Far Eastern Economic Review


Let Us Come Home

By Wu'er Kaixi
Issue cover-dated February 05, 2004

The writer was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. He now lives in exile in Taiwan

At the age of 21, I was swept into the leading ranks of a popular, student-led movement urging the government of China to undertake democratic reforms. That movement was brutally put down by troops and tanks in Tiananmen Square and nearby Chang'an Avenue on June 4, 1989. I and a generation of fellow student leaders have been in exile ever since.

Fifteen years on, when I look at my homeland from Taiwan, where I live, and from Hong Kong, which I was recently allowed to visit, I wonder at how little has changed. True, public demonstrations for more democratic freedoms in Hong Kong have not been suppressed by troops and tanks. But Taiwan's democratic freedoms are thus threatened. Meanwhile, Falungong practitioners continue to be arrested in China, as are "bad" political elements, and my generation of student leaders cannot go home.

China may well be the world's miracle economy--the sleeping giant that has awoken. But let us not forget either that China's problems are immense. The future of its 1.3 billion consumers is bedevilled by outrageous extremes of wealth and poverty; unemployment in China's former iron rice-bowl hinterland is dangerously high (unofficial sources put the national level at around 15%); and China's banking system is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Add to these problems a noisy democracy across the Taiwan Strait that is clamouring for the ultimate democratic freedom--self-determination--and Hong Kong's demands that China genuinely subscribe to the spirit of the Basic Law in its administration of the former British colony. These are not problems that I believe can be solved by totalitarian central power.

When I look at Taiwan, I am struck by how smooth the transition from totalitarianism to democracy has been. That accomplishment is at least in part due to the long-serving Kuomintang, which realized the necessity for dialogue, and the necessity of allowing democratic reforms that eventually handed governance to the people. By allowing dialogue in Taiwan, the KMT allowed the emergence of a rational political environment. Indeed, democracy begins with understanding the importance of dialogue.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's recent visit to the United States resulted in a cautiously worded rebuke by President George W. Bush to President Chen Shui-bian for his plans to hold a referendum during Taiwan's March 20 presidential elections. The next day, Chen responded publicly by asking: "What is the Taiwan problem?" And he answered that question: "The Taiwan problem is China's inability to accept democracy, freedom of speech and human rights."

However we see Chen's plans to hold a referendum, it is impossible to deny that he has truth on his side. Taiwan needs China economically, and culturally it has much in common with the mainland. But politically, China's failure to engage in even-handed dialogue with Taiwan and respect the democratic desires of the island's people has made China itself the obstacle in achieving reunification. Its intransigence, its preference for threats before dialogue, have produced radicalized opposition in Taiwan, so that now even its long-time ally in the goal of reunification, the KMT, has turned its back on China and accepts the Democratic Progressive Party's formulation of "one country on either side of the strait."

Mao Zedong once said that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Beijing used that gun on my fellow students in 1989; it now suggests it is ready to use it again on the people of Taiwan. Thus, I find myself facing the same oppressor today that I faced 15 years ago. And 15 years on, I find that my thinking has not changed. The solution to China's vast problems begins with that seed of democracy: dialogue. Out of dialogue come ideas, inspiration and solutions. Out of dialogue come rational opposition and a rational political landscape.

When I arrived in Hong Kong in January, I concluded a brief speech at the airport by saying to Beijing, by saying to President Hu Jintao, "Let us come home." I repeat that request. At the youthful age of 21 I led a peaceful movement embraced by an estimated 100 million people across the country. In the course of that movement we repeatedly called on the Beijing government for dialogue and were denied.

We called for it then in Tiananmen Square; I call for it now in exile. Too many voices have been exiled and for too long. It is time they came home. It is time Beijing accepted an alternative to the barrel of the gun.