Student paid dearly after witnessing the protests in Beijing

by Kamariea Forcier

niversity graduate student Lili Pan’s life was turned upside down in 1989 when he stumbled into the student protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
The demonstration drew thousands of students to the streets of that city, all demanding that the former secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, be given a formal mourning ceremony.
Yaobang was considered a liberal among the party, “and students gathered because they respected him,” Pan said.
The government told the students that Yaobang did not want a formal funeral — however, Pan believes officials simply refused to change their minds after they had made a public decision.
“And the students got angry,” he said.
Pan, now 34, was in Beijing that June because of his job. Since 1983 he had worked as director of foreign affairs of Changsha Communications University.
A visiting professor from the U.S., whom Pan knew as Mr. Liu, had wanted to visit Beijing, and Pan accompanied him as a guide. Both men knew there was a student protest occurring in the city, but thought it wouldn’t affect them.
When in Beijing, Pan and Liu passed by the square a few times and even talked to some protesters.
“I remember a young monk, which is odd because they’re supposed to be apolitical,” Pan said.
“He was talking — very eloquent — about why everybody should support the students. He was citing examples of the corrupt government. Because I was a student, I was listening to what he said.”
Pan and Liu were in Beijing about four days before the shooting started. Afterward, they were trapped in the city for more than a week, because students had blocked the railroads.
Pan finally returned to the city of Changsha, where he resumed work. One day, the police asked him to come to the station and answer some questions.
“They knew I was there (the protest) because I was on a government mission” accompanying Liu, Pan said.
“In China, we don’t have the rule ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ In China, you start off wrong and you need to prove you’re innocent.”
He was detained at the police station for about a week, answering questions about the time he spent in Beijing. Also, the government confiscated photos that Pan had taken while in the city.
“I cannot account for every minute I was there,” he said. “When they questioned me I could not answer them.
“We have had a freedom of speech in our constitution since 1949. “But you cannot use it. You can go and read the constitution and it looks very nice. But it is not applicable.”
After they released him, Pan remained the director of foreign affairs at Changsha Communications University for one more month. Then he was demoted to a job as a clerk for the school.
“I knew I was finished” as a government employee, Pan said. “I applied for schools in the U.S., but I did not get any visa.
“Before you get a passport you must have a political screening,” he said. But because of his presence at the 1989 protest, Pan said he would always fail the screening.
Pan stayed in China for several more years, working for American companies that did not check into his political background. Finally he was able to use his passport to receive a visa to come to the United States, a country where he would not have to worry about being “blackballed.”
Just when Pan thought he could leave China, he ran into more trouble. “This guy took my passport and punched the number into a computer. Then he took my passport into a room. Then I went into a room,” he said.
Pan was questioned by a police agent, who told him his name had appeared on a list. The man advised Pan to return to his home police station and “clear some stuff” with them before trying to exit the country.
“But I would never be cleared,” Pan said with a soft sigh.
“After Tiananmen, I knew I had no future in Changsha. Then I went to Shenzhen and I liked that place because it’s a free city. And I almost forgot about the list,” he said. “Suddenly, the list is back and you feel like it’s the end of your life.”
Luckily, Pan knew one of the border guards who told him, “If you really want to go we can arrange this, but it will cost.”
Pan’s investment worked, and he arrived in Minnesota in April 1995. He has not returned to China since and also has not seen his 8-year-old daughter, Yi, either.
Pan said freedom of speech in China has changed, albeit slowly, from the short time he has been out of the country.
“Things are now improving in China,” he said. “You can say whatever you want about the government between friends, and as long as no one reports you, you’re fine.”
Pan said it will take China more time to accept broad laws governing freedom of speech.
“I think American freedom of speech is a good thing,” Pan said. “But in the Chinese situation we might want to do it a little differently.
“We should have time to get used to it, be-cause it’s a new thing for us. For 5,000 years we have had a saying ‘all trouble starts with your mouth,'” he said. “Maybe it’s a good idea for China to shut up and do its job.”