WASHINGTON - Three Chinese dissidents who spent much of the past 20 years behind bars for marring Mao Zedong's portrait at Tiananmen Square said the students who led that movement have failed to continue the struggle.

Heralded as the three heroes of Tiananmen by the Chinese dissident circle, the young men pelted dye-filled eggs onto the ultimate symbol of Communist rule on May 23, 1989.

They desecrated an icon of the Communist Party at the very spot where Mao declared the People's Republic of China, but their act also ruffled student protesters who were distrustful of the outsiders from Hunan and informed on them to police.

After a long periods of imprisonment and upended lives, the three childhood friends met in Washington before the 20th anniversary of the protests.

Tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square before dawn on June 4, 1989, to crush weeks of student and worker protests. On Thursday, China smothered the square with police to prevent commemoration of the crackdown.

Twenty years ago, when the student protests in the capital brewed, Lu Decheng, then a bus driver, Yu Zhijian, a middle school teacher, and Yu Dongyue, an arts editor of Liuyang Daily, founded the Hunan Petition Group in their hometown.

Just before martial law was imposed, they boarded a train to Beijing, where they hoisted banners and defiled the portrait of Mao.

Our act provoked people to rethink the legality of the Communist dictatorship, Yu Zhijian said.

But some student protesters criticized them for polluting the purity of the democratic movement and turned them over to police, said Wang Dan, one of the student leaders.

Another activist, Wang Juntao, said many students were afraid disorderly conduct could be used by authorities as an excuse to initiate violent crackdown.

To this date, many dissidents remain puzzled by the arrest, which has generated debate among the student leaders.

The Chinese government has never released a death toll at Tiananmen. Thousands of people were arrested and human rights groups estimate 30 to 50 remain in prison. These three have captured attention because of the boldness of their act and the controversy surrounding their arrest.


Lu said he forgave the informers.

But I'm disappointed that many of them did not continue to spearhead the democratization of China, he said. We could have used different means to achieve the same objective.

Former student leaders never showed clear goals or strong leadership, Lu said, and he believed the movement should go beyond the annual commemorations.

They have to abandon the bizarre rhetoric of begging the Communist party to redress the June 4 massacre, Lu said.

The three men were charged for counterrevolutionary sabotage and counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement in August 1989. Yu Dongyue, Lu, and Yu Zhijian were sentenced to 20 years, 16 years and life imprisonment respectively.

In 1998, Lu and Yu Zhijian were paroled, but Yu Dongyue was not released until February 2006.

At their Washington meeting, Yu Zhijian said Yu Dongyue, 41, was subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and torture, including frequent beatings with electric batons, forced drinking of his urine and sleep deprivation.

Yu Dongyue was unable to recognize his childhood friends when they visited him in jail. He mumbled unintelligible words in an interview.

Yu Zhijian, 45, said he endured long beatings and that a prison guard broke his front teeth. In 2008, he fled with his wife and newborn baby, as did Yu Dongyue with his young sister, from China to a U.N. refugee camp in Thailand. They were granted refugee status by the United States and arrived in the United States on May 14.

Lu, 45, gained political asylum in Canada in April 2006, earning a living in a series of odd jobs.

No matter how tiring the job is, I never feel exhausted, said Lu, treasuring his newfound freedom. He said he can finally snore during his sleep.

The Communist Party ruled on peoples' fear, Yu Zhijian said. We just tried to live our lives and our faith.