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25 years on, no fading of Tiananmen wounds, ideals

Saturday - 5/31/2014, 2:26am  ET

In this May 14, 2014 photo, former student leader in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Wu'er Kaixi poses for a portrait at a local coffee shop in Taipei, Taiwan. Kaixi's last glimpse of China was a fading shore from a boat that had come to collect him on a cloudy summer’s night. Now 46, Wu’er has spent longer in exile in the United States and on the self-governing island of Taiwan than in his homeland China. He is an investment banker in Taipei, husband to a Taiwanese and father of two sons, aged 19 and 16. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

LOUISE WATT
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) -- Some went missing. Some lost their freedom. Some can't escape the images inside their head, or the guilt they feel for surviving.

The June 4, 1989, military crackdown to end weeks-long student protests is a key moment in the history of Communist-ruled China for the outside world. Within China, it is all but erased. Even personal acts of memory are considered subversive.

While China's economy, society and cities have transformed in the last 25 years, the demonstrators and their supporters are keen to remind the world that other things haven't changed -- that China's political masters are still suppressing dissent and freedom of expression. They call for the Communist Party to stop hiding what happened on that bloody night in which an untold number of people were killed. Some cling to their democratic fight.

"I am the captain of a sunk ship," Wu'er Kaixi, who was a 21-year-old protest leader, said in an interview conducted in English. "I will always question of myself, 'Why didn't I die?' I believe, for the rest of my life. ... I will try my best to remember the guilt and try to realize the dreams of those who died that night."

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In 1989, as a hunger striker, Wu'er rose to prominence when in hospital clothing he harangued then-Premier Li Peng during a televised meeting with protesters. Just over two weeks later he witnessed "the atrocity, the killing" that he still finds difficult to talk about today.

After the crackdown, he escaped. His last glimpse of China was a fading shore from a boat that smuggled him out of the country on a cloudy summer's night.

Now 46, Wu'er has spent longer in exile in the United States and on the self-governing island of Taiwan than in his homeland China. He is an investment banker in Taipei, husband to a Taiwanese and father of two sons, aged 19 and 16.

"I still consider myself as a democracy activist, an active dissident. It just unfortunately doesn't pay so I have to find another way to support the family," said Wu'er, one of the most-wanted student protest leaders, by Internet video phone from his Taipei home.

He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with "Free LXB" -- a reference to Liu Xiaobo, the activist and Nobel Peace laureate who is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges.

Wu'er's most despairing time in the years after 1989 came on the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown. China had won admiration for the Beijing Olympics the previous year. It was gearing up for its first global fair -- the Shanghai Expo -- and many were touting it as the economic engine to help pull the world out of the global financial crisis.

"I felt like the world was betraying the idea of democracy ... giving in to China," he said. "But we the Chinese democracy activists want to carry on our own mission, to finish the unfinished business."

In the last five years, he has tried four times to go home to see his ailing parents, kneel before them and beg for their forgiveness for their suffering -- even if he must do it within the walls of a prison. But like many other dissidents, he is not only wanted for arrest, but prevented from returning. His parents have been denied permission to visit him.

"Not being able to see the parents, being able to step back on the country that you care so much about, that is painful and that is harsh and unjust," he said. "But my parents that I haven't seen so much have also brought me up to be a person who does the right thing. And I know what I have done in 1989 was the right thing, the right thing to do."

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While some have spent the past quarter-century in exile, others have been consigned to a life under surveillance. The reform-minded Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who expressed sympathy for some student demands during the protests, was accused of splitting the party and spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest.

His aide, Bao Tong, was imprisoned for seven years. Since his release in 1996, he has lived under house arrest, his moves observed, his visitors screened by security services who sit at a desk in the lobby of his high-rise apartment building. A reporter from The Associated Press was followed into an elevator and stopped from going up to Bao's floor, but another managed to go up in a second elevator in the meantime.

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