HONG KONG—Two protesters who helped splatter Mao Zedong’s portrait with red paint during the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement 21 years ago have been reunited after each serving lengthy prison sentences and being awarded political asylum in the United States.
Former journalist and art critic Yu Dongyue, who still suffers neurological impairment following repeated beatings in prison, spoke a few, halting sentences at a reception held June 19 in his, and fellow protester Yu Zhijian's, honor.
"When I came here I felt as if I had found my brothers and sisters everywhere," he said. "I am very moved."
Yu Dongyue was the last of three protesters jailed by Chinese authorities for defacing Mao's portrait to be freed.
He was released in February 2006 after serving 17 years in Chishan Prison, Yuanjiang city, in the central province of Hunan.
Yu Dongyue, his sister Yu Rixia, fellow portrait protester Yu Zhijian, and his wife were granted political asylum after fleeing China secretly last year.
Yu Dongyue's sister Yu Rixia said she had come to the U.S. to help her brother get treatment for his mental state following his release.
"I wanted to stay with my family and I didn't really want to come to America," she said. "But when I considered that I might get treatment for my brother, I had to come."
"I knew that once I had left China, I wouldn't be able to go home again."
Yu Zhijian, his 18-month-old son in his arms, said China's ruling Communist Party had retaliated so harshly against the three protesters, the third of whom, Lu Decheng, is currently in Canada, because it represented an attack on the founding supreme leader of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong.
"That action in 1989 was taken after rational reflection," Yu Zhijian said.
"We have paid a rather high price, especially Yu Dongue."
"But we have never regretted it. On the contrary, we have increasingly felt to this day that our action was valuable and meaningful."
He called on overseas activists to continue to campaign for prisoners of conscience still serving prison terms inside Chinese jails, especially those as yet unknown to the outside world.
The third portrait protester, former bus driver Lu Decheng, escaped China illegally in 2004, spending several months in a Bangkok jail before finally arriving in Canada, but without his wife and child.
He has since declined to comment on the granting of asylum to Yu Dongyue and Yu Zhijian.
Yu Dongyue was freed on Feb. 22, 2006, Lu Decheng in 1999 after 10 years in jail, while Yu Zhijian was freed in 2000 after serving 11 years.
Before they defaced the Mao portrait on May 23, 1989, all three had been active in the pro-democracy movement in the provincial capital Changsha, traveling to Beijing in mid-May that year to join thousands of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.
Yu Dongyue, Lu, and Yu Zhijian were handed over to national security police after prolonged negotiations with the student command on the Square, a decision Lu and Yu Zhijian regard as having been made with the broader interests of the student movement in mind.
But U.S.-based former student activist Wang Dan said he deeply regrets what happened to the three men, and that seeing the two portrait protesters together brought back vivid memories of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, which ended in a bloody military crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, died.
"They were handed over to the police because of a mistake on the part of the students," Wang said.
"Of course, the government bears the real responsibility, but the students are implicated in a way that can't be blamed on someone else."
"Every time I see them I have a guilty conscience," Wang said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xiao Rong. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.