Skip to content Skip to navigation

Feng Congde

February 18, 2003

Compassion in dark places: escape, exile, memories

Feng Congde was one of the student leaders of the 1989 student movement. Today from his home in Paris, he maintains, a Web site that documents the history of the movement and provides research information, audio-visual reports and first hand accounts of the June Fourth massacre. He is also studying for his doctorate. Wang Yu met him in Paris, and talked to him about his experiences.

Wang Yu: Thirteen years after the 1989 Movement, what are the most important things that stand out in your mind from that time, and what effects did they have on you?

Feng Congde: The student movement was, of course, moving and stimulating, but there was something that occurred during my escape which deeply affected me. When Chai Ling and I were in hiding, we met a group of people who described themselves as “Qigong (breathing exercise) practitioners,” but I came to think of them as religious people. They took a great risk in hiding us, but they were willing to because they disapproved of the government’s massacre of the people. They believe that human life is sacred, so saving a person’s life is the most important thing one can do.

Later on, to increase our security, they hid Chai and myself in different places. For three months I was concealed in a forest. On the day I left, they told me repeatedly, “When you reach safety, do not say anything about us or our way of life. We are just a group of people who practice Qigong.” Although they were poor, they gave me money. One person, who was no longer a child, gave me all the money he had saved for a wedding.

I didn’t know how to show my gratitude. I was touched beyond words. Their behavior revealed to me the valuable traditions of the ordinary common people in our society. They opened a door in my mind. I discovered another China of which I knew almost nothing. Since then, I have become interested in the history, philosophy and traditions of my country.

Wang: Did they sympathize with your movement?

Feng: The student movement did not appeal to them very much. For example, we were asking for democracy and modernization. To them, modernization was an idea of doubtful value. In their eyes, their simple life was better than the modern one. They said, “We are very pleased with white rice and noodles. Why bother to go through the trouble of making biscuits?” However, they thought the government was wrong to call in the army and fire at the students.

Wang: When you were in hiding with these wonderful people, did you try to escape before you finally succeeded?

Feng: Yes, I did. The life in hiding was absolutely unbearable. I lost patience and became impetuous. Once I attempted to cross the border. After carefully scouting out the area that led to the border and feeling that it was safe enough, some of the Qigong people accompanied me there. When we arrived, my companions struck up a conversation with a woman working in a field. The woman immediately and directly asked, “Are you the students fleeing from Beijing? Look over there, the soldiers are arresting people.” After this warning, we separated. I took a bus and continued on to the border. When a soldier got on the bus and asked everyone to show his or her border residence ID, I got nervous and pretended to search for mine. The soldier checked everyone’s ID but ignored me. So I arrived safely at a little village on the border. There was only one short road through the village with a lot of police scattered about. I walked back and forth for a while but found no way to get to the other side. Finally, I returned to my hiding place very disappointed.

These experiences affected me deeply. I started to practice Qigong with a friend’s mother. I needed to do something to keep myself calm. I remember when I learned from Voice of America that there were seven students shut in one cell in Qincheng Prison. I envied them for being able to keep each other company.

Wang: Can you explain how these experiences affected you? Did you think there was something mysterious or miraculous? I think, at that time, most people sympathized deeply with you students. Did the woman who warned you and the soldier who ignored you do those things on purpose?

Feng: Yes and no. When we were in hiding, we knew sometimes that people recognized us but pretended not to see us. However, the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army are different, since they are trained to obey orders. I don’t know why the soldiers didn’t arrest me. It happened three times. But don’t misunderstand me; I am not superstitious. I just feel it is a mystery that is difficult to explain.

Wang: From those Qigong people, I think you learned of compassion, trust, faith and courage. Their behavior was akin to religion.

Feng: Yes, these people aroused my curiosity about religion. When I arrived in the West, I started on a religious odyssey. I attended Catholic, Christian, Judaic, Islamic and Hindu services and rites. I read their scriptures and participated in their activities.

Wang: Did you convert to any religion?

Feng: No, I didn’t. I think what touched me deeply from those Qigong people was the religion embodied in their behavior.

Actually, the first time I experienced this kind of beautiful relationship was among the participants in the democracy movement. In those days the people of Beijing became more sincere, polite, trustful and conscientious. Since the government accused the students of making trouble and disturbing daily life, even the pickpockets decided to stop stealing just to show their support for the students.

I value this kind of feeling, and it was the same feeling I found among the Qigong people and among the religious people on my odyssey. I am sure that is why so many June 4th students who escaped to the West have turned to religion.

Wang: You must have seen the documentary film about the 1989 movement made by Carma Hinton, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace.” What do you think about it?

Feng: It is a very successful documentary film. But it didn’t give us all the facts and background of that time. We didn’t learn about the internal workings of the students’ operation. Hinton has her own view of the movement. It is rather narrow. For example, she used Dai Qing to represent the intellectuals. I don’t think that is appropriate. We see the movement too much through the eyes of Dai. It would be much better if Han had chosen Yan Jiaqi, Fang Lizhi or Bao Zunxin.

Wang: Looking back, what do you think were the strong and weak points of the movement?

Feng: The value of the movement was that it did not represent any one group of people over another. Its appeal was for the benefit of the whole nation. It represented an ideal, standing against corruption and degeneration. It asked for social justice, democracy and modernization.

The shortcoming of the Movement was that we were not mentally well prepared. We had no deep theory or philosophy to support our action. We were poorly organized. We were brave and dared to take some steps forward, but we had no backup. We lost the battle but we will not lose the war.

Wang: How has the movement influenced China?

Feng: The movement has made an impact on the Chinese government as well as on the people.

During the protest movement, we demanded social justice, democracy and liberalization of the economy. The Chinese government adopted our idea of the latter, carrying out a policy of economic reform. The present Chinese government often boasts of its economic achievements.

The spirit of the movement was basically nationalism. Its goal was to build a powerful country. In the past 150 years, many movements have tried to do the same thing. These movements and this patriotism raise questions among the Chinese people. What did the Chinese Communists do to our country? Why is our country so poor, backward and undemocratic? Gradually, people have lost confidence and their trust in the Communist government.

Wang: What do you think about how the movement has been continued overseas?

Feng: The exiled activists have carried out only some of the movement’s demands. They advocate democracy. I think nationalism should not be neglected. We should continually make efforts to push our country to build a just society with good economic and legal systems where human rights are respected.

Wang: Since you have lived in France for a long time, have you ever encountered the local Communists? How do you feel about them?

Feng: Yes, I have met some of them. I feel in this capitalist country that the leftists and the Communists are the idealists. They give me the impression of being very sincere, open and willing to exchange ideas with people like me. They are different from the Communists in China. Chinese Communism is a monster, which holds onto only the worst of Eastern and Western philosophies. For example, the Chinese Communists take from both the Qin Emperor and Stalin, using their terrible systems of manipulating and controlling people.

Wang: What is your life in Paris like?

Feng: In addition to working on my doctoral thesis, I have set up a June 4th 1989 Web site. It belongs to Human Rights In China. Its purpose is to provide an archive of the 1989 movement, documenting its history.

As a matter of fact, I have worked on this Web site since 1991 by myself. At that time, many exiled students also thought this was important work. In 1995 I even called a telephone conference to exchange ideas with other exiles, but we were scattered in so many different places, so it became difficult to coordinate and work together.

Fortunately, Human Rights In China has picked up the work. I am very happy to do the job.

Wang Yu is a poet and a board member of HRIC.

Explore Topics

709 Crackdown Access to Information Access to Justice Administrative Detention All about law Arbitrary Detention
Asset Transparency Bilateral Dialogue Black Jail Book Review Business And Human Rights Censorship
Charter 08 Children Chinese Law Circumvention technology Citizen Activism Citizen Journalists
Citizen Participation Civil Society Commentary Communist Party Of China Constitution Consumer Safety
Contending views Corruption Counterterrorism Courageous Voices Cultural Revolution Culture Matters
Current affairs Cyber Security Daily Challenges Democratic And Political Reform Demolition And Relocation  Dissidents
Education Elections Enforced Disappearance Environment Ethnic Minorities EU-China
Family Planning Farmers Freedom of Association Freedom of Expression Freedom of Press Freedom of Religion
Government Accountability Government regulation Government transparency Hong Kong House Arrest HRIC Translation
Hukou Human Rights Council Human rights developments Illegal Search And Detention Inciting Subversion Of State Power Information Control 
Information technology Information, Communications, Technology (ICT) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) International Human Rights International perspective International Relations
Internet Internet Governance JIansanjiang lawyers' rights defense Judicial Reform June Fourth Kidnapping
Labor Camps Labor Rights Land, Property, Housing Lawyer's rights Lawyers Legal System
Letters from the Mainland Major Event (Environment, Food Safety, Accident, etc.) Mao Zedong Microblogs (Weibo) National People's Congress (NPC) New Citizens Movement
Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Olympics One country, two systems Online Activism Open Government Information Personal stories
Police Brutality Political commentary Political Prisoner Politics Prisoner Of Conscience Probing history
Propaganda Protests And Petitions Public Appeal Public Security Racial Discrimination Reeducation-Through-Labor
Rights Defenders Rights Defense Rule Of Law Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Special Topic State compensation
State Secrets State Security Subversion Of State Power Surveillance Technology Thoughts/Theories
Tiananmen Mothers Tibet Torture Typical cases United Nations US-China 
Uyghurs, Uighurs Vulnerable Groups Women Youth Youth Perspective