Twenty years after China’s military crushed dissent around Tiananmen Square, the details are still fresh in Qi Zhiyong’s (齊志勇) mind. The acrid smell of tear gas. The people run down by tanks. The dizzying pain when a bullet tore through his left leg.
The student-led protests in the heart of the Chinese capital had gone on for weeks, an extraordinary call for political freedom and an end to government corruption. Sparked by the April 15 death of a beloved Communist Party chief deposed by hardliners, they were mostly peaceful, even after martial law was declared on May 20.
But late on June 3, 1989, the government lost its patience.
“I saw people being run over. Blood sprayed everywhere,” says Qi, then a 33-year-old construction worker. “The tanks kept moving, as if the people weren’t there. My hair stood on end. I was chilled to the bone.”
Witnessing the crackdown and losing his leg transformed Qi from a loyal Communist Party supporter into an activist with a simple goal: Speaking out about the events that the leadership has all but erased from history.
His efforts cost him his job, his wife and his freedom. But a newfound Christian faith and pure doggedness have kept him going.
“The young generation, they eat hamburgers and wear famous brands. But when June 4 is mentioned, they only have a very vague understanding of what happened,” Qi says. “Democracy is for all the people, and we need to talk to people and bring the idea to them.”
The government has never offered a full accounting and has made virtually all public discussion taboo. It says its suppression of “counterrevolutionary” riots preserved social stability and paved the way for economic success.
“The Communist Party claims to be the savior of people and the most glorious thing in this world. It says it loves the people and cares about human rights,” Qi says. “But it opened fire on people and 20 years later, it still hasn’t admitted it.”
Those who break the silence are shut down by authorities. Zhang Shijun (張世軍), a former soldier who took part in the 1989 crackdown and called for a reassessment of the bloodshed, was detained last month after giving an interview to The Associated Press. His status is unknown.
Over the years, Qi, a handsome, square-jawed man who walks with the help of metal crutches, has given interviews to foreign media and overseas rights groups. He has been detained many times.
Security agents follow him and keep watch over the home he shares with his second wife, their 12-year-old daughter and another family in southwest Beijing.
“Many people who have been persecuted since 1989 have tried to speak up, but Mr Qi is one of the most persistent,” says Renee Xia (夏濃), international director of the rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “He not only tries to get justice for his own loss, but speaks up for others ... For this, authorities have targeted him for harassment and retaliation.”
Qi says he and his family are forced by state security to leave the capital during sensitive periods such as last year’s Beijing Olympics, when the government wanted to showcase only the country’s good side. Last month, Qi says, his freedom was already being restricted ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.
Security agents warned: “Behave yourself ... Sooner or later, you will be imprisoned this year, even if you are disabled.”