Twenty-five years ago, a slight 20-year-old Beijing University history student with enormous glasses and a heartbreakingly sincere demeanour became one of the memorable faces of the Tiananmen Square student movement, which sought to bring reform to the Communist Party in China.
As we all know, that was not to be. After Chinese government troops opened fire in the square, massacring hundreds of students and other citizens on June 4, 1989, Wang Dan was hunted down.
So began his odyssey of almost a decade in Chinese prison, and eventual exile to the United States, where, in 2008, he earned a PhD at Harvard University.
He is now a professor of Chinese history in Taiwan, where he has been observing the protests in Hong Kong, which he believes are influenced by "the spirit of 1989."
How do you feel as you watch the Hong Kong students and their historic demonstration?
I feel a lot of sympathy for the people of Hong Kong, because they are losing the powers they had. And I encourage them to do whatever they can to get their rights back.
In terms of aspirations and worldview, how does this generation of students in Hong Kong compare with those who gathered in Tiananmen Square?
There are a lot of similarities between what was happening in Tiananmen Square back then and what is happening in Hong Kong today. The people's demand for democracy, for example. And we share a common opponent: the Chinese Communist Party. So when I see the birth of a very similar protest movement twenty-five years later, I naturally give it my full attention. Our opposition to the Communist Party in those days influenced the whole next generation of young people. On this point alone, I feel that we have been successful.
This young generation, they really love their country. And they are also looking for freedom. So these are similarities. Many students in Hong Kong know what happened in 1989, and they are inspired by the spirit of 1989.
What do you feel were important lessons learned from the experience of Tiananmen?
The most trying times during a street protest is at the mid-point. This is when protest movements are most prone to internal strife. I want to remind my friends in Hong Kong that within any mass movement, there are bound to be differences – differences in direction and strategy.
Everyone must try to be patient and consult with each other, even taking a vote to resolve any differences. There certainly cannot be any infighting because of internal differences. When it comes to a difference of opinion or direction, you cannot treat the other side like an enemy or allow acrimony. There is a common enemy facing us, and only by being united can we maintain our overall objective. So please, be careful.
What has been the reaction in Taiwan to the Hong Kong protests?
The reaction is very big. Many Chinese here are very concerned about Hong Kong because they are worried Taiwan will be the next Hong Kong.
How do you think this standoff between the students and the government could be diffused?
I wish the leader of the [Hong Kong] government, Leung Chun-Ying, would step down. If he did, that would solve the problem temporarily. He insists he won’t resign. But if the situation gets worse, that’s something he’ll have to think about.
Do you think the Chinese government will use force?
I don’t think they will send the troops and open fire. They may use another way to crack down on the movement — for example, what they are doing now, sending in hooligans and gangsters to undermine the movement. Or they’ll delay and delay and hope the movement collapses by itself. But I don’t believe they’ll use gunfire.
What do you see in the future for Hong Kong?
If Beijing cracks down on the movement, it won’t be able to take [win] Hong Kong back. If it uses force to crack down on the movement, it will lose all the support of Hong Kong people. Hong Kong will be a problem forever if [China] doesn’t allow a free vote.
In the Tiananmen Square movement, what mistakes, if any, do you feel you made as a leader?
Looking back over 25 years, what I regret is [not recognizing] that the hunger strike was a turning point in the movement. Before that, it was a student movement. But with the hunger strike, it became a mass movement. In a mass movement, we should lead by broader leadership. We should have involved more people, like intellectuals or former officials. But after the hunger strike, the leadership only consisted of students. That was a mistake. We didn’t have a lot of experience, but we refused the involvement of other people. That was a mistake.
The Chinese Communist Party has never had its day of reckoning over the Tiananmen massacre. Might these protests force the regime to confront the ghosts of Tiananmen?
Nobody inside China dares speak about June 4, 1989. Most people know about it, but they don’t dare speak about it publicly.
You are a teacher now, teaching Chinese history. What do you tell your students about the lessons of Tiananmen and the future political evolution of China?
I always tell my students: your civic participation is the foundation of democracy. Without civic participation, there will be no democracy. So I always encourage them to get involved in public affairs.