by Philip J Cunningham
I was browsing for DVDs on a cold winter afternoon in one of Beijing's finer bootleg shops when I came upon three boxed sets of DVDs critical of communism.
I was curious to see if the pirated documentaries, the sort of product which Western defenders of intellectual copyright decry to be produced and distributed with a wink and nod from the Beijing authorities, were in fact subversive of the same authorities.
Presumably the DVD pirates are in it for the money, but are they also unwittingly making China a freer place?
The commercial resourcefulness of the pirates makes it technically possible for startling and truthful images to be sold more or less in the open in a less-than-open-society. In that sense, lax enforcement of intellectual copyright may inadvertently engender a kind of information freedom and even allow for the infiltration of revolutionary ideas. If so, then the copyright zealots, mostly big US companies, with profit first and foremost on the mind, come down firmly on the side of information control, law and order.
Subversive access of the sort I had just tapped into would dry up if US anti-piracy efforts were ultimately successful in quelling the sale of such illegal disks.
One of the pirated sets, produced by Turkish presenter Harun Yahya, promised to detail the horrors of communism from an Islamic perspective, another by an American producer chronicled the uncomfortably bloody rise of modern China and the third was a compilation of "best hits" from BBC TV News.
"The Bloody History of Communism" DVD set, presented by Harun Yahya, as described on its website, shows "the cruelty Communist China inflicted on the Muslim Turks of Eastern Turkistan". This is clearly an awkward if not absolutely taboo topic for China today, given Beijing's uneasy embrace of its own ideology at a time when there is an upswing in religious activity in sensitive border areas.
"Fifty Years of BBC Television News" a bilingual twin disk package, is titled "BBC fengyun wushinian" in Chinese. Who translated it? Was BBC, its news website perennially blocked by Beijing authorities, trying to penetrate the China market by stealth with a cross between yesterday's news and yesterday's technology? Given the obvious misspellings on the jacket, BBC probably just got indiscriminately pirated, but either way it works for them if more Chinese consumers come to view their product.
Finally I picked up a copy of "China: A Century of Revolution" produced by Sue Williams for WGBH in Boston and then went home to curl up on the sofa and view the material.
The Harun Yahya DVD package turned out to be rather thin gruel despite the premise and promise of "truth revealed". The three-disk series about three godless despots, namely Lenin, Stalin and Mao as featured on the cover, seemed dangerously unorthodox for China until I discovered the case only contained two disks. Mao was missing.
In what has to be considered a shrewd decision somewhere in the supply chain, the series about three godless despots came up one despot short. Harun Yahya (pseudonym for Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar), may yet find fans in China's vast and diverse population, but whoever is distributing his material in China has judged that bashing Mao is not the best point of entry into a market where the legendary old Chairman still has legions of defenders and believers.
"The Bloody History of Communism" that is available to Chinese DVD viewers is a generally well-mannered rant about the evils of communism as illustrated with stock newsreel footage from the early days of the Soviet Union, basically taking the Soviet leaders to task for cruel deceptions and excessive use of violence, broadly hinting that they in turn were influenced by an abominable Englishman named Charles Darwin.
But the product available on the streets of Beijing starts and stops in Russia; China gets a free pass. Ideologically edgy, if not eccentric, as Harun Yahya's overall critique may be, it is unlikely to incur the wrath of Beijing authorities as long it steers clear of Mao and doesn't touch on "Eastern Turkestan."
The WGBH documentary was more dependably mainstream, at least to this American viewer, but it might trouble the powers that be in Beijing, sensitive as they are about Tiananmen and related protests. It's strong point is that it contains footage from China rarely seen in China, such as scenes of the allegedly traitorous Lin Piao in the company of Mao, and describes in detail the harrowing death of Mao's former number two Liu Shaoqi. Williams' reconstruction of the social malaise preceding the events at Tiananmen in 1989, most especially the rising expectations, frustrations and sporadic student unrest in 1986-7, was superior to her disappointingly sketchy narrative about Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Although "Revolution" contains terrific archival material, it was too often overlaid with soothing, evocative music unrelated to the matters at hand. One might even get the mistaken mpression that rock singer Cui Jian was the ultimate "black hand" behind the student movement. I was with Cui Jian on and off the Square during those heady days of May 1989 when the crowd swelled to a million strong. We talked to students on campus and watched the Goddess of Democracy being assembled on the Square, but his role was more concerned observer than activist or conspirator. To watch scenes of Tiananmen put to his music makes for great rainy day viewing, curled up on the sofa, sipping a cup of tea, but it is ahistorical and misleading.
Tiananmen left a deep mark on global public consciousness in part because of the scope and setting of the events therein, but also because TV cameras were up and running (in anticipation of Gorbachev's visit) making it possible for the revolution to be more or less televised. It was a news story par excellence; reported quickly, not always accurately, off-the-cuff but immediate and compelling. I thus looked forward to seeing what context the BBC retrospective had been put in and what value-added analysis, if any, had been gained from the intervening years.
I fast-forwarded through decades of BBC news stories, till I got to BBC in Beijing covering June 4, 1989. My first reaction was a quiet thrill at having obtained banned footage of Beijing on the streets of Beijing.
The 1980s section of BBC's best hits was narrated by BBC ace reporter John Simpson in his signature know-it-all tone, the voice of the winning side in the Cold War, a register of voice both authoritative and warmly familiar to British viewers: "The 1980s were a period of remarkable change, the Cold War faltered and people like ME [emphasis added] through the new technology were able to give some sense of immediacy of what was happening. Television news was beginning to bring news home to people as never before. In 1989 change worldwide had EVEN [emphasis added] reached China. I watched the troops move in to clear out the Square."
And as I viewed the hauntingly familiar, flickering scenes of Beijing people power in its last throes, as armoured personnel carriers breached the barricades on Tiananmen Square, as the injured protesters lay slumped in the streets, I thought my illicit DVD purchase a small victory for getting the truth out.
How ironic that Beijing censors had pulled out all stops to block BBC on the internet and in the sky, only to be out-flanked by lowly, low-tech DVDs sold as contraband on street corners!
But is BBC's take on Tiananmen a victory for the truth?
The images culled from BBC archives were devoid of context and narrated in a way that heightened the personal sense of danger faced by BBC's brave reporters. I can attest to the bravery of those reporters because I was there, working for BBC TV news on the Square during the June 4, 1989 crackdown. But the story was bigger than any number of observers; in the end, BBC's take on the event was about many things, but mostly about BBC. Hearing John Simpson review the events of that night was not only akin to hearing a blind man over-generalise about one part of an elephant, but to hear a rote retelling despite ample opportunity to reflect and correct faulty first impresions.
The problem with TV news and documentary as currently practiced by BBC, CNN and PBS and others, is the cult of personality. TV news fails to serve the public, let alone provide an objective draft of history, when it focuses too much on the star reporter and not enough on the lives of others.
A famous newsman or narrator can be forgiven for knowing next to nothing about China. But in what is basically a triumph of format and style over content, an all-knowing narrator can cast a powerful spell, imparting an iconic gloss to distant events, making viewers back home feel smug and comfortable even as the world falls apart on the screen.
Watching banned product on bootleg DVDs in Beijing turned out to be more frustrating than enlightening because it drove home the point that important topics, to date imperfectly covered by sketchy foreign reports, still can't be honestly researched, written about or openly discussed in China today.
Until China's Communist Party comes clean on Tiananmen, the media taboo will remain an open wound on the Chinese psyche. Blocking websites and banning media reports on the topic not only serve as an effective prod for the proliferation of underground DVD products, but more importantly delay the day for national reconciliation.
Until China acknowledges what happened and engages in necessary reconciliation with its own people, Tiananmen will remain the intellectual property of the John Simpsons of the world.
(A version of this article first appeared in the Bangkok Post, January 2, 2008)