Tiananmen Leader Becomes Tech Boss

VFinity Inc CEO Shen Tong is a revolutionary, literally. As a leader of the student democracy movement that ended in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Shen ran the movement’s underground radio station out of his Beijing University dorm room. He managed to flee China a few days later. Fifteen years later he founded a New York company that created the first web-native digital asset-management (DAM) system.

Becoming a tech entrepreneur may not sound like an extension of the revolutionary path. Shen would be the first to agree. Nevertheless he has imparted distinctly democratic touches to his firm’s VFinity 4.0 software. It prides itself as the only “web-managed” DAM platform, well suited for organizations inclined to give wide access to its videos, photos, audio files, graphics and text. The VFinity suite also lets media files be organized by “folksonomy” as well as by taxonomy. In other words, individual users have the power to assign their own labels and categories to content, while the administrator can impose a more formal classification scheme.

Shen Tong was the chief peace negotiator on behalf of the students who led the democracy movement that ended in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Twenty-two years after Tiananmen Shen Tong is a respected entrepreneur whose product is used by the likes of Bloomberg Multimedia and was recently included by Forrester Research among a handful of DAM segment leaders.

The path from a 20-year-old student leader to 42-year-old tech entrepreneur has had more twists and turns than the first halves of most entrepreneurial lives.

Shen Tong was born July 30, 1968, in Beijing. He enjoyed some acting success as a teen. A two-part made-for-TV movie in which he co-starred with actress Hu Zongwen won the 6th Fei Tian National Award in 1986, the same year he entered Beida, Beijing University.

By 1989 he had become one of about a half dozen highly visible student leaders leading peaceful marches for democracy across China. In fact, Shen was the chief negotiator in trying to secure a peaceful end to the demonstrations. By June 4, upwards of 100 million Chinese were rallying for democracy across the nation. That’s when tanks and guns were turned against the students crowding Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. Shen was standing on Changan Avenue when the student next to him was shot and killed. He watched the streets erupted in gunfire and bodies began falling.

Fortunately for Shen, he had already been accepted to Brandeis University and had been issued a passport to study in the U.S. Six days after Tiananmen he went undisguised to the airport and boarded a flight for the United States though the state security police had put him on their most wanted list. Some have taken this as a sign that even many in China’s military had secretly been in sympathy with the democracy movement.

Inevitably, Shen’s first days in the U.S. — as were the first days of several other student leaders who managed to flee China — were taken up debriefing the western press about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the events leading up to it. That was followed by a decade of founding and leading the Democracy for China Fund with help from prominent Americans like Coretta Scott King, John Kerry, and Nancy Pelosi, among many other political leaders and activists.

Shen’s 1990 memoir Almost a Revolution was motivated as much by economic necessity as the desire to let the world know what had happened in China. His early freelance writing career included film reviews, essays, novels and movie scripts in English and in Chinese. Some of his writings were published in China under the pen name Rong Di.

Shen Tong studied biology at Brandeis University on a Wien Scholarship. He later pursued doctorate studies in political philosophy at Harvard and sociology at Boston University though he never completed his PhD work.

In 1992 Shen voluntarily returned to China on the strength of Deng Xiaoping’s pledge that China would welcome back student leaders who had left the country.

“Sure enough,” Shen recalled with an ironic smile, “they put me away.”

His 54 days in prison ended after presidential candidate Bill Clinton, the European governments, the Vatican and others focused the world’s attention on Shen’s plight.

“Did we make any difference?” Shen said to a Guardian reporter on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen. “I’m not sure we did. It’s a huge price to pay: my youthful years, all of them. Second only to my own family, my beliefs remain probably the most important thing to me. But I don’t know what to do with them.”

In May 1993 Shen learned that China’s long arms could reach well beyond its borders. As the U.S. Congress was debating whether to renew China’s Most Favored Nation trading status, Shen was barred from giving a speech at the United Nations press club when UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali caved in to pressure from China.

Shen eventually came to see technology as a tool with which to give people a voice, especially those living in China. He began shipping modems to China in the mid 1990s as the internet began to take root. In 2000 he moved to New York and started up a software company with his older sister Shen Qing. That company was the predecessor to VFinity. In 2004 Shen recruited a team of software engineers from MIT and elsewhere to create the first version of VFinity’s web-native DAM software. So far the startup has attracted $10 million in angel funding. In 2007 he achieved some industry recognition for his promotion of “Context Media” in a keynote speech he gave at a super session of National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas.

Ironically, Shen’s evolution from revolutionary to businessman is now bringing him into a profitable relationship with his native country. The organization that put on the 2008 Beijing Olympics was just one of many Chinese clients of VFinity’s DAM platform. These days Shen travels routinely to China on business. He’s still watched by state security officials, but he comes and goes without fear of losing his freedom.

Shen has stayed engaged with the arts as perhaps a surrogate form of revolution. In the early 1990s he worked with ABC News, the European cultural TV network Arte, and Jean-François Bizot’s Actuel magazine to produce Clandestins en Chine. The film premiered in a Paris theater and on Arte in 1992. Shen also starred in the 2000 film Out of Exile with co-star Sharif Atkins. During the mid-1990s his Boston-based foundation invested in various China ventures. One is B&B Media Production which created and produced several acclaimed TV programs for China, including the top-rated Tell It Like It Is. He has also sponsored a film festival. Since 2008 Shen has served on the board of Poets & Writers.

Shen Tong lives in SoHo with his wife, their two daughters and a son. His prominence on the arts scene and penchant for collecting Chinese art has given him a reputation as a hip and savvy art collector and investor.

“I have a normal life,” Shen said. “It sounds so basic, but among the exiles, that hasn’t been basic at all.”