Saturday, August 18, 2001


Saturday, August 18, 2001

Let's talk about the war


Seizing married women, raping mothers in front of their children - this is the Imperial Army. - Jinzaburo Saeki

Censorship by United States occupiers made it difficult for individuals such as the poet above to find an audience after World War II - and made it difficult for Japan as a whole to come to grips with the country's terrible war legacy.
Suppressing recollection of Japan's atrocities was an integral part of US policy during the occupation, argues John Dower, a professor of Japanese history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.
Now, US policy is inadvertently allowing Japan to airbrush its flaws and glorify militarism as a counterweight to China. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's participation this week in a Shinto-officiated prayer for imperial war dead memorialised at Yasukuni Shrine has opened old wounds and angered many people across Asia. But the US, perhaps the only country with the clout to influence Japan on this issue, has been notably silent.
"I don't have any comment on that," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said when asked about Mr Koizumi's controversial visit. "I don't believe we've ever had [any comment about such visits] in the past, either."
President George W. Bush's administration might be adopting a breezy attitude towards the Japanese political elite's unrepentant memorialising of those faithful to the emperor, but many Japanese are baffled and upset.
Today's elderly are the remnants of the generation of farmers, housewives, boy soldiers, prostitutes and tireless labourers cruelly drafted into the service of the Imperial Army. In the prosperous, peaceful post-war era that followed, the children and grandchildren of these tight-lipped veterans were given a fairy-tale view of their own history.
Having failed to come to grips with their history, Japanese are now doubly confused by Mr Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni and by the fallout from it. Why do a handful of politicians insist on going there every year? Why does the world care? Why is Shintoism being revived? Wasn't that part of the wartime cult of the emperor?
And who's to blame? After the war, there was the "repentance of 100 million souls", a clever top-down effort to spread blame evenly. But the war that proved so disastrous to Japan's closest neighbours and so harrowing for Japan itself was not started by 100 million well-informed co-conspirators.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, by which General Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime prime minister, and dozens of other Class-A war criminals were sentenced to death, constituted a miscarriage of justice barely permissible to be discussed in Japan, even today. Few, if any, of those convicted and hanged in the post-war trials had clean hands, but they can be viewed as victims insofar as they took the rap for someone higher up.
Once the occupation authorities, led by General Douglas MacArthur, decided to exonerate War Criminal No 1 - the emperor Hirohito - injustice and confusion inevitably followed. To this day, the US-Japanese mythology of a benign emperor puts too much blame on Tojo and other official scapegoats of the period. Furthermore, the tendency for the heavily scripted Tokyo trials to go after individuals linked to attacks on American targets in the Pacific while letting crimes against humanity go unpunished had the effect of denigrating the importance, indeed the very reality, of mainland Asia's incomparably greater suffering.
Not only did the "doctors" from the torture and vivisection laboratories of Manchurian Unit 731 get off lightly in return for "medical" data, but also documented opium dealers, gangsters and known purveyors of atrocity in China and Southeast Asia were let off the hook and eventually honoured for their contributions to the anti-communist cause. Lieutenant-Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the "Butcher of Singapore", was so awe-inspiring in his capacity for evil that he was hired to fight Mao Zedong's Communists by the Nationalists, who also recruited ace pilots from Japan's discredited army and navy.
Tojo at least had the "decency", in the severe view of his supporters, to attempt to kill himself - though much scorn was heaped on him when he botched it, and his life was saved only to be taken at the gallows.
In the culture of sacrifice, whereby countless young men threw away their lives as human bombs or fighting machines for the imperial cause, it was widely assumed the emperor and his top men would follow suit in the face of defeat. War veteran Kiyoshi Watanabe, writing about emperor Hirohito's visit to Yasukuni just after the war, concluded there were no veterans interred at the shrine - for if there were, their souls would have killed the emperor with their curses. Likewise, survivors of the kamikaze pilot corps have long been among the Showa emperor's harshest critics.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan almost as long as the Communist Party has ruled China, is still tainted by its links to the military-industrial elite who oversaw the rape and pillage of China, Korea and Southeast Asia, and then reinvented themselves as pro-American anti-communists.
Even today, Japan has a whiff of the collaborator's culture, built on selective historical amnesia, lip service to American values and condescension towards former victims in Asia - whether those be individual "comfort women", forced to serve as sexual slaves for imperial troops, or entire countries. The Liberal Democratic Party, though given a new lease of life by Mr Koizumi's maverick image-making, sits on a volcano of unacknowledged guilt.
Japan's Socialist and Communist parties, more sceptical about the US and more sympathetic towards Asia, were marginalised by the politics of the Cold War. Nevertheless, principled anti-militarist voices still manage to animate the debate in Japan.
Most major newspapers opposed Mr Koizumi's shrine visit, and Kenzaburo Oe, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, blasted Tokyo's school board for "cruel opportunism" and "targeting the weak" when it assigned rightist history texts to schools for the handicapped. It is no accident that the only plausible semi-official apology for Japan's war crimes came from former Socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Just as Japan has used the brutal US bombing at the end of the war to obscure earlier atrocities, the US has used Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's attack on Pearl Harbour to justify brutality that occurred much later. When Pearl Harbour is made to equal the Rape of Nanking or is used to justify the immolation of entire cities, then historical events are not being given their proper weight.
When Walter LaFeber, a respected professor emeritus of history at Cornell University, argues that then-president Franklin Roosevelt knew about Japan's impending "sneak attack" and did nothing about it, patriots blink in disbelief.

Chinese history has suffered a similar distorting dynamic. At their trial in 1976, the Gang of Four - Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and three of her closest aides, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao - were blamed for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, just as Tojo and crew had been forced to take the rap at the Tokyo trials. Although these four anti-heroes were certainly guilty of many things, none of them would have amounted to anything, or been able to hurt so many people, without the tacit support of the gang's unmentionable ringleader.

To this day, it is as hard for Japan to come clean on Hirohito as it is for China to come clean on Mao. Maybe even harder.

Philip Cunningham ( is an Asia-based writer.

Friday, July 6, 2001



SAME BED, DIFFERENT DREAMS: Managing U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000 
By David M. Lampton 
University of California Press 2001    497 pages

Reviewed by Philip J. Cunningham

A decade of diplomatic history that starts with an unforgettable massacre and ends with a difficult-to-explain bombing is not exactly full of hope, yet the US-China quest for mutual understanding and respect endures, a credit to both sides.  There is an impressive resilience to US-China amity, built as much on the private efforts of ordinary citizens as on backroom diplomacy and political summits

In SAME BED, DIFFERENT DREAMS, veteran China watcher David M. Lampton takes on the role of the unflappable tour guide, leading us past bullet-ridden bodies and smoldering bombed-out buildings, without rancour or excessive gloom. Reminiscent of the wide-eyed British kid in EMPIRE OF THE SUN who explores Japan-occupied Shanghai with a deeply muted nationalism and fervent curiosity, Lampton is less interested in the way things ought to be than the way they are.

The author argues convincingly that China is the key challenge of US diplomacy, focusing on four crisis points in the last decade.

Newly-appointed US Ambassador James Lilley had barely gotten over jetlag when June 4, 1989 rolled around and Fang Lizhi “escaped” into the US Embassy.  The White House had been feuding with Winston Lord for inviting Fang Lizhi to the presidential banquet in February; Deng refused to attend if Fang showed up, so Chinese police contributed to the “success” of the event by preventing Fang from entering the Great Wall Hotel. While emotions ran high on both sides, diplomatic and intelligence emissaries such as Nixon and Scowcroft quietly worked out a road map to get the US-China relationship up and running again. 

March 1994 was the second turning point, the bump in the road where trade started to trump human rights. Wei Jingsheng was arrested shortly after meeting the State Department’s John Shattuck, and Warren Christopher, in Beijing with Ron Brown on a trade junket, was unable to do anything about it. It was an “unproductive embarrassment,” about which Clinton reportedly exclaimed ‘What the hell is Chris doing there now?’”

In 1995-6, a crisis was triggered by Lee Tenghui’s presidential speech at Cornell University. The diplomatic coup of getting Congress to vote almost unanimously for Lee’s visit, --something not even Israel or Britain could achieve boasted a Taipei official-- was followed by a Taiwan Straits showdown which left no one in a bragging mood. Paradoxically, it was the Taiwan security crisis that revived Sino-US cooperation because in Lampton’s words, the relationship is “first and foremost, about war and peace.”

In May 1999, shortly after Zhu Rongji’s humiliating trip to the US during which his hard-won WTO concessions were ignored by Clinton, US and Nato targeters “got sloppy,” hitting the “intelligence section” of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.  Lampton doesn’t put all his cards on the table when talking about this sensitive incident, but he is wise enough to see why China was infuriated, noting that a CIA operations officer was later fired for his role in the targeting.

The author sounds very much like a US college professor (or a Chinese propagandist) with his blackboard-style schema such as “the five points”, “the four desires” and  “the three sets of questions.”  But he makes a number of shrewd formulations, characterizing Bush Sr. “a friend” of China” while Bush Jr. is “a competitor,” and notes that US interests are negligible in Tibet, so the “US is left with rhetoric.”  He compares China’s controversial relationship with Pakistan to the US relationship with Israel, raising some interesting questions. He livens things up with pithy gems such as “Free traders are traitors”  (Pat Buchanan), or “When I see God I’ll tell him it’s better to have Taiwan under the care of the United States now.” (Mao to Kissinger)

The Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 and the May 1999 bombing of the China Embassy in Belgrade were world-class diplomatic setbacks, each effectively erasing a decade of tentative goodwill, sending things back to square one.

Lampton expounds on China’s unique role as a powerful victim, explaining that it is quite rational for the weaker of two powers to be less transparent just as it is self-serving for the stronger power to promote an arms race through missile defense schemes and the like in the hopes of bankrupting the other side.

As a Washington-based academic who goes to China mostly with suit and tie delegations, Lampton is not without his blind spots.  In a thick volume with few obvious errors, he mistakes (Mr.) Liu Qing, a veteran political prisoner, for Wei Jingsheng’s sister, not so much a howler as a symptomatic of book-derived knowledge. Not only is Wei Shanshan an outspoken advocate for her brother, but Liu is an unlikely surname for anyone in the Wei family since Chinese women don’t usually change surnames after marriage.

Finally, the poignant image of Ambassador Jim Sasser peeking out of a smashed window of the US embassy is tragic and iconic, but it was a staged shot, an inside job by the embassy’s PR photographer.


triple standard  Liu Zhongli complains that US has its eyes shut to its own human rights problems, one eye shut for other countries, but with China “they open both eyes and stare.”
p151 Though US provided clandestine support for Dalai Lama during Cold War.

Zhu came close to closing deal on WTO in April 1999, but the Clinton White House wavered because Congress was ready to “crucify” them, as Senator Biden later explained.

Cox Report “justifiably called attention” to lapses, but provides little evidence for the when and where of what, if anything, had been lost.

HR is noisy, dem. Development favors quiet, institutional changes
China sees Congress as side show, perhaps reflecting view of Nixon/Kissinger and Carter/Brzezinski, who also did executive branch end runs around legislators.

First generation student of legendary teacher Mike Oksenberg, to whom book is dedicated.

Kissinger, who has been recently exposed as an indictable war criminal by British journalist Christopher Hitchens, holds a respected position in Lampton’s pantheon of elders.

Three levels:
Global, domestic, individual

Gap between domestic and foreign policy in each country

Volatile nationalism at play

China is a strong victim country

Each country needs “effective and secure” political leadership, transformative power of leaders

Lack of leadership allows interest groups and media to fill the void

“You can’t help Hong Kong by hurting the Hong Kong economy” (Chris Patten)

Like many people out of media, he overrates CNN and tends to use it as lump term to refer to TV coverage in general. CNN is wire services paraphrased by talking heads.

policy wonk
Whiff of Washington,

We don’t learn much about Clinton’s view of the Belgrade bombing, other than his inability to apologize effectively.  But we do get a glimpse of how his mind worked on the question of trade sanctions, when he hear Clinton explain why automatic sanctions increases pressure “to fudge an evaluation of the facts,” a telling quote from the master of fudging.

Friday, June 8, 2001


(Ballroom of the Plaza Athenee Bangkok)


(first published in the South China Morning Post as "Man with a Mission," June 9, 2001)

Man with a mission: Thaksin Shinawatra's foreign policy includes stronger ties with neighbours such as Burma. But he skirts the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi and draws a line between himself and Asia-first pundits such as Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad. 

by Philip J Cunningham

On June 4, 2001 Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand, stood in front of the international press corps and fielded tough, sometimes outright hostile questions for an hour, steadfastly holding his ground. In the glittering ballroom of Bangkok’s newest five star hotel packed with veteran foreign reporters, diplomats, bankers and businessmen, he showed his pluck and shared his vision for a better Thailand.

The Prime Minister hit a few rough patches during the Q&A of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand-sponsored event, but for the most part he gleamed with unruffled confidence. He eschewed the politician’s tendency to play to the crowd and set himself up for some predictable criticism from the Pax Americana globalists when he said he didn’t have a strong “preference” between China and the United States.

He coolly asserted Thailand’s right to be friends with whomever it pleases, describing Thai-Chinese relations as “close and getting closer.”  He then hastily added that he wished the same for US relations, which have been close since World War Two, concluding, “We are a small country, we want to be friends with both.”

Thaksin, like former US president Bill Clinton, was elected on domestic issues and he has given Thailand’s economy more attention than anything else, yet his foreign policy already shows promise of being the hallmark of his tenure in office. Thaksin is anxious to go to Rangoon to strengthen bilateral relations though he has been thwarted to date by a series of nasty Thai-Burma border incidents involving military units in the field.

When asked the inevitable question from a journalist sympathetic with the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, focus point of Western aspirations for Burma, Thaksin’s sly response showed his appreciation for both American and Chinese positions. “We love democracy but cannot interfere in the domestic affairs of our neighbors.”  Non-interference is classic Beijing rhetoric, but when Thaksin, victor of the freest elections and biggest landslide in Thai history says he loves democracy, it carries some clout.

Not all of Thaksin’s moves have been good for democracy though. His company’s purchase of Thailand’s only politically independent TV station last year caused a big hue and cry, as iTV was founded specifically to offer a non-governmental look at the news.  More recently, Thaksin’s get-tough-on-drugs plank led to the highly gratuitous execution of four convicted drug dealers. Regardless of whether this was taking a page from Beijing’s book, or more along the lines of US cowboy justice, many Thai Buddhists found it deeply disturbing

Thaksin’s willingness to gently embrace China, Burma and Malaysia is controversial, and he was quick to cast his “good neighbor” policy in reassuring terms.  If Asian nations “collaborate for a strong and vibrant Asia,” he believes it will make for good trading partners.  Subtly drawing a line between himself and Asia-first pundits such as Shintaro Ishihara and Mahathir Mohammed, Thaksin stressed that his vision of Asia is not exclusive but “inclusive.”

Apparently frustrated that the Prime Minister’s talk on foreign policy talk was dominated by questions about the US and China, a Japanese reporter testily said, “What about Japan?” Thaksin smiled and said he was waiting for the Japanese government to invite him.

Thaksin’s prepared speech alternated between fortune cookie wisdom, such as “we must capitalize on unforeseen opportunities” and US-boardroom platitudes such as “I look forward to your feedback and continuing and interactive dialogue.”

As for feedback, he got and plenty of it. Thaksin has already won over large segments of the Thai press, but for the most part he has not gotten better than lackluster support from English language scribes in the region.  He recently even went as far as telling Thai ambassadors to complain to editors in the host country if they see articles critical of Thailand, as if confusing journalism with public relations and diplomatic platitudes.  His detractors rightfully raise the question whether or not his enormous wealth buys influence, especially in Thailand where wealth and power attract loyalty rather easily. When Thaksin’s Shin Corps bought controlling shares in iTV last year, there followed a few incidents that reeked of editorial meddling. “Uncooperative” reporters linked to the Nation TV and newspaper group were fired. Business or politics?

The Nation has been a constant critic of Thaksin on everything from political platform to media meddling. The Bangkok Post has been relatively supportive, giving enough good coverage for staffers to joke that they’ve been bought out but haven’t gotten their money yet. The Thai language Khao Sod has praised Thaksin’s “new way of thinking, new way of doing,” while the Daily News acerbically said he’ll use foreign commitments to wriggle out of his day in court.

Most billionaires buy themselves considerable privacy, but as a politician, Thaksin has elected to live his life under the public spotlight. The mysterious explosion of a Thai Airways jet minutes before the Prime Minister was due to board in early March raised the spectre of both terrorism and the tedium of being on stage all the time. When Thaksin was reported as saying “I am not afraid, that would only encourage these people,” a reporter then quoted Thaksin’s son Panthongthae grilling his dad. “You said you weren’t afraid, so why did your face turn pale?”

Thai aviation got a second round of bad publicity when the Prime Minister, according to the Bangkok Post, said Thai International “sucks.” Post Editor Pichai Chuensuksawadi maintains that the translation was fair, but Thaksin still disputes the context of the comment in which he used the coarse word “huay” to describe first class seats that don’t recline properly. Such is the life of the demanding first class traveler. Such too is the life of a prime minister in Thailand, where any deviation from decorum and  “thinking about other people’s feelings” opens one up to heavy criticism.

To put Thaksin’s ambition and accomplishments in perspective,  he’s outdone Citizen Kane; it’s as if the richest man in the US decided to buy a controlling stake in CNN, then ran for president and won. Does he himself know what it is that drives him? His seemingly boundless ambition already has plenty of tongues wagging, so I put the question to the man himself at the June 4th event. Why does a man who has it all-money, family, social status-want more work, especially the bruising job of Prime Minister?

“I don’t have to be Prime Minister,” he answered in Thai. “I can take it or leave it. It is a lot of work, but I feel Thailand has been very good to me, and I want to give something back.  As you say in English, it’s my commitment.” 

Thursday, June 7, 2001


(published in the South China Morning Post, February 2001)

by Philip Cunningham

Mao Zedong once said that he’d like to be remembered as a teacher. I think it’s an appropriate way to remember Michel Oksenberg, one of Americas leading China specialists who passed away in Atherton, California on February 22, 2001.  Oksenberg was a key architect in the normalization of US-China relations as the China expert on President Carter’s National Security Council, he served as the President of the East-West Center, he acted as consultant for top US firms trying to negotiate the China market and he wrote numerous articles and books about China. But first and foremost, he was a teacher.

Oksenberg was a big man on campus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he spent most of his career training hundreds of men and women in the art of interpreting Chinese politics. His rigorous year-long graduate seminar on the Politburo required weekly reports and tons of reading, but the toughest part was fielding his questions in class. Woe be to the unprepared among a dozen of us who sat around a table in his line of fire.

To help us understand the brute realities of politburo politics in the Maoist years both viscerally and in terms of human psychology, Oksenberg had each of his students assume the role of a key leader (Liu Shaoqi in my case) and then proceeded to browbeat us all into submission in his role as Mao.  From that I learned that being "first among equals" has nothing to do with equality, and everything to do with being first. As our teacher, and by extension Mao, he operated on an entirely different plane from everyone else.

As Oksenberg’s graduate teaching assistant, I watched him work his charm on undergraduate students, employing a mix of high-powered intellect and corny gags, such as showing up for class in the traditional Mandarins robe and cap.  He was a busy man who answered every letter and phone call, a highly paid consultant for business and government who liked to shoot the breeze with students for hours on end. Several times he corraled me into taking a ride to an airport in another city so that we could continue to talk about whatever it was we were talking about. He was not one to let work get in the way of friendship or family life, both of which he treasured. When a particularly bright fellow student was stricken with AIDS, Oksenberg arranged to accelerate his PhD program so that the young man would leave behind a body of intellectual work.
For many, Oksenberg’s intellectual influence is evident in the choice of China-oriented careers in academia and government. For some of us, the sense of mission he imparted, that of trying to learn as much as possible about China, led away from a career in America to China itself, to be there immersed in the culture, to better understand things first hand.

In 1987 while still living the student life on a campus in Beijing, I was invited to meet Oksenberg at the Jianguo Hotel. There with him in a small dining room at a chamber of commerce gathering was Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Bette Bao Lord and one of my classmates. The mood was festive, reflecting the fine state of US-China relations.

Beijing’s harsh crackdown on the student protests two years later at Tiananmen was a turning point that forced many optimistic China watchers to challenge previous assumptions.  The tenth anniversary of US-China relations was depressing, especially those who had dedicated their lives to creating and enhancing bilateral ties.  Oksenberg and I had a very public argument on live television in a 1989 ABC Nightline program about the Tiananmen crackdown and the deteriorating state of US-China relations. Always a good sport when it came to tough questions and contrary opinion, Oksenberg not only did not take offence, but insisted on inviting me to speak at the University of Michigan and attend a football game with him and his family.
When he visited China after the June 4 watershed as a high level emmisary to get things back on track,  he admitted he was loath to shake hands with leaders involved with the killing, but made a point of saying that China had many areas of common interest with the US, not to mention a huge nuclear arsenal, and should not be isolated or contained.

In 1996 I obtained a copy of Wei Jingsheng's prison correspondence smuggled into Japan which I broke as a news story in Asahi Shimbun, AP and the New York Times on the same day. That night I was woken up by a surprise call. It was Mike Oksenberg calling from Stanford to offer some “avuncular advice" to "get out of town for a while" as he thought I was being tagged by Chinese agents in Japan.

Shortly after that I visited him at Stanford, where he confided that he was finding it harder and harder to tell if Beijing scholars who came to see him had friendly intentions. How things had changed from the first flush of US-China amity in the early 1980s, when he had endless patience and good humor with the never-ending flow of Chinese scholars anxious to meet him.
The US bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy was a rude shock to US-China relations, an inauspicious turn of events on the twentieth anniversary of normalization. Shortly after the still-disputed event, I queried China analyst Ezra Vogel at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he had been invited to speak by Professor David Zweig, another former Oksenberg student.  I then wrote an article, with Vogel’s permission, that suggested the embassy may have been automatically targeted because of unusual electronic communications activity. A sensational headline on the topic caught the eye of my former professor who wrote to say he thought the bombing was truly accidental, and was deeply distressed about what the incident was doing to bilateral relations.

Among the many wonderful Chinese works of art and books in his Chinese-furnished living room,  Oksenberg once showed me a book of calligraphy that Zhou Enlai had given to Nixon and Nixon had in turn given to him. In it the US president wrote a “Dear Mike” note on what he took to be the front page--actually the last page of the book--with all the calligraphy upside down. We both smiled, as that pretty much summed up the challenges of US-China relations.

During the last days of his illness Professor Oksenberg declared his desire to emerge triumphant no matter what happened. While death spares no one in the end, I think he defeated fear, leaving life as he lived it, full of passion, intelligence and dignity.



(first published in the Kyoto Journal, 2001)

by Philip J. Cunningham 

Deep in the heart of Bangkok, a soi runs through a ramshackle neighborhood of cluttered shops, rain-stained condominiums and shiny office towers. Its just an ordinary street, caught in the throes of change, straddling centuries, looking back as much as forward. 

The untidy, thickly settled street is far from picturesque, but its throbbing with life, a virtual floating market supported by an invisible river of perpetual motion. Bangkok long ago abandoned its curving riverways and tree-lined canals for straight arrow corridors of asphalt and concrete, embracing fuming cars and busses with the adoration once reserved for the water buffalo and the elephant. Nonetheless, the vitality of an older way of life is preserved in pockets here and there. 

The street where I live is many streets in one, an open-air market at dawn, a restaurant alley at noon, a quiet rendezvous spot at night, subject to monthly spikes of economic activity revolving around payday and lottery day. 

Old time taxi drivers call it Iron Bridge Lane for reasons less apparent now than before, but thats as good a name as any. There's no river but its a bridge to Bangkok's past, its thriving banks splashed by the diurnal waves of traffic, the steady ebb and flow of the human tide. 

Due to the thick concentration of street vendors, the usable width of sidewalk is as narrow as a plank, and a single misstep full of peril, a vestigial reminder of riverine life. To get from one end of the street to the other is like cutting through a long and attenuated communal home: you pass through kitchen, dining room, living room, toilet, and garbage heap over and over again. The sidewalk is spiked with randomly placed telephone poles, traffic signs, broken-down phone booths, fire hydrants, portable signs and laundry racks, not to mention an ever-shifting maze created by sidewalk vendors with their boiling vats of oil, bubbling curries, and red-hot charcoal grills all at knee level and the obstacle course of broken pavement, gaping potholes, unattended open manholes, construction pits, puddles of unknown depth and unpredictable attacks of hot, smoking, screaming motorized vehicles that treat pedestrians with the contempt aimed at easy targets in a video game. A fleet of a dozen tuk-tuks and twenty motorcycle taxis rocket up and down the soi from one end to another, linking a busy traffic artery to a complex of government office buildings. 

When the sun reaches its zenith in the sky, most sentient creatures seek the shade except for mad dogs, Englishmen and Thai office ladies. Hundreds of hungry workers descend upon the street from nearby air-conditioned towers for a lunchtime feeding and shopping frenzy. Appropriate measures have been taken in advance; the jok rice porridge shop, a stalwart with low-budget local diners till mid-morning, is hastily converted into a clothing shop to exploit the temporary bulge in the female population, only to be re-converted to a porridge shop (with sheets draped over its racks of womens wear) later on in the afternoon. The used book rental shop on the corner by the tuk-tuk queue doubles as a cake and cookie place at noon, then serves takeout fish, rice and vegetables for women are their way home in the evening.  

The college-educated salaried women are instantly identifiable, not only by their company tags, smart threads and well-tended hair, but by climate-inappropriate sweaters and blazers worn at work in office towers chilled to arctic perfection.  The lunchtime flood of well-heeled women going from 21st century computer workstations to 19th century food stalls keeps up until every last seat in every last mouth-watering noodle shop and tantalizing curry stand is occupied, until the narrow alleys are impassable and local shopping arcade is redolent of perfume and shampoo. 

Ignoring the popcorn vendor, unkempt beggars, itinerant musicians, garland sellers, the fresh-squeezed orange juice stand, the hot grill stamping out coconut milk cakes, the pushcart selling roasted banana sticky rice wrapped in leaves, and the Hello Kitty knockoff stand, an impatient herd of women with disposable income gravitates towards a fast-talking man selling incredibly cheap clothing, bodies pressing forward like thirsty gazelles at an African salt lick.  

Then, as quick as they came, they vanish like Cinderellas in fear of the office clock, beating their retreat in sputtering tuk-tuks and riding pony on the back of bleating motorcycles until the crowd thins and the male-female ratio evens out again. The shops and stalls assume a torrid tropical stillness, pushcarts pulling under precious spots of shade. The air-conditioned beauty parlor provides a refuge for the fruit vendor, whose crates of bananas, pineapples, rambutan, and oranges stretch from deep inside the shop to the sidewalk and the street, where other vendors adopt restful siesta poses. As the day wears on, the right bank of the street will fall into the shade. 

Just when it has quieted down, there's a stir of unexpected activity in front of an idle construction site. Its the good-natured local idiot, pacing back and forth in his regular spot with unusual consternation. The rest of the world understands that the old-fashioned grocery shop had to be destroyed in the name of progress, but he's a little slow. The rock of his world has turned to dust, the predictable contours of his existence turned upside down and inside out, and he peers at the rubble that once was his home, a tear wandering down the stubble on his sunburned cheek. 

The tiny dry goods store run by his white-haired mother is gone forever, but not for good. Her business has been reincarnated on a wobbly table in a spot of shade on the sidewalk, from which she hawks bags of rice, cooking oil, peanuts, bottled water and cigarettes, one at a time, for old-timers short of change.  The four walls have disappeared, but the essence of the corner grocer remains, offering a sense of continuity in the face of hard changes. 

The flow of time and the ravaging of the elements takes a heavy toll on things, but ideas are not so easily destroyed.  Its a reminder that a store isnt a building, its an activity, and a neighborhood is not a collection of buildings, but a social net created by people who live there. Every frayed mat and wobbly table on the soi is a link to the centuries-old tradition of periodic markets that once flourished along canals and village lanes, a way of life that continues to reinvent itself, even in the shadow of shopping malls. For those living on society's margin on a frugal budget, the old way of doing things is preserved, not so much out of nostalgia, but because its the only way they can afford. 

Shopping malls packed with chain stores serve many functions but alleviating poverty is not one of them; the gap between rich and poor is growing. The more concrete is poured, the more Bangkok appears to be sinking back into the mud.  It's life on the edge of a swamp as always. 

The village idiot is sitting on the sidewalk now, getting ready for his afternoon nap. He leans back against a shaded stretch of wall, hands tucked inside his red shirt, and closes his weary eyes. What changes the last year has seen. 
The dance hall next door has been turned into a pet shop, the flower shop across the street is now a cafe. The open air restaurant has changed hands three times, going from no-frills food-court to pretentious seafood joint to a country-style eatery, its leaky fish tanks now planters for potted flowers. 

The gracefully aging photo shop, its studio full of ancient props, braces itself for the digital age, while the cobwebbed steak-and-Thai food eatery next door now hawks mobile phones to attract the eyes of the commuting crowd. A family-run coffee shop has changed hands from one sister to another, marked by a complete makeover  its lived in living room look yielding to an austere yuppie decor  though the brew remains the same. 

The fancy video rental store went out of business with scant warning, sheepishly giving away its stock to customers saddled with useless life-time membership cards. That's probably good news to the local curbside pirate video vendor, though his business hours are uncertain as he needs to stay a step ahead of the police.

Two restaurants that appear to be unrelated, occupying two sides of an intersection are, on closer examination, linked like Siamese twins at the kitchen, one with moderate family fare, the other astronomically expensive and usually empty, a sharks fin joint for local show-offs. 

The local no-star hotel remains an anchor of the neighborhood as it has been for decades, its prices low at the cost of shabbiness. The dimly-lit coffee shop, ancient air-cons dripping sweat, is a place of languid intrigue as chain-smoking politicos and cops stretch their legs to sit out the heat of the day. 

Abandoned, half-empty luxury towers languish, while low-rise, low-rent housing is full of bustle. An unfinished condo, inhabited by squatters until they got too comfortable, has been fenced off, forcing motorcycle drivers to set up a new hangout under a curbside tree. There a gregarious shoe repair man holds court under the shade of the leafy banyan, entertaining the boys with juicy stories while they sip pushcart hot and iced coffee from shot glasses and plastic bags. 

Burmese migrant workers, fresh off local construction sites, drink a short distance away the only place on the street they can afford is the street itself. Beggars and blind musicians collect change, while the scent of baking bread wafting from a sidewalk oven battles with bus exhaust.

Tough times mean tough hours.  The itinerant sweet roti vendor is the endurance champ, up before dawn to pedal his portable coal stove grill to the first of several strategic spots, flipping till midnight his pancakes packed with sweetened condensed milk and bananas before making the return trip home. 
At a time when other streets come alive, selling souvenirs, sex, mementos and memories, the denizens of Iron Bridge Lane batten down the hatches, pulling shutters closed and padlocking the gates. The soi gets quiet but it never sleeps. A handful of after-hours places stay open, their dangling bare electric bulbs making small islands of light on the blackened street. A lushly landscaped backyard patrolled by ducks, dogs, chickens and rabbits doubles as a toney restaurant and drinking place, while farther down the lane, a residential-style home opens its doors for sexual massage. 

Flimsy tables crowd the curbside in front of the shuttered optical shop, where rubber boot-clad cooks step up and down the curb to reach tubs of boiled chicken, vats of fat-soaked rice, and a giant cauldron of broth laced with parsley. 

After midnight, the abandoned pavement glistens with a malicious sheen, stained by the residue of oil from hot woks and leaking engines. Drained of color and life, the street falls still and silent, awaiting the pre-dawn bustle of hardy men and women husking coconuts, dicing cilantro, peeling garlic, chopping onions, washing bean sprouts, lighting charcoal fires, grilling fish and steaming rice in anticipation of another ordinary day. 


Monday, June 4, 2001

Tiananmen Papers: Reconstructing the view from the Watchtower

June 2001

Compiled by Zhang Liang
Edited by Andrew Nathan and Perry Link
Little, Brown and Co. UK 2001
Reviewed by Philip Cunningham

The real history of Tiananmen has already been told in the footsteps of marchers, the ebullient songs of youthful defiance and in the earthly rhythm of sun-warmed days and moon-chilled nights camping out on the Square. The story has been documented in photographs, video, film, tape, pen and in the hearts and minds of the people. The world-riveting defiance and thirst for change that hit China by storm in the spring of 1989 was fortuitously recorded, perhaps in greater detail than any other demonstration in the history of the world.

Even now the scholar or concerned citizen can view gripping video accounts of life on the square, can watch Li Peng get upbraided by Wuerkaixi, can see Zhao Ziyang in tears talking to hunger strikers on a bus, and can study student speeches and publications, pore through thousands of photos, verbatim records of press conferences, interviews, and official communist party response to all that in the state media.

Against this mountain of first hand data, the Tiananmen Papers adds the narrow view from the watchtower. It’s like reading second-hand FBI reports to get a picture of Woodstock in 1969, or Stasi reports on the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is almost nothing new or controversial in the Papers, which are at their most believable when they tell us what we already know. The papers don’t add many bricks to the edifice of our understanding, though some of the information presented may serve as mortar to fill gaps here and there. Nor is the publication likely to set off an earthquake in China, since similar information has been available for a long time.
The slick uptown Manhattan publicity blitz (New York Times, CBS, Time, Foreign Affairs) likewise raised unsustainable expectations for this collection of rewritten bureaucratic reports. The documents fail the test of good scholarship and good journalism because they are not original documents, at best they are watered down versions of alleged minutes and records, edited and released with a partisan political purpose in mind.
What was the irresistible element that persuaded ambitious scholars get involved, and what made the elite media bite so hard? And why the shroud of secrecy surrounding the whole project? Is it just part of the hype, like that used to build interest in the release of Spielberg’s latest flick or a new computer from Steve Jobs?
One suspects the real story of the Tiananmen Papers is not in the message, but the messenger. Those in on the secret are not talking, but asking us to agree with their “wisdom,” reminiscent of the “if-you-knew-what-I-know-you-would-agree-with-me” technique Kissinger worked to perfection when dealing with intelligence matters.
As a result, the book has a hard time living up to the long-winded, self-congratulatory introduction by editor Andrew Nathan. He makes hubris-filled comparisons with the Pentagon Papers, but then adopts the humility to say, “As a foreigner, I do not presume to intervene in Chinese affairs,” after ten pages of gleeful anticipation, (one can almost see the grin) that the book he has just worked so hard on will rock China, destroying some members of the Politburo, rehabilitating others. It’s unlovely and unbecoming of a scholar to talk that way, especially if you are selling a collection of un-recorded, loosely paraphrased, heavily politicized and deeply edited material that is not interesting unless you’re in on the secret.

Reading the Minutes of important meeting, June 2, 1989 allegedly produced by the office of Deng Xiaoping, I found the conversations unbelievable as conversations. Rather like a bad novel, the writer assigned huge chunks of plot material to different characters according to pre-determined stereotypes (arrogant, sympathetic, weak, strong) and each character did a soliloquy on cue.
It’s certainly not documentary, but that’s not to say it does not convey, in broad strokes, a sense of what might have transpired in Deng’s office at that particular point in time. Despite the annoying lack of quotable detail, the so-called top secret content accords reasonably well with known events, including CCTV television reports and People’s Daily commentary that followed a few days later. Anyone familiar with CCTV news knows how rare it is to hear leaders talking in a natural, spontaneous way; often you don’t even hear them speak at all, but just get a smoothly edited Xinhua voiceover.
The fly-on-the-wall accounts of secret conversations presented in the Tiananmen Papers are disappointing because they lack the telling detail of true documentary or even good fiction. The conversations presented here are stilted and orthodox in tone, with approximately the same relationship to the way people really talk as a CCTV news report has to reality.
Thus plowing through the Tiananmen Papers is a bit like reading People’s Daily for a month or watching too much Chinese television. It’s whitewashed material and it makes you yawn a lot.
It’s not that the papers seem forged, they just seem dull and adulterated. As River Elegy scholar Xie Xuanjun has said, if you add water to Maotai, it’s not maotai. And if the water isn’t clean, it’s not even a drink. To this I would add, PublicAffairs press has taken a watered down drink and put it into a shiny new bottle labeled Maotai.
So who is Zhang Liang, and what does he, or she, want us to believe?

The minutes from Deng Xiaoping’s office touch on, but frustratingly do not document, the leaderships claim that foreign intelligence was at play, a topic that Washington and London haven’t been completely forthcoming about. Nathan vetted the book and its provenance with US intelligence officials who have already lent it more credible support than he alone could garner. Is that why he goes out of his way to contemptuously dismiss the seemingly reasonable Chinese fear that the clandestine agencies of the US government, the most powerful nation on earth, might possibly have meddled at Tiananmen? “We believe the accusations of manipulation of the movement by the United States and Taiwan were unfounded,” editorializes Nathan, “and charges that George Soros was an agent of the CIA are not credible.”
The book will not shed much light on topics that Washington prefers to keep mum on. We see a brief mention of the Fang Lizhi case but are not given enough information to see why it was so distressing to China. The fact that Fang Lizhi sought out former US Ambassador Winston Lord’s wife Bette Bao at the Shangrila Hotel when the crackdown began, and was then spirited into the US embassy by a CBS news producer may have heightened Chinese suspicions, but you’re not going to learn that here.
A graduate student in child psychology at Beijing Normal University named Chai Ling (incorrectly identified in the “Who was Who section” of the book) quizzed me for advice on May 26, 1989 after she received an offer of asylum by someone who claimed to be an agent of the British embassy. As we spoke on Tiananmen Square, I cautioned her not to get involved with another countrys government. Two days later she was named to Beijing’s black list and sought me out for assistance and an interview.
The impromptu May 28, 1989 interview with the idealistic young Chai Ling in tears touched on volatile topics such as overthrowing the government and the anticipation of bloodshed in the Square. Two references to this as-yet untelevised interview appear to have made their way into security reports quoted in the June 2 meeting in Deng’s office. Li Peng quotes someone who said the Square is “’a center of the student movement and eventually the entire nation and “blood will awaken the people…’” Did the Politburo have a bootleg copy of my May 28 interview with Chai Ling —and all that implies-- or is this material lifted from somewhere else? Hard to tell because the Tiananmen Papers are frustratingly inexact.
The collection would be a thinner, but much more useful reference if it provided a handful of good verbatim documents rather than thousands of vaguely transcripted ones which add little verifiable detail to the
bureaucratic story, the basic, brutal contours of which have long been known.

The publishers failure to produce a single verifiable document brings us back to the abnormal air of secrecy and hocus-pocus surrounding the project. Orville Schell’s contribution does not so much lend scholarly credibility, as it provides an escape clause. In “Reflections” the talented wordsmith gives the fine print warning for the book. After plowing through 458 pages, the reader may find it disconcerting to hear Schell acknowledge that the Tiananmen Papers could be fake, as he skates around the rink of history looking at similar inside files, some of which turned out to be concocted. Why, in the end, he believes this collection of paraphrased papers not to be fake, he’s not telling. Which brings us back to the credibility of the murky character called Zhang Liang.
Zhang Liang in his own words is not a political sophisticate, but an ardent believer that the long view of history will embrace both the spirit of Tiananmen and the reforms started by Deng Xiaoping.
The editors say Zhang Liang is one person, not a composite, but sometimes refer to compilers in the plural. They acknowledge Zhang Liang wanted the materials released first in Chinese, then later say he wanted them first in English. He’s in China, he’s in the US, he’s a high official, he’s a low official. To make a long story short, nothing we are told about Zhang Liang is consistent, let alone credible. They say he’s a man, well, maybe she’s a woman.
Deng Rong wrote an interesting book about her father Deng Xiaoping several years back, though the effort to be candid was limited by the strict party discipline regarding access to documents and quoting of key leaders. She told a credible story, indicating along the way that there were things she could not say, and sources she could not identify, questions she could not ask and conversations she could not quote. But there was a story to be told, a political agenda, perhaps, to be served and she dished it out in her own words.
Many key documents in the Papers hail from Deng Xiaoping’s office at his home near Jingshan Park. Indeed, Deng’s home is one of the few places in China where a collection of documents comparable to the Tiananmen Papers in scope and volume could be accessed, hoarded, studied, painstakingly hand copied and recorded on a computer disk. In the twilight years of Deng’s life, as he saw his much-loved reforms being threatened by the orthodox Maoist elders who interceded in 1989 in favor of cracking down, he might have had, if not a change of heart, at least the courage to order a study of all Tiananmen-related documents in the spirit of seeking truth from facts. And Deng Rong saw it as her destiny to deliver a computer-input copy of the goods to the world.
Now that’s just speculation on my part, but it seems like a fair guess when face to face with a book shrouded in secrecy, of unknown provenance and unknown accuracy that was allegedly penned by a powerful insider.