Zhang Ming has become used to his appearance startling small children. Skeletally thin, with cheeks sunk deep into his face, he walked gingerly across the cream-colored hotel lobby as if his limbs were made of glass. On his forehead were two large, perfectly circular purple-red bruises, one above each eye. “Kids often think I have four eyes,” he said with a puckish grin. Indeed, the unexpected visual symmetry of the garish circles was so discombobulating that several times during our long conversations, I found myself addressing his purple forehead orbs. The bruises were from baguan, or fire cupping, a Chinese medical treatment in which heated glass jars are adhered by suction to the skin to cleanse it of toxins. For Zhang Ming, this has been the only way to alleviate the splitting headaches that are the legacy of his seven years in jail.
Zhang Ming was number 19 on the list issued by the Chinese government following June 4th of the 21 most wanted students. Ironically, he had once seen himself as the person least likely to become involved in the student movement, since he had not the slightest interest in politics. But, having been caught up in the whirligig of history, he can never disentangle himself from it. Like so many others who played prominent roles in the student movement, Zhang Ming remains, even after 25 years, in limbo. His attempt to leave his past behind failed; his body can never recover from the retribution meted out for his act of effrontery. His mind, too, constantly replays the events of 1989, endlessly searching for new answers to old questions.
Zhang Ming’s first words to me were a request to help pin down the exact timing of the crucial Politburo Standing Committee meeting at the house of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on May 17, 1989, during which the decision was made to impose martial law. He wanted to ascertain whether a declaration criticizing Deng that he helped pen that same day could have been a factor that pushed Deng toward that decision. At that time, Deng held no party or government posts, even though he was still in charge of the military. In their declaration, which Zhang says was moderate in tone, the students had asked the 84-year-old Deng to withdraw from politics, so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes as Chairman Mao Zedong in his later years. Immediately after the students broadcast their declaration across Tiananmen Square, Zhang noticed demonstrators bearing banners painted with crude epithets attacking Deng. For years, Zhang has been gripped by doubts about whether those personal attacks against Deng had tipped the balance, pushing him to declare martial law. “If we hadn’t pushed Deng Xiaoping into opposing us, there might have been other possibilities,” he mused out loud. It is an exercise in retrospective futility. But for those who have been made to believe that they bear the historical burden of bloodshed, questions that cannot be answered or forgotten can only be repeated.
In the early months of 1989, Zhang Ming was at the tail end of his degree program in automobile engineering at Tsinghua University. He was looking forward to beginning the job he had been assigned in Shantou, one of only five special economic zones established to attract foreign investment, where he thought he would enjoy more freedom. Safeguarding that job was at the forefront of his mind when the students began to gather in large groups, mourning the sudden death of the demoted party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. As general secretary of the Communist Party, Hu had been a political and economic reformer who was removed by Deng in 1987 after being blamed for student protests in the winter of 1986 and 1987. Hu’s popularity meant that the student commemorations for his death almost immediately tipped over into politically sensitive territory, with banners bearing veiled criticisms of Deng Xiaoping like “He Who Should Have Died Did Not, He Who Died Should Not Have.” Zhang Ming didn’t care. He was determined to stay away from trouble.
Two days later on April 17th, the students organized their first march to Tiananmen Square, as if drawn by the pull of history. At the forefront of their minds was the May 4th Movement of 1919—a tableau of which had even been memorialized in stone at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes near the center of the square. At that time, 3,000 patriotic students had marched on the square to protest against the government’s acceptance of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, because it was to cede control over part of eastern China to Japan. The rowdy protest, during which the house of one pro-Japanese cabinet minister was set on fire, culminated in the protesters being beaten and arrested; one was killed. This march was the consummation of a period of cultural, political, and intellectual ferment that had begun in 1915. Its impact was perhaps best summed up by a young Mao Zedong who wrote in an essay, “We are awakened! The world is ours, the nation is ours, society is ours. If we do not speak, who will speak? If we do not act, who will act?” The idea of the intellectual elite serving as the nation’s conscience was etched deep in their psyches as it was in those of their counterparts seven decades later.
For one more day, Zhang Ming managed to rein in his curiosity. On April 18th, he was persuaded to accompany a friend to the square, where several hundred students were trying to deliver a seven-point petition affirming Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and, among other demands, calling for freedom of speech and an end to restrictions on demonstrations. As Zhang and his friend returned to campus, they passed Xinhuamen, the Gate of New China, marking the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the old imperial leisure garden which now housed China’s Communist leaders. Hundreds of students staging a sit-in had become angry and around midnight began trying to get into the compound by barging through police lines. Frustrated by the protesters’ confrontational methods and lack of strategy, Zhang Ming stepped in to advocate a more tactical approach. Why not draft written demands or call for a meeting with government officials instead of wasting energy on so futile a showdown? That was how Zhang Ming became a student leader. From that moment on, there was no going back. That night, police beat and injured some students at Xinhuamen, further incensing them.
During the days that followed, Zhang helped organize massive student marches and a boycott of classes. He became involved in the students’ own tortuous bureaucracy that aped the government’s circles of power, with its endless and overlapping preparatory committees, dialogue groups, and federations, all of which rose and fell with ever-increasing speed as the movement gathered momentum. By the end, the internal hierarchies had become so entrenched that the most significant student leaders installed themselves at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of a series of concentric circles delineated by volunteers holding up transparent fishing lines. Each circle had its own checkpoint; Western journalists encountered half a dozen checkpoints protecting the self-appointed leaders from the rank and file. The internecine feuding among the students reached a frantic pace; one group was said to have changed presidents 182 times within the span of a few days. Some of the student leaders had their own bodyguards, and they had even instituted a system of censorship at the radio station they had set up on the square.
Zhang Ming was active at his university, as well as being a member of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, and his days were taken up organizing demonstrations, liaising between universities, and attending endless meetings at which the various factions jockeyed for advantage. The movement’s turning point came on April 26th, when the government outlined its attitude to ward the students in a front-page editorial in the People’s Daily. The editorial took its tone from Deng Xiaoping, who accused a tiny minority of having ulterior motives to undermine the nation’s political stability and unity by conspiring against the leadership of the Communist Party. When Zhang Ming saw the editorial, he knew that his future in Shantou was doomed. There was little left for him to lose; when the accounts were tallied by the officials, he would surely be seen to be on the wrong side of the ledger.
Tens of thousands of students made the same calculation, and the next day they marched in a mile-long column to the square. The sheer numbers overwhelmed the police. As the students passed Xinhuamen, where some had been beaten one week earlier, they chanted, “We are not afraid! We are not afraid!” In a year when failed price reforms had led to runaway inflation of 28 percent, the students won support from bystanders who were angered by growing income disparities, official corruption, profiteering, and nepotism, themes that were stressed in the early campus manifestoes sometimes even more strongly than democracy.
As the student movement swelled, Zhang Ming found himself trying to act as a restraining influence. Aged 24 and approaching the end of his last year at university, he was one of the older students. He advocated pushing for student demands that were concrete and achievable—such as specific reforms of the press—rather than grandiose demands for freedom and democracy. For his restraint, he was criticized by other students as a collaborator and traitor, in a pattern that was to continue beyond the square and into prison. One of the tragedies of discourse in China, Zhang believes, is that grey areas have been swallowed up by black-and-white moral absolutism. Rule by the emperor, or the strongman, has become the only mode of governance that people recognize: Obey or be crushed, for there is no alternative. Even the students, while clamoring for democracy, had become mini-dictators of the world that they had created with their wordy titles, petty denunciations, and fervid inner-court power struggles.
As the protests morphed into a wider movement encompassing workers and government organizations, even official work units like the Party’s Central Committee Communist Party school, sections of the public security service, courts, and military began to take part in the huge demonstrations, marching proudly under banners announcing their identities. But from the commanding heights provided by a quarter-century of reflection, Zhang Ming’s memories are not of giddy euphoria or oratorical debuts or the camaraderie of a “Woodstock of the mind.” He does not evoke the excitement of the massive rallies or the historical significance of the student movement. That aspect—the sense of optimism, of exhilaration, of a moment when anything seemed possible—seems entirely absent from his memories, in contrast to the student leaders who fled into exile after June 4th. If he had felt any sense of hope, the memory of it has long since been excised. For Zhang Ming, the most vivid recollection from those seven weeks of demonstrations is a muscle memory—of bone-aching, brain-scrambling exhaustion. At one stage while riding his bike back to campus from the square, he was so tired that he kept nodding off to sleep even as he pedaled. When the students launched their hunger strike on May 13th, he opposed it, fearing that it would alienate the reformers within the government, leaving the students politically isolated. But once the hunger strike had started, he led a team of students to support those in the square, where he stayed until after it was called off six days later. By then, Zhang Ming had begun arguing for the students to return to their campuses to focus their energies on starting an opposition party instead of continuing to colonize the square. The students had already become fragmented, however, with the more radical new arrivals from the provinces outflanking the more established student leaders from Beijing.
One particular memory still rankles even after all these years. On May 15th, Zhang Ming was barred from participating in negotiations between the students’ dialogue delegation and three senior government officials. Although he had been designated by the students as one of their dialogue delegates, once he reached the meeting room, he found an unfamiliar student stationed at the door, vetting the views of the attendees. Zhang believed the students’ demand for a withdrawal of the April 26th editorial was politically impossible, so instead he advocated requesting an emergency session of the National People’s Congress. “Once he heard that, he was very annoyed,” Zhang remembered of the door guardian. “He said, ‘All the students are united now. How could you bring up this demand at this time?’ He wouldn’t let me in. There was nothing I could do. We students couldn’t fight each other.” Even a quarter of a century later, the counterfactuals still nag at him: What if he had been allowed into that room? What would the official response have been had he been able to lodge his demand? Was there a chance, however tiny, that he might have been able to change the course of history?
As Deng Xiaoping edged closer to declaring martial law, the students tried to follow the official line of thought through back channels provided by some of their number whose parents were high-ranking government officials. When the martial law troops tried to enter Beijing on the evening of May 19th, Zhang Ming played a large role in coordinating the citizens’ blockades that stopped the advance of the soldiers like Chen Guang. Zhang Ming’s army of volunteers shuttled information about troop movements back to the student headquarters at Tiananmen Square, and he then relayed the details over the student radio station. “We reported where the army was, and we told people to go to block them. We also had money, so we bought supplies.”
Toward the end of May, Zhang Ming fell ill, spending several days in bed with a high fever. But when the crackdown became inevitable, he was determined to return to the square to bear witness. “If I didn’t go, my conscience would have haunted me,” he said quietly. “Even today, my conscience is not at peace. On this, there’s nothing I can do.”
In the square that night, the loudspeakers were broadcasting a warning, over and over, that “a severe counterrevolutionary riot” had broken out, the first time the government was using these terms. The warning stated that rioters had savagely attacked soldiers of the PLA and had burned vehicles in an attempt to subvert the People’s Republic and to overthrow the Socialist system, and it warned citizens to evacuate the square, “We cannot guarantee the safety of violators, who will be solely responsible for any consequences.” The threats of violence were no longer implicit. At the time, Zhang Ming was huddled with the other students around the Monument to the People’s Heroes as tracer bullets arced through the air, marking the steady progress of troops approaching along Chang’an Avenue.
Zhang watched the advance of the troops, moving through a hail of bricks and paving stones hurled by disbelieving and irate crowds. Some 25 years later, he is still moved to tears at the memory of what he saw, such as the sight of one young man being carried to an ambulance just outside the square, a red blossom spreading across his chest. “I had thought death would be terrifying, but he looked as though he were sleeping.” Zhang remembers the tense wait while negotiations were underway for safe passage for the remaining students from Tiananmen Square. As the students straggled out of the square hand in hand, singing the “Internationale” and the Chinese national anthem, tears poured down their cheeks.
None of the student leaders died that night. The vast majority of those who were killed on June 4th were ordinary bystanders, citizens who had come out to see what was happening as the tanks rolled through the city to secure the square. Many were hit when soldiers fired indiscriminately into crowds on approach roads heading from the west toward Tiananmen Square. One of the sites of the worst killings was Muxidi, where troops even fired at the apartment block housing high-level government ministers, killing a high-level official’s son-in-law, who was shot in the head when he switched on the light to enter the kitchen.
After leaving the square, Zhang Ming felt deep exhaustion numbing his limbs and paralyzing his mind. No longer caring about his own safety, he staggered along Chang’an Avenue until he saw a patch of grass outside the Cultural Palace of Nationalities. There he stopped, laid down, and instantly fell asleep, insensible to the tanks rolling past him. Local residents noticed the sleeping student on the grass and shook him awake, warning him that he would probably be arrested if he did not immediately leave, so he returned to his school.
Back at Tsinghua University on June 5th, he spoke at an emotional meeting in front of faculty and Communist Party members, who later helped build the case against him in court. The students called the suppression of the protests a military coup and even discussed whether they should take up arms against the troops. That afternoon, amid rumors that the PLA would enter the universities, the student leaders made the decision to flee.
Zhang Ming left Beijing with another student, heading toward the relative safety of Hong Kong, which was then still a British colony. They had the telephone number of Hong Kong activists who had promised to try to smuggle them to safety if they could get as far as the border. The two spent three weeks on the run, mostly sleeping under the flickering light of all-night cinemas, where no one asked for identity papers. Their first stop was the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, from where they took a train to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea. By then, Zhang Ming was a wanted man, a grainy black-and-white shot of his face appearing on a constant loop on television. But he never saw it since he was always on the run, continuing to travel by boat to Shanghai, then by train to Guangzhou.
On June 26th, freedom was almost within their grasp. The pair, together with two other students, was in the border city of Shenzhen, in a taxi heading toward a getaway boat that would carry them to safe waters when they were stopped by police. Zhang Ming was not carrying any identity documents, so he was detained. Other students, he commented acidly, who had links to Communist Party officials, were sprung from detention and helped to leave the country. Like most of those who ended up in jail, Zhang Ming had no family ties to the Communist aristocracy. He was sent to Beijing’s Qincheng Prison, where major general Xu Qinxian, who had refused to deploy his troops, was also being held.
In January 1991, Zhang Ming was in the first batch of students to be sentenced for their role in what was now labeled a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.” He was given three years in prison for inciting subversion against the people’s government and attempting to overthrow the Socialist system. He remembers being surprised by his relatively light sentence. In line with the leadership’s assertion that the students had been manipulated by behind-the-scenes “black hands,” most of the undergraduate leaders received jail terms of four years or less. In the immediate aftermath of the crackdown, 15 people were sentenced to death, mainly for violence against the security forces. The earliest of those death sentences were passed just 11 days after June 4th. Harsher treatment was meted out to the older intellectuals and workers. Some of the longest sentences were given to three workers who had thrown ink-filled eggs at the portrait of Chairman Mao that hung on Tiananmen Gate and had been turned over to the police by the students; they received between 16 years and life. Despite the importance of his trial, Zhang Ming has retained no memories of it whatsoever. In the light of what was to follow, its importance has faded.
* * *
Of his treatment in Qincheng Prison, Zhang Ming also has few memories. “It was the first time that I had ever even seen a proper toilet!” he laughed. “It was a prison for leaders!” The students were held together, and though they were occasionally placed in solitary confinement, Zhang Ming had few complaints about his treatment.
All that changed in April 1991 when he was transferred to Lingyuan Prison in the Northeast with 10 other political prisoners including Liu Gang, a graduate student who was number three on the most wanted list, and who had received a six-year sentence. Known to the outside world as Lingyuan Motor Vehicle Industrial Corporation, Lingyuan was a penal colony so vast that a Japanese visitor who spent two days touring it by car had still not seen the whole site. The prison-production complex produced buses, trucks, tractor-trailers, and vehicle components for export. It also held so many Tiananmen activists that it was given special recognition for its role as an “Outstanding Collective in Curbing the Turmoil and Suppressing the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion.”
That world is one to which Zhang Ming is unwilling to return, even in conversation. Those days have passed, and there is no benefit in revisiting them. “Facts are facts,” he announced firmly. “Talking about what happened is not conducive to my influencing more people within China.” He had refused all earlier requests to describe how prisoners were treated at Lingyuan, fearing he would be tarred as a traitor and accused of “standing on the side of the U.S.” Chinese people, he went on, believed that the West was interested only in human rights issues, and although human rights were important, the West should look at the bigger picture.
As he briskly skated over his time in Lingyuan, it was clear that the mistreatment had been vicious and immediate, beginning the very moment the 11 prisoners arrived at the jail, when one of them was assaulted with an electric prod for asking a prison guard for a light for his cigarette.
The 11 political prisoners chafed against the prison rules. They refused to memorize the 58 provisions of the “Rules of Conduct for Criminals Undergoing Reform,” which prisoners are supposed to be able to recite by heart. It was, for Zhang Ming, an act of principle, as he put it, “I can serve my sentence, but my brain does not belong to you.” As a lover of classical Chinese poetry, the idea of polluting his brain with prison guidelines was repulsive. It was also hypocritical, given that the jailers openly flouted their own regulations. Yet for the prison authorities, this mass show of insubordination set a dangerous precedent.
For a while, Zhang Ming refused to take part in compulsory labor—making matchboxes. He was a slow worker, and his daily quota sometimes necessitated 14-hour working days. He firmly resisted going into detail, and I stopped pushing, uncomfortably aware that failing as a journalist is preferable to failing in human sympathy.
To find out more, I dug up an old copy of an Asia Watch report detailing the treatment of those 11 political prisoners at Lingyuan. As I read the account, I felt a low pulse of shame at my attempts to excavate those long-buried memories. The report describes the consequences of the prisoners’ refusal to memorize the prison regulations or to be tested on them. First, they were beaten by common criminals who were responsible for disciplining them. Later, Zhang and four others were put into solitary confinement cells, each measuring six feet by three feet. According to Asia Watch, “They were tortured continuously, stripped naked, held down on the floor and assaulted repeatedly with several high-voltage (varying from 10,000 to 50,000 volts) electric batons simultaneously administered to their head, neck, shoulders, chest, belly, armpit, inside part of the leg and fingers.”
In November 1991, Zhang Ming finally went on his own hunger strike. He was one of 13 prisoners who refused food, demanding to be allowed to serve their sentences in their hometowns. They were also calling for an end to corporal punishment and the system whereby common criminals supervised political prisoners. This hunger strike was declared one of “resisting reform and even a prison uprising.” Nine of the prisoners were punished; Zhang was again put in a tiny confinement cell, while those who continued to resist food were force-fed by tubes stuffed down their esophagi.
The inmates soon discovered that their only weapons were their own bodies, and the only resistance tactic at their disposal was the power to refuse food. The political prisoners developed a crude method of communicating with each other by tapping out English letters on the wall of the prison. When I asked why they had used English, Zhang Ming pointed out that Chinese characters can’t be tapped out numerically. The code (one tap for A, two for B, etc.) was time-consuming, so messages were often cryptically abbreviated. Zhang remembered that once Liu Gang tried to get the others to take part in a hunger strike. Zhang could not understand what they were supposed to be striking over, so he refused, tapping out NO. Immediately Liu began tapping out a message, which Zhang painstakingly counted out: TRAITOR.
On New Year’s Day 1992, eight of the political prisoners launched another hunger strike from their tiny solitary cells, this time demanding to be allowed to receive visitors. Zhang Ming wrote a poem on the prison wall, for which the Asia Watch report says he was stripped naked, beaten, kicked, and then left naked in the sub-zero temperatures for half an hour. The police commander told him, “It is my job to beat you. It is for your reform. So you want to stage a hunger strike? Go right ahead! Labor reform detachments aren’t afraid of deaths! When one dies, we’ll bury one. When two die, we’ll bury a pair!” In mid-January, Zhang was tortured again, and when he took a bath, witnesses saw the scars and flesh wounds that the electric batons had left on his chest. Conditions were so bad in Lingyuan that Liu Gang described it as “worse than a concentration camp.”
Though horrific, Zhang Ming’s treatment was not unique. The exiled poet Liao Yiwu has published an autobiography about the four years he spent in jail after penning “Massacre,” a stream-of-consciousness poem memorializing those who died on June 4th. Liao’s For A Song and A Hundred Songs describes how his prison cell replicated the state bureaucracy outside, with a clear hierarchy of power governing almost all interactions inside the cell. In an act of gruesome creativity, a diabolical torture menu had been concocted that transposed the inmates’ yearning for decent food with the harrowing torments of jail life. Thus “Noodles in Clear Broth” referred to strings of toilet paper soaked in a bowl of urine, which the inmate was forced to eat and drink. Another “dish,” “Twice-Cooked Pork on an Iron Platter,” required the enforcer to stab the inmate’s back with bamboo sticks and spread salt on the puncture wounds. These areas were covered with adhesive bandages that, when ripped off, left the flesh on the inmate’s back looking like cooked meat.
As I read the accounts of Lingyuan Prison in the Asia Watch report, I thought back to my conversations with Zhang Ming in the quiet lobby of the smart hotel in his hometown of Jilin in the Northeast of the country, while I drank Iron Buddha tea and he sipped milk. I realized the cruel naïvety of my clumsy questions about his prison years. For him to even think about the prison years had become a continuation of what he had resisted. For China’s former political prisoners, there is no therapy. Contrary to the glib platitudes we hold dear, time cannot heal everything, especially irreparable physical and psychological damage. But those brutal prison years had taught Zhang Ming about the importance of strategy and one other key lesson that he would put to impressive effect.
* * *
After being released from jail in the spring of 1991, Zhang Ming reinvented himself as a businessman, throwing himself into changing China through economics rather than politics. This was, after all, the overriding message of 1989: Politics is dangerous. Better to keep your mouth shut and make money. “After June 4th, Chinese people’s political fervor disappeared, so they threw all their efforts into making money,” one of China’s most famous authors, Yu Hua, told me. “It became a crazy, money-making, materialistic era. It was like a pendulum that swung from one extreme to the other.”
Getting rich had become glorious, and Zhang Ming wanted a part of that glory. To try to distance himself from the notoriety of the most wanted list, he changed his name to Li Zhengbang. His first foray into business was successful, perhaps too successful. He joined a company that was an early credit cooperative and also doubled as a real estate developer. As the company went from strength to strength, he decided to make a tentative foray back into the political arena.
He wanted a cause with popular resonance that would be judged safe by the authorities, so in 1995, he decided to start a foundation to commemorate the Anti-Japanese War, which is how the Chinese refer to the Japanese invasion of Northeast China in the 1930s and World War II. His company provided two million yuan [approximately $232,000] of seed money—then a huge amount—for the foundation, and initially the local authorities in the city of Wuhan gave him the go-ahead. But the project stalled when the local bank refused to grant approval, and the foundation was shut down before it had ever begun operation.
If that had been a warning signal, Zhang Ming was not paying enough attention. Two years later, his boss was imprisoned for the unlikely crime of “using capitalism to engage in politics.” His boss had been politically active, too, but Zhang Ming still wondered whether their association had doomed him.
Subsequently, Zhang Ming moved to Shanghai and began helping a new boss build up a real estate conglomerate with subsidiaries in the auto industry, cell phone sector, and elsewhere. The company was extraordinarily successful and by 2002, its cash assets alone were worth 4.5 billion yuan [more than $600 million]. “We were too rich,” Zhang Ming admitted, and that had attracted the authorities’ attention. “They thought that our money was a threat to them.”
In September 2002, Zhang Ming was arrested once again, this time on a charge of endangering public security by allegedly plotting to blow up a building. When the case came to court, that charge had been dropped and was replaced by accusations that he had “abused executive benefits.” The trial was riddled with irregularities. A defense witness was refused permission to testify, while a government witness admitted his evidence was false, but disclosed that he had been threatened with a prison term of three to five years if he recanted. In the end, Zhang Ming was sentenced to seven years in prison. His boss, Sun Fengjuan, was given a four-year sentence in October 2003 for “falsely declaring registered capital and withdrawing the capital.”
During his first prison term, Zhang Ming had muddled through with no strategy other than survival. This time, he was determined to risk even that in order to gain early release. In November 2003, Zhang Ming began yet another hunger strike. The prison authorities responded by tying him to a bed for 113 hours without access to a toilet, after which he was force-fed milk through a tube in his throat. At that point, Zhang Ming made a key compromise: He would not take any solids but he would drink milk in exchange for being untied from the bed. As he continued the milk diet, he lost a quarter of his body weight, which dropped to just under one hundred pounds.
By June 2004, his condition had become so precarious that nine exiled student leaders wrote an open letter condemning his treatment. It decried the political persecution meted out to their counterparts who had remained in China, “Following their release from prison, they never again had an opportunity to fulfill their potential. Sooner or later, the National Security Bureau would pick them up on some pretext and destroy everything they had worked for. Zhang Ming is a classic example.” Were it not for the pressure generated by that letter, Zhang Ming believes he might well have died in prison.
In any event, it took another 21 months of fasting—except for milk—before he was released on medical parole. By February 2006, Zhang’s condition had deteriorated so much that he was having heart problems and flitting in and out of consciousness. On March 6th, 2006, fearing he would die in jail, prison authorities summoned his parents to collect him. Zhang Ming’s extraordinary willpower had triumphed, but at the cost of his own health.
What still sets him apart is that his self-imposed hunger strike has continued to this day. Wherever he goes, Zhang Ming carries a brown cloth bag, inside which half a dozen small glass milk bottles clink. He buys the milk directly from a farmer and then heat-treats it at home. Throughout our conversations, Zhang occasionally reached into his bag for a milk bottle, from which he took a small swig. His prolonged fast is not so much a matter of principle, he insists, but one of habituation. He can eat food, and sometimes does, although he says his body can no longer process solids. He believes that solid food exacerbates his many physical problems, and he enjoys the clarity of vision afforded by fasting. It is a tribute to the power of positive thinking that Zhang sees his way of life as an unexpected dividend of prison, rather than a continued punishment.
It has cost him dearly in his relationship with his parents, a retired physics professor and a schoolteacher, who have borne the brunt of his decisions. They only found out about his activism when they saw his photograph on television as one of China’s most wanted. He had kept his role in the movement secret, knowing they would have tried to stop him. For his father, the physical shock of seeing his son demonized as a national enemy led to dangerously high blood pressure and a host of related health problems. The stress of the two trials and two jail sentences was compounded by the manner of his son’s final release, emaciated and in critical condition, followed by his continuing refusal to take food. “I have a lot of conflict with my parents,” he told me, grinning. “My mother and father sometimes say they want to give me a beating!”
Interviewing someone who does not eat presented a unique set of challenges. Breaking for mealtime or even a snack was no longer necessary, and the social crutch of sharing food had been whisked away. Zhang Ming was scrupulously polite and reminded me that we could move to a restaurant whenever I got hungry, but the intensity of our conversation—amplified by the weirdness of his purple four-eyed stare—made it difficult to break the flow. It seemed impolite, even uncouth, to eat in front of someone who was fasting. Added to that, there was the question of willpower. Faced with someone who has survived on nothing but milk for a decade, breaking for food within a matter of hours seemed like an act of weakness.
At first, I idly imagined it might be interesting to join his fast if only for a few days. Several hours later, dizzy with hunger and snitched on by my rumbling stomach, I abandoned that notion. When I could bear it no longer, we drove to a small Shanghainese restaurant decorated with ornate silver and black wallpaper. I ordered as parsimoniously as possible. For once, the act of eating seemed out of place. In a country obsessed with food, where “Have you eaten yet?” is a common greeting, it is difficult to imagine anything more radical than not eating. Zhang even compared himself to an alien. “I’m not like anyone else on earth. I don’t eat.” For his parents, his decision to continue refusing solid food is a rebellion against everything they held dear.
The paradox of Zhang is that his uncompromising exterior masks a conciliatory nature. He attributes the success he has had in business to his ability to make concessions. “Without compromise, there’s no way of moving forward. I’m still an idealist, but there’s also a realist side to me, otherwise in China you wouldn’t be able to take the first step.” His heroes are not Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa. Indeed, they are not even political figures. He reserves his most lavish praise for Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, self-made businessmen whom, he believes, have exercised influence over people’s lives in ways that politicians have failed to do. In this, Zhang is tapping into the zeitgeist. Across China, successful entrepreneurs are worshipped like sages for possessing the secrets to enormous wealth. Indeed, one of the most hotly anticipated cultural events in China in 2011 was the release of Walter Isaacson’s authorized posthumous biography of Steve Jobs. A quarter of a million copies had been printed; every single one was snapped up within the first day of release.
Domestically, Zhang Ming invokes the name of Jack Ma, a former English teacher who started China’s first Internet company in 1995. Ma now comes in at number 395 on the Forbes billionaires list, with an estimated wealth of $3.4 billion. The e-commerce giant he founded, Alibaba, has more than 24,000 employees around the world. Ma has married his business flair with patriotism, singing “I love you, China” on his last day as Alibaba chief executive, to become an inspirational icon among young Chinese. Ma has a religious fervor for small businesses combined with an unerring ability to deliver a pithy sound-bite. “Small and medium-sized businesses are like grains of sand on a beach,” he famously said. “The Internet can glue them together. It can make them into an invincible force that is able to go up against the big stones.”
Alibaba has been an empowering, democratizing force in the Chinese marketplace, leveling the playing field for small businesses by matching suppliers and buyers transparently, cutting out the need for personal connections. In a society where materialism reigns, bringing people power to the virtual marketplace affords Ma a measure of influence far beyond that of traditional dissidents penning political tracts that few will ever read. Ma himself has acknowledged the good fortune of his timing, telling Charlie Rose, “I think my father said, ‘If you were born thirty years earlier you would probably be in prison because the ideas you have are so dangerous.’”
However, Jack Ma stepped into dangerous territory in 2013 when he endorsed Deng Xiaoping’s suppression of the student movement and compared this decision to his own behavior as CEO of Alibaba. He said, “As CEO of a company, whether it’s the scandal involving Alibaba or the spinning off of [its online payment service] Alipay, at that moment you’re like Deng Xiaoping during ‘June Fourth.’ As the country’s highest policymaker, he wanted stability. It was necessary for him to make this cruel decision. It wasn’t a perfect decision, but it was the most correct decision—the most correct decision at the time. At any time, a person in charge must make these kinds of decisions.” Amid the storms of outrage from exiled Tiananmen activists who threatened to picket Alibaba’s U.S. headquarters in Santa Clara, California, Zhang Ming’s response was characteristically measured. He was disappointed Ma had bought into the official narrative that repression had been the only option, yet he advocated tolerance. “We should forgive Jack Ma,” he said. “He’s an influential person. We shouldn’t alienate him, we should keep him on our side.”
Indeed, had history been different, it is not impossible that Zhang Ming himself could have been another Jack Ma. With his Midas touch, backed up by the huge funds at his disposal, he had been perfectly positioned to ascend into the ranks of China’s homegrown tycoons, had it not been for the Tiananmen stain on his record. Zhang suspected that his second prison sentence had been aimed specifically at preventing his ascension into the pantheon of tycoon gods. “If you do business, you can influence a lot of people. That’s the reason why later on, they wouldn’t let me do business, I think,” he told me, with a shy laugh. Even now, he is still able to survive on his investments from that period, especially from the sale of a computer company back in 2001, which netted him a windfall.
Despite his two jail terms and the loss of two fortunes he had helped build, Zhang Ming harbors no bitterness about the course his life has taken. When I asked him whether he regrets becoming involved in the student movement, he shook his head. “You can’t even think about that,” he said. “You’ve already been through it. You just have to think about how you can make your heart more at ease.” He professes to no longer have any political ambitions. “I have no ability to change China; I have no ability to change the world. The only thing I can change is myself.”
* * *
For Zhang Ming and the other student leaders who remained in China, the seven weeks of the student movement were a Rubicon that, once crossed, transformed their lives forever. The preordained career paths that ordinarily would have been theirs— the government posting, the academic career, or Zhang Ming’s job in Shantou—were gone. After prison, the alternatives were vanishingly small.
After June 4th, the Communist Party launched a massive ideological campaign that lasted 18 months. According to secret documents, at least four million party members—a tenth of the total—underwent investigation into their roles during the unrest. Those who participated in the protests had to write long confessional accounts of their activities during that period, stating their support for the government’s repression. Having already morally co-opted the academics in this way, the government then skillfully dangled financial incentives in front of them to try to buy their silence on sensitive issues. The compromises necessary for success in Chinese academia were laid out in a 2013 New York Times essay by author Yan Lianke. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a writer, a historian or social scientist. You will be awarded power, fame and money as long as you are willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at; as long as you are willing to sing the praises of what needs to be praised and ignore what needs to be blanked out. In other words, our amnesia is a state-sponsored sport.”
Even some of those who hoped to circumvent government control by starting their own businesses ran into difficulty. Back in 2004, I interviewed Zhu Hong, a journalist who lost his job after Tiananmen and who then tried to open a small bookshop. We met in a McDonald’s, a favorite meeting place for dissidents, since the jaunty pop music and bustling atmosphere were thought to make eavesdropping harder. Zhu Hong was tense and jumpy as he told me how he had rented the space, built bookshelves, and even bought the books. Then the relevant government department refused to issue the proper business license, and eventually he had to abandon the scheme in which he had invested his life savings and all his hopes for the future. Administrative powers had become political tools, he said bitterly. “They can control everything. If you want to move on, I’m not saying you have to betray yourself, but you do have to abandon certain ideals.”
A number of former student leaders who made those compromises benefited immensely from their first-mover advantage, according to Chen Ziming, the intellectual who was sentenced to 13 years in jail as one of the “black hands” behind the student movement. “I know for a fact that some of them are multimillionaires,” he told me. “Their focus was re-centered. But while they are doing business, these people won’t become involved in politics. They’re afraid of political interference. They won’t even admit to having been student leaders.” But Chen Ziming believes that may change if the former protesters grow secure enough to raise their voices once more.
One salutary tale is that of Wang Shi, the chairman of one of China’s biggest property developers. A former PLA soldier, Wang is a homegrown hero, with 11 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of twitter. His fame is not just due to his business acumen, but also due to his decision at age 60 to step away from his $16 billion-worth real estate behemoth to spend time at Harvard as a visiting research fellow. In 1994, he told the Washington Post that he had spent a year in prison after 1989 for encouraging his employees to take part in a march of solidarity. He made, he said, a public statement of regret. “I have a responsibility to my shareholders that is more important than politics,” he told the Post reporter. “For the CEO of a big company to take his employees onto the streets for a political protest against the government, well, it really doesn’t look very good.” By 2008, however, he was denying through a spokeswoman that any of this had ever happened—the protest march, the year in prison, or the recantation.
As China’s citizens follow their government’s lead in airbrushing their own history, the Communist Party was also moving on. In 2001, it announced it would welcome capitalists into the party, dubbing them “advanced productive forces” in order to perform this ideological somersault. Since then, the party of the proletariat has become one of the richest political parties in the world, marrying wealth and political power to produce a system characterized by crony capitalism and widening inequality.
According to the Economist, the wealthiest 50 delegates to China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, control around $94 billion, about 60 times more money than their 50 richest American counterparts. The NPC currently resembles nothing less than a Chinese outpost of the Fortune Global Forum, replete with film stars, celebrity CEOs, and the “princeling” politicians descended from the Communist revolutionaries. One year, it was even scornfully nicknamed “Beijing Fashion Week,” so ostentatious was the display of luxury labels sported by the delegates. Most pilloried was Li Xiaolin, the daughter of the Tiananmen-era Premier Li Peng who had been nicknamed “The Butcher of Beijing.” Her outfit included a Chanel necklace and a salmon pink Emilio Pucci pantsuit reportedly retailing for almost $2,000.
One bold newspaper analyzed the professions of almost 3,000 NPC members whose five-year terms ended in 2012. By its account, just 16 were workers, 13 were farmers, and only 11 were official army delegates. Thus the party of the workers, peasants, and soldiers has become anything but that. At last count, one-sixth of the members of China’s legislative assembly, or National People’s Congress, were chief executives, chairmen, or leading businessmen. Indeed, snagging a seat in the Great Hall of the People boosts a company’s share price by about 3 percent. Thus China’s Communist Party has managed to co-opt those it once reviled as “capitalist running dogs” by making the political process profitable.
* * *
In November 2012, seven middle-aged men in black suits strode self-confidently onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People, positioning themselves in order of importance on numbers stuck onto the red carpet. As the cameras flashed, they managed to look both smug and ill-at-ease. The “Magnificent Seven,” as they were immediately dubbed, represented the new political order.
Once a decade, China’s leaders shuffle off the political stage, with varying degrees of reluctance, to be replaced by a younger generation of Communist functionaries. The new leader of the Magnificent Seven was Xi Jinping, the son of a first-generation revolutionary leader and therefore a “princeling.” He had benefited from the decision of the departing party chief Hu Jintao to break with tradition and hand over all his positions of power simultaneously. For Zhang Ming, that single act was a political watershed, offering hope in the future of China’s Communist Party. On China’s social media, the verdict was less charitable: During Hu Jintao’s decade in power, cynics said, his single biggest achievement had been stepping down.
The run-up to the transition had already been marred by China’s most serious political scandal in decades—the precipitous downfall of another prominent princeling, Bo Xilai, then Communist Party secretary of Chongqing. Bo was a highflying star of the political world, a princeling whose charisma was second only to his boundless ambition. In Chongqing, he had carried out a high-profile campaign against organized crime, backed up by Maoist-style mass rallies singing songs lauding the Communist Party. His plummet into disgrace was precipitated by a failed attempt by his long-term enforcer and former police chief, Wang Lijun, to seek asylum in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. His accusations proved to be the unraveling of the Bo clan, setting in train a series of events that culminated in the sensational trial of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, on charges of murdering a British businessman, Neil Heywood, and then ordering Wang to lead the cover-up. Wang received 10 years in prison, and Gu Kailai received 15. Bo Xilai received a life sentence for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power, all charges he refuted forcefully in an extraordinary show trial.
Inside China, the case was watched with the avidity of a soap opera, tempered by massive cynicism. But Zhang Ming shrugged it off as unimportant. The key progress, he believed, was embodied in this new generation of technocratic leaders. As teens, these men had been “sent down” to the countryside to learn from the peasants, an experience that had left them with a better understanding of the lives of ordinary people. In terms of their priorities, he strongly supported their focus on upgrading the economy from traditional industries to creative ones. Real creativity, he believed, could not flourish in an authoritarian environment, so economic structural shifts should inexorably lead to more democratic workplaces. Like the government itself, Zhang espouses the idea that change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. By instinct, Zhang is a reformer rather than a rebel, with views so mainstream it is difficult to understand how he ended up serving two jail terms.
Even in 1989, the young Zhang Ming argued that the time might not be ripe to push for full democracy. As he tried to persuade his fellow students to abandon Tiananmen Square and marshal their forces, he told them a story. In the frigid climes of Northeastern China where he grew up, a popular wintertime delicacy is the frozen pear. Ordinary pears were traditionally buried under a layer of tree leaves until they were frozen solid. Once defrosted in cold water, the pear’s crisp icy sweetness sings in the mouth. As a boy, Zhang Ming could not bear to wait for his pear to defrost, continually nagging his mother to speed up the process, by asking her, “Why don’t you soak the pears in hot water?” Finally, she explained to him that this would spoil the pears. They had to be defrosted slowly, without hurrying the process. “A country is like that, too,” Zhang Ming said he told his fellow students. “You can’t save on time. If you hurry things up, you will ruin the pear.”
* * *
One afternoon, Zhang Ming drove me to the rural village where his mother had grown up. We passed the rows of cheerless utilitarian blocks left over from the days of state planning that have left Jilin stuck in a time warp, far from the fast-forward vision of modernity that has transformed other Chinese cities into endless canyons of grey steel and mirrored glass skyscrapers. Very soon, these squat buildings gave way to rolling hills with chartreuse rice paddies and fields of corn. His mother’s village has now evolved into a small county town whose brick bungalows are topped by red roofs embellished with ceramic birds standing guard over their eaves. The market still consists of glum farmers squatting on the street selling haw fruits piled high on newspapers or misshapen chilies in hand-woven baskets.
As we cruised past, Zhang Ming told me the story of how his mother had fled this village at the age of 10 during China’s civil war. With the sound of fighting coming ever closer, her whole family decided to flee to Jilin, which happened to be the nearest city, for shelter. At the time, they had no idea who was fighting whom; they were simply following their survival instincts. On arrival in Jilin, they discovered that the Communists were vanquishing the Nationalists.
The family stayed in the city, which soon fell under Communist rule. Then came a crucial moment upon which the fate of the entire family pivoted: The newly triumphant Communists asked Zhang Ming’s grandfather about his own background. This could have been an opportunity for him to reinvent himself with a more politically acceptable past. After all, as a newcomer to the big city, he knew no one and no one knew him. Yet his grandfather could not bring himself to tell a lie about his status. “Landlord,” he replied. Because her father was a class enemy, Zhang Ming’s mother was not permitted to attend university, and the whole family was targeted during the Cultural Revolution. That single act of honesty doomed the family for decades.
* * *
Over the years, Zhang Ming’s path has been one of renunciation as he abandoned politics, then business, then paid work, and finally even the act of eating. As I pondered his continuing fast, I came across a passage by China scholar Orville Schell in his book Mandate of Heaven about the hunger-striking students. “The kind of passive resistance implicit in a fast was congruent with one other deeply ingrained aspect of traditional Chinese culture, the notion that when an upright official disagrees with a ruler, he should express his displeasure and then withdraw from direct action rather than form an opposition party to foment overt rebellion.”
For his part, Zhang Ming cites the traditional Chinese religion of Daoism as one of his biggest influences, and in particular its principle of wuwei, which translates as “not doing” or “non-action,” referring to a way of living in harmony with the outside world instead of trying to bend it to one’s will. In Zhang’s case, it seems a poignant antidote to an excess of youthful action.
Even his attempts to alleviate his many physical problems are redolent with symbolism. One day I received an excited e-mail from him, outlining a new breakthrough in his medical regime. Using cupping therapy on the forehead was highly unorthodox, yet it was proving to be the only way for him to alleviate the chronic pain resulting from the prison beatings. By trial and error, Zhang Ming discovered that cupping a certain point on the soles of his feet was also beneficial. In his desperate attempt to free himself from pain, he was now trying to purge his body quite literally from head to toe. “If I can’t find a way to cure myself, I may not live very long,” he told me one day.
Zhang Ming lives in an airy duplex apartment, the walls of which are hung with colorful art created by his wife, who is almost 20 years his junior. On one visit, she cooked a dinner of light vegetable dishes, and as we ate, Zhang Ming sat beside us, chatting and breaking his fast to try one small mouthful of cabbage. He was cupping his scalp with a small transparent plastic bulb suctioned to the side of his head, drawing up an enormous, angry purple bruise that was growing visibly larger as we ate. His wife smiled when I asked what it was like being married to someone who doesn’t eat. “Very relaxing!” she replied, beaming. “I don’t need to worry about his food at all!”
The pair had met online, and he had persuaded her to move to Jilin where the pace of life is more relaxed. They have defied China’s strict family-planning guidelines to have two children and would like to have a third. Zhang Ming is a hands-on father who blogs almost daily about childrearing issues. His three-year-old son is a whirlwind of toddler energy with an infectious grin and an obsession for street signs, while his infant daughter is a placid beauty whose plumpness contrasts with her father’s angular contours.
In yet another radical departure from usual life in China, Zhang Ming plans to home-school his children. He wants their world to be one of infinite possibilities, not a place where there is one right answer and many wrong ones. He wants to protect his children from autocratic teachers and playground dictators, fearing their innocence could be infected by the contagion of violence that runs through Chinese society—all the way down to the microcosm of the playground. In his own life, the refusal to conform has repeatedly been met by violence: the soldiers opening fire on people who did not obey orders to stay inside; the brutal prison beatings for his refusal to be brainwashed; even the petty violence of parents beating a disobedient child. Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, in Chairman Mao’s words, and violence has become the ultimate solution.
Ever the businessman, Zhang still has a few projects underway. He is investing in a traditional teashop hidden away in a modern high-rise apartment with views over the entire city. In this refuge, he envisions sipping tea and learning how to play the guqin, a traditional Chinese instrument similar to a long, horizontal harp. He has also invested in a small startup company, funding an inventor who has designed recyclable ceramic floor tiles that fit together like jigsaw pieces to provide under-floor heating. The company is based in a disheveled apartment block across town.
When we visited, another investor angel opened the door for us— Zhang’s business partner, a woman in her mid-50s with smudged makeup, wearing a grey, bejeweled nylon blouse. She brewed us green tea in tiny ceramic cups, which I gulped down greedily, while Zhang Ming warmed his bony hands on the miniature cups despite the stifling weather. One room was fitted with the beige honeycombed ceramic tiles that emanated a toasty Turkish-bath kind of warmth. Zhang’s business partner had been trying to get the tiles featured on a Chinese television show, where inventors have 90 seconds to pitch their products to a panel of entrepreneurs. She was optimistic about their chances, declaring, “I’ve been reviewing the tapes of all the past shows. None of the other products are nearly as good as ours.” She had decided to invest all the profits from her clothing business into the floor tiles, which she described as “revolutionary.”
Later, she gave me a lift to the cavernous train station, which was so new that access roads had not yet been finished. As she nosed her expensive white SUV through the muddy puddles of the dusty parking lot, I asked her what she thought of Zhang Ming. “He’s a good person, regardless of his involvement in the student movement,” she replied. “He was young then, and over-enthusiastic. If it happened today, he wouldn’t take part in it again.”
Somewhat surprised, I asked, “Is that what he said to you?”
“Look at how much he’s suffered,” she replied. “He’s paid a huge cost for his actions. Surely he wouldn’t make the same choices again?”
From her perch in the soft leather seat of her plush SUV, the cost-benefit analysis was too obvious to bother stating: The students had lost out in every way. Their intentions had been good, but their actions might have unleashed unthinkable chaos on the country. The government had done what was necessary to regain order, and the winners had been the ordinary people who kept their heads down, followed the rules, and were now enjoying the fruits of their hard work. Such has become the default position in today’s China.
At home Zhang Ming doesn’t talk about what happened 25 years ago. His wife was just four years old in 1989. The events of that year remain outside her line of vision. They are not even on the periphery. It is as if none of it had ever happened. “She didn’t experience it,” he said bluntly. “You can talk to her about art or music, or about things that she wants to hear about. But she doesn’t care about things she’s not interested in.”
The generation gap is illustrated by their childhood heroes. Zhang Ming’s generation grew up on stories valorizing sacrifice in the service of the country. As a child, he loved to hear the story of Huang Jiguang, a soldier during the Korean War who became a national hero when he sacrificed his life by using his own chest to block the machine-gun slit of a dugout manned by American troops. Growing up worshipping such role models—willing to give up their own lives for their country—became one factor that encouraged the students, who saw themselves as galvanized by patriotism, to stay in the square right up until the very last minute.
Zhang’s wife’s generation worships a different breed of icons: the heroes of the boardroom: the innovators, and businessmen. The creation myths the younger generation embraces are the stories of struggle from grinding poverty to unimaginable wealth. Death plays no part in their legends; the aspirational young are only interested in success stories. These little emperors are the first generation to enjoy the luxury of selfishness. From birth, their entire families have orbited around the sun of their precious only child.
Zhang Ming has no illusions about how young people today see the Tiananmen protests. His wife and her friends have no interest at all in his role in the protests, or how the government sent soldiers with guns and tanks to clear the square. The reason they do not like to talk about 1989 is not because it is a politically sensitive topic or because it makes them uncomfortable. It simply does not register.
Casting about for a parallel, Zhang Ming remembered how a Red Army soldier had visited his primary school class to describe how hard life had been. The old man spoke of the endless mountain passes the soldiers had trekked over, the crippling physical exhaustion, and the unthinkable deprivations they had suffered. He had brought along a dumpling partly made of chaff, which he shared with the children to help them “taste bitterness and think of the sweetness of the present.” Zhang Ming remembers being repulsed by both the dumpling and the old soldier. His life had nothing to do with their lives. It was ancient history. “That’s like me talking to my wife about ’89,” he said simply. “It has no impact. I’m like the Red Army soldier. We need to change. We can’t always hark back to ’89 to influence young people.”