My Life After Tiananmen: Chen Ziming

2006-12-27
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Chen Ziming with his wife Wang Zhihong. Photo courtesy of Chen Ziming

HONG KONG—Veteran Tiananmen pro-democracy activist Chen Ziming has vowed to continue working in “constructive opposition” to China’s ruling Communist Party.

In his first in-depth interview with a Chinese-language media outlet, Chen told RFA’s Mandarin service that there was still plenty for him to do, despite the closure by authorities of a groundbreaking Web site he helped to set up last year.

“In 2004, I met up with He Jiadong, who just recently passed away, because we wanted to start a Web site called Reform and Construction , under the aegis of the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute,” Chen told RFA reporter An Ni.

“Initially, I asked the authorities if they would let me run such a site, and they said yes, so I said I’d go ahead and do it. Mr. He had to be the legal person responsible because I still didn’t have political rights. Our application got through the communications authority and the Beijing municipal news department.”

Web site initially successful

Chen said his Web site was very well received among Chinese intellectuals.

I have been shunted back and forth between three departments: the police; the communications agency and the Beijing municipal news office. None of them will give me a straight answer about whose decision it was to close the site...They won't give us a reason for the closure, either. They just pull the plug on you, because they can.

“A lot of people sent in articles to contribute. I organized the site into more than a dozen themes, all of which were very popular, because they were on interesting and sensitive topics, and our page hits were rising all the time.”

All went well until Chen and He tried to move to a bigger server, to accommodate their expanding site.

“The problems came when we wanted to move to a bigger server, and the site never appeared. When we finally got hold of the company in charge of the server they told us that it had been closed. ‘Perhaps you caused some concern from official quarters,’ they said.”

“As long as we weren’t getting very many hits and weren’t very high profile they were happy to let us exist. But as soon as we switched to a bigger capacity host, and the site had already migrated, and we’d paid the money, they shut us down. That was in August 2005,” Chen said.

Chen said he had pursued officials demanding to know which government department had ordered the closure, and on what grounds.

'Black Hand' of Tiananmen

“I have been shunted back and forth between three departments: the police, the communications agency and the Beijing municipal news office. None of them will give me a straight answer about whose decision it was to close the site...They won’t give us a reason for the closure, either. They just pull the plug on you, because they can,” he said.

Chen Ziming formally completed a 13-year sentence for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in October 2002, but remained under close surveillance, with many activities restricted. His political rights were removed for a further four years, banning him from giving media interviews.

Together with Wang Juntao, who now lives in New Zealand, Chen ran a progressive think tank called the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute and published Economics Weekly , a journal that focused on the social consequences of China’s economic reforms.

Following the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, the government labeled Chen and Wang as the “black hands” behind the movement. Within days of the massacre, authorities issued a list of banned books that included anything written by Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming.

On Feb. 12, 1991, Wang and Chen were each sentenced to 13 years in prison for “counterrevolutionary” activities. In November of that year, they were given an International Press Freedom award by the New York-based press freedom group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Chen, who has suffered from cancer, heart disease and hepatitis, was released from prison on medical parole in 1994 at a time when Beijing was keen to ensure the renewal of its Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States wasn’t held up in Congress by human rights concerns.

Years under house arrest

Chen recalled: “At that time there was a lot of campaigning about China’s human rights record, and the government put me back in jail again because they were angry with [then Taiwan President] Lee Teng-hui. While I wasn’t ill when they paroled me I had since discovered I had cancer, and undergone surgery and medication, but they still locked me up again. Then, when Sino-US relations improved a bit, they sent me home again, on the same day that President Clinton began his second term in office.”

He said his “release” was simply a slightly different form of imprisonment.

“The terms under which I was let out at that stage were called ‘jail at home’. This meant that I could serve my prison sentence in my own home, but I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. I wasn’t allowed visitors apart from my closest family. There were dozens of people downstairs watching my apartment block. It was exactly the same as being in jail except that I was with my family,” he said.

“From 2002-2006 I still had no political rights, and I wasn’t allowed to publish anything under my own name. So I had to use a pseudonym to express my point of view. During that time I was also allowed to see other people. But I still had people following me, and I didn’t want to cause any problems for others, so I didn’t contact my friends. Until this day there are still some very close friends whom I haven’t renewed contact with yet.”

“I think if the political climate improves in China then perhaps I’ll be able to get in touch with a few more people, arrange some group activities, and start doing the things I would really like to do. But at the moment I’m still dependent on my wife Wang Zhihong for our family income, although I can occasionally earn some money for articles I write. That’s how I am living at the moment.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by An Ni. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated, written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Chinese

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