Editor’s Note: The below is an expansion of a piece that appeared in the June 25, 2018, issue of National Review.
Fang Zheng looks like an athlete, which he is. Broad chest, muscly arms — and a sturdy head of hair to top it off. Yet he sits in a wheelchair and has no legs. What happened? He was run over by a tank in Tiananmen Square.
In fact, he wears a T-shirt that says, “Remember June 4” — the day in 1989 when the Chinese government sent in soldiers to massacre student protesters. For almost 30 years now, the government has labored to cover up the massacre (which they call “the June Fourth Incident,” in delicate euphemism). Fang Zheng makes it harder.
He is a guest at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. I have some questions for him, which he readily answers.
Fang Zheng was born in Hefei City, Anhui Province, in 1966 — the first year of the Cultural Revolution (that spasm of insanity, depravity, and murder, which lasted ten years). His father was “a civil servant in a small agency,” he says. “Just an ordinary worker.” The family was like a great many other families in China. “We all pretty much suffered,” says Fang Zheng.
In the late 1970s, the Communist party began to reform the country. This was exciting for Fang Zheng, along with everyone else. He dreamed of being an athlete. So did other boys (and girls, surely). In school, he says, “our biggest dream was to make some kind of contribution to the country and bring glory to China.”
The year 1984 was very big — because China was participating in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Communist China had been largely absent from the Olympics. “We felt that China was finally part of the world,” says Fang Zheng. He was 17 years old at the time and glued to the television. The Chinese women’s volleyball team beat the United States to win the gold medal. That was huge. It was natural for Chinese hearts to swell with pride.
Fang Zheng went to Beijing Sports University, where he was a track-and-field star — a sprinter. His plan was to be a teacher in the sports department of a teachers’ college. In 1987, he joined the Communist party. And in 1989, when he was in his senior year, he joined the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
He had no hesitation in doing so. “At the time, China was relatively open and free,” he says, “even within the Communist party. We were thinking about curbing corruption, reducing bureaucracy, and getting freedom of speech.” Party members and non-members alike had been inspired by Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union.
The demonstrations went on for about a month and a half. Tensions between the students and the government mounted, coming to a head in that first week of June.
Fang Zheng makes special mention of Liu Xiaobo. “He risked his life representing us students in negotiations with the troops, and this allowed many to evacuate Tiananmen Square peacefully.” Later, Liu Xiaobo became China’s foremost democracy leader, and its foremost political prisoner. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 (in absentia). He died in 2017, finally succumbing to the torments inflicted on him by the state.
At Tiananmen Square, a female classmate of Fang Zheng’s, younger than he, was afraid. She wanted to stay by his side. “Sure,” he said. “I’m a man and I will protect you. You’ll be safe with me.”
On the morning of June 4, as the sun rose, the Party unleashed hell on the students. Bullets flew over the heads of Fang Zheng and his companion, ricocheting off the Monument to the People’s Heroes, creating showers of sparks. Some of the bullets flew directly into the students. The tanks rolled, knocking over the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, which the students had constructed.
Suddenly, there was an explosion, a gas bomb. The air was thick with smoke, Fang Zheng remembers. “We were suffocating and nauseated. We couldn’t see anything.” His companion fainted. “I picked her up, in order to move her to the side. As I was doing that, I noticed a tank heading straight for us.” He pushed the young woman out of the way, but could not quite save himself. “The tank ran over my legs, and then I felt it drag me for some distance, with a thumping sound.”
Before he lost consciousness, he glimpsed the exposed bones of what remained of his legs. He says that he is grateful to the photographer “who recorded this gruesome scene,” providing “ironclad evidence” of the atrocity. He also says that he is grateful to “the people who rescued me and stopped me from bleeding to death.”
How many people were killed at Tiananmen Square? The government said a couple of hundred. In December 2017, the British declassified a cable from their ambassador at the time, Sir Alan Donald. The cable was dated June 5, the day after. Sir Alan said he had learned from a well-placed source that the government killed at least 10,000. He had some grisly details, too.
“27 ARMY APCS OPENED FIRE ON THE CROWD (BOTH CIVILIANS AND SOLDIERS) BEFORE RUNNING OVER THEM IN THEIR APCS.” The phrase “27 Army” refers to the 27th Group Army. “APCS” means armored personnel carriers.
“STUDENTS UNDERSTOOD THEY WERE GIVEN ONE HOUR TO LEAVE SQUARE BUT AFTER FIVE MINUTES APCS ATTACKED. STUDENTS LINKED ARMS BUT WERE MOWN DOWN INCLUDING SOLDIERS. APCS THEN RAN OVER BODIES TIME AND TIME AGAIN TO MAKE QUOTE PIE UNQUOTE AND REMAINS COLLECTED BY BULLDOZER. REMAINS INCINERATED AND THEN HOSED DOWN DRAINS.”
“4 WOUNDED GIRL STUDENTS BEGGED FOR THEIR LIVES BUT WERE BAYONETED. A 3 YEAR OLD GIRL WAS INJURED BUT HER MOTHER WAS SHOT AS SHE WENT TO HER AID AS WERE SIX OTHERS WHO TRIED. 1000 SURVIVORS WERE TOLD THEY COULD ESCAPE VIA ZHENGYI LU BUT WERE THEN MOWN DOWN BY SPECIALLY PREPARED M/G POSITIONS.” That term “M/G” means machine gun.
Back to Fang Zheng — who was taken to a hospital, for surgeries. The student he had rescued visited him several times, thanking him profusely. Later, she denied that she had been with him when he was injured. This was the result of tremendous government pressure, as the authorities were trying to cover up the whole massacre. “I can understand why she did it,” says Fang Zheng. “She wanted to continue her education, she wanted to have a job, her family needed to live in China.” (The families of those who cross the Party are reliably punished.)
He has not seen her since. Does he forgive her? “Of course,” he says. “There’s nothing to forgive. I completely understand.”
The pressure on Fang Zheng to lie about what had happened was very, very great. They wanted him to say that he had been injured in a road accident. Alternatively, they wanted him to say that he and his fellow students had attacked the army, drawing a response. He refused to tell any lies.
Others decided to lie — to play along. “I know a man who was injured by a tank,” says Fang Zheng, “and in order to continue his studies and go abroad, he signed an affidavit saying that his injury was caused by a bus, not a tank.”
It would have been much, much easier for Fang Zheng to take this route. Why did he not? “They were saying that the Party’s interests were over people’s interests. I disagreed with this. I thought that human beings should be over the Party. I insisted on the truth. I thought it was more important” (than the Party).
Fang Zheng quit the Party, finding it irredeemable. “In the past, we opposed Mao Zedong and the cult of personality. Fang Lizhi said that good people should join the Party and reform the Party.” (Fang Lizhi was the great astrophysicist and dissident who was able to find asylum in the United States. He died in 2012.) “But after June 4,” says Fang Zheng, “I saw that the problem was the Party itself, and the system itself. No individual, not even the general secretary, can change the system. So, the system itself is the important thing. I believe in democracy and in checks and balances. Only with that can we avoid disasters in the future.”
Not long after his injury — no mere broken arm — Fang Zheng started training again, as a disabled athlete. How did he find the will? Bitterness would have constrained many in his situation. “I had no bitterness,” he says. “After I lost my legs, I still had my love of sports, and this love made me want to train as soon as I could.”
In 1992, three years after Tiananmen, he won two gold medals at the All-China Disabled Athletic Games. The medals were in the discus and the javelin. Fang Zheng was due to participate in international competition — but the authorities forbade him, because of the “political sensitivity” of his injury.
For 20 years, the authorities harassed and hampered Fang Zheng. First, they denied him a college degree. Second, they denied him work. Third, they restricted his movements, barring him from Beijing, for example. They made life as difficult as possible (and it had already been made very difficult at Tiananmen Square).
Then came the 2008 Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing. Foreign media knew about Fang Zheng and took an interest in him — which made Party officials nervous. They did not want to be seen as the persecutor of this wheelchair-bound, legless, girl-saving hero. They granted him a passport on August 28, 2008. The following January, the entire family got visas for the United States.
That family consisted of Fang Zheng, his wife (they married in 1999), and their daughter. Later, they would have two more daughters.
In the weeks leading up to the family’s departure, the government played a game with Fang Zheng — alternately threatening him and seducing him, in an effort to get him to stay. Even when he and his family were at the airport, he was not sure whether the government would allow him to leave. There were many foreign journalists at the airport, waiting to see what would happen. The family was allowed to take off.
For these past 20 years or so, they have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 2008 Games were a boon to Fang Zheng personally. But does he think that China should host Olympic Games? (In 2022, Beijing will host its second set of games, the Winter Games.) No. Before the 2008 Games, he notes, the Chinese government made promises to the international community — promises to liberalize. The government, of course, reneged on those promises. The next time around, when 2022 was discussed, the international community barely tried, says Fang Zheng. No one expects or demands concessions from the Chinese Communist Party.
Like most other people who care about China, Fang Zheng is appalled by the rule of Xi Jinping. It is the most repressive since Mao’s, he says.
In America, Fang Zheng heads a foundation — the Chinese Democracy Education Foundation — and does what he can to further the cause of his country (the liberalization of it). He is especially determined that the Tiananmen Square Massacre not be forgotten, or falsified. The Chinese government bans commemorations of the massacre and blocks online discussions of it.
I ask, “Can you imagine going back to China?” “I don’t have a strong desire to go back,” Fang Zheng answers. “My focus right now is my family and my life in the United States. I’m not sentimental about going back to China, unless there are changes. If I ever returned, it would have to be with a purpose. My return would have to involve some kind of action.”
Fang Zheng notes that next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Perhaps there will be a push for reform.
Here in Oslo, I observe Fang Zheng for a few days, and he seems cheerful, confident — even serene. Frankly, he radiates good health. Does he have internal battles, in view of all he has endured? “I try to live as normally as possible,” he says. “Everyone faces challenges. I have difficulties such as pains in my body. I try to overcome them. I just want to live every single day well.”
When he was a schoolkid, he wanted to bring glory to China through athletic prowess. He has brought glory to China, all right — through his courage, moral and physical, and through the example he has set. Above all, he has insisted on telling the truth: the awful, important truth.