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Shen Tong in Exile 

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"I think there are two Tiananmen Squares," says Shen Tong, one of the student leaders of China's near revolution in the spring of 1989. He's speaking at a private club to a small group of Chicago academics, businesspeople, and foundation representatives as part of a two-and-a-half-week tour to promote his recent autobiography, which he wrote last spring as a full-time student at Brandeis University.

First, he says, there is the Tiananmen Square a mile from the house in Beijing where he grew up: "the Beijing where I got involved in the political movement, the excitement, the expectation--of my childhood, my dream, my family." Then there is the Tiananmen Square created by the Western media in 1989. "I'm not saying the coverage wasn't accurate. It was. But the reports only covered the event itself. I think it's the nature of American TV and culture to focus on sensation and the moment. They showed the struggle for freedom and democracy, but they didn't show where it came from--or where it would go."

His voice is clear and calm, his English remarkable given that he only began studying it in high school. His 20-minute speech flows without interruption; it's extemporaneous from an outline in his head. Such discipline in someone who's only 22 is vaguely disquieting, but that effect is offset by what he's wearing--faded jeans, borrowed running shoes, and the sweater his sister gave him for his birthday. He says he refuses to dress up. When one of the fancy hotels his publisher put him up at had a dress code for its restaurants, he ate what room service would bring.

He tells the audience that he was uncomfortable about the idea of writing an autobiography, but decided that telling his story might make the differences between his generation and his parents' clearer. "We are the product of ten years of reform--a whole young generation, new in terms of ideology, sociology. We are still a transitional generation. We didn't suffer the Cultural Revolution, though we still experienced the aftermath of it. But we knew enough to carry forward."

Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the early 1980s opened China a little to the West, he says. "The two were merging--the old system and the new. And deepening. So we have the new ideology of individualism, the psychological foundation of the new society." He mentions Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles as influences, then quickly adds Cui Jian, whom he describes as the John Lennon of China. It was not merely that China was being westernized, he says. "My own culture has a liberal tradition that has been reemerging."

It is this changing China that Shen Tong thinks much of the Western media missed. And because they didn't see it, they didn't understand that the killings in and around Tiananmen Square couldn't destroy the movement for democracy--not in China and not in exile. "We are not a surviving shell from China. We are still trying to bring democracy to China. The movement never stopped--it was only deepened and strengthened by the massacre."

Shen Tong's speech is not dramatic--he is far too conscious of complexity and paradox. But the applause when he finishes is long and warm.

He's tired and hungry, though it doesn't show. To do the tour he had to take time off from Brandeis, where this semester he's taking more than a full class load, and he's been running hard for more than a week. He started this morning in Washington, D.C., where he had interviews at a couple of radio stations. When he arrived at the Ambassador East this afternoon he had time only to order a salad before representatives from a foundation were knocking on his door. Since escaping from China he has founded the Democracy for China Fund to focus various efforts to get information into China--and money is what the exile democracy movement needs more than anything, to pay for fax machines, radio broadcasts from Taiwan, newspapers that will be smuggled to the growing underground movement. On his way to give his speech he walked the foundation representatives down to the lobby. He hadn't eaten much; before his speech he drank some orange juice as he talked to more potential donors.

Standing at the lectern, he takes a sip from a glass of water, then answers questions from the audience.

How much did the workers support the students?

"Most of those killed and arrested were workers and intellectuals," he answers. (Later he says that the Western media were deliberately misled by the Chinese government, which guided their attention toward whether or not there had been shooting in Tiananmen Square, when most of those who were killed died far from the square.) He adds that though the students may have triggered the protests, the movement quickly became nationwide--230 cities had large demonstrations.

Should the U.S. have granted China most-favored-nation status?

His answer is diplomatic. "The U.S. should keep the door open on China, but it shouldn't just extend most-favored-nation status regardless of the human-rights situation." Moreover, he says, China's government is not monolithic--many parts of the economy have been decentralized, and local governments are often powerful and relatively independent. "The government to George Bush is the old people in Beijing," he says, and the audience laughs supportively. "I think they're choosing the wrong side of history on this issue."

Someone asks how he got involved in politics, how he became a leader of the student democracy movement.

"You want to turn this into a book-reading exercise?" he chides, laughing. But he obliges with a summary, then adds, "I really don't consider me a hero. I always have hesitation--if others don't care, why should I?" Later he says, "A lot of people think the students were too emotional, too irrational. They said we screwed up. To some extent we did. A lot of reformers in government lost power. But when the movement started, it was like a broken dike--the water just rushed out. People called me a traitor because I tried to push it back for a while."

When will the next movement come?

"The movement didn't stop," he says. "It's a matter of chances." Perhaps the death of Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng will trigger a new uprising. "There's a lot of argument about who should die first," he says with a wry smile. Perhaps it will be the crumbling economy or a release of political prisoners. He's afraid that if the rebellion comes too soon, it may be violent, chaotic. But he has no doubt it will come. "The people in China were very disappointed by the government's reaction to Tiananmen Square. They know what they don't want, but not what they do want."

When the last question has been answered and the applause is over, Shen Tong makes his way over to a table set up near the entrance to the room and autographs copies of his book. By the time he walks out of the building it is 8 PM. His publisher has provided an escort, who is waiting outside with a car. Though the Ambassador East is only a couple of blocks away, the escort insists on driving. When he pulls up in front of the hotel entrance, the escort says he'll be back at nine to take Shen Tong to his last interview of the day.

The slightly cool, academic air Shen Tong had as a lecturer has dropped away. He heads into the hotel with a foundation representative who's come back with him. Another friend meets him in the lobby and steers him into the Pump Room for dinner. But dinner can't be had in 45 minutes, so they sit at a table near the bar and order drinks. Shen Tong orders cranberry juice.

He leans toward the foundation representative, explaining rapidly--she can only stay ten minutes--why the Democracy for China Fund needs money for computers and modems to transmit material to China. After she leaves, he sinks back into his chair for a moment. The executive director of the fund, who is with him on the tour, asks the waitress for something from the bar for Shen Tong to eat. She comes back with a bowl of nuts and raisins, but he doesn't have time to eat many before he has to leave for his interview.

The escort drives him to WBBM's building, and he's taken up to the radio studio. At 9:30 he's on the air, giving brief answers to Dave Baum's rapid-fire questions.

The themes aren't new, though perhaps Baum's style is. "Is it true the People's Republic of China ain't ready for reform?" Baum asks. (He persists in saying People's Republic of China, though Shen Tong says only China.) Did the people in the rural areas "buy the big lie" about what happened in Tiananmen Square? Were the workers part of the movement?

Shen Tong again pushes the idea that the movement was far more than students, and that it isn't dead.

"So it's not over? It's alive and well?" asks Baum.

"The movement keeps going," Shen Tong answers patiently.

At 9:55, two commercial breaks and two callers later, Shen Tong's time is up, and he heads down the corridor with a long, loping stride. He says he really ought to study for his midterms. Tomorrow he has a bookstore signing, a couple of radio interviews, and a flight to LA.

As the escort pulls up to the door of the Ambassador East, he offers to give Shen Tong a wake-up call in the morning. "OK," says Shen Tong. "I won't take breakfast."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Leo Hsu.

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