know I have no choice but to do what I am doing.”
Since their escape, both Shen Tong and Wuer Kaixi have been traveling around America and Europe, trying to organize what’s left of their movement and to raise money for it. It has been a confusing and difficult period. Swept up in the nonstop pandemonium of this spring’s uprising, scarred by the experience of the massacre, hunted and driven underground by their government, spun suddenly into exile and then finally, after arriving here, plunged into a media cyclotron, these two 21-year-olds have suffered more upheaval in a few months than most people could endure in a lifetime. Orville Schell, is the author of eight books about China, including, most recently, ‘Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform’ and ‘To Get Rich Is Glorious’.
“THOSE OF US WHO WERE at Tiananmen Square last June 4th made a pact in a recent meeting in Paris not to speak of our dead friends,” Shen Tong said softly, his eyes beginning to glisten. Taking several deep breaths, he tried to continue. “Please, forgive me. But the minute I speak of the massacre, I still get overwhelmed.”
Shen had just been introduced at a Los Angeles political rally as “a great freedom fighter.” But standing so vulnerably before the largely Chinese crowd, with his long, tousled hair, T-shirt, black slacks and hightop sneakers, it was almost impossible to envision him as the leader of thousands of people, much less as one of the hardened “instigators” of “counterrevolutionary rebellion” that the Chinese government has declared the student leaders to be. And because there are few places so opposite in feeling as Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and L.A.’s Federal Plaza, where Shen was speaking this bright, sunny morning, it was even more difficult to feel connected to the seismic events that had gripped China only months before.
Instead of the elephantine gracelessness of the Great Hall of the People and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, which stand in Beijing’s ponderous 117-acre square, a tall, modern, sparkling-white office building — festooned with American flags and looking out on a miragelike panorama of manicured lawns, palm trees and the endless parade of gleaming cars along Wilshire Boulevard — anchors Federal Plaza. In the midst of this quintessential L.A. tableau, Shen appeared very small and out of place as he told the crowd: “The future hope of Chinese democracy will not grow out of all our theories and organizations but will grow out of ourselves. We do not believe that we can be liberated by freeing society. To liberate society, we must first liberate ourselves. Ours should be a movement of love, not hate.”
Although the people in the crowd were clearly touched by what Shen was telling them, there was also some confusion. Filled with outrage over the murders they had seen carried out on television, they wanted an outlet — some ritual of condemnation and retaliation. They were not quite prepared for this casually dressed young man floating up before them to speak not of revenge but of self-cultivation and love.
This would not be the only time Shen would seem out of place as he dutifully made his way across the country to rally after rally. He was a stalwart, if sometimes reluctant, member of the dog-and-pony show that the blitz of public appearances by Chinese exiles had at times become. Shen was too informal, too mild and dreamy, to give the crowds the kind of catharsis they craved.
But the people in Federal Plaza this day were about to get what they wanted. After Shen finished speaking, someone breathlessly announced: “He’s here! Wuer Kaixi has arrived.”
This was the young man many in the assemblage had really come to see. They had watched him on TV, leading, with fierce braggadocio, his student minions against the tyranny of the Chinese state. Wuer, more than anyone, knows how to play upon the mythology that has sprung up around him and the other student heroes, knows how to give a crowd what it wants, knows how to make its members feel connected to the cause. In fact, at a banquet in L.A’s Chinatown just the night before, a note written in Wuer’s hand and pledging allegiance to the Democracy movement had raised $3000. This was pretty heady stuff for a twenty-one-year-old. And as crowds around the country have responded with such adulation to Wuer, he, in turn, has been drawn all the more to them in a bond of mutual intoxication that only true performers can ever understand.
As Wuer approached the podium, a murmur went up from the crowd, and a phalanx of people rounded the corner of the Federal Building like a scrum in a rugby game. Heads jerked around, and languishing photographers and TV cameramen began to scramble. Leading the charge was a pair of officious acolytes with walkie-talkies, followed by a brace of attendants. Though accompanying a champion of democracy and equality, they all evinced that same obsequious quickness of step characteristic of the legions of eunuchs and factotums that ministered first to imperial families and then to high-ranking party officials in China. In fact, so solicitous were those in this procession that one almost expected to see a sedan chair emerge in its midst, just as in the days of old.
But as the entourage drew closer, and people in the crowd spotted Wuer, there was a troubled silence. This was hardly the superhero they had remembered from Tiananmen. Wuer’s face was pale and puffy, contorted with a mixture of pain, sourness and fatigue. His hands clutched his midriff, and he seemed to be suffering the effects of the mysterious, recurring heart ailment that causes him to have fainting spells in times of stress. Like a wounded soldier being carried out of combat, he was being borne along by his retinue. But with cameras clicking and flashing, some part of him seemed to flicker back to life. As he approached the microphone, all at once there was a suggestion of the old Tiananmen swagger.
Wuer squinted out over the crowd into the blindingly bright sun. But when a concerned adjutant offered him a straw hat to shield his eyes, Wuer looked skeptically at it for a moment and then rejected it. Ever the consummate showman, he never quite loses his awareness of how others perceive him.
“We want to say that we Chinese have hope and a future,” Wuer told the mesmerized crowd. “Our wish is to allow people to have a choice.” Liu Yan, his nineteen-year-old girlfriend with whom he escaped from China, hovered behind him, an expression of both concern and exasperation playing on her face. It was as if, having been through this drama many times before, she had already grown somewhat impatient with it.
While appearing on the verge of breakdown, Wuer pressed on with his speech. It was obvious he wanted to please the crowd. Yet it was hard to tell if he was saying what he truly believed or merely what he thought people wanted to hear. Without quite realizing it, he seems to be allowing the public to possess him — in a way that has robbed him of self-possession. He is a man who must continuously act out a role thrust upon him.
BEIJING UNIVERSITY IS CHINA’S preeminent institution of higher learning. Yet when one walks through its drab, gray concrete buildings or sees its students living six to eight in rooms with doors drooping off hinges, windows cracked and plumbing leaking, it is difficult to visualize this campus as a seat of learning or a place of intellectual ferment. It was here, however, that Shen Tong — like his father, mother and sister before him — went to school, and it was also here that the Chinese Democracy movement had taken root over the past few years, before finally erupting into the streets last April.
“Our whole family has always been very close, and they have always had a very strong influence on me,” Shen told me in Boston earlier this fall, just as he was about to begin his first semester at Brandeis University, where he will be continuing his biology studies. “My parents had learned the hard way that anyone who gets involved in politics is destined to suffer his whole life long. But still wanting me to be able to develop freely, they left me alone. Even after heated discussions and arguments, they allowed me to do what I felt I had to. I am sure I caused them much worry. I will always remember how this spring, even as I risked everything for our family, my father remained steadfastly behind me.”
When I asked him how he had come to be so politically active in China, Shen simply said, “When one grows up being accustomed to freedom of expression in one realm, such as our family, I think it becomes very natural for that person to extend it to other realms and to become political.”
But families aside, there were other powerful forces shaping Shen and others among China’s youth. The decade of the 1980s was one in which all kinds of influences rushed in from the outside world. Even though, as Shen puts it, “many of them were no better than junk food,” these influences nonetheless helped create an atmosphere of openness and a fascination with individualism. Not the least of these new imports from the West was music — rock music. By introducing Shen’s generation to the world of feeling and sexuality, rock exerted a profound influence on almost all young Chinese.
“The new music exploded onto the Chinese youth scene and shook society,” Shen told me. “It reflected not only our deep loneliness but also our belief in the individual.” In fact, after hearing groups like the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Wham!, Shen, along with several of his friends, formed a rock band in which he was the lead singer.
But of all the new cultural forces at work in the Eighties, it was poetry, paradoxically, that ignited Shen’s interest in politics. As a precocious high-school student, Shen fell in with a group of well-known older poets, including Bei Dao and Bei Lin, both of whom had abandoned socialist realism for a much darker impressionistic verse filled with uncertainty and despair. “Their spirit had a profound effect on me,” remembered Shen. “It was they who taught me how to look inside myself.”
At the same time, Shen also began reading translations of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., drawn to their rational, democratic and nonviolent themes. “The first time I read Einstein, I felt as if his work existed just for me, as if he had been waiting so that he could speak to me,” said Shen. “What affected me most was not so much what he said but the way he said it. Einstein summoned up something in me that immediately made me vibrate to his wavelength. Because whether he was writing about freedom, beauty, art, science or democracy, what he had to say came from his heart.”
Buoyed along by these intellectual currents, Shen began to question the official government notion that political liberation was a societal, rather than an individual, undertaking. “Chinese Communists have this view that only after the liberation of the whole world can one liberate oneself,” Shen told a group of supporters. “But I believe that if each person would liberate himself first, then the world could liberate itself. For me, freedom is not something that exists outside of a person or that can be won simply by fighting for it. It is something inside as well.”
By late 1986, when the first large-scale Democracy protests broke out on the streets of China, Shen was already a student in biology at Beijing University. The university had always had a tradition of campus activism and political protest. But now there were hundreds of independent student groups, or shalong (salons), spontaneously springing up around a number of disciplines, including literature, philosophy, art and science. The salons were, as Shen describes them, “islands” where students could “learn, practice and live democracy through discussion, cooperation and free intellectual exchange.”
The salons, according to Shen, were established as a reaction against China’s age-old cultural tendency toward “uniformity, centralization and harmony.” “Chinese always want to get everyone and every organization together on one line,” said Shen. “The strategy of the salons was to break this pattern by decentralizing and creating diversity. China has never been known for its individualism and tolerance, and now we must confront this problem. The task of every Chinese is to try and learn how to be more tolerant and how differences of opinion, far from being harmful, can actually be something healthy.”
As fast as the authorities would move to shut down one salon, students would simply reorganize another one under a different name. “What we wanted to do,” said Shen, “was to set up as many different small groups as possible, so that if the authorities closed down some of them, others would survive.”
Shen describes campus life last winter as “absolutely electric,” as a “chemical reaction producing something new and kinetic.” His own Olympic Institute played a key role not only in politicizing Beijing University students but also in providing a communications network that was to become crucial once demonstrations began this spring. The salons, in general, he asserted, were important antecedents of the protest. “It was a pity that later on when it got around to paying attention, the world press did not really delve into them,” he said.
LATE THIS SUMMER, when Wuer Kaixi’s travel schedule was a little less crushing than it had been, I visited him at his new apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. Wuer was sharing the two-and-a-half-room flat with his girlfriend, Liu Yan. When I arrived, he was sitting on a new sofa, hooking up a made-in-Taiwan imitation-antique phone that looked as if it might have been purloined from an old Mae West movie.
“Although we have touch-tone in the bedroom, I really like this one,” said Wuer, giving the outlandish circular dial a satisfied spin. Across the room a friend was installing an entertainment center, complete with stereo and television. This bounty of goods had arrived just before the Chinese-language press in the United States, once so adoring of Wuer, began to criticize his penchant for expensive suits and high living. There were also allegations in the papers that when it came to cash contributions to the movement, Wuer had not always followed strict accounting practices. These were charges that left Wuer feeling defensive; they also made the Front for Democracy in China, of which he had been elected vice-chairman in September, vulnerable to attack by the Chinese government.
Yet in spite of the acquisitions, Wuer’s apartment hardly had the look of opulence. With its blank, paper-thin Sheetrock walls, small, windowless kitchen and wall-to-wall acrylic carpeting, it had the unlived-in feeling of a cheap motel room.
“As a young boy in Beijing, I was always surrounded by people who admired me, doted on me, even spoiled me,” Wuer told me with one of his beguiling, impish smiles. “Because we were Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority, I was always treated with special deference. Moreover, perhaps because my father held the position of party cadre, I was also considered a leader at school.”
When Wuer was sixteen, however, his situation drastically changed. The party reassigned his father from Beijing to Xingiang, the most western province of China, where his family was forced to move in with relatives. “I felt I had suddenly fallen out of grace,” Wuer told me. “From then on, problems were continuous.” Wuer fought bitterly with his disciplinarian parents about a girlfriend who was a Han, the majority ethnic group from central China. Then he was expelled from high school for setting up a school newspaper that, in his words, “challenged school authorities.”
When Wuer finally moved back to the capital last year to study education at Beijing Normal University, it was with a sense of relief. And, like Shen Tong, he almost immediately found himself drawn to the emerging artistic movement that was flourishing at the margins of society as a result of Deng’s reforms. “I like artists because they tend to emphasize the validity of individual feelings, while politicians stress rules and the collective,” said Wuer. “Actually, I’ve never cared much for rules. Sometimes I even like to drink a lot of beer and go out singing in the street. That’s just the way I am.”
Wuer emitted a hearty laugh, followed by a shrug. “The shame of it is that most people in politics don’t have any artistic sense at all,” he said. “To be a really successful politician, one must have, in my view, some artistic side. The only Chinese leader who qualifies in this sense is Mao. Even though he was an autocrat, he did have an artistic sense. So while we may dislike him, we must also respect him.
“What strikes me as very strange, even twisted, is that with a billion people, China now can only throw up a leader like [Premier] Li Peng. I just don’t understand it, except, of course, as Deng’s way of limiting the power of the older generation by giving them such a lackluster representative.” Talking to Wuer, it becomes clear how much he is repelled by authoritarianism. Democracy, for him, seems less a political or philosophical concept than a visceral reaction against the all-encroaching power of the party and its suffocating leaders. “In China, there has been no such thing as private life, because there has been no respect for individualism,” said Wuer. “What we students have been fighting for is a system that respects this right. It is this as much as anything that led us into the square.”
FOR THE CHINESE the calendar this last year turned out to be full of special occasions, all loaded with symbolic significance for advocates of democracy. First, on December 10th of last year, the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, police fired on Tibetan protesters in Lhasa. Then came March 29th, the tenth anniversary of the arrest of the well-known Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng; then May 4th, the anniversary of the first great Chinese student demonstrations — in 1919. Gorbachev was due to visit on May 15th, the first time a Soviet leader had come to China in decades. July 14th marked the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, and on October 1st the Chinese were to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their own revolution. “We students were just waiting for an opportunity to do something,” Shen said blundy.
The perfect moment came on April 15th. In the Chinese tradition of “criticizing the living by mourning the dead,” students seized on the death of the liberal former party chief Hu Yaobang to vent their dissatisfaction with the slowness of political reform. From then on, Tiananmen Square became a theater of protest, with hundreds of thousands of student activists and, later, equal numbers of ordinary citizens flooding in to camp at the doorstep of official power. What the students were calling for was the rehabilitation of Hu, permission to establish both an autonomous student union and an independent newspaper and a retraction of a provocative People’s Daily editorial that had condemned the student movement as a “planned conspiracy” calculated “to negate the leadership of the party and socialist system.” Deeply involved in these demonstrations from the beginning, Shen was instrumental in organizing the Beijing University Dialogue Delegation, one of the organizations that sought to head off violent confrontation by negotiating student demands with the government.
On May 14th, just before Gorbachev arrived, Shen and twelve other students met with government negotiators for what was supposed to be a nationally televised dialogue. Shen hoped to win enough concessions at the meeting to persuade the 3000 students who had just begun a hunger strike — and their supporters — to leave the square. Thus, the Chinese leaders would be spared the embarrassment of having a massive occupation in their midst while the Sino-Soviet summit was in progress.
“If they had been willing to meet even minimal demands, I believe the students would have been prepared to leave, and the problem would have been solved right there and then,” said Shen, his voice cracking. “But the talks went nowhere. Moreover, with the hunger strikers occupying the square and Gorbachev about to arrive, we never even got around to discussing the larger issues of human rights and democratization.”
What is more, the government did not even live up to its promise to televise the dialogue. “We were left feeling very betrayed and angry,” said Shen. He paused and stared vacantly at the floor. “I felt very guilty for having persuaded the students to support our delegation’s talks with the government after we failed so completely,” he continued somberly. “I felt so utterly defeated that I could not help my tears. When I went back into the square afterwards, the scene was unimaginable. Hunger strikers were falling like flies. We didn’t know what to do. Finally, I just picked up the microphone and told the hunger strikers that I was sorry.”
As the sun rose the next morning, Shen finally found Wuer, who promised to try to persuade the students to clear one side of the square — a compromise that would show their willingness to cooperate with the government. Most of the student protesters actually left. But by this time so many onlookers were pouring into Tiananmen to see what was happening, that the vacated area was quickly filling again.
“From this point on, I felt powerless to control the situation,” Shen said sadly. “At our meetings it was no longer possible to discuss real issues. In the rush of events, we had lost our vision and belief in long-term goals and thereafter were only able to react to circumstances. The hunger strike and Gorbachev’s visit had simply taken us too far too fast. And although I still could not but support the ongoing strike, from then on I began to lose power, and all that I stood for began to be ignored.”
Just after the failure of Shen Tong’s delegation, Wuer Kaixi’s role as leader was peaking too — in a moment of high theater. In an event unprecedented in Chinese history, Wuer and a second delegation of students had a nationally televised confrontation with Premier Li Peng, the powerful but colorless hard-liner. Fresh from the hospital, where he had been revived with an IV after his fasting, Wuer appeared in the Great Hall of the People wearing pajamas and sucking on an oxygen tube. When a tense and angry Li Peng imperiously began lecturing the students — “We meet today to talk about one topic only, that is to save those who are outside. We should deal with this first and the rest we can talk about later” — Wuer snapped back at the startled Li. “We don’t have much time to listen to you, Mr. Premier,” he said, taking a defiant drag on his oxygen tube. Then leaning back in his chair and wagging an index finger at Li, Wuer said, “Thousands of hunger strikers are waiting, so let’s get down to the main point. It was we who invited you to talk, not you who invited us. And you were late!”
It was a moment that the hundreds of millions who saw it on television in China will never forget. Looking as grim as death, Li was left drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair as Wuer continued to berate him. In the end, Li Peng, rigid with rage, refused to address any of the students’ demands. After the meeting ended, violent confrontation seemed more unavoidable than ever, and a day later martial law was declared.
“By the time of our confrontation with Li Peng, I already knew that we could not win,” Wuer told me in Somerville. “In fact, the only time when I really thought that we might succeed was on April 27th, when those of us who marched to Tiananmen Square in response to that harsh People’s Daily editorial found ourselves supported all along the route by tens of thousands of ordinary people. Not long after that, however, I knew that success would not be likely. But if I had not believed that there was at least some chance of victory, I wouldn’t have continued trying.”
“If you ask me whether I think our movement succeeded, I will say, ‘Absolutely!'” said Shen when I asked him how he looked back on the events of spring. “Of course, I feel sorry that the Democracy movement was cut off so brutally. And if only Fang Lizhi [the dissident intellectual who took refuge with his wife in the American embassy in Beijing] could get out and lead us, I think things would be very different now. But our movement has created a whole new group of fighters for human rights and democracy. I feel proud, not just because we made a great political movement that avoided violence for so long, but because it was not like mass movements that have swept China in the past. We were not taking orders from one leader or all marching under the same slogans. Instead, we were thinking for ourselves in a way that really distinguished us from the older generation.”
OF ALL THE TWISTS OF FATE THAT WUER and Shen have had to endure, one of the subtlest — and the one they were perhaps least equipped to deal with — has been the Western media juggernaut.
After a day of political rallies in Los Angeles last August, Shen found himself sitting in an expensive house in the Hollywood Hills, taking a meeting, as it were, with a producer who wished to acquire his and Wuer’s life stories for a big-budget feature film, a banker interested in investing and a bevy of agents seeking to represent the two 21-year-olds. Wuer, who was feeling ill, had left the deal making to Shen. How odd it was, after the rhetoric of the Chinese Democracy movement, to hear discussion of “deal memos,” “TV and film rights” and “development money”! Much of the time, Shen simply sat and listened, trying to understand what was going on. What was going on was the American media-entertainment machine at work. Indeed, the two freshly minted heroes have been pursued by Koppel, Rather and Brokaw; wined, dined and lodged by William Morris literary agents; courted by a team of top Creative Artists agents; and wooed by almost every lecture agent in the country.
Few who know them would disagree that being a celebrity has been more seductive for Wuer than for Shen. “If you select the ten biggest stars this year, I guess I am one of them,” Wuer told me matter-of-factly. “It’s true! This year I have become a huge media star. But I think that I have been able to deal with all the applause and flowers pretty well. I don’t want people to stop paying attention to me, but if next year arrives and people no longer recognize me, I think I’d have the confidence to survive quite nicely. Who knows? Maybe later on, I’d become a media star of some other kind.”
Wuer stopped speaking, gauging my reaction to what he had just said.
Shen’s name is less famous than Wuer’s, and he has less of an appetite for public exposure. Perhaps that is why he seems better protected from the demons of media burnout. Moreover, Shen’s enrollment as a full-time student at Brandeis will help him stay rooted in reality. Wuer, in spite of rumors that he would become a student at Harvard, has made no academic commitments.
Shen is confident he will not be corrupted by the publicity, which he likens to a drug addiction. He is very aware that he is a role model for thousands of Chinese young people. “At this early stage, the personalities of leaders are very important,” says Shen. “If they are balanced and wise, they will have a good influence. But if they turn into little emperors, their influence will only end up being negative. Because I tend to be more introspective, maybe I will prove to be better anchored than someone like Kaixi.”
Last spring, when one foreign journalist asked Wuer how the student protests differed from those of the past, the reporter was surprised to hear Wuer declare that “the difference is me.” In Boston, I asked Wuer to answer criticism that he is sometimes arrogant, a headline seeker.
“Yes,” said Wuer, “I suppose I do tend to react to things very quickly, but actually I usually do so without losing my temper. But am I arrogant? Well, frankly speaking, I suppose I should not be quite as cocky as I am. But I like to be noticed and looked up to. I want people to pay attention and to like me.”
Then, after a moment’s reflection, Wuer went on somewhat obliquely, perhaps hoping to shift the focus from this prickly issue. “But one shouldn’t forget that self-confidence is the foundation of knowledge,” he said. “And especially for us Chinese, the question of self-confidence lies at the heart of the matter. We have an inferiority complex; we feel that we have no value. Chinese leaders have traditionally buoyed up their lack of self-confidence by lopping off thousands of heads. While this gave them a passing sense of power, it was power based on suppression, not on respect. Anyway, I think that real confidence will come only through economic development. Maybe then we will begin to acquire the kind of cultural and intellectual self-confidence we need.”
WHILE NOT ALWAYS CLOSE, THE RELATIONSHIP between Wuer and Shen has had about it a strong quality of yin-yang: Wuer, always in motion, extroverted, worldly; Shen, thoughtful, sensitive, otherworldly. Wuer is politics, organization and action. Shen is poetry, philosophy and reflection. In spite of — perhaps because of — these differences, they have been able to work well together at the China Information Center, in Newton, Massachusetts, which has become one of the nerve centers of China’s Democracy movement in America. Just as Shen recognizes the power of Wuer’s flamboyant leadership style, Wuer knows that Shen’s contemplativeness may prove just as valuable in the long run as all the speechmaking and demonstrating. But Shen is not always forceful in presenting his views. He is infinitely patient, and often he must wait until Wuer is ready to listen.
When I asked Wuer about the differences between him and Shen, he fell silent for a moment, as though he had never thought about the question. “I think that I am more optimistic, idealistic, possibly more naive, than Shen,” he finally replied. “Our notions of success and happiness are quite different. My ambition — to be the best I can in whatever I do and to have everything I do be something that I want to do — is not very Chinese.”
Wuer’s girlfriend, Liu Yan, had been puttering around the apartment, but now she suddenly chimed in. “Shen Tong’s way is more passive, to let things happen,” she said. “Shen Tong wants to cultivate himself rather than others, and thus he is not always trying to advise people or telling them what to do. He is willing to allow someone to learn from his or her own mistakes, while Kaixi is always trying to intervene in order to have an immediate effect.”
As Liu spoke, I glanced at Wuer, who did not seem pleased about the intrusion. He looked as though he wanted the ball back in his own court.
“Yes, my desire to lead is strong, and I feel most adept when I am leading,” he said brusquely. “This is just my role. My family all have this quality. Perhaps we were just born with it.”
“If Kaixi doesn’t go on in politics, he could be a performer,” said Liu Yan, persisting.
“Maybe politics is addictive just like opium,” replied Wuer.
“For me, politics is a truly fearful thing,” rejoined Liu, unable to resist this final salvo.
“Well, I am more of a pioneer and am seldom fearful of things,” said Wuer, chopping one hand into the other for emphasis. “I wanted this kind of life. I got it I am happy with it That’s all.”
Later on, I asked Shen about Wuer. He pondered the idea for a moment in his characteristic way, then said: “What is so ironic is that while Kaixi has been so essential to the movement, the movement has not been very good for him.” Then laughing warmly, he added, “Well, Kaixi is just Kaixi. That’s about all you can say.”
AS I WATCHED SHEN AND WUER OVER the course of several weeks, it became increasingly clear that they remain in terrible pain over the tragedy of Tiananmen. It will be a long time before they will be able to accept the deaths of so many of their friends and peers; their separation from family, classmates and homeland; their own lives uprooted by history. Both are still plagued by nightmares and sleeplessness, not only reliving the dark night of the tanks and bullets, but also racked by guilt for having survived when so many others perished. And today both also feel the crushing weight of public expectation, as they try to rebuild their movement and their lives in a country they had hardly been able to imagine several months ago. It is all an enormous burden for men so young to bear.
“I am only twenty-one and already find myself in exile!” Wuer told a spellbound audience one afternoon in Los Angeles. “I’ve gone through chaos and bloodshed. At this age, I should be able to enjoy life, go out with my friends and do my studies. The fact of having been deprived of this liberty makes me very sad. For the next two months, each of my days is already scheduled. Frankly, I am tired of presenting myself as a public figure. I want to show the real flesh-and-blood Wuer. My body is already tired. I don’t know if I can take it much longer.”
But then he added, “I think that maybe it is my fate to go on acting this role rather than playing the part of the real Wuer.”
Can Wuer and Shen, from so many thousands of miles away, still help lead an effective movement? “I don’t think we exiles can have much influence on the Chinese political scene right now,” Shen admitted to me sadly. “But I know that I must do something. And even though it takes a lot of time, I hope my struggle will count.”
As always with Shen, he worries about the encroachments of a too-public life. “I fear politics will involve me too much in mundane things,” he said. “Both Kaixi and I are young, and a person’s growth cannot thrive under such conditions.”
In his anguish (compounded by his father’s death from a blood disease soon after he escaped), Shen, more than anyone, understands that he is only part of an entire generation that has been brutalized, perhaps beyond salvation. “Because so many were killed, purged, driven underground, arrested, jailed and executed, I sometimes feel very pessimistic,” Shen told me gravely one night. “Now yet another generation of young Chinese must live lives of struggle and must be filled with hatred and vengeance. This is the real tragedy of what happened in Tiananmen.”