Wu'er Kaixi is on China's most-wanted list. He believes he's at number one, bumped up a spot after his predecessor was arrested in July 1989. But try as he might, Wu'er, a leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, can't follow that lead.
Wu'er has attempted to turn himself in four times over the past 25 years but he hasn't yet succeeded — he believes because China simply doesn't want to engage in any dialogue about the Tiananmen protests and subsequent massacre.
In 2009 he flew to Macau, but didn't make it past the airport. In 2010 he tried to enter the Chinese embassy in Toyko, but failed again. In 2013, he endeavored to get himself arrested in Hong Kong. Despite his efforts, the closest he said he has been to the Chinese regime was when he turned up at their embassy in Washington D.C. "They shut down everything — their door, their window, and then when I peeped through their window they shut down their curtains. When I tried to call them they unplugged their phone."
The main reason Wu'er wants to return to China is to see his aging parents, who he says are prohibited from leaving the country. He has only spoken to them in 25 years "thanks to modern technology."
Wu'er initially became involved in politics a year before the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. "Living in a country like China you're supposed to take things as presented to you. You're supposed to feel like it's right, but at the same time we knew something was wrong," he told VICE News from his current home in Taipei, Taiwan, last month.
When Wu'er was given a place in university, only one percent of high school graduates were as lucky. "But still, even for us, the most prestigious college students, we did not get to choose our employment. The government defined our jobs after we graduated. At that time China did not acknowledge personal property rights. It did not allow the forming of enterprises that had more than 10 employees."
For Wu'er, though, it wasn't the lack of choice that acted as the antagonist. "It's the political rights. Freedom of expression. That is something that you needed the most. Even if the government defined our jobs, we would still be on top, we would still be getting the good jobs. The issue really was that we were not allowed to talk, and I think that is something that goes against basic humanity. We are a talkative species."
'Another idea in my mind was before I go to prison let me see as much as I can, let me travel a bit of the country.'
Wu'er and some fellow students decided to form an organization to replace the existing government-run students' body. "We were taking to the streets, having demonstrations… One thing led to another and I became the leader of the movement, elected as the president of the Autonomous Student Union." Wu'er said that a lot of their behaviour was provoked by the Chinese leaders' responses to them: "The regime made us their enemy."
Rose Tang, a fellow Tiananmen survivor, says she didn't know Wu'er in person at the time, but she remembers seeing him on TV and hearing him making speeches at protests. "He was very charismatic, very handsome, and different from other student leaders. He was fearless and very confident," she told VICE News.
Beijing's 600-year-old Tiananmen Square was named after the gate to its north — the "Gate of Heavenly Peace" — and provided the stage for the 1989 student movement. Whenever the students demonstrated, that was where they marched. As the protests escalated, that was where they camped while on hunger strike. On the night of June 3, 1989, that was where the government troops rushed, killing indiscriminately on the way.
Wu'er said they didn't expect a massacre that night. "We knew the government would not give in, and we weren't going to, and we knew the result of that was going to be suppression… But we thought they were going to come in with sticks, and maybe tear gas, rubber bullets."
Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to 10,000, though the exact figure has never been established and all mentions of the protests are still banned in China
Wu'er escaped the square, but knew he and his friends would be targeted next. State media began broadcasting the student leaders' names and pictures with a message saying: "Every province, region, city, police department, railway bureau, airline and transportation organ is asked to prevent them from escaping."
Tiananmen Square 25th anniversary: The day the world saw China's totalitarianism in action. Read more here.
Though certain he would eventually be apprehended, Wu'er told VICE News he didn't want to be caught in Beijing because the city was under siege, and an arrest in the city meant an arrest by the military.
He thought that with a police arrest he could maintain some dignity, so he made his way out of the city, heading south. "Another idea in my mind was before I go to prison let me see as much as I can, let me travel a bit of the country," he recalled.
Out of the 21 most wanted students, seven managed to escape, according to Wu'er, a figure he said was unthinkable for a communist country. "If a communist regime wants to apprehend somebody they usually can. But this time the Chinese people demonstrated enormous support hiding us, helping us."
Wu'er on hunger strike with fellow protesters in 1989. Photo via Wu'er Kaixi
Wu'er had never been outside China before, but eventually he found himself standing on the coast near Zhuhai in the country's south, waiting for a boat "sent by friends from Hong Kong" which would take him away.
"I stepped into the water, and it's a long walk until [you're] swimming. So it gives you a good 10 minutes to think about what you are really doing, and it's quite a visual image. You are leaving the soil, you are in the water, and then you are no longer touching the soil in the water, and once you get out to the boat the boat leaves, you can no longer see the land. It's still a very vivid memory."
Wu'er said he had very mixed feelings about fleeing. "I guess I could hardly think that I had actually made it this far. I had gained my personal freedom, my life. Until that moment I had been fully anticipating my prison sentence. But when you gain the freedom you feel like you're losing an honour. I was anticipating my imprisonment with some kind of pride."
'In 1989 we didn't really know so much about democracy. But we fought for democracy because we knew what the lack of democracy is.'
Even as he boarded the boat, Wu'er said: "At that time I was telling myself I will be back soon, there's no way that a regime like this can last too long. Sadly I can tell you today that I was very wrong."
Wu'er was 21 when he left China and everything he knew. "The ironic part is that we fought for freedom, and for that we lost the freedom to go back to China but we were tossed into the most free parts of the world. I lived in the United States and France, both flagships of democracy, and now I life in Taiwan, flagship again."
Travelling to those countries, Wu'er said, meant that for the first time he began to comprehend what he and his fellow students had been fighting for. "In 1989 we didn't really know so much about democracy. We knew the concept. We knew the general idea. But we fought for democracy not because we knew so much about it; it's because we knew what the lack of democracy is."
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The recent Hong Kong protests have put China under pressure. The movement that was nicknamed the "umbrella revolution" began as a reaction to a move by Beijing to screen all candidates in the 2017 Hong Kong leadership elections. A quarter of a century after Tiananmen, the demonstrations were, once again, led by students.
The Hong Kong protests met with wide international backing, including that of Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou. While the "one country, two systems" idea that Hong Kong operates under was initially designed for Taiwan, Ma told Al Jazeera that he doesn't believe it is a suitable framework for cross-strait relations. "If the system is good, it should be 'one country, one system.'"
The protests also seem to have had an impact on public opinion in Hong Kong. Though many citizens saw them as an inconvenience and a threat to business, a poll released in November showed that only 8.9 percent of Hong Kong dwellers said that they still feel Chinese, the lowest number ever recorded.
"It's just the beginning" — Hong Kong protesters vow they'll be back as police tear down main pro-democracy camp. Read more here.
Inside China, the protests were met with consternation. Beijing attempted to discredit the sincerity of the pro-democracy sentiment, claiming that the protests were fueled and supported by foreign powers, who are motivated by a desire to discredit the Chinese state. These claims led US president Barack Obama to publicly proclaim that the US had no involvement. "These issues are ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and people of China to decide," Obama said.
After the protests began in September, Wu'er wrote an article for a Hong Kong paper, titled: 'This extreme is rational." Hong Kong residents, he told VICE News, are known for their calm temperaments. "[They] really like vocabularies like balanced, rational… I wrote in my article that when it is called for, sometimes being hot-headed, picking sides, and being extreme is exactly rational." In November, in a situation reminiscent of Wu'er's, three Hong Kong protest leaders were denied travel to Beijing.
Wu'er believes that China's Communist Party is increasingly terrified of losing control, and said that reforms over the last few decades have been economic, but political change has been much more stagnant.
'I'm angry about the fact that I'm a pro-democracy activist, and I cannot engage with the one body that's preventing democracy from happening in China'
In 2011, the state's spending on internal security maintenance hit $95 billion, for the first time surpassing the country's already large external security budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy expanded by 7.3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, the slowest uptick in five years.
The country's leader Xi Jinping took office in November 2012. Chinese president, military chief, and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi is the son of a communist guerrilla who fought alongside Chairman Mao, and — according to a TIME profile — lived in a cave in the rural Shaanxi province for seven years. He's also perceived as a "strongman."
According to TIME, an internal government memo circulated in 2013 listed seven Western values and institutions that China must battle at all costs. These included constitutional democracy, media independence, civil society, and market liberalism. In a leaked speech given in December 2012, Xi asked associates to consider why the Soviet Communist Party had collapsed. He pointed to the importance of maintaining faith in a system: "An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken."
The continued control over information is perhaps most evident each year in the run-up to the Tiananmen anniversary, when many Chinese activists are detained or put under house arrest. Former professor of literature and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo — a man who acted as an advisor to students, including Wu'er, during the 1989 Beijing student protests — is also currently imprisoned in China, convicted of "inciting subversion of state power." Since his detention in 2009, his wife has also been under house arrest.
* * *
Wu'er doesn't know whether he misses China anymore. "Today's China is no longer the same country, and a lot of people have been telling me that I would not like the China I would go back to. I'm trying my best to learn what that means. What is today's China? I probably would hate it, but the thing is I need to be in Beijing to hate it."
He added: "I'm angry about the fact that I'm a pro-democracy activist, and I cannot engage with the one body that's preventing democracy from happening in China."
When asked why the government has continually failed to arrest him, Wu'er is clear that he can only give his interpretation of the situation. "The Communist Party do not want to engage in the dialogue that I am trying to initiate." If Wu'er was arrested, he said, he'd have to go on trial, and the leadership would then be forced to defend their position. "To think about it," Wu'er said, "that's all we wanted 25 years ago — dialogue."
His point is clear. How do you put a man on trial when he's associated with a massacre you've never admitted to participating in? Wu'er said he has asked himself what is so threatening about beginning a discussion. "And then I thought about it," he said. "Today in China if you initiate a conversation with the Communist regime they will probably lose on every topic. They will lose the debate on every topic. So perhaps that's why they're pushing me out. They're saying: 'We know we're wrong. Therefore we don't want to talk.'"
'I don't think he was born saying I'm going to be an activist, I think circumstances conspired around him.'
Along with political ambitions and a day job, Wu'er is now involved with promoting a website called Kwikdesk, a platform that allows people to write messages which delete themselves instantly after being read. "There's no way for someone to trace back your IP address," he said — something which he obviously considers useful for citizens of his home country.
Reflecting on the difference social media has brought about, Wu'er said that it has enabled ripples of revolution to spread swiftly beneath the surface of China's calm exterior. "What we can learn from the Arab Spring — one person's outrage led to the springboard that goes through the whole corrupt world... What you need to understand is the discontent of Chinese people has reached such a high level that anything pretty much can be the spark that's thrown in, and China is very ready."
Kevin Abosch, Kwikdesk's Irish founder, told VICE News that he met Wu'er through an Amnesty International event and was immediately enthralled by his story.
"I don't think he was born saying I'm going to be an activist, I think circumstances conspired around him... He was there in the vortex of all this activity, and he obviously had the mettle to take on the role of leader. And obviously as the decades roll on we forget exactly how intense a situation that was. But you go through something like that, you've risked your life, you have a responsibility to live up to who you were then and the responsibility of activists like him is to keep the torch lit for younger activists."
Abosch added: "It's interesting. If he's the second most wanted man in China, why is it that when he tries to repatriate himself they don't arrest him?"
Wu'er himself laughs at this contradiction, but then becomes serious again. "It's so absurd that it's funny," he told VICE News. "But then I want to tell the world this message through you. Don't get used to the absurdity so much that we forget it's absurd."
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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd