As It Happens·Q&A

Tiananmen Square survivor sees 'echoes' in today's Chinese protests

As the Chinese government warns it will "resolutely crack down" on protesters if necessary, dissident Yang Jianli is calling on the international community to make sure that doesn't happen. He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

Yang Jianli is calling on world leaders in democratic countries to make sure history doesn't repeat itself

A close-up on the face of a middle-aged man with small, frame-less glasses.
Yang Jianli is an activist, former Chinese political prisoner and the founder of the pro-democracy NGO Citizen Power Initiatives for China. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As the Chinese government warns it will "resolutely crack down" on protesters if necessary, dissident Yang Jianli is calling on the international community to make sure that doesn't happen.

Jianli, who lives in Washington D.C., is a Chinese political activist and former political prisoner. He was at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the government sent armed soldiers and tanks to quell pro-democracy protests.

This week, people across China once again took to the streets in protest. They have been calling for an end to the country's strict pandemic restrictions, but also for democracy, free speech, an end to government censorship and the ouster of President Xi Jinping.

Jianli has been watching this new movement from afar with both hope and trepidation. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, he called on world leaders to make sure history doesn't repeat itself. 

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

I'm wondering what you've been feeling as you've been watching these protests unfold in China?

As a former protester in Tiananmen Square many decades ago, I just cannot help feeling echoes of Tiananmen Square in these protests that are unfolding in China.

But I do see hope. And, also, I do have a worry and a fear about the fate of these demonstrations.

Hundreds of people gathered together outside at night. Some hold up blank white sheets of paper.
People hold up blank white sheets in Beijing on Monday, a symbol of the protests in China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Are you fearful that those echoes might lead to another violent crackdown, or even a massacre as we saw at Tiananmen?

We all remember the nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1989 ended in the bloodshed of Tiananmen Square massacre. And that created a terror and fear for many, many years to come.

I don't want that to happen. So that is why I'm calling for the entire international community to do everything possible to warn China of the consequences of any bloody attack or crackdown on the demonstrators.

International community support is ... one of the four key things you [said could bring about] meaningful change through these protests. [One of] the other things you outlined [in the Washington Post] — the discontent — is certainly there. But viable democratic opposition and a rift in the Communist Party government, are those realistic at this point?

Not very realistic at this moment. But it can develop very quickly if we do the things in the right way.

The demonstrators can have technology to help them to communicate relatively safely. Then they can come up with some kind of a nationwide organization. And leaders will emerge from this protest. 

And at the same time, if those like myself can come together to work with the world's governments — especially the democratic world — to come up with significant support, I think both factors could present themselves in a relatively short period of time to form a viable movement.

We now see the zero-COVID policies that have caused so many tragedies in China. And the government, you know, [has] not shown any sign of lifting this policy altogether. So my prediction is more disasters and more tragedies will take place that can easily trigger another protest. [When] the protest roles expands, you know, any rift within the leadership can present itself.

A crowd of young people gathered outside at night. One man in the centre holds a large banner over his head that reads "LIBERTY" in big red block letters.
A pro-democracy protester holds up a banner in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on April 22, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

We know that in Guangzhou, some of the COVID restrictions were just lifted today. What's your response to that? What do you think that signals?

In the movie … Schindler's List [an] imprisoned [Jewish] engineer reported to the German officer about something [that] was happening and ... [she] was bold enough to give him suggestions.... The German officer shot [her] on the spot, then asked the people to follow the engineer's suggestions. That's exactly what Xi Jinping's doing.

He needs to re-ignite fear. But, you know, because of this demonstration, people's fear of the party and himself has been reduced. So Xi Jinping has to make an effort to restore this fear among people, even among his comrades. At the same time, he must follow the demands put forth by the demonstrators. So he will gradually lift the zero-COVID policy.

But we must know that over the years, Xi Jinping did very little to prepare ... the country for the policy being lifted altogether. What I'm saying is the vaccine is not adequately [distributed] and the medical insurance is very limited. So once the policy is lifted in some areas, to be sure, the number of infected and the number of deaths will spike. That will cause a different kind of discontent and anger.

Down the road, there are a lot of failures for Xi Jinping, which can easily trigger another protest in China.

I know you don't believe Western governments did enough back in 1989 to help people, such as yourself, who were taking so many risks and pushing for democratic change in China. We have now heard both ... Canadian officials and officials in Washington voice support for the protesters, urging against a further crackdown by Chinese officials. What more, specifically, would you like to see from the United States and Canada?

I really appreciate the voices put forth by Canada and the U.S. and other democracies. Openly showing support for the demonstrators is very important. 

At the same time, as we said many times already, try to do everything possible to prevent another tragedy because … many lives would be lost … [and] the terror that it creates will hold up any reform and advance in freedom in China for many, many years.

So I would like the world's democratic leaders [to] be more outspoken, to make specific warnings about any bloody crackdown on the protesters.

You and many others have been pushing, waiting, for change in your country for decades. What keeps you going?

For many years, many — especially many in the West — have bought into CCP propaganda that China's people are not demanding for freedom and have given up their quest for freedom, for human rights or for democracy ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre. 

So [if] this demonstration has shown anything, I think that it's showed … that the people of China are still demanding for freedom and democracy.

The desire for freedom is universal. And although the demonstrations, the protests, may have been suppressed for the time being … it's just like a lightning bolt in the darkness of the light. That helps us to see the truth, providing insight into the hearts [and] the minds of the people of China. So that gives us a lot of hope.


  • An earlier version of this story included a quote that misgendered a character from Schindler's List and mistakenly referred to her as Israeli. The quote has been edited to remove these errors.
    Dec 01, 2022 5:46 PM ET

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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