Make your own free website on

Sample some of my
published articles

Published in:
Outlook Money
Outlook Traveller
The Indian Express
Hindustan Times
Assorted: Chess stories
Assorted: Humour

Richard Branson
Pico Iyer
'Tiger' Pataudi
Anita Ratnam
Walid Phares
Prof Andrew Nathan,
Columbia University

Sipping wine in Singapore
The Chennai Music Season
Leh Diary
Dhar: 'Middle Kingdom'

Back to Home Page

Outlook Money

'I'm not sure we made a difference'

Interview with Tiananmen Square student protestor Shen Tong

Growing up near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Shen Tong saw democracy activists writing in blood on the Democracy Wall in 1978-79. Ten years later, in that heady spring of 1989, he was himself marching on the streets, demanding greater freedoms. After the crackdown, Shen went into hiding in Beijing, unable even to see his father who was dying of leukaemia, before being spirited out to the US, where he gave the world the first eyewitness account of the massacre. For 10 years, he continued to campaign for democracy in China, but was arrested on a visit there in 1992. Now a hugely successful techpreneur in the US, he remains a confirmed ĎChina watcherí, but wonders, in this interview to DNA's Venkatesan Vembu, if the student-led movement of 1989 perhaps set back China politically.

Is there anything your family background and upbringing that might explain how you became involved in the 1989 student movement?

I grew up in an area that is about two miles west of Tiananmen Square. My father was a University professor-turned-government technocrat. My mother is a medical doctor. My whole family - uncles and close friends of both my parents Ė was interested in public issues. Back in 1976, when Premier Zhou Enlai died, and in 1978 and 1980, there were pro-reform and pro-democracy movements, in which intellectuals and students participated, even in street politics. In 1976, I was only eight years old, so what I remember are the images I saw, not so much the content of the speeches I heard. Those were the times of the ĎBig Character postersí: ordinary people did not have access to printing facilities, so they would write political messages on paper Ė in big characters - and post them around Tiananmen Square, on the Monument (to the Peopleís Heroes) and on lamp-posts.

In 1978-79, when I was in high school, there was whatís called the Democracy Wall movement. In those days, people used to write in blood on the Democracy Wall, which was just two minutes from my home. The adults in my family would take me to these places Ė not because we didnít have daycare facilities (laughs), but because they were interested and they thought it would be good exposure for me.

But I will make a distinction, which was very clear in my fatherís mind. It was his own conflicting way of relating to reality back then in China. He wanted my sister and I to be intellectually alert and curious about public issues and even political issues, but he also wanted us not to take direct action. Thatís because his generation and the generation before him had suffered so much. My paternal grandparents killed themselves during the early days of the Cultural Revolution. My father was then a teacher in the military academy, but he was not allowed to go back to his parentsí funeral.

Why then did you become an activist in 1989?

It happened even before that. In 1985, when I was in the final year of high school, my sister was in college; she went to Peking University, where I too enrolled a year later. In the summer, I would spend time on the campus with my sister and her friends Ė and we would sell illegally printed poetry collections. My involvement began then and in 1989, when my peers were getting politically conscious, I was already an old hand.

Although I respected my parents, I had my own ideas. I attended campus meetings, and then led students on to the streets, but I didnít want my father to know about it. My neighbours would see me marching on the streets and cheer me, and I would tell them, ĎJust donít tell my parents!í

But there was a tragic irony to this, which I didnít know - and I learnt it only two years after I was exiled and went to the US. At that time, my father was working in the Beijing municipal government, which turned out to be the key instrument for the suppression of the student movement and eventually the massacre. They had a citywide surveillance system, with closed-circuit TV cameras, so my father, going into work, could see me marching on the streets. He knew what was going on.

What I didnít know was that he was pressured directly by the top officials of the Beijing municipal administration to either stop me from participating in the protests or report to the government about my activities. He was tormented during those days. My mother told me years later that during the spring of 1989, when he came back from work, he could not sleep at nights: he would sit in the dark, and keep talking to himself, saying, ĎI wonít betray my son.í

Why did he not caution you or counsel you?

He died of leukaemia about a month after the June 4 massacre, and I was in hiding during that time, so I never had a chance to talk to him about that. I only met him once before I had to leave the country. There was a whole lot of shooting going on in the city even a week after the massacre. I finally came out of hiding to the hospital to see him but it was a very brief meeting and I didnít have the time to talk.

Even before the massacre, the students around me in the campus and in Tiananmen Square effectively stopped him from seeing me. Quite a few other student activists and leaders had been stopped at the start of the movement that way: their parents were sent to the campus by their work units, or they were pressured by the government, to take the students away from the campus. So my father had very little chance to see me. I learnt later on, from my sister and my mum, that he tried many times to go to my dorm or to Tiananmen Square, but he was stopped, and then he was hospitalised in late May and he couldnít really do anything.

Did you have a clear idea of why you were on the streets? What were you hoping to achieve?

The student community always believed we were doing things for the good of the country.

I myself was somewhat reluctant, not because I was afraid of the repercussions Ė Iíd passed that point early on in the 1989 movement - but because of my own experience in the previous student movements and uprising. I felt we wouldnít be able to go on for long, that the government would put an end to it fairly quickly. In the first major election, I didnít offer myself as a candidate, I spoke up at the election saying that student leadersí foremost responsibility is to minimise the damage to the larger student body.

My objective was two-fold. One, I felt that in certain aspects there needed to be greater campus freedom so we can freely talk of and do good things for the country, as it tries to keep pace with the rest of the world and modernise itself. I wanted greater openness to progressive ideas, economic reforms, legal reforms and maybe even political reforms. I had fairly limited goals, which I believe were good for the country.

On the other hand, when students started to go out on the streets, I instinctively understood one thing based on my earlier experience of witnessing street politics, although I was only 20 years old and didnít have analytical sophistication.

I didnít think I could lead the students, but I felt that if I could do anything it was to get the students organised so that the movement doesnít get out of hand. That way, there would be fewer excuses for the government to crack down and less potential damage to either the student or the city. The student movement was so large it was impacting the whole city, and later on of course it spread like wildfire to more than 400 cities all over China.

That was my objective. I was individually very liberated, but as an organiser, I was more concerned about making sure that it didnít get out of hand. Both aspects were very naÔve.

You were one of the student leaders who were organising negotiations with the government. Why did the negotiations fail?

The larger question here is: was the result inevitable, and I personally donít think things had to turn out the way they did - in the massacre and the purge of the reform wing of the government and the liberal faction in the Communist Party. That wasnít inevitable.

But perhaps the most important thing to be understood was this: the main struggle wasnít on the streets. What was happening on the streets was forcing a very turbulent internal struggle in the government. What really happened was that the reformers and (then party general secretary) Zhao Ziyang and even some old guard leaders were all ambivalent about how they wanted to treat this defiance. Some of them were very sympathetic to the student-led movement Ė and I want to emphasise it was a student-led movement: it wasnít a Ďstudent movementí anymore; all walks of society became involved.

And the reformers lost that internal struggle. At that point, it was not what we were doing that mattered, because it became a catalyst for an internal struggle within the Communist Party Ė at the Polit Bureau level, the highest level of proletarian power, and the moderates and the reform-minded faction lost to the hardliners.

Thatís when the fate of the street politics was sealed. At that time, the reformers felt obliged, compelled - and this is very unusual in Communist history - to go out on the streets. They went public to say, ĎWe support the studentsí. Because they lost internally, they felt that they had exhausted all their resources and options in the normal path of internal struggle, so they should for the last round.

By and large, the student movement felt: ĎNow we have Zhao Ziyang coming to Tiananmen Square and because of his action, even Li Peng is coming: this is really bizarre.í Even the police and part of the armed forces demonstrated in support of the students. We felt we were invincible and that everybody was on our side!

But I was scared: I felt this just couldnít be true. On the one hand, I felt I was so limited in my mind: itís going to be harsh, and thereís going to be a massive crackdown. But on the other hand, I was moved by the sheer power of the people. Iím really old-fashioned in my mindÖ

But I also felt that this meant that the reformers had lost the battle in the government, which is why they were on the streets with us. We wanted them to convene a special session of the National Peopleís Congress, we wanted them to have a showdown with the hardliners and push them out. So how come they were with us?

Once that happened, it was inevitable. The government need not have killed so many people, but they didnít care.

What were your immediate reactions to the June 4 massacre?

My immediate reaction was one of disbelief. The night of June 3-4, my friends told me my father was gravely ill. I thought they were trying to keep me from going back to campus or to Tiananmen Square because both places would be targeted for the most harsh crackdown. But it was true, and I went home. I was there when the government ordered everyone to stay home or elseÖ In the evening of June 3, I got a few phone calls, and remember hearing gunshots in the background, but I couldnít believe it. And even when the troops marched through that part of Changían Avenue where my home was, I kept telling everybody it must be rubber bullets. Even when I saw people get shot and fall, right at my doorstep, I was saying, ĎStay calm, it must have been only a rubber bullet.í

Right after the massacre, you went into hiding. How did you leave China?

I can only tell you to the extent that I was fortunate for two things - one by accident and the other by design.

First, I didnít leave Beijing. I wasnít being wise at the time, but I was one of the few students who stayed on in Beijing. A lot people who wanted to help students leave the country couldnít find anyone in Beijing, and I was there, and they found me.

Second, the people who were helping me were very organised: everything from the hiding place to the transport from where I was I hiding to the airport, the tickets and everything was arranged, and I didnít know any of this until afterwards.

Two days after I arrived in the US, martial law army troops went to my dorm and the police went to my motherís apartment. They didnít know I had left the country even though on paper everything seemed legit. I had an air ticket, I had an American visa, and I went through the normal procedure when I left the country.

So I got out of China first, even though I was one of the last to leave Beijing. But rather than take a harsh route to escape to Hong Kong or Macau or Thailand, I just flew out.

You wrote a book Almost a Revolution. What were your emotions when you wrote that?

A reporter from The Washington Post quit her job, came to Boston and helped me with it. My English was not good enough; but what youíre asking me is how could I be objective to the extent of writing a day-to-day account of the movement. I must say it was this reporter who helped me to bring some objectivity to it. I feel that even today, 20 years later, Iím too close to it.

When you say youíre too close to it, are you saying you are not able to formulate or take a stand? Are you not able to review it dispassionately even today?

That means two things: one is that thinking about it even today is a very emotional experience. And when you very emotional, passionate or upset about things, you cannot be objective, thatís one thing.

I had an unusual opportunity compared to most of the students of my generation. I actively participated in street protests. For the next ten years after 1989, I talked about it extensively through public speeches, university talks, panel appearances. I wrote a book, and wrote dozens of articles and granted hundreds of interviews. I had a chance to really talk about it instead of burying it, which you would have had to do back in China. But even with that, the sheer magnitude of this event and the impact on me personally was too tremendous. But more importantly, when I say weíre too close to it, weíre only 20 years after the event.

Even after 220 years of the French Revolution, the Bastille Day, weíre too close to it to assess its profound impact on modern history.

Likewise, Tiananmen - or, more correctly, the uprising and street protests for six-plus weeks in the spring of 1989 throughout China - is a profound event in modern Chinese history, and its impact is still unfolding.

When you look back, seeing everything that has happened in China, how relevant is 1989? Should the world move on?

Itís extremely relevant, and itís not. Itís extremely relevant because no one can understand whatís going on in China today without knowing at least what happened 20 years ago. A lot of its impact is still unclear and still unfolding, but one thing thatís very clear is that it had a double impact. The conscious policymaking over the course of the past 20 years and in years to come from that point on: One, the regime knew it really had to justify its legitimacy. And at the same time, they had to be ruthless in political control.

On the first one, they resort to two things: nationalism, which at times turn into ultra-nationalism, and continuous, unwavering economic reforms. You see the impact. Anyone who watches china knows that economically, the country is moving forward very quickly.

And there is this strong xenophobia, strong nationalism, among the youth and the whole country.

Politically, China is every bit a police state with a contemporary twist: it doesnít even have an Internet. The whole of China is an intranet. Thatís the impact of the June 1989 massacre. And to the extent that we can tell they dodged the impact of a free Internet.

Do you feel any kind of moral ambivalence looking back on Tiananmen? Do you sometimes feel: ĎYeah we were there, but then 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty, so perhaps the blood price that the student community paid was worth ití?

Thatís actually the second part of the answer to the last question. Did we make a difference? There are conflicting idealsÖ But with massive street protests of this magnitude, in terms of what we intended to do, I think itís fair to say that China as a whole Ė and Chinese politics in particular Ė took a step backward. Not only because of the massacre but because of the policy changes following what happened in the spring of 1989. China actually took a step back in political reforms. So, did we make a difference? Yes. Did we make a positive difference? I am not so sure. Itís certainly not a direct positive impact.

Maybe in certain areas, there are common, shared goals: Anti-corruption measures have been put on the agenda. It doesnít stop corruption, but itís something they are extremely aware of. And I think itís clear also that because of the dissent that showed up in the party, they know they have to prove themselves, and what they did was implement economic reforms, and opened up the popular culture aspects of social life. These could be argued as positives. But politically the country took a step back.

Does it bother you that students in China today have no proper understanding of that bit of history Ė and probably donít care?

Of course, it does. Not only because of my role back then and what I did continuously for the first 10 years of my exile life. But also itís just unfortunate for a nation that paid such a huge price in its effort to experiment with modernisation, with social policies, that it doesnít have that kind of memory available for generations to come so we can lower the cost of social experiments.

You started the Democracy for China Fund, and you were arrested later in 1992 when you went back to China. What did that say to you?

Everytime I go back to China I have to have special permission; it takes a long time, itís a hit or miss; sometimes Iím allowed, sometimes, I am not. Sometimes they put me in custody and send me back without allowing me to enter China.

One of the things that makes me wonder about all this human loss is this. I was an idealist and I still am an idealist, thatís one of the things that defines a modern man: you stand up, you pay any price for your ideals. But my family didnít choose to do that, yet they paid a severe price.

Youíre in the technology business. There was the expectation that greater prosperity - and the widespread use of technology Ė would democratise China, but it hasnít happened. If anything, China has demonstrated that it can harness technology in imposing greater control. How will social media change China?

In this day and age, China doesnít have an Internet; the whole country is an intranet, connected to the Internet world outside through filters. China has a cyberpolice force that is bigger than that of the rest of the world combined. And they seem to have dodged another bullet. We thought Internet technology was an unstoppable force that would democratise anything it touches Ė and I generally believe thatís true. But 10 years after the proliferation of the web in China, they seem to be able to control it. We donít know why that is. But I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that bureaucratic capitalism in China doesnít value as much of the knowledge class as in the developed industrialised and the newly emerging economies such as India, where there is a general belief that if you get a proper education, you are well-versed in modern technology and modern way of professionalism, you will get ahead.

In China, thatís simply not true. The people who really got ahead are the ones who are a part of, or are very closely affiliated with, this other capital - not money, not professionalism, not free flow of information, but a part of the Chinese government, basically. These are the state-owned or controlled enterprises, companies that are affiliated with ministries and provincial governmentsÖ These are really the winners of the Chinese economic reforms. So, free flow of information and objective analyses on social news or economic news are not conducive to economic success. If anything, itís counterproductive to what is still a behind-closed-doors type of economic transaction that makes the biggest companies in China successful.

Do you think of yourself as a stakeholder in China?

For almost 10 years, I was active. The Democracy for China Fund was my main organisation. But for the past 10 years, Iíve not been nearly as active.

Why is that?

Iím an idealist. My actions are mostly based on my ideals. I have the same ideals: Iím just not sure what to do about them. To be perfectly honest, Iím not sure I made a difference. I donít want to continue the action for actionís sake; thatís not the way I do things. So, instead, I write and I am still very much a ĎChina watcherí, inspite of all the difficulty of not being able to go back to China as freely as I would like to. I put a lot my energy in writing, instead of my foundation. I donít know what would be effective to make things better.

Whatís happening in China and whatís going to happen in China matters tremendously to me. I do have a vision (laughs) for China: itís pretty straightforward, actually: China - and more importantly, the Chinese people - deserve balanced development. I mean, they are not pigs! The Chinese government might say, ĎWell, they need to be fed.í Sure, they need to be fed, but they also need dignity. There are ample ways of doing that: call it democracy, accountable government, accountable political process, and transparency in economic activities, reliable data from the government and from the stock marketÖ. None of these things, which are critical to human dignity, are there in China.

The whole country is making a lot of money, but at the same time nearly 500 million people are making less than 1 dollar a day. This is horrible. I donít think politics is the only thing in peopleís lives: my god, it better not be! But in Chinaís situation, politics happens to be the gatekeeper of a lot of profound problems that need to be properly addressed. Is China better today than it was 20 years ago? In some ways, yes, and to this extent Ė and this extent only: because a technocrat-run authoritarian regime is better than a completely self-righteous totalitarian regime. In that sense, China is better. And on everything else, Iím not sure Chinese people as a whole are better off than before.

Did you sign Charter 08 (drawn up by pro-democracy campaigners in China last year to demand an end to one-party rule, among other thing)? If not, why not?

I am in total support of that, but I donít think our lending our names is important. It may hurt the movement if it is not seen as a home-grown movement within China. My stand is clear to anyone who cares; itís very clear to the Chinese government. Even though I primarily do business and sometimes go back to China, they have no illusions that I have changed my mind. And as a tactical decision, we should leave the activities of the movement from within China alone. Otherwise, it will give the government an easy excuse to say, ĎOh, they are the just the same as the peopleĖ either the US government or liberal exiles - who criticise China all the time.í

© Venkatesan Vembu 2009