Tiananmen 20 years on: Reflections from Taiwan

[Editor's note: June 4th is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. For more GlobalPost coverage, read what dissidents think about the event, how one museum fits into China's patriotic landscape, what a leading artist makes of it all, and the thoughts of a former student protest leader, below.]

TAIPEI — On China's "most wanted" list of 1989 student protest leaders, Wu'er Kaixi is No. 2. He rocketed to fame as a 21-year-old youngster, lecturing the Chinese premier in a nationally televised showdown.

After 20 years in exile, he tried to return to China via Macau on Wednesday, to turn himself in. He says he wanted to see his parents, who are barred from leaving China.

But officials at the Macau airport refused him entry, and forced him onto a flight back to Taiwan today. GlobalPost's Jonathan Adams spoke to him by phone after his return.

GlobalPost: So what happened in Macau?

Wu'er Kaixi: I went there hoping I could enter — I've entered Macau in the past with no problem. But of course June 4 is a more sensitive time. I arrived there at 6 p.m., hoping I could go to the liaison office of the central [Chinese] government, to turn myself in.

What did they say to you?

At the airport, they rejected my entrance without explanation — that's the official side of the story. Unofficially, they said quite openly, "Come on, look at the date. We can't let you in."

Why do you think they didn't arrest you?

That's a really good question for the [Chinese] Communist Party. I can try to answer.

China has adopted this exile policy, exiling dissident voices. Basically they want to keep everything outside.

Sometimes, China wants nothing but "face" from the world. But when it comes to Tiananmen, to June 4, all of the sudden they don't care about face anymore. Or, the only way to save face is to cover it.

That's something we already knew, but it's absurd. One message I want to get across this time is, don't take absurdity as it's given [by China]. There are certain absurdities that the West, the world, seems to take when China gives it. So anything absurd, ridiculous or wrong, when it's done by the Chinese, is no longer a surprise.

I am challenging the Chinese government, eye to eye: "You want me, I am here." And they decided to hide behind the Macau government. Or as one Macau police officer said, "We are one country, two systems — sometimes we're one country, sometimes we're two systems. This time we're one country."

Why did you want to go back?

I haven't seen my parents in 20 years, and they're not in good health. They're not getting any younger, and they're not getting any healthier. I learned that my mom had a stroke in 1989 when I was in hiding; I learned about it a decade later, the family decided to keep that news from me. When I learned about it, it was devastating.

Now, 20 years, it's a time period where I felt, I can no longer take it. I am willing to explore any option, including turning myself in, so that I can go back to China and hopefully one day see them [his parents] again.

What message do you have for China's leadership on this day?

Before challenging them, I begged, I asked many different channels to convey my message. I begged them to issue passports to my parents. I begged them not to conduct such a barbaric and primitive act. My parents didn't do anything. Let me take the consequences, not them.

And they had a chance to correct such a little mistake. But somehow, when it comes to anything related to dissidents, this government becomes deaf and blind and incapable of any communication.

That is not the behavior of a big country, that's my message. China is making this very personal, not only to me but for similar activists. These kinds of things are not the behavior of a mature, great nation that China so wants the world to acknowledge it [to be].

You now live in Taiwan. What do you think Taiwan's democracy?

Taiwan's democracy is a role model, not only for China but for the world. To begin with, the process of democratization was one of the most swift, and thorough, and with the least costs to pay.

And then if you look at the Taiwanese people. In such a short period of time they not only adopted the [political] system, they adopted the mentality, the central values of democracy. Which are freedom, equality, respect for diversity. Taiwanese people love democracy. They practice democracy every day. That's why it's a little noisy.

When Jackie Chan — the internationally acclaimed action star Jackie Chan — accused Taiwan of being "chaotic" and having too much freedom … he has no idea what chaos is.

Having the [Chinese] military crack down on Changan Avenue (a main avenue in Beijing leading to Tiananmen Square), that's chaotic. The Cultural Revolution, that's chaotic.

But having people shouting rally speeches the day before the election [in Taiwan], then on the day of the election it's so quiet, and people accept the election result — that's not chaotic at all.

Have you linked up with the movement around Charter 08 [a document published last year calling for sweeping political reform in China]?

I've signed it. Liu Xiaobo [Charter 08's main author, who has been held in police custody since early December last year] is not only a close friend and teacher of mine, he was a mentor during the 1989 student movement. Before he launched [Charter 08], I already knew about it, we discussed it. I'm very proud to be a signatory.

When you think back on 1989, do you have any regrets?

No regrets at all. I have done nothing wrong. The consequences were a little hard to take. Nevertheless, we did anticipate there would be consequences. We were prepared.