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Interviews : Fang Zheng

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Interviewed July 2010

Fang Zheng was a college student in Beijing in 1989 when he participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. As the military moved to suppress the demonstrations on June 4, 1989, he was run over by a tank and both of his legs were crushed and had to be amputated.

Fang refused to sign a government-written statement that he had lost his legs in an ordinary road accident. He was denied a college degree. Once a champion runner, he now devoted himself to wheelchair athletics, breaking two Asian records at the 1992 All-China Disabled Athletic Games. However, the government refused to allow him to participate in international competitions or in further competition within China.

Fang spoke frequently to international news media about the human rights situation, and particularly about the government’s refusal to acknowledge what it had done at Tiananmen Square. He was repeatedly denied the right to travel overseas, but he was finally allowed to leave China in 2008 amid widespread interest in his case among international news media covering the Beijing Olympics. 

It is like this. We may say, before I was injured, I was an athlete who liked sports, but I was not one of those on the top notch or a professional athlete, just an amateur sports fan. In the incident of 1989, after the suppression, we learned more about the Communist Party. But before, our knowledge of the Communist Party was very incomplete because of the very limited education we received. Because, as everybody knows, the Communist Party has always been relying on lies and propaganda to distort and conceal the truth and its entire history.

Through our personal experience of June 4th [1989], we believed that the Communist Party has had a full exposure of its violent nature and its deceptiveness. So, after June 4th, I withdrew from the Chinese Communist Party. Then I believed, because, after June 4th, the fact that I was attacked by the tank. After June 4th I was in the hospital. The Public Security Bureau was investigating me. They demanded that I keep quiet, did not allow me to speak out, to tell my experience and the truth.

When I returned to school, there were more prosecutions and investigations. One of their goals was to conceal the fact that when we, the students, were evacuating from the square, there were tanks attacking us from behind. I knew in that place many students got injured or died.

But after the violent crackdown the Communist Party returned to relying on lies and propaganda to conceal and distort the truth. This was what I could not accept. So eventually I chose to withdraw from the Chinese Communist Party.

Then I started thinking more about Chinese society. After I was injured, I actively participated in many sports activities held for the disabled.

However, even for the sports for the disabled, I won two championships in the domestic games in 1992. But when I was planning to attend the international games on behalf of the disabled in China, for example, the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled, held in Beijing in 1994, or further to attend the Paralympic Games, however, the Chinese government, because of the cause of my injury – in China, you know, the sports have been thickly tainted with political colors. So just because of the cause of my injury, it deprived me of the opportunity to participate in sports.

So after 1994, when China started applying to host the Olympic Games, I always believed that China is not entitled to it; it should not go for it. The human rights conditions and political situation should have disqualified it, and China should not have been entitled to host the Olympic Games. Because we know what the Olympic purpose is. What the Chinese government had been doing was in serious conflict with the spirit of the Olympics.

However, this is my own basic opinion. Though in 2008 Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. But it -- at that time, people still had some hopes then, through hosting the Olympic Games, China could be more open, Chinese human rights conditions and its democracy would improve. But to the contrary, though the international community has shown a lot of tolerance to China, and more forgiveness, and made a lot of compromises, the Chinese government, we think it was very disappointing. China’s human rights and democracy did not make the progress as people had expected.

So my personal experience is a typical product when politics are involved in sports, an example of political persecution in the sports area. In 1994, when I wanted to attend the Far East sport games held for the disabled, I was stopped by them relentlessly. Till the last, all sports activities, regardless of whether they were domestic, let alone international games, let alone the Olympic Games, I was totally blocked by them.

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, after a decades-long civil war between communist and nationalist forces. The communist victory drove the nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. While tensions have eased in recent years, both the nationalist and communist forces still claim to rule all of China. China ranks as the world’s third largest country by area, and the largest by population, with over 1.3 billion people.

Since 1949, China has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong led the country until his death in 1976. Mao’s era was marked by dramatic swings in policy, massive crackdowns on perceived opponents of the regime, and harsh repression. Since 1976, the Chinese government has broken with Marxist economic orthodoxy by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on political power.

Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child policy in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization. While technology has spread quickly in recent years, Freedom House ranks China as one of the three most repressive governments in the world in terms of Internet freedom.

While the rapid expansion of the private sector has dramatically changed the Chinese economy, fundamental principles of free market systems are lacking, including property rights and independent labor unions. Official corruption remains a major obstacle to developing a fully free economy.

In 1989, 100,000 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area with troops, tanks, and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge those who had sympathized with protestors from the party and the government.

Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists, and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.

In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.

The most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House gave China scores of 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights, where 1 is the highest and 7 the lowest possible score. Freedom House categorizes China as a “Not Free” country.

More from Fang Zheng

Fang Zheng: Persecution in Sports After winning national titles in athletic events for the disabled, Fang Zheng was prohibited from participating in the Special Olympics. Fang Zheng: Technology How the internet and other new technologies have been used both by Chinese democracy advocates and by the security apparatus that seeks to silence them. Fang Zheng: One-Child Policy How China’s population control policies disregard the dignity of women and the value of human beings. More + Fang Zheng: Tiananmen Square “On June 4th, I was at Tiananmen Square . . . . The tank was chasing behind us. Finally it ran over me and cut off both my legs.” Fang Zheng: Sacrifice and Support “There are a lot people standing behind us and offering great support . . . Especially a great country like the United States.”