Dissidents in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests

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The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, commonly known in mainland China as the June Fourth Incident (Chinese: 六四事件, liùsì shìjiàn), were student-led demonstrations in Beijing (the capital of the People's Republic of China) in 1989. More broadly, it refers to the popular national movement inspired by the Beijing protests during that period, sometimes called the '89 Democracy Movement (Chinese: 八九民运, bājiǔ mínyùn). The protests were forcibly suppressed after Chinese Premier Li Peng declared martial law. In what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, troops with assault rifles and tanks fired at the demonstrators trying to block the military's advance towards Tiananmen Square. The number of civilian deaths was internally estimated by the Chinese government to be near or above 10,000.[1][2]

Dissidents included student leaders, intellectuals and other citizens.

Student leaders[edit]

On 13 June 1989, the Beijing Public Security Bureau released an order for the arrest of 21 students who they identified as leaders of the protest.[3][4] These 21 most wanted student leaders were part of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation[3][4] which had been an instrumental student organization in the Tiananmen Square protests. Prominent leaders such as Wang Dan, Wu'er Kaixi and Chai Ling topped the list. Immediately after the release of the list, only 7 out of the 21 Most Wanted escaped China, with assistance from the Hong-Kong based organization Operation Yellowbird.[5] Though decades have passed, the Most Wanted list has never been retracted by the Chinese government.[6]

Official release[edit]

The Beijing Public Security Bureau issued the 21 Most Wanted list with the following description:

The illegal organization "Beijing Students Autonomous Federation" instigated and organized the counter-revolutionary rebellion in Beijing. It is now decided to pursue 21 of its head and key members, including Wang Dan. After receiving this order, please immediately arrange investigation work. If found, immediate arrest the targets and inform the Beijing Public Security Bureau.[3]

Photographs with biographical descriptions of the 21 Most Wanted followed in this order on the poster:

Name Age or date of birth Origin Other remarks or characteristics
Wang Dan Male 26 February 1969 Jilin Student of the Department of History at Peking University, 173 cm tall, thin hair, slim build, wears glasses, Beijing accent[3][4]
Wuer Kaixi Male 17 February 1968 Xinjiang Student of the Department of Education at Beijing Normal University, 174 cm tall, long face, big eyes, thick lips, often wearing green army pants[3][4]
Liu Gang Male 28 Liaoyuan City, Jilin Province Former graduate student of Department of Physics at Peking University, now unemployed, 165 cm tall, square face, northeastern accent[3][4]
Chai Ling Female 15 April 1966 Rizhao City, Shandong Province Han nationality, graduate student of Department of Psychology at Beijing Normal University, 156 cm tall, round face, high cheekbones, short hair, white skin[3][4]
Zhou Fengsuo Male 5 October 1967 Chang'an County, Shaanxi Province Han nationality, student of Department of Physics, Tsinghua University, 176 cm tall, square face, pointed chin, heavy eyebrows[3][4]
Zhai Weimin Male 21 Xin'an County, Henan Province Student of Beijing Institute of Economics., 168 cm tall, thin build, long-face, dark complexion, heavy Henan accent[3][4]
Liang Qingdun Male 11 May 1969 Pengxi, Sichuan Province Student of Department of Psychology at Beijing Normal University, 171 cm tall, lean, darker complexion, rectangular face, small eyes, high nose, thick lips, speaks Mandarin[3][4]
Wang Zhengyun Male October 1968 Lives in Nanke District, Jinping County, Honghe Prefecture, Yunnan Province Student of Central Institute of Nationalities (Minzu University of China), 167 cm tall, thin and long-faced, dark-yellow eyes, small dots, Yunnan accent[3][4]
Zheng Xuguang Male 20 Native of Mi County, Henan Province Lives in No. 56, North Lane, Huancheng West Road, Xi'an, student of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 181 cm tall, weighing 63 kilograms, long round face, sharp chin, big ears[3][4]
Ma Shaofang Male November 1964 Jiangsu Student of Beijing Film Academy, 167 cm tall, lean, long-faced, sharp chin, dark complexion, wears glasses[3][4]
Yang Tao Male 19 Fuzhou, Fujian Province Student of Department of History at Peking University. 170 cm tall, thin, high cheekbones, wears glasses, speaks Mandarin[3][4]
Wang Zhixing Male November 1967 Shanxi Student of the China University of Political Science and Law, lives in Shanxi Yuci City Textile Industry School, 169 cm tall, long hair, wears glasses[3][4]
Feng Congde Male 5 March 1966 Sichuan Graduate student of Institute of Remote Sensing at Peking University, lean, darker complexion, large nose[3][4]

Wang Chaohua Female 37 Unknown Graduate student of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 163 cm tall, relatively thin, with a relatively flat face, triangular eyes, short hair[3][4]

Wang Youcai Male June 1966 Zhejiang Graduate student of Department of Physics at Peking University[3][4]

Zhang Zhiqing Male June 1964 Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province Student of the China University of Political Science and Law[3][4]
Zhang Boli Male 26 Wang Kui County, Heilongjiang Province Student of Peking University, more fat, round face, thick lips, northeastern accent[3][4]

Li Lu Male 6 April 1966 Tangshan, Hebei Province Student of Nanking University, 174 cm tall, medium build with square chin, prominent lower teeth[3][4]

Zhang Ming Male April 1965 Jilin Student of Department of Auto Engineering at Tsinghua University[3][4]
Xiong Wei Male July 1966 Yingcheng County, Hubei Province Student of Department of Radio at Tsinghua University, lives in Beijing[3][4]
Xiong Yan Male 1 September 1964 Hunan Graduate student of Department of Law at Peking University, lives in Hunan Shuangfeng County[3][4]

The 21 most wanted student leaders faces and descriptions were broadcast on television as well and were constantly looped.[7][8] Arrests were also broadcast, such as that of Most Wanted No. 21 Xiong Yan.[9]

Not all of the 21 most wanted are as well known as Chai Ling or Wang Dan. Others such Zhang Zhiqing have essentially disappeared. After his initial arrest in January 1991 and subsequent release, nothing further is known about his situation and where he lives now.[10] Zhang Zhiqing's role and reason for being listed on the list of 21 most wanted is generally unknown; this is the case for many others on the list such Wang Chaohua. Other dissidents that are not as well known to the public include Zhou Fengsuo and Wang Zhengyun. Zhou Fengsuo was a physics student at Tsinghua University and a member of the Standing Committee of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation during the protests.[10] Fengsuo was turned in by his sister and arrested on June 13, 1989 in Xi'an.[11][10] He was imprisoned for one year before being released in 1990 due to international pressures, along with 97 other political prisoners.[10] Leaving China for the United States, he attended the University of Chicago.[12] Steady in his activist roots he co-founded Humanitarian China, an organization that promotes rule of law in China and also raises money for Chinese political prisoners.[12] Wang Zhengyun was a student of the Central University for Nationalities and was the only member of the Kucon ethnicity minority group to be studying at a university.[10] Zhengyun was arrested in July 1989 and released two years later.[10] He was sent back to his village in the Yunnan countryside.[10] In December 1998, Wang was one of 19 dissidents, including Zhai Weimin, who staged a hunger strike to protest the oppression of CDP members and other dissidents.[10]

Ma Shaofang and Yang Tao are another pair of dissidents that lack public attention despite their constant activist efforts. Ma Shaofang was a student of the Beijing Film Academy during the protests and turned himself in on 13 June 1989.[10][11] In October 1990 he was sentenced to three years in prison for counterrevolutionary incitement.[13] In May 1994, he participated with Wang Dan and other dissidents in a petition to the National People's Congress calling for a reassessment of 4 June.[13] He has had issues in attempting to open a business and has had a series of short lived jobs ever since and is living in Shenzhen.[14][13] Yang Tao, who was at one time the head of Beijing University's Autonomous Student Federation, remains in China today.[13][15] He was initially charged as being an instigator of the counterrevolutionary rebellion and imprisoned for one year on 16 June 1989.[13] In 1998, he wrote an open letter asking for the release of Wang Youcai.[15] His continued efforts landed him in prison in 1999 after lobbying for the government to reverse the labeling of the protest as a "counterrevolutionary rebellion".[15] He was originally arrested on charges of "incitement to overthrow state political power."[15][13] However, he was indicted on amended charges of tax evasion on 23 December due to lack of evidence and on 5 January 2003 was sentenced to four years in prison.[13][15] He was released in May 2003.[13] Yang too has had trouble earning a living.[15]


Each of the 21 students faced diverse experiences after their arrests or escapes; while some remain abroad with no intent to return, others have chosen to stay indefinitely such as Zhang Ming.[5] Only 7 of the 21 were able to escape, the remainder of the 21 student leaders were apprehended and incarcerated.[10] Zhou Fengsuo was turned in by his own sister and arrested on 13 June 1989 in Xi'an. He was imprisoned for one year before being released in 1990 due to international pressures, along with 97 other political prisoners.[10] Some served longer sentences than others, such as Wang Dan, one of the most visible leaders during the protests topping the most wanted list.[16] Wang Dan continued his activist efforts after his parole release and was subsequently sentenced to 11 years for subversion.[10] Liu Gang, who was arrested in Baoding in mid June,[17] attempted to organize his fellow prisoners in defiance, by conducting a hunger strike.[18][17] He had his arms lashed behind his back in a harsh position for several days while in prison.[17] Many of those who initially escaped from the most wanted list were assisted by Operation Yellowbird and fled to the West.[5] Those who escaped remain in exile today and have opened up about their experiences. Zhang Boli, number 17 on the list wrote a book titled "Escape From China" that details his experience during the protests and his escape.[19] Those who escaped, whether it was in 1989 or after, generally have had difficulty re-entering China, even up to this day.[20] The Chinese government prefers to leave the dissidents in exile.[21] Those who attempt to re-enter, such as Wu'er Kaixi, have been simply sent back, but not arrested.[21] In 2009, Xiong Yan, number 21 on the list, returned to China with a visit to Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, in order to mark the 20th anniversary the Tiananmen protests.[22] Xiong Yan spent 19 months in jail, after his release he fled to the United States where he keeps in touch with Tiananmen activists and participates in pro-democracy events.[22] Xiong was invited to the southern Chinese enclave by the Hong Kong Alliance, which has been holding annual candlelight vigils on the 4 June anniversary Tiananmen protests.[22] Many of the 21 who are in exile have joined human rights organizations or are now engaging in private business.[9][10]

Arrests and punishment[edit]

The authorities carried out mass arrests. Many workers were summarily tried and executed. In contrast, the students—many of whom came from relatively affluent backgrounds and were well-connected—received much lighter sentences. Wang Dan, the student leader who topped the most wanted list, spent seven years in prison. Many of the students and university staff implicated were permanently politically stigmatized, some never to be employed again. Some student leaders such as Chai Ling and Wuer Kaixi were able to escape to the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other Western nations under Operation Yellowbird that was organized from Hong Kong, a British territory at the time.[23]

Smaller protest actions continued in other cities for a few days. Some university staff and students who had witnessed the killings in Beijing organized or spurred commemorative events upon their return to school. At Shanghai's prestigious Jiaotong University, for example, the party secretary organized a public commemoration event, with engineering students producing a large metal wreath.[citation needed]

According to the Dui Hua Foundation, citing a provincial government, 1,602 individuals were imprisoned for protest-related activities in the early 1989. As of May 2012, at least two remain incarcerated in Beijing and five others remain unaccounted for.[24] In June 2014, it was reported that Miao Deshun was believed to be the last known prisoner incarcerated for their participation in the protests; he was last heard from a decade ago.[25] All are reported to be suffering from mental illness.[24]


  1. ^ Cheng, Kris (21 December 2017). "Declassified: Chinese official said at least 10,000 civilians died in 1989 Tiananmen massacre, documents show". Hong Kong Free Press. Retrieved 22 December 2017. Political chief of 38th Army Li Zhiyun and US Government documents, respectively
  2. ^ Jan Wong, Red China Blues, Random House 1997, p. 278.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Renmin ribao (People's Daily), June 14, 1989, 2.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Cheng, Eddie (June 13, 2012). "Document of 1989: 21 Most Wanted Student Leaders". Standoff at Tiananmen. Archived from the original on 2018-04-13.
  5. ^ a b c Lim, Louisa (2015). The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Oxford University Press. pp. 70–71.
  6. ^ Lim, Louisa (2015). The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Oxford University Press. p. 74.
  7. ^ Lim, Louisa (2015). The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Oxford University Press. p. 39.
  8. ^ Kristof, Nicholas D (June 14, 1989). "TURMOIL IN CHINA; Moderates Appear on Beijing TV, Easing Fears of Wholesale Purge". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2018-04-13.
  9. ^ a b Chai, Ling (2011). A Heart for Freedom. Tyndale House Publishers. p. 207.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mosher, Stacy (May 26, 2004). "Tiananmen's Most Wanted—Where Are They Now?". HRI China. Archived from the original on 2018-04-13.
  11. ^ a b Cheng, Eddie (2009). Standoff At Tiananmen. Sensys Corp. p. 276.
  12. ^ a b Jacobs, Andrew (June 3, 2014). "Tiananmen's Most Wanted". Sinosphere, New York Times. Archived from the original on 2018-04-15.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Mosher, Stacy (May 26, 2004). "Tiananmen's Most Wanted—Where Are They Now?". HRI China. Archived from the original on 2018-04-13.
  14. ^ "Where Are Some of the "Most Wanted" Participants Today?". Human Rights Watch Asia. May 24, 2004. Archived from the original on 2018-04-16.
  15. ^ a b c d e f "Where Are Some of the "Most Wanted" Participants Today?". Human Rights Watch Asia. May 24, 2005. Archived from the original on 2018-04-16.
  16. ^ Xiaoqing, Rowena (2014). Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 14–15.
  17. ^ a b c "Guilt by Association, More Documents from the Chinese Trials" (PDF). www.hrw.org. Asia Watch. July 25, 1991. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-04-15.
  18. ^ Lim, Louisa (2015). The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Oxford University Press. pp. 40–42.
  19. ^ Boli, Zhang (1998). Escape From China. Washington Square Press.
  20. ^ Lim, Louisa (2015). The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Oxford University Press. pp. 73–76.
  21. ^ a b Traywick, Catherine A. (November 25, 2013). "Why China Refuses to Arrest its 'Most Wanted' Dissidents". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 2018-04-13.
  22. ^ a b c Leitsinger, Miranda (June 4, 2009). "One of Tiananmen's 'most wanted' returns to China". CNN. Archived from the original on 2018-04-15.
  23. ^ Liu, Melinda (April 1996). "Article: Still on the wing; inside Operation Yellowbird, the daring plot to help dissidents escape.(special report: China)". Newsweek.
  24. ^ a b "Less Than a Dozen June Fourth Protesters Still in Prison" Dui Hua Foundation May 31, 2012
  25. ^ Harron, Celia (2014-06-03). "Miao Deshun: China's last Tiananmen prisoner?". BBC News. Retrieved 23 September 2014.

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