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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. 

As a matter of fact, from my own personal experiences, I just want to tell everybody that no matter which country you are living in, in order to push the democracy and human rights movement forward, inevitably you are going to pay a price and make significant sacrifices. But don’t worry, this is inevitable.

I believe there are a lot of people who are conscious and, with full determination, are standing behind us and offering greater support to us. Despite lots difficulties, we have many supporters and especially a great country like the United States, which deserves the trust and reliance of the people. 

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 on this theme from Fang Zheng

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.”