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He Sacrificed Himself for China

April 25, 2014

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

After visiting families of victims in Guangzhou and Nanning, we headed to Sichuan. There is only one train every day from Nanning to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. The trip, a 32-hour ride, would take us through Guangxi and Guizhou Provinces. Along the way, we saw only high mountains. It was a difficult trip.

We left Nanning at noon and arrived in Chengdu at nearly 9:00 the following evening. It was almost 4:00 p.m. on the third day when we arrived at Mr. Xiao Zongyou’s house.

Mr. Xiao Zongyou and Mrs. Qiao Xiulan, parents of Xiao Jie.

My first impression of Mr. Xiao is that he is a man of few words. He is thin and not tall, with salt-and-pepper hair. He led us upstairs. On our way to his house he said to us, “Many people in our residential compound know the story of our family. They are all very sympathetic and understanding. We don’t hide our information from them.”

Mr. Xiao’s wife, Qiao Xiulan, greeted us. She didn’t look well. She looked frail as if she had just recovered from a serious illness. It was an apartment with two bedrooms. The place looked dark in the late afternoon light.

Mr. Xiao Zongyou is 76 years old. He used to be the deputy director of Chengdu Sedan Car Repair Factory. His wife, 68, was an employee at the factory. Both live on their retirement pension, which is not very much. They live frugally. Though Xiao was a deputy head of the factory, he is an upright man. Several times he passed on his salary increases to other employees. Because of this, his retirement pension is much lower than others at his rank.

Mr. Xiao and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter. His son, Xiao Jie, was admitted to the Department of Journalism at Renmin University of China in 1986. He was only 21 years old when he was killed during June Fourth. Their daughter is married with one daughter and lives nearby. During ordinary days, their daughter and son-in-law are very busy at work and have no time to take care of their own daughter. Mr. Xiao and his wife look after their granddaughter. Only on weekends do their daughter and son-in-law come to join them. Two years ago Mr. Xiao’s wife was found to have a tumor in her abdomen and surgery was performed. She is now recuperating.

Xiao Jie, with the flag of the Department of Journalism, Renmin University of China.

I said to Mr. Xiao, “We learned about Xiao Jie from the article you wrote and the one Professor Ding Zilin wrote, and from the last will and testament he left behind, which was posted online. Can you tell us about Xiao Jie starting from the 1989 student movement?”

“In those days, we only heard about the student movement from newspapers and television. In letters, Xiao Jie only described the movement. He didn’t talk about his own point of view at all. That year, he was an intern at China Enterprise News. They really valued him a lot there and had sent a letter to his school saying they would hire him upon graduation. We didn’t think he even had time to participate in the student movement. We didn't pay enough attention to it, and didn’t ask him to come home. Then, on June 8, the school notified my work unit that he had died. After the factory supervisors discussed it, they told me instead that something happened to Xiao Jie at school and that we needed to go to his school.”

Mr. Xiao continued: “On June 9, my work unit supervisors bought us plane tickets. When we got off the plane, Xiao Jie’s teacher was there to meet us. They had a car to pick us up and then arranged for us to stay at a guesthouse at the school. I asked his teacher how Xiao Jie was doing. His teacher told me that Xiao Jie had died. I fainted.”

Xiao Jie’s mother said, sobbing: “I had only one son. I suffered every possible hardship bringing him up. At that time, our salaries were very low. Just supporting him alone studying in Beijing, we did all we could. People at my work unit all said that he was a good boy, and obedient ever since he was little.”

“It is really not easy to be admitted to Renmin University,” I said.

“We didn’t have guanxi. He wanted to study journalism and was determined to go to a top-rated university. He got there all by his own hard work,” said Mrs. Qiao Xiulan.

Xiao Jie’s father continued: “When Xiao Jie graduated from high school, he had excellent grades. His school recommended him for admission to East China Normal University without having to take the entrance examination. But he didn’t want to go. This kid had a sense of justice. When he was still in high school, there was a fire at my work unit. Without telling me, he wrote an article overnight about how workers had put out the fire and bravely rescued state property. He sent this article to the Chengdu Evening News. The paper called the supervisors of my work unit and asked if the article could be published. If it were published, it would not benefit my work unit at all because it showed that the fire was caused by incompetent management. My work unit didn’t allow the article to be published. Work unit leaders later came to me and asked me if I knew Xiao Jie was writing this article. I said I didn’t know. When I asked Xiao Jie at home, he told me that he just wanted to commend those workers for their bravery in putting out the fire and rescuing state property. ‘I wrote what I had to. It had nothing to do with you all,’ he said.”

Mr. Xiao added, “In those days, I noticed that he liked journalism. He had liked to read since he was little. He read all kinds of books. He had a sense of justice. I didn’t pay much attention to his thoughts. It was from the will that he left behind that I found out his concerns for the country and people that had developed when he was very young.”

Xiao Jie, (2nd from right) in Tiananmen Square, 1989.

Xiao Jie’s mother told us that because of their family’s financial hardship and the high cost of travel during summer and winter breaks, he did not come home sometimes. He would ride his bike to the countryside on the outskirts of Beijing to observe the hardships of the local peasants. One time he traveled to a mountainous area and saw a family that had only one pair of pants to share among all the family members—it was the person going out who got to wear the pants. According to her, Xiao Jie said to his father when he came home, “What exactly has the Communist Party done since liberation in 1949 to the present? Decades have passed. If common people can’t even have enough to wear and eat, then what the Communist Party has done is no good. They didn’t bring happiness to the Chinese people.” From this we can see that Xiao Jie was an upright, promising, and thoughtful young man.

Mr. Xiao said, “His university teacher told us that Xiao Jie was already being followed by the police even before June 4. One time, Xiao Jie was going to participate in the student dialogue with Li Peng. His teacher went to him and told him that someone was following him and that he should not go. But Xiao Jie told the teacher that he was not afraid because he didn’t do anything wrong and he didn’t need to be afraid. The teacher held on to him tight, not letting him go. So he wasn’t able to go. But because he said that he was not afraid, his teacher did not try to stop him again afterwards.”

I asked, “Was there a reason that he was followed by the public security people? Because of Professor Fang Lizhi?”[1]

Mr. Xiao answered, “He had made an arrangement for Fang Lizhi to give a talk at his school. Everything was set, but it was stopped by the school. The school told him that if he did this again he would be expelled. The reason he was followed, as far as I understand, was that he was one of the leaders in organizing the student movement at Renmin University.”

“He was followed because he was an organizer,” I repeated.

Mr. Xiao continued: “After Hu Yaobang died, he was one of the students who spent a long time kneeling in front of the Great Hall of People. He participated in the hunger strike and protest activities. He was mentioned by the People’s Daily—they referred to ‘a person named Xiao is giving a speech.’ We found a copy of the paper and have kept it.”

“And you didn’t know any of this?”

“No, we knew none of this until after his teacher told us. His classmates told us that on the evening of June 3, he took a lot of photos at Tiananmen Square. When they started shooting, it became dangerous. His classmates dragged him back to school.”

According to Xiao Jie’s parents, after the June Fourth massacre, as the situation in Beijing was very tense, Xiao Jie’s teacher was very worried about his safety and asked him to go home immediately. On June 5, someone from China Enterprise News bought him a ticket to return to Chengdu. At noontime, Xiao Jie went to the newspaper’s office to get the ticket. At around 2:10 in the afternoon, he got to Nanchizi Street on Chang’an Avenue. By this time, martial law troops were everywhere on Chang’an Avenue. They blocked all intersections.

Mr. Xiao told us, “We didn’t know what the situation was like then. But based on what we have found out and what his classmates said, when Xiao Jie arrived at Nanchizi Street, out of habit as a journalist, he took out his camera to take photos. He was hit by a bullet, no one knew from where. He was shot in his heart through his back. City residents on the scene took him on a flatbed tricycle and sped him to the Public Security Hospital. At the beginning, the hospital refused to admit him. More than 100 city residents got on their knees in front of the hospital to beg them to admit him, saying, ‘this boy was so young, please save him.’ People left only when the hospital agreed to admit him.”

Xiao Jie’s father continued, crying: “When we were in Beijing, we went to the Public Security Hospital to see his treatment record. A doctor told us that if they didn’t take the patient, the situation could get worse because they feared the troops would start shooting again, as the troops were following behind. So the hospital decided to admit Xiao Jie. The doctors’ exam showed that the bullet hit the tip of his heart. If it’s the heart, there’s nothing anyone can do to save the patient. And it was precisely where the bullet hit him. So, there was no way he could be saved, and death was certain.”

Xiao Jie passed away at 2:55 p.m. The doctor found his student ID and a train ticket among the things he had on his body. They identified him and notified the school at around 4 p.m.

“Did anyone who was on the scene describe this to you? Or is this only your understanding?” I asked Mr. Xiao.

“No. No one around him knew him. His teacher was not at the scene either.”

“But based on the accuracy of the shot, it seems the bullet was aimed at him,” I said.

“His camera was gone, too,” said Wu Lihong.

“Everything was confiscated. Xiao Jie’s classmates said that he had taken lots of photos,” Mr. Xiao said.

Xiao Jie’s remains were cremated at Baobashan. His classmates all wanted to hold a memorial service for him. Xiao Zongyou said, “I was worried because the situation at the time was very tense. If the classmates held a memorial service, they would be followed by the government and it would have an adverse effect on them. So I didn’t agree to the memorial service.”

According to Xiao Zongyou, Xiao Jie’s classmates were very angry at learning this, saying something like: “What kind of world is this! Someone is dead—and we are not allowed to cry or swear, and we are not allowed to hold a memorial service. Xiao Jie should be named a martyr.” To commemorate him—a good classmate who gave his life to the country—his classmates left an empty spot for him in the last row of their graduation photo in 1990.

Xiao Zongyou and his wife have kept the school’s findings on Xiao Jie’s death. One of the documents dealt with the circumstances around Xiao Jie’s death.

Relatives at Xiao Jie’s grave.

Xiao Jie was admitted to our department in the entering class of 1986, majoring in TV and radio broadcasting. At around 9:00 in the morning of June 5, 1989, this student went downtown to get his train ticket. At around 2:10 in the afternoon, he arrived near the cordon at Nanchizi and was, unfortunately, killed by a gunshot. The reason for his death is still being investigated. Based on currently available information, we believe that Xiao Jie was accidentally injured and killed. The authorities will issue the overall findings regarding Comrade Xiao Jie when the situation is stabilized. To his family, from Liu Nieyang and Song Jianwu, Department of Journalism, Renmin University of China. June 13, 1989.

Another document issued by Renmin University was about the testimony given by Wang Min, a staff member of the Quality Inspection Department of the State Pharmaceutical Administration, who was one of the rescuers on the scene at the time. The document gave a summary of Wang’s testimony:

Near a phone booth at Nanchizi, soldiers came out of the cypress trees to shoot. The university student (Xiao Jie) ran too slow and was shot in his left chest. It was about 2:10. He was taken to the Public Security Hospital at around 2:55. There were about 100 people who took him in on a flatbed tricycle. When he arrived in the emergency room, he had no blood pressure or pulse. The hospital pronounced him dead. Comrade Wang Min’s testimony is kept at the Public Security Hospital. The hospital also briefed us on the admission of Xiao Jie and verified that he was dead on arrival at the hospital. This happened on June 5, 1989. Ni Ning, Department of Journalism, Renmin University of China. June 12, 1989.

Xiao Zongyou and his wife brought their son’s ashes home and set up a shrine for him. At that time, the June Fourth incident was labeled a “counterrevolutionary riot.” Leaders and coworkers at Xiao Zongyou’s work unit all felt very sorry about Xiao Jie’s death. Many of the coworkers and neighbors who saw Xiao Jie grow up all praised him as a sensible child with a sense of justice, never believing that he would ever do anything to harm the country. Many coworkers, relatives, and friends came to the Xiaos’ home to mourn the death of Xiao Jie.

“Where are Xiao Jie’s ashes buried now?” I asked.

“Xiao Jie’s ashes are buried at a relative’s cemetery in Zhoujiachang, in the suburbs of Chengdu. Some people suggested that his ashes be transferred to a public cemetery. But our relatives felt that we should not move them so casually. So, they’re still there.”

In Chengdu, many students from that time, along with those who sympathize with the 1989 movement, accompany Xiao Zongyou and his wife to sweep Xiao Jie’s grave on the Clear Brightness Festival every year to commemorate his soul.

Xiao Zongyou and his wife said: “Our child studied in Beijing. He offered his suggestions for reforming the country. He didn’t commit a crime that deserved death. In many countries, when dealing with such events, they would just use rubber bullets, which would not kill people. But it was the Communist Party that openly used real guns and real bullets to crack down on unarmed students. Clearly, the Communist Party is the one that committed an egregious crime. You can say that it was a heinous crime against the Chinese people. Twenty-four years have passed since this massacre happened. My boy has still not received justice. I cannot accept this.”

Xiao Zongyou continued, “Next year will be the 25th anniversary. If it is necessary, I will attend the memorial event held by families of the victims in Beijing. I am not afraid. I am fully in favor of the three demands that we have raised over these years. We demand that the government resolve this issue as soon as possible, that they do not dodge it and do not delay it. We parents who have lost our children are getting older and older. That our children were shot to death has been a weight in our hearts all these years. We ask that the Communist Party give justice to my child in the time that we have left in our lives.”

When sorting out stuff left behind by their son, Xiao Zongyou and his wife found his last will and testament, which he wrote to his parents while occupying Tiananmen Square. Below are excerpts from the will.

Respected and Dear Father and Mother:

Your unfilial son will be leaving you.

Your son knows that you have expended great efforts and suffered enormous hardships to raise me from an infant to a man. This isn’t something that can possibly be covered by a few ten thousand yuan. I will never be able to do enough to repay your kindness of bringing me up. Even so, with great regret, I cannot help but suppress the sorrow and leave my loved ones.

In the normal course of events, after the years of hard work that you both put in, even though our family is not considered on the top of the heap, we are basically doing well. After I graduate from college, I should also have a certain social status and a good future. I should have been satisfied with that. But when I look around at this poor and backward country, this dark and filthy and unfair society, and when I think of my goals, it is in fact hard for me to feel at peace and content.

The country has taken a wrong path and has sunk into a quagmire of poverty and backwardness. With privilege in their hands, rulers live decadent, corrupt, and debauched lives. Children of high-ranking officials use their power to act like tyrants and do evil things. In this society, thugs lord over the people and run amuck. Police wallow in filth with the real dregs of society, who pay them off with cigarettes and liquor, and they behave as viciously as wolves and tigers with the common people, beating and kicking them. Hundreds of millions of honest peasants are still mired in ignorance. Common people are timid and obedient. The darkness and unfairness of the society, the filthiness of the rulers, and the numbness and indifference of the people—all these make it hard for me to attend only to myself, look after only my own little family, and serve you in contentment. When the people are not well, how can I dare to forget about their concerns? When I haven’t reached my goal, how can I dare be concerned with just myself?

Perhaps it’s a pity that my heart has not become numb completely. This wakefulness results in my spiritual suffering. I cannot (note: six characters are illegible in the original document) look at these things and pretend I don’t see them and remain indifferent and numb! My sense of social responsibility does not allow me to remain silent; my sense of historic mission does not allow me to be timid; my unrealized ambition does not allow me to wallow in the mire! I want to climb to the top and yell out loud. I want to wake up those folks from their deep sleep. I want to shake their numb souls! Wake up, my China! My hot blood is boiling inside me and surging forward. I can see myself filled with unstoppable fervor and aspirations. I can absolutely not just watch, while my country walks further down its wrong path and sinks even deeper into the dark injustice. I want to rise up and fight against it. I want to reform this sick society afflicted with all ills! Though my strength is limited and too lacking in force, I must fulfill my responsibility with whatever little power that I have. Insignificant as it may be, it is nonetheless a burst of righteousness.

I know that there cannot be a good ending for someone who opposes the representative of the mighty conservative forces—the ruling Communist Party. When it comes to the cruel methods they use to crackdown on dissidents against their dictatorship, no bourgeois democratic government, especially not the authoritarian Nationalist government that was driven to that small island,[2] can match them.

Be that as it may, I will absolutely not surrender to reality! They can brand me now as a “counterrevolutionary element,” but history shows no mercy. With the passage of time, history will make a fair judgment, and will tell the world who was the reactionary conservative force that blocked the historical process and who were the revolutionaries who truly considered the future of the nation. For the Communist Party in its early days, provoking students to oppose the one-party rule of the Nationalist Party and engaging in an arduous revolution was considered progress. But when people shouted “oppose the one-party rule of the Communist government,” it is viewed as reactionary speech and behavior! When you compare the two, you can see how blatantly hypocritical and selfish this regime is! Why are only you allowed to oppose one-party rule and no one else is allowed to oppose your one-party rule? How come only your party is allowed to exist, and no dissident force is allowed to exercise supervision over you? What can this mean except that it exposes the selfishness and bully-nature of this political party? How merciless the ridicule of history will be!

I believe that in several decades, when people look back at those of us who are considered by the current society as “counterrevolutionary elements”—and even if the regime which selfishly puts itself ahead of the interests of the state and the people is still in power, and if we are still viewed as “counterrevolutionary elements”—the day will come when history will recognize our value fairly. History will prove that we did not let down this nation and this country. We, with our flesh and blood, are the vanguard and cornerstone of China’s democratization and modernization!

I have nothing in this world that I cannot bear to part with—except both of you who gave me life and raised me. (Except for you both, there is no one in this world who is truly emotionally attached to me and cares about me). Not being able to show my filial piety and to repay your kindness for bringing me up and nurturing me is my greatest and last regret in life. How I wish I could repay you! But since antiquity, it has not been possible for someone to be both loyal and filial. I must be loyal to my ideals and my convictions and loyal to this poor and backward nation and people. In order to not give you even more pain because of my act of rebellion, I must shed my tears and bear the suffering! Please swear at me, this selfish son, who has the heart to leave his biological parents behind for the sake of his ideals and convictions!

Let your son call you for the final time, Father and Mother.

Farewell forever.

“Who since ancient times has been spared death? Let me but leave a loyal heart shining in the pages of history.”

Your unfilial son: Xiao Fengjie

June 1989


Translator's Notes:

[1] Fang Lizhi was an astrophysicist and the vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui Province. His liberal political views inspired the student movement of 1986-87. He was expelled from the Communist Party of China in January 1987.

[2] This is a reference to Taiwan.


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About the Author

You Weijie (尤维洁) and Wu Lihong (吴丽虹) are members of the Tiananmen Mothers.

Xiao Jie (肖杰)

Xiao Jie (肖杰)(birth name: Xiao Fengjie, (肖峰杰)), 21, male, a third-year journalism major at Renmin University of China. On June 5, 1989, he had already purchased a train ticket to go home to Chengdu, Sichuan Province. At 2:10 p.m., when he was walking along the southern end of Nanchizi, a street adjacent to Tiananmen Square, he was shot by martial law troops. A bullet hit his back and exited through his chest. He was put on a flatbed tricycle and carried by residents to the emergency room of the Public Security Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 2:55 p.m.

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