I started speaking to a Chinese man, in his forties, on the tram from the Albert Hall in Brussels to the Eurostar. He was one of the students who organised the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He described to me what happened to his life in the years following the massacre. For seven years, he went in and out of jail, mainly due to minor technical offenses as he continued his friendship with fellow student activists. In 1996, he was placed under house arrest with his wife in a Southern province of China. Under house arrest, he was not allowed to great visitors. Three guards lived outside (and in) his house at all times. He lived constantly under the threat of re-arrest and imprisonment. Eventually, he persuaded the authorities that he should be allowed to work. First, he worked at a market stall selling fish. Soon, his boss sacked him, as the pressure from the local party was too great for him to continue to employ a ‘trouble-maker’. Afterwards, he worked in a supermarket, moving crates. The man told me any work was preferable to staying at home – after all, he had studied for a degree. It was during his long work shifts day-dreaming while moving boxes at the supermarket he decided he had to escape to China. The store had two entrances on different streets. He entered the store one morning as usual and worked his shift. At the end of the day, minutes before the end of his shift, he left via the second entrance onto the other street. At the other side of the crossroads, he could see his jailers patiently waiting for him in their car. He got in a taxi and drove across town to a nearby depot. He tried to stay calm to avoid suspicion. Afterwards, he sat in the back of a transit truck, surrounded by meat carcasses, heading south towards Hong Kong.
He did not say what had happened to his wife, though he told me he still communicates with his family via Skype – it’s the only way he gets to see his loved ones. Before the truck got to Hong Kong a friend set him up in a safe house, next to the border. It was May 1997, six weeks before the formal handover to China. This week, the right suffered a collective memory loss over Thatcher’s handover of Hong Kong, the last outpost of democracy surrounded by a sea of authoritarianism. All dissidents at the time knew there was one street that crossed the Hong Kong / China border, near the Lo Wu border crossing in Shenzhen. This street did not have a formal border crossing, instead a pair of guards walked from one side of the street to the other. At night, the man, fearing for his life waited until one of the guards went in to get a drink before he made a dash for freedom. The guards chased him into Hong Kong. Darting through the streets he made it into a police station and claimed asylum. Weeks later this would have been impossible. Now, he lives in London and helps connect Chinese dissidents. His story is not fantastical by Chinese standards, he told his account entirely in a measured tone. That such bravery is so commonplace in China is a measure of the degeneration of the state’s social contract with its people.