A post-Tiananmen Square generation fights for Chinese democracy from abroad – only to face dissent from their young successors

On the night of Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, Zhou Fengsuo stood in Times Square, doing what he did in Tiananmen Square 34 years ago: trying to make his message heard. Back then, he had the backing of an entire generation. Now, it was merely a loyal handful of a younger one.

“Free Peng Lifa!” shouted Zhou, 56, in chorus alongside three other protesters, holding signs with provocative messages (“Go on strike – remove national dictator Xin Jinping”, one read). Zhou held a large headshot of Peng, the visage known to the world as “Bridge Man” – the same photo that will soon end up in the office of fierce China critic, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher. On this day a year ago, Peng became a new symbol of resistance against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after draping a similarly provocative banner over the Sitong Bridge in Beijing, calling for an end to oppressive government practices.

Peng took his sobriquet, of course, from the immortalized figure of “Tank Man,” who faced down armed government forces during the Tiananmen Square uprising – the event that Zhou lived through, one which forever shaped the course of his life.

Zhou and his fellow protesters gathered at Duffy Square, near the TKTS booth, underneath a billboard ad for the musical “Chicago,” chanting at the top of their lungs. His protests were once threatened by a bloody government crackdown. But here in New York, it was just the chaotic indifference of another crossroads that threatened to suppress their voices.

This was a last-minute gathering, organized mostly by a group of younger local activists. Zhou had only texted me with the event details that morning. By the time I arrived, close to 8:30 p.m., it was well underway. Eric Dong, 32, held his own protest sign. He informed me that in a few minutes, they would be broadcasting a message on the TSX digital billboard behind them.

Dong understood the danger of displaying inflammatory political messages from his own bitter experience. Four years ago, in Beijing, he had attempted to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989: a dark chapter of his country’s history, when an estimated thousands of citizens demanding democratic reform were killed by their government. The event remains censored by China’s Communist government to this day. When Dong wore a t-shirt with the date of the massacre, he was jailed for seven months.

The slogan to be broadcast to the world, this evening, was more benign. In any event, TSX policy prevented political messaging. Instead, the visual would be a dark blue square with the words “Keep the Bridge And Stay Connected.” It was a logo I’d soon become familiar with, through stickers and other signage, reappearing at the many events hosted by a grassroots Chinese youth organization in the city called the Zephyr Society. The group was founded back in March, under a different name, with Zhou’s blessing, and many of their members were here tonight in solidarity.

The metaphor of “keeping a bridge” was verily Zhou Fengsuo’s life mantra. Throughout the nearly two years I’d known him, he’s often said that he wanted to be a “bridge” between two generations: his peers from Tiananmen Square in 1989, long since exiled to the West, and a new younger generation, emboldened by China’s increasing authoritarianism, whom they hope will carry on the cause they fought (but failed) to achieve – a China free from government oppression.

“It’s been frustrating, and in many ways, futile,” Zhou told me, when we first spoke in June of 2022. We discussed his erstwhile efforts to recruit young Chinese people to the cause. Those who weren’t outright sympathetic to their homeland’s authoritarian government were apathetic about political activism, or rightfully fearful about the CCP’s overseas surveillance and reprisals. The young activists who founded Zephyr Society proved to be the exception, rather than the rule.

They usually inherited their political values from liberal parents, those who came of age in the wake of Tiananmen Square. They kept those values hidden until arriving in America as students and workers, where they still needed to conceal their identities behind pseudonyms (including in this article), to protect themselves and their families back in China.

Zhou, who runs two NGOs dedicated to human rights advocacy in China, spends much of his time traveling around the world, attending events as a keynote speaker, leading rallies, and creating connections with young activists – a preacher looking for new disciples. This is how I first came to know him.

Before then, I had never known about the annual worldwide tradition of June 4 vigils. A friend – who was born in Beijing, but grew up in Canada – brought me to my first gathering in 2022, outside the Chinese Consulate of Toronto, the city where we both studied. A friend of his, who went to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), partook in his own vigil creation on that same day. This ignited a community division on the UCSD campus after two pro-CCP students vandalized it the very same day. The incident made waves on Chinese social media, and Zhou – who had lived in San Francisco until 2019 – took notice. He connected with the UCSD protesters, applauding them for their efforts. And by way of connection, I too eventually came to know Zhou.

By the tail end of the year, China’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown policies, and the suffering they inflicted, inspired a wave of student protests from communities around the world. The movement was dubbed “the White Paper Revolution,” referring to the blank sheets of paper they carried at rallies and candlelight vigils. It was the country’s largest anti-government protest in a generation. Western news coverage drew parallels with 1989, and Zhou welcomed the comparison.

“We witnessed an eruption of activity at that time,” he reflected shortly after. An inevitable period of dormancy soon followed, but he wanted to keep the momentum going.

Like many other young people, I fell into Zhou’s network, albeit as an outsider to the Chinese community. From Toronto, to San Diego, and eventually New York, I wanted to cover his activities and learn how this seemingly larger-than-life resistance figure was trying to foment new waves of grassroots resistance around the world. In his current base in New York, he sought to do as he’d done in Chinese activist diaspora communities worldwide – to, in his words, “create an enduring foundation for political change.” But during my time with this local community, I learned that this struggle wasn’t as black-and-white as the old guard had framed.

“I think the pro-democracy movement could have made more of a change, if the current leaders were the heroes I always thought they were,” my friend’s friend, the one behind the UCSD vigil, had told me back in June of 2022. It took me two years of connecting with other young Chinese people, of immersing myself in emerging grassroots movements across North America, to truly understand what he meant.

Zhou and his peers from 1989 had spent their formative years as rebels, and suffered the consequences. He’d spent the rest of his life ensuring that their memory and struggle would live on for a newer generation willing to carry the baton forward. It’s what led to the formation of the Zephyr Society, and the creation of a Tiananmen Square Memorial Museum in downtown Manhattan, in the same year.

But in the process, Zhou would soon find himself caught between these two worlds.

In June 2023, sex abuse allegations against Zhou’s colleague and the museum’s chairman, Wang Dan – the most famous anti-government protester of his generation – created a rift within the global dissident community, and in the local community, as well. For some young people, this sullied the righteous image of their predecessors; for others, it merely revealed what they already suspected. But in the process, this development revealed deep political differences that undermined much of what the old generation had stood for.  It led to the young members of the Zephyr Society doing, in their own way, what their forebears had: rebelling against authority figures they deemed unjust.

“I wanted to build a bridge,” said Zhou later on, in reflection, “But that meant neither side could trust me completely.”

On the night of Oct. 13, the logo finally flashed on the TSX screen. The memory was alive for a moment – there for the hundreds of thousands of passersby who wanted to see it, but gone just as quickly.

***

Jiaming didn’t expect Zhou Fengsuo to show up at the Halloween parade on Oct. 31, 2022 – but he was grateful for the veteran’s presence. A relative newcomer to local activism, Jiaming (who asked to use a pseudonym to shield his identity from Chinese authorities) hadn’t thought to contact the media when putting together the protest. But Zhou, who had a lifetime of experience as an organizer, was there. He got in touch with Radio Free Asia, one of the go-to news sources for dissidents of his time. The outlet came to cover around 30 participants in hazmat costumes crashing the annual Greenwich Village march, to protest China’s ongoing brutal lockdown.

“He was the only one from the old generation who came out to support us,” said Jiaming, 35, a teacher in Queens. The idea for the protest emerged among the local youth dissident network, in the wake of the “Bridge Man” incident. By that point, Jiaming had already ingratiated himself in this community and was recently elevated to a pivotal leadership role. His perception of Zhou Fengsuo was shaped by that perspective – and initially, it was a complicated one.

“It was kind of exciting seeing a person whose name is on Wikipedia when referencing the Tiananmen protest,” said Schneider, a pseudonym for a Columbia undergraduate student who attended that Halloween rally. It was there that she met Zhou for the first time. She only understood the historic stature of this man – former no. 5 on the Chinese government’s most-wanted list – when speaking with her mother about him after the event.

Schneider came from a generation that had restricted Internet access, the result of China’s “Great Firewall” of censorship. Those freethinking and resourceful enough used VPNs to bypass that restriction, and to learn about the historic event their government had wanted to disappear. It was through a meme on Reddit that she first came across a reference to Tiananmen Square.

“When I first left China and came to the so-called ‘free world,’ I immediately Googled the significance of June 4 and its history,” said Tracy, a pseudonym for another student activist. She and Jiaming, the Halloween protest’s organizer, both had close connections to Wuhan, the city that later became known to the wider world as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while Jiaming had grown up revering Zhou and his brethren, she didn’t. “I never really looked up to the older generation. I see us as equals in the struggle,” she said.

Jiaming was born in 1989. It wasn’t until later that he realized the significance of his birth year. Without free Internet access, he read voraciously as a child, exploring his country’s little-known history of political movements and social uprisings, which he continued to study at university.

He arrived in the U.S. during the 2010s to pursue his master’s degree in social science. As a student in America, Jiaming soon fell into progressive political and social movements in his new country. Through group chats on Telegram, and intimate audio chat rooms on the platform Clubhouse, Jiaming connected with a growing segment of the local Chinese diaspora who proudly advocated for such causes. This is how he first met Tracy.

The last time he returned to China was in 2019, when his home no longer felt recognizable to him. “At that moment, I realized that I had become more Chinese-American than just Chinese,” said Jiaming.

He had initially avoided Chinese politics, preferring instead to partake in movements like “Black Lives Matter.” Early in the pandemic, he tried to avoid all the news coming out of his home country – until the government clampdown became so severe, that he couldn’t look away anymore.

Tracy soon faced the same epiphany. “When that happened, everything just changed,” she said. “I realized how attached I was to this event, my country, my hometown. I couldn’t just stand by and watch this – I had to do something.”

Under China’s nationwide “zero-COVID policy,” cities soon became prisons to stem the spread of cases. Citizens were locked in their homes, and supplies of goods were severely restricted. Shanghai in particular garnered global scrutiny for its repressive measures in the spring of 2022.

“I was physically unaffected,” said Schneider, who was living and working in Shanghai at the time. She was fortunate to have a company that sent her regular food supplies. “But it was heartbreaking to see so many people dying, suffering under starvation and depression.”

The trampling on human rights incensed many from this generation – their first lived experience under government oppression that their parents had known all too well. Jiaming and Tracy had both lived in the United States for enough time to secure long-term immigration status. This put them in a more secure position than many of their peers to act as community leaders.

“Most people were talking about the big narratives – U.S.-China relations, the Taiwan issue, what world leaders can do,” said Jiaming, “but very few were discussing what we could do as individuals.” So he decided to be that force of change, by participating in local political activism in the Chinese diaspora community. It was through a mutual contact in this circle that he first met Zhou Fengsuo.

“It’s interesting, the so-called ‘pro-democracy’ Chinese dissidents don’t have a good reputation among Chinese,” said Jiaming. As a student of history, he was well-familiar with their historical lineage, and understood why they had fallen from the public’s good graces.

Many of the members of the overseas Chinese democracy community (known as haiwai minyun), long since exiled in the West, carried the cultural baggage of their experiences. A binary, oppositional view of the CCP government led them to flirt with questionable, right-wing views. It wasn’t uncommon, at the height of the pandemic, for many to take anti-vaccine stances, or to throw their support behind President Trump because of his fiery anti-China rhetoric.

Knowing all this made Jiaming cautious when first meeting Zhou. But the veteran activist would confirm his intentions for the young man when he denounced the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 This dispelled Jiaming’s skepticism and made possible their intergenerational link. Jiaming became yet another young ally in Zhou’s local activist network, and met many other like-minded youths.

After the Halloween parade protest, Jiaming’s reputation as a local grassroots leader continued. On Nov. 29, 2022, at the height of the White Paper movement, he organized a rally in front of New York’s Chinese consulate, which drew in around a thousand participants – a diverse coalition from across the diaspora, including members from the marginalized Uyghur community.

More than a year later, recounting that event still makes Jiaming emotional. It was the sort of display of political solidarity across the diaspora that he wanted for the future. “I don’t like to call myself ‘anti-CCP’,” said Jiaming. “I’m an activist fighting for a more inclusive and more diverse society within China.” In the broader Chinese anti-government movement, 2022 was a turning point. The momentum of the White Paper movement had led to an influx of newcomers – many previously apolitical – to join the cause. He, like Zhou, wanted to build off that.

As a student of history, Jiaming understood what made the uprisings during the Tiananmen era possible: a longstanding culture of discussion and exchange among China’s burgeoning political youth.  He wanted to recreate that tradition of free discourse, intellectual exchange, and connection, in a way that would pay tribute to Zhou and his generation, and keep the spirit of resistance alive. From there came the idea for a collaboration.

***

The birthplace of a democratic Chinese future may just be a townhouse in the suburbs of New Jersey. Zhou Fengsuo’s home, where he’s been based since moving to the East Coast in 2019, maintains something of an open door. It’s a home for those whom he’s converted to the cause. The small space is welcoming for virtually everyone in the Chinese dissident community – old, exiled friends, asylum seekers, and young newcomers alike. The spartan second floor seems to be a whirlwind of activity at any given moment; the debris scattered across the wooden floor, the tables, and the foldable white chairs all reflect that. Democracy is messy, after all.

I met Zhou here in late January this year, after he had just returned from a trip to Taiwan, speaking to young people on the eve of a pivotal election in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known for its anti-CCP platform, ended up winning. He brought back 18 books with him from a contact of his over there. Among them was a copy of Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life,” a biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh. Zhou says the book holds deep sentimental value for him – he first read it during his year of imprisonment, post-Tiananmen, until 1990. But on his wooden floor, it lies equal alongside all the others. (“I probably have the largest collection of Tiananmen history books in the world,” Zhou said, with a wan smile, then, “probably because I’m the only one who cares as much about them.”)

He wears an Under Armor shirt and black trousers – dressed casually, like any other middle-aged dad on a Sunday (which he is). But his paternal attitude extends beyond his actual children, to all the young people he hosts in his home. Zhou has hosted gatherings here for years, and after the White Paper movement, more newcomers have joined him. The same table where I sit down and talk to him has served as a meeting place for upwards of 30 young would-be activists at a time. It was during one of these events, last March, when Jiaming first proposed the idea to start a book club. 

“The idea he had was more political than I initially thought,” said Zhou. He had organized a similar discussion group in San Francisco when he once lived there – a low-stakes, welcoming space to attract more free-thinking, curious members of the local Chinese community.

What Jiaming envisioned – a local grassroots political youth group– wasn’t without precedent. Zhou had connected and lent his support to many across the world, from China Deviants in London to the Citizens’ Assembly in Toronto. But Jiaming’s fledgling proposal for an event called Democracy Salon hit close to home for Zhou and his generation, in every sense of the word.

The name took inspiration from a series of gatherings at Peking University, dating back to 1988, that Zhou’s longtime peer and famous dissident, Wang Dan, is often credited for founding – now viewed as an essential stepping stone for spreading liberal ideas and galvanizing youth, eventually leading to the Tiananmen Square uprisings. This was the history Jiaming had grown up reading about, and he wanted to recreate something similar.

“I consider myself in between the old and new generations in my views,” said Jiaming, which he attributes to his age. With the discussion group, he hoped to accomplish the same goals in a more formal and public setting as Zhou did with his domestic gatherings: a space for connection and free exchange of ideas, which would allow young Chinese people to connect and learn more about their country’s seldom-discussed history of political resistance.

Around this same time, Wang Dan was spearheading a new initiative alongside his fellow ‘89 peers: a Tiananmen Square Memorial Museum in Midtown Manhattan, which would open in time for the event’s 34th anniversary. For a hefty price of over $10,000 a month, the group procured a floor in a residential building on 894 Sixth Avenue – an address that just so happened to match the historic date (June 4, 1989) they were trying to commemorate.

Many of the display items came from Zhou’s personal collection, which he had amassed over the years. The basement of his home had already functioned as a makeshift museum for visitors. The group had set up a temporary exhibit in Washington, D.C. the previous summer. Now, Zhou had an opportunity to share many of these items – and the tragic memories they contained –  in a much larger public space.

The exhibit had yet to open to the public, so Zhou offered Jiaming and his peers the rental space to host his event. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement: the young group would have a reliable venue, while the audience they attracted to their events would learn about the museum, and the history that scarred an older generation.

“We are commemorating an event that happened over thirty years ago,” said David Yu Dahai, a founding member of the June 4 Memorial Association, later appointed the museum’s director, “For younger people, it can be harder to understand the story otherwise.”

Yu was once the editor of “China Spring,” a pro-democracy magazine back in 1989. He connected with Zhou in New York when they both moved there after the Tiananmen uprising. They had lived through the same traumatic chapter in their country’s history that made them brothers-in-arms: championing human rights, before arriving in a new country, finding success in the private sector, and raising families.

When Zhou approached his group for their approval to greenlight the Democracy Salon’s event at the museum, Yu said he was initially hesitant, out of logistical concerns, but gave his tentative approval. As it turned out, the topic of discussion centered on his own rebellious youth.

On Mar. 25, Jiaming moderated a discussion about a 1980 student election in Beijing – a little-known step on the road to fomenting democratic sentiment throughout the country, featuring Yu and his peers, Wang Juntao and Hu Ping, as speakers. The event brought many members of the community, including from the local dissident network – enough to fill up the small room on the exhibition hall’s floor almost entirely.

“I was encouraged that so many young people were eager to learn about an event that happened well before 1989,” said Yu. Zhou was similarly impressed by Jiaming’s preparedness and his knowledge of this obscure chapter of national history. What had initially been a one-off event would turn into an ongoing series, with Jiaming and Tracy organizing more events at the museum in the coming months.

For the second Democracy Salon event, they invited the founder of their group’s namesake and chairman of the museum, Wang Dan. The initial collaboration between the old guard and the new youth seemed to be a success.

When the time came for the museum to open its doors to the public, the founders were looking forward to sharing a suppressed history. By June, some unsettling history indeed resurfaced – but not the kind they expected. And over the course of seven days, it drove a wedge between two generations.

***

On the morning of June 2, Wang Dan addressed a packed media audience at the museum to mark its official opening. Earlier that same day, a young civil servant in Taiwan named Lee Yuan-chun penned a Facebook post in Mandarin (nearly 1,000 words in English translation), describing how Wang had tried to sexually assault him over a decade ago.

Lee, just shy of 20 years old at the time, had idolized the legendary pro-democracy activist, who lived in the country and taught at its National Tsing Hua University.

“I had only just started participating in social movements,” Lee wrote in his post. “As someone who appeared in my history textbook and was renowned for his past, Wang Dan was someone that I idolized, as if I had met a celebrity.” After a chance meeting at a social event, Wang took Lee under his wing. The young man accompanied the older activist on his travels throughout the world. This eventually brought them to New York, on June 6, 2014, where the alleged assault occurred in a Flushing hotel room.

Lee’s statement came during a wave of sexual harassment allegations, what was later dubbed Taiwan’s #MeToo movement, with claims against some of the country’s highest holders of public office. As Lee also acknowledged in his post, this shifting nationwide sentiment is what encouraged him to come forward with his account.

Tracy was at the museum’s opening, volunteering for the event, when Jiaming texted her the news about the allegation. “I was shocked,” she said. “I hoped it wasn’t true, and that Wang had a plausible explanation, but I also knew the details looked very real.”

Tracy herself had recently experienced harassment, from an attendee at Democracy Salon events, but received little support from the leaders of the museum. The perceived sexist attitudes of the male old-guard activists had long been a rift between the two generations. She and Jiaming found that this had even deterred potential guest speakers in the past from coming to their events.

That same day, after the opening event, the museum organized a rally, beginning at their address on Sixth Avenue, and ending at the city’s Chinese Consulate. Joining the march was a lone protester holding a cardboard sign, with the words, “Democracy doesn’t spread through sex.”

Jiaming and Tracy convened their young group later that evening, They were inviting Lu Ping, a famous female civil rights activist, to an upcoming event on June 11. The members agreed on the need for clarity. Jiaming felt pressure to make a statement, especially from the younger, more progressive members of their community. “I didn’t want the reputation of our organization to be damaged,” he said.

Later that same day, on their Instagram account, Democracy Salon issued a statement saying that they would monitor the situation involving Wang Dan. The group also made it clear that, despite their name taking inspiration from Wang’s famous Peking gatherings, he had had no role in their creation.

Over the next few days, Wang Dan flatly denied the allegation, implying political motives from adversarial, CCP-friendly forces, given the timing of the accusation and the upcoming June 4 anniversary. His refusal to engage didn’t satisfy the members of Democracy Salon.

On the morning of June 4, they posted a second statement on their Twitter (X) account. “We express our sympathy and concern for survivors of sexual violence and admiration for their courage in speaking out about their experiences,” the text read. “Democracy Salon will always stand with all types of oppressed people and resistors.” The statement further called for Wang Dan to address the allegations properly, and not just dismiss them out of hand. They also announced their intentions to have no further connection with Wang’s activist think tank, Dialogue China. The group posted their statement with the hashtag, “Democracy doesn’t spread through sex.”

For the museum heads, this was a step too far. Yu and Zhou were in a group chat with the other members of Democracy Salon, where Yu expressed his concerns with the phrasing of their post – specifically, their use of the word “survivor.”

“If you say ‘survivor,’ that’s a judgment of facts which you don’t know,” said Yu. He maintained that only a court or independent authority was in a position to make such judgments. Yu reached out privately to Tracy to discuss the matter, keen to discuss a way to resolve the matter.

“At the time, I was still confident we could continue working with the museum,” said Tracy, “because it was beneficial for both of us.”

Later, in a three-way group chat, Yu, Jiaming, and Tracy went back and forth, negotiating for over an hour, as Tracy recalls it. Both parties would later share screenshots of the testy exchange on their respective social media accounts.

Yu insisted the group publicly retract their statement, but neither Jiaming nor Tracy was willing to. Jiaming offered to apologize to Wang Dan personally for the group’s statement, but this offer was turned down. He implored the museum director, whose name he had first read about years ago as a youth, expressing his deep respect for figures of his generation.

“Jiaming wrote a long paragraph, with some really touching words,” said Tracy, “but Yu Dahai didn’t budge in his position.”

“I told them that if they thought the museum’s founder was guilty, then they probably shouldn’t hold their event here, to be consistent with their values,” said Yu. In the face of this pressure, Democracy Salon’s leaders understood the choice they had to make: retract their statement and formally apologize to Wang Dan, or find another venue for their June 11 event.

“Yu Dahai told me that he hoped we would make a decision that was in our best interest,” said Tracy. “I told him I wished the same for him and the museum. I don’t think he did.”

Living up to its name, the Democracy Salon had an internal discussion and then held a vote on the matter. Their predispositions toward gender politics made the choice clear. “In the end, we’re all feminists,” said Tracy, “and we all believed in supporting the #MeToo movement.”

They decided to leave the museum. The group wanted to come out in front of the situation, to share their side of the story. On June 8, Tracy wrote a statement, explaining their separation from the museum, with an English version posted to the group’s Twitter (X) account the following day. “As the generation that grew up after the 1989 pro-democracy movement, we are deeply saddened by the inability to partner with the museum organized by our predecessors,” an excerpt from the statement read. “However, we choose to believe that both parties involved in this incident have made conscientious choices.” Yu, as well, thinks that they parted ways amicably, but this would be the end of their connection.

“I think as someone from the old generation, he viewed himself as an authority figure,” said Tracy. His response seemed to indicate that such authority wouldn’t so easily be challenged.

Jiaming and Tracy sent an intermediary to meet with Yu at the museum, because they had left behind some materials for their upcoming event, including a pack of postcards for political prisoners in China. They needed him to unlock the door. In response, he sent a terse text message, saying he wasn’t available.

“He wasn’t willing to open the door for us,” said Tracy. (Yu maintains that Zhou, who recently left town, could have done so earlier.)

Eventually, Zhou did. He had just returned from a June 4 anniversary event in Tokyo. to find how the situation at home had already, in his words, “exploded.”

***

On the fourth floor of 894 Sixth Avenue, down the street from the Avenue of the Americas, a six-minute walk from Penn Station, one block away from Herald Square, and two blocks from the Empire State Building, resides a “fortress” for freedom, as Zhou calls the museum.

When a visitor arrives, they will be greeted by a statue of the goddess Democracy. To one side, they will see a wall with the photos and names of all those who died in the massacre. In front of them, there is a glass wall that divides the main exhibit area. Below that, a signup sheet to vet visitors, a written outline of the museum’s strict policies (including no photography), and a little red donation box pleading for generosity. It was a space that couldn’t remain neutral, to Zhou’s dismay.

When the split emerged between Democracy Salon and the museum, he tried to play the mediator. “My main instinct was to reconcile their differences, while acknowledging the true differences in opinion,” he said. But his efforts were to no avail.

Zhou had spent his adult life as an outsider. Now, he faced the same situation among ideological allies. He couldn’t turn his back on his ‘89 colleagues, but he also didn’t want to alienate the young people he’d taken under his wing. “Publicly, it was a nerve-racking experience,” he admits. Through it all, he just wanted to protect the museum.

“I understand it was difficult for him to do,” said Tracy. As he intimated to her and Jiaming later on, he sympathized with the young group’s position – but he didn’t want to challenge the authority of his fellow board members, even if he disagreed with their decision. For Jiaming, who had grown up reading the writings of the old generation and admiring them, this separation struck differently. It would just reaffirm a lasting, limiting image of Zhou in the eyes of the wider youth community – that while he may be the best exponent of his generation, he was fundamentally still one of the “old guys.”

“A lot of people in the community respect him to his face,” one young activist told me. “But behind his back, they criticize him – saying that his speeches at public events are just repetitive, that fewer people show up to the rallies he organizes.”

It’s a sentiment the younger generation shares about many of his peers, whose views they often consider lagging behind. Regarding the Wang Dan controversy, Yu Dahai, the museum’s director, maintains that he – like the museum – is personally against discrimination and harassment of any kind. Still, he insists, “You can’t take away the rights of the accused in a democratic society.”

His generation came of age during the “end-of-history” moment of the early ‘90s – when the Soviet Union fell, when the victory of Western democracy and neoliberalism worldwide, including in their own country, seemed inevitable. The generation of would-be change-makers following in their stead is far more cynical about those old values. They weren’t as willing to valorize flawed leaders, no matter how foundational they may have once been.

“No single person is the symbol of a movement,” said Tracy. “Wang Dan is just one person. I don’t think protecting him has anything to do with protecting the movement.”

Months later, Zhou’s candor about the museum’s state is striking. “It’s not ideal,”  he said. Security risks discourage larger numbers of visitors, and an uncertain financial future hangs over their rental space. When the museum opened, he made a $20,000 donation on behalf of his organization, Humanitarian China – enough to cover the next two months of rent. As of their tax returns in 2022, the June 4 Association held $496,755 in net assets, with the vast majority of those coming from grants and donations. But keeping their prime rental space in Manhattan will require “tens of millions” more, in Zhou’s words. With a team composed entirely of volunteers, Zhou admits that if they want to expand, they’ll also need to consider hiring a professional staff – and for that, they’ll need even more funds.

“We’re in a holding pattern for now,” said Yu, on the same point. The precarity of their position now isn’t so different from when they were marching on the streets years ago, trying to keep their message alive.

During his keynote address at the museum’s opening, Zhou singled out among the many items in the gallery one object in particular: a mimeograph machine, used to print out pamphlets on Tiananmen Square. It was the final image he remembers before fleeing from gunfire.

“It was carried away, at the moment of life and death,” Zhou recounted to the audience. “I was told, ‘We need this to fight another day’.”

The mother of a young teacher at Zhou’s alma mater, Tsinghua University, held onto the machine. When she died, her daughter arranged for it to be discreetly shipped to the United States, into Zhou’s possession. Tethered by generations, now on display, as a reminder of that potential.

“This is not just about the past,” Zhou continued, “but more importantly, it’s about the future. A free China – one that many are willing to die for.”

But as he’d soon remember, he had already found young people willing to live, and fight another day.

***

I didn’t expect Zhou Fengsuo to show up to the event  – but Jiaming probably did, and I imagine he was grateful for the veteran’s presence.

It was a late Sunday afternoon, on Nov. 19, 2023. In a nondescript room in a Manhattan building, ten participants sat around the large main table. On a side table lay an array of postcards for political prisoners in China, and special memorabilia, including laptop stickers with the “Keep the Bridge And Stay Connected” logo – the same one that briefly lit up Times Square the month before. In between the wooden floors and spartan furnishing, it resembled a less cluttered, public version of Zhou’s house.

Five months after parting ways from the June 4 Memorial Museum, the Zephyr Society – formerly known as Democracy Salon – has grown beyond what they could have imagined. “We survived that challenge, and I think it brought us closer together as a group,” said Tracy.

The event began, as they all do, with a preamble in Mandarin, explaining their purpose: “A platform for people across the Chinese diaspora, to create a safe space for people to discuss issues in China.” A small black tripod sits in the center of the table, to capture the audio from the conversation, which will be released on the group’s podcast soon after, for their thousands of online followers. None of those who registered knew where the event would be held before signing up, as the location details were kept strictly concealed.

Like the June 4 Memorial Association, the Zephyr Society is entirely volunteer-run. But their organization is fundamentally a collaborative effort. They alternate roles at every meeting. Some will be discussion moderators, others will be “security,” wearing fluorescent construction worker vests. All have their voices heard in the decision-making.

Today’s program is titled “Our Censored Memories”: a political zine-making workshop. But before they begin with the artistic activity, they connect over first-hand experiences based on that prompt. They go around, sharing stories about facing censorship, whether that be monitored Skype calls or full-blown arrests by police officers.

“I was a little nervous about attending,” said Sophie, a pseudonym for a graduate student originally from Taiwan.

She had first discovered Zephyr Society in May, back when it was still called Democracy Salon. “I wanted to see people face to face,” she said. “I wanted to know that people like this really existed, to interact with and learn from them.”

Sophie’s national background made her feel like an outsider compared to others in the group, who had grown up in China. For the first part of the workshop, she remained silent, but then the organizers asked her to share, and she was grateful for the encouragement.

“I still don’t like to call ourselves a dissident group,” said Jiaming, “We’re about sharing individual stories from across the Chinese diaspora.”

Despite the nature of what they discuss, soon enough the participants are laughing together, bonding over the Kafkaesque commonality of their brushes with inane authority. The room is already filled with ebullience by the time Zhou walks through the door and joins them.

“I wanted to accommodate a smooth transition away from the museum,” said Zhou, following the group’s separation. He will occasionally connect the Zephyr Society’s organizers with a guest from his extensive network. But the group members remain in control, and he knows that.

Leaving the museum was the push toward professionalism that the Zephyr Society needed. The organizers have learned how to procure their own meeting spaces and cover expenses. As of 2024, they’ve begun to charge for event registration. The group functions independently, without the input of any of the museum board members.

They cemented their independence by changing their name, no longer associated with Wang Dan’s legacy, but with an older tradition of dissent in their country.  Jiaming explains that the origin of the name “Zephyr,” or “hot wind,” was the name of a titular essay collection by the influential writer Lu Xun.

Lu lived during the early 20th century, as the country was at a crossroads, in much the same way as today – grappling with emerging ideologies, cultural unrest, and geopolitical threats from a changing outside world. His words imbued a sense of individual agency for a young generation pushing for political change. The group’s adoption of the name, more than a century later, shows their homage to their forebears. Zhou’s regular presence, too, is a reminder of this.

“I wouldn’t say he was wrong in his decision,” said the museum’s director Yu Dahai, about Zhou’s stance. “But he’s not in charge of running the operations here – I am.” Months after the incident, despite facing criticism from the younger activist community, Yu says he still believes that he made the right call in preventing the group from hosting events at the museum.

Zhou still attends to his duties as part of the museum’s governing board, and he and Yu still regularly meet there. (As of publication, Wang Dan remains the museum’s chairman, and Lee Yuan-chun’s case, filed in a Taiwanese court last year, remains under review.)

“If they have a rally commemorating June 4, I’m happy to attend,” said Yu, about the Zephyr Society, “and if we have one, and they want to come, I would welcome them. But when it comes to the museum, I draw a line.”

But the members of the Zephyr Society don’t intend to wait for direction. For now, they plan to proceed with their own events. “What they did 34 years ago was great, but that time has passed,” said Tracy. “We need to have our own movements now.” Like Zhou, the group aims to build bridges in the community, including across different demographic groups within the diaspora. But they intend to do so while also remaining committed to their values.

“I’m glad they’ve proven themselves to be able to run it,” said Zhou. “They’re doing well for a new organization. But the next challenge will be what comes after – especially once the after-glow of the White Paper movement fades away.”

The past is never far from his mind – and that shapes his vision looking forward. The first anniversary of this generation-defining uprising approaches, and the ripple effects are right here in this room. The white pieces of paper – here, merely arts and crafts material – have proven resonant when held out defiantly in marches on the streets.

“If the new generation thinks that we lost, I want to challenge them to do better,” said Zhou. This was when we first spoke, in June of 2022, when “the White Paper Revolution” was just a glint in the eye of youths like Jiaming, Tracy, and their peers. The sort of thing a parent would wish for his progeny.

After this workshop ends, the participants will all head out for dinner together, an evening in New York as a backdrop for any winds of change – zephyrs – that they hope may one day sweep over their homeland. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, like 34 years ago, Zhou will be here.