As a student at Beijing University in 1980, some of my schoolmates and I, disgusted with the shadow of totalitarianism, organized a student movement on campus. It was the first of its kind since the Communist Party took over power in 1949. Through public forums on campus and brochures, we openly criticized the former Communist autocrat Mao Ze Dong and China’s one-party system and appealed for democratic reforms. We drafted a proposal asking the government to grant freedom of the press that gained more than 600 signatures both on and off campus and was submitted to China’s highest legislative body and the leadership of the Communist Party.
Then we experienced the pressure of totalitarianism. Conservative leaders in the party issued orders to expel me and two other student leaders. Fortunately, then-party leader Hu Yao Bang was an open-minded person and stopped the expulsion order. The 1989 Tiananmen Square movement was in some ways a continuation and an advancement of this first student movement, and it was not a coincidence that the June 4th movement began when students at Beijing University organized a large scale memorial service for the death of Hu Yao Bang. He had lost his leadership post for his perceived leniency toward students. While the Tiananmen Square massacre demonstrated the power of totalitarianism, it also showed how many people wanted to step out of totalitarianism’s shadow.
Hopes that the death of Deng Xiao Ping, China’s leader during the massacre, might bring political reform were crushed when Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party’s third-generation leader, rejected reform outright. My friends and I, more disgusted than ever with the totalitarian regime, drafted a document published simultaneously in the U.S., France and Taiwan challenging the Chinese government to carry out sweeping reforms. Called “China Needs a New Transformation—Program Proposal of the Democratic Faction,” its revolutionary content frightened the leadership.
It asked the Chinese government to direct free elections and support a multi-party system; to expand privatization and the market economy; to give up the monopoly on communist ideology in China; to align with democratic countries in international affairs; and to pursue a peaceful and non-violent policy towards Taiwan and Tibet.
China’s Communist regime never allows for dissenting voices, of course, and I was no exception. From July 1998 to July 2002, I endured unspeakable hardship in four Chinese prisons. I was detained illegally again on Nov. 4, 2002, just months after I had been released and only four days before China’s fourth-generation leadership assumed power. The Chinese regime would not allow a democratic dissident like me to disrupt the change in leadership. This time, however, I was confined to a military prison in a secret location, with two or three soldiers guarding me 24 hours a day in front of my small bed in my tiny, single cell. They constantly reminded me that I was under the dark shadow of China’s totalitarianism.
I was released 82 days later under the pressure from the U.S. government and international human rights groups as part of a diplomatic deal. Although I have physically escaped totalitarianism’s shadow, China’s new leadership continues to stall political reform, and I have the moral responsibility to continue devoting myself to promoting democratic reform. Despite the appalling experience of prison, I do not regret what I did. I am proud to have righteously challenged China’s totalitarianism, and I cannot and will not remain only an office-bound visiting scholar at Harvard.
Totalitarianism’s biggest vulnerability is that it can never truly gain popular support. Recently, more than 500,000 in Hong Kong bravely took to the streets to protest Article 23, an ugly new law banning treason, sedition and subversion that will be used to strip away the civil liberties that people in Hong Kong, unlike those in mainland China, might otherwise enjoy. Their protests serve as an example for mainland Chinese, who must not expect totalitarianism to disappear on its own and should challenge it actively as my friends and I have.
Two-hundred thirty years ago, George Washington led the American people out of the shadow of totalitarianism—although some may not think of colonial life in those terms. His early activities did not take place far from Harvard Yard. I believe that the American people should support Chinese people as they attempt to step out of the shadow, and I hope students at Harvard today will play an important role in pushing China towards the democratic future that the Chinese people want and deserves.
Fang Jue is a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. A prominent dissident and leader of China’s democratic movement, Fang arrived in the United States after his expulsion from China in January.