Fang Zheng Dances in Name of Democracy

Olympic hopeful gets back on his feet after losing legs in 1989 Tiananmen riots.

Oct. 7, 2009— -- Fang Zheng sent a human rights message to China today, by way of a waltz. Fang, 42, was back on his feet -- and dancing, no less -- for the first time today since a tank sheared off his legs in the uprising at Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.

Then a 22-year-old university senior and accomplished sprinter with Olympic ambitions, Fang joined the demonstrations for democracy in 1989. He and his fellow students were agitating against the Communist government, hoping to win democratic rights. But on June 4, 1989, the Chinese regime issued a crackdown, and Fang was one of the casualties.

"In the blink of an eye, the tank was approaching the sidewalk and closing in on me. It seemed as if the barrel of its gun was inches from my face. I could not dodge it in time. I threw myself to the ground and began to roll. But it was too late. My upper body fell between two treads of the tank, but both my legs were run over," he said in a testimony before a human rights commission. "The treads rolled over my legs and my pants, and I was dragged for a distance. I used all my strength to break free and to roll to the side of the road."

Fang's legs were crushed beneath the tank; his right leg was amputated midway at his thigh and his left below the knee. A newspaper photo taken moments afterward captured the horrific, bloody scene. Chinese doctors were able to save Fang's life but not his legs, leaving him wheelchair-bound -- and blacklisted as a political dissident.

Fang said that authorities investigating the case urged him to deny the government's role in his accident, and blame his disability on a random event.

"They wanted me to keep quiet about the fact that a tank had crushed students. But I refused," he testified.

Despite his disability, Fang managed to find his way back to track and field, participating in the third All-China Disabled Athletic Games in Guangzhou in 1992, where he won two gold medals in discus throwing.

But he was still seen as a troublemaker by the Chinese government, and he says the government refused to give him a passport to leave the country. The government also kept him under close surveillance, and Fang said he was often harassed by Communist officials.

Fang Learns to Walk with Prosthetic Legs

As the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing approached, the government again began to worry about Fang speaking out. Rather than risk having him give more interviews to Western outlets and deflect attention from China's moment in the spotlight, officials at long last issued him a passport. He came to the United States with his wife and daughter, where he awaits political asylum in California.

"At this point, what I'm thinking is stay here, settle down and get a happy life here. Because my daughter and my wife, they both love America. And it's much more convenient here for me in the U.S. For example, with a wheelchair, I can go anywhere," Fang told us by way of a translator.

His next move: getting back on his feet. Fang said that after his accident, Chinese health care professionals told him his legs were too short for prosthetics, confining him to a wheelchair for 20 years.

"His hope is to be able to walk naturally," Fang's translator told us.

Mike Corcoran and Mike McVicker, the owners of Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics, who also work with wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, donated prosthetic legs, worth around $100,000. They're now teaching him to walk on them.

"When I first saw him, after 20 years of not walking, I thought there was going to be, some discomfort for starts, and balance issues," said Corcoran. "But he really -- the first day he was able to let go of the parallel bars and stand there. So he has an inherent stability ... and he's really into it. You see it at Walter Reed all the time. It's just human spirit."

"Just to have a walk, with my daughter and my wife, that would be the best," Fang said.

But he's already ready to dance, and today at the Capitol, he did just that. For the first time ever, Fang waltzed with his wife, however gingerly. And he did it for all the world to see, in front of an audience of lawmakers, and broadcast to China via YouTube.

Fang, 20 years after Tiananmen, is standing again.