Chinese Artist 'Warned Off' 1989 Tiananmen Activist Photo Project

2015-05-06
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Artist Sun Kai during recent RFA interview.
Artist Sun Kai during recent RFA interview.
RFA

A Chinese artist who was portraying the lives of 100 participants in the student-led 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing has abandoned the project in the face of growing pressure from the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Sun Kai, who was a theatrical design student at the Shanghai Theater Academy when the 1989 movement began, said he has never been able to move on psychologically from the trauma of the June 4 bloodshed, in spite of having a rewarding career and family life.

"I have a huge Tiananmen complex. It's very hard for me to forget it," Sun told RFA on a recent trip to the United States.

"I keep wishing over and over that the events of that year could replay themselves, and that the Chinese mainland would turn in the direction of freedom and democracy, instead of things getting worse and worse, like they are now," he said.

To address it, Sun said he made a list of 100 people across China who participated in the movement in various cities, and planned to shoot their portraits in a bid to preserve the memory of the hopes of a generation.

"I'm an artist, so I thought that I could put on an exhibition after I had finished shooting them, and maybe a photographic book about 1989," he said.

"That 1989 generation, 25 years on, are all in their fifties now, and they'll all be old in another few years," Sun said.

"So I started to put [my idea] into practice."

Face-to-face with 1989

Sun said the idea behind the project was to bring people today face-to-face with the events of 1989 once more, by discovering what had happened to the participants during the intervening years.

"Some of them have gone on to become very successful, but there a considerable group of people who have suffered intense persecution, and have no reliable way to make a living," Sun said.

Dissidents like these are often regarded with prejudice by the majority of Chinese people, he said.

But it wasn't long before Sun himself began to run into difficulties.

"My first stop was Zhengzhou, in Henan province, where I shot photographs of Yu Shiwen and his wife," he said. "They, too, are unable to forget about June 4, 1989."

Last month, authorities in Zhengzhou authorities issued an indictment of student movement veteran Yu for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," after holding him for nearly a year.

Yu was detained as part of a nationwide crackdown on activists marking the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodshed.

Yu had given interviews to overseas media, and had issued signed invitations to public memorial events and posted them online, according to the indictment.

From Zhengzhou, Sun headed for Xi'an in search of veteran democracy activist Yang Hai, he said.

Pressure on Sun's family

Initially, the plan went well, Sun said, adding: "But then, it got harder and harder to make contact with him."

"Then I wanted to shoot Guo Haifeng, and he agreed the first time I contacted him, but when I got there, he was nowhere to be seen, and I couldn't get through to him by phone," Sun said.

"After that, I heard from Yu Shiwen that the state security police had him under tight surveillance."

Later, during a business trip to the eastern province of Zhejiang, Sun tried to get in touch with a few veteran activists, prompting a phone call from his own employer's political team.

This was followed up with a visit from state security police, who visited Sun at his Beijing home soon after.

"During our chat, they threatened me through my family, saying that I have a good job and my family is doing well, but that all of that could be negatively affected if I carried on with the project," Sun
said.

"For example, my kid could have issues with their education, and my wife with her career."

"They told me that the government takes the events of 1989 very seriously, 25 years later ... and that they will be watching anything that is connected to it very closely," Sun said.

"That's why I wasn't able to succeed with this project."

Sun said he hasn't given up entirely, however, and still hopes to resolve his "Tiananmen complex" one day.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has continued to ignore growing calls for a reappraisal of the 1989 student protests, which it has styled a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."

Public memorials marking the event are banned, and a number of prominent activists, including Yu Shiwen and rights attorneys Tang Jingling and Pu Zhiqiang face trial on subversion charges linked to
their commemoration of the massacre.

There are no definitive figures for the number of people killed when People's Liberation Army (PLA) ended weeks of mass protest with machine guns and tanks on the night of June 3-4, 1989, and estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.

Reported by C.K. for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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