Tuesday, April 21, 2009


by Philip J Cunningham

“Tiananmen” is a taboo topic in China. But even in places where it is remembered and commemorated, the Beijing student movement of 1989 is best known for its bloody ending on June 4, a tragic turning point of unquestioned significance, but one which tends to obscure the amazing weeks of restraint, harmony and cooperation in crowds that swelled to a million at the height of an entirely peaceful and extremely popular social movement.

Twenty years ago, as hundreds of thousands demonstrated day after day in Beijing, as ordinary citizens joined in or supported the student protesters with offers of food, drink and hearty cheers, crime all but disappeared and with it everyday suspicions and the habitual selfishness of an alienated populace. A remarkable degree of forbearance was evident on all sides, the government included, making it possible for a truly peaceful mass movement to emerge and blossom in the sunshine of that fateful Beijing spring. Even the provocative hunger strike, despite its grim overtones of self-starvation, did not claim a single victim and was wisely called off after one week.

Given the way the media works, perhaps reflecting something intrinsic to the workings of memory itself, there is undue focus on the big-bang at the end, the ultimate failure of the movement, rather than its peaceful flowering. The brutal crackdown of June 4 tends to eclipse the breath-taking accomplishments of April 27, May 4, May 10, May 13 --indeed nearly every day in mid-May 1989—until martial law was declared. After the troops were moved in, protesters started to panic and mutual threats became more pointedly violent.

Of course, mourning the dead and injured, mourning the lost opportunities for China, bemoaning the injustice is essential in taking measure of what happened. But what about the good times that preceded the blow-out, the soaring dreams taken wing, the beauty of a peaceful uprising?

The understandable, but ultimately misplaced media focus on a handful of nervous politicians and their hot-headed student interlocutors has obscured not only the considerable restraint showed by the communist party and its leaders for much of the period in question, but also occludes the positive, in some cases, outright remarkable contributions of the student leadership who performed brilliantly as crowd facilitators and morale boosters. Key actors on both sides of the barricades were less than democratic in word and deed, but they were adept at utilizing native, communist-influenced political tools to manage people power to an impressive degree.

The focus on the failure of the movement, and the foibles of those best known as its representatives, also obscures the even more weighty and valorous contributions of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens whose defiance was singular and courageous, who made China's biggest peace fest both peaceful and festive. Nobody was really in charge of the crowd, as much as student activists and government emissaries might try, the crowd was self-policing and constantly undergoing spontaneous transformations, at once creating the conditions of its own existence and reacting to subtle shifts in the prevailing political winds.

While focusing on a handful of individuals is perhaps necessary for narrative simplicity, if not coherence, we need to constantly remind ourselves about the multifarious ‘silent majority' who were out there in the streets of Beijing, hoping to augur in and witness the re-birth of a more equitable and just China. Even for those without a clue as to what democracy might mean, there was courage and conviction in the way so many showed their feelings with their feet, voting with their bodies rather than ballots, putting their lives on the line, come sunrise, come sunset, at Tiananmen Square.

Now that twenty years have passed, it is time to go beyond the hate inspired by the crackdown, beyond the ad hominem attacks on inept octogenarians, dithering party cadre and inexperienced student activists, and instead to look at the larger picture of a million souls gathered purposefully and with great self-discipline on the streets and plazas of Beijing, and many more across China, who were part of a rare transformative moment in history. Nearly everyone involved, despite their disagreements, stubbornness and imperfections, exhibited a potent love for country and fellow citizens.

Now that twenty years have gone by, it is a time for reconciliation, a time to ponder the tragedy not with a desire for revenge or recrimination but with a plain telling of the truth, as best as a multidimensional and in some respects unknowable truth can be told, and to accept that this revolutionary drama-turned-tragedy, this alternatively uplifting and gut-wrenching karmic kaleidoscope, was composed of ordinary, mostly well-meaning people acting in predictably human, if not always completely noble, ways.

When mourning the victims of June 4,1989, when challenging the uncomfortable silence that has descended upon an otherwise much reformed, much more open China, let us recall not just the bloodshed that ended the popular uprising at Tiananmen, but the sustained participation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who, simultaneously empowered and laid vulnerable, contributed to the inspirational flourishing of peaceful protest in May 1989.

Philip J Cunningham marched with student protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and conducted interviews with student activists for BBC and ABC news. His memoir, Tiananmen Moon; Inside the Chinese Student Uprising in 1989, will be published in May by Rowman & Littlefield.


Sunday, April 12, 2009


As the 20th anniversary of "Tiananmen" approaches, I would like to post excerpts from my forthcoming memoir of Beijing Spring 1989 to commemorate in a modest but heartfelt way the many moments of wonder, soaring hopes, dashed dreams and raw terror as experienced in the heat of the action, each entry posted twenty years to the day of events described. The excerpts will run chronologically, from May 4 to June 4, including highlights such as the May Fourth demonstration, the ten-thousand bicycle demonstration, the hunger strike, the occupation of Tiananmen Square, the water strike, the imposition of martial law, the arrival of troops and the midnight crackdown.

-Phil Cunningham

"TIANANMEN MOON: INSIDE THE CHINESE STUDENT UPRISING OF 1989" will be published by Rowman & Littlefield on May 28, 2009

excerpt from the preface to the book

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The uprising at Tiananmen, though highly controversial in China to this day, would shape many of the choices of the Chinese leadership and has been an unacknowledged inspiration for much of the change that has swept China ever since.

While residing on a Beijing campus in the late 1980’s I found myself up against the rigid social rules, regulations and racial exclusions that dampened the joy of living in an otherwise cordial and engaging environment. In times of stress, I found cycling to Beijing’s most central location a great way to get away from it all. Especially memorable was a bitterly cold winter night in early 1987 when I discovered the beauty of Tiananmen in the moonlight.

The evening started at a local dance hall. I had bicycled there in the company of someone I was fond of but didn’t get to see often. She and I happily danced the night away, sipping nothing more potent than orange soda pop, every fast dance followed by a slow one, as mandated by the cultural commissars of the time, until eleven PM, when we raced back to campus to beat curfew. We got through the side gate of the Shida campus without trouble but by the time we reached our respective dorms they were closed for the night, padlocked shut.

Afraid that waking up the guards would bring unwanted attention to our late night tryst, we got back on our bikes and plunged back into the inky blackness of Beijing. We cycled up and down empty windswept streets, breathing steamy breaths, working up a sweat despite the winter chill. Hotels, which had convoluted rules about who qualified to register for a room were not a serious option. The cold night air, cold as it was, was far more welcoming.

Gliding down quiet boulevards in the quiet of the night proved unexpectedly invigorating. Having nowhere to go gave us a vicarious sensation of freedom, the feeling that by keeping on the move, we could avoid the inevitable walls and guarded gateways. When the cold got unbearable, we huddled at a makeshift noodle stand that was throwing up clouds of steam into the frigid night sky. We did our best to be unobtrusive, quietly slurping on noodles on a bench in the company of burly, chain-smoking truck drivers whose view of an exotic inter-racial coupling was probably not too different from that of a hotel clerk, except they seemed to be cheering us on. There was no heat in the noodle shack to speak of, other than vats of boiling liquid, but the hot air and general merriment of the earthy drivers helped warm things up a bit.

From there we ventured back out into the cold to cycle up and down Beijing's main east-west thoroughfare of Chang’an Boulevard under a brilliant full moon. It was so cold and clear and bright that the moonlight could be mistaken for a thin coat of snow on the pavement.

Beijing was a city of few lights, so the great glowing lamp in the frozen sky was our only guide. We followed the moon the length of Chang’an Boulevard or perhaps I should say it followed us. When we got to Tiananmen Square there was not a person in sight, just a sea of flagstones reflecting an ethereal glow. The monumental buildings that surround the Square were monochrome monoliths, squat tombstones boxing in the luminous diamond-studded sky.

We parked our bikes and lay down in the middle of the Square, staring at the moon straight above. It was so quiet and isolated we could have been in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Huddling close for warmth, we whispered, joked and told stories. It was the most intimate moment we had ever had. Inspired by the impossibility of our togetherness, I made up a song, which goes like this:

Midnight moon of Tiannamen,
When will I see you again?
Looking for you everywhere,
Going in circles around the Square...
Riding with you down Chang’an Jie,
Memories I'd like to share...
Shadows dancing in the dark,
Lovers talking in the park...
Follow you here,
Follow you there,
Bathing in your
Sweet moonlight everywhere...
Midnight moon of Tiananmen,
When will I see you again?

Our midnight reverie ended abruptly when a team of policemen patrolling on bicycle spotted two unauthorized bodies napping on the ground near the central monument and ordered us to leave. We did so reluctantly, going in a big sweeping circle around the Square to demonstrate our attachment to the location. The memory lingers, the two of us huddled together on a bitterly cold night, under a towering sky so vast that it brought to mind a boundless universe.

A few months after our midnight ride, I was a guest on "English on Sunday" a national radio program produced at the massive Soviet style headquarters of China Central Broadcasting. The bilingual host of the program, Shen Baoqing graciously asked me if she could use the lyrics of my song in one of her English publications. We got in a discussion about Tiananmen and we went over the words I had written in English and Chinese. She invited her boss, the branch secretary of the Communist Party, to discuss it with us.

"Well, it's very nice," he said, pausing to grimace. “But, tell me, why do you use such dark images, the moon, night?" he asked. "We Chinese associate Tiananmen with brightness, with the sun!"

"My gracious, he couldn't very well use the sun," Shen Baoqing offered helpfully. "The sun over Tiananmen might be mistaken for Mao."

Not surprisingly, the branch secretary got the last word. "The song should be more positive," he said. "For example, why not change it to ‘Under the blue skies of Tiananmen'? It's a much better line."

Not long after that, I rode my bike back to Beijing Normal University under an intensely gray, overcast sky, which I took note of because it accorded so well with my cloudy mood on that particular day. When I watched the evening news that night on CCTV, I heard the announcer repeat a familiar line: "And today there was glorious celebration in the Great Hall of the People," the voice intoned earnestly, "under the blue skies of Tiananmen."

The Chinese belief in the incantatory power of words is such that saying something often enough is almost enough to make it seem almost true.

This has to be one of the motivations for all the lies that have been told about Tiananmen since 1989. Much of what the Beijing authorities have repeatedly said about the “counter-revolutionary riots at Tiananmen” is not true, and they do not believe it, even though they must pretend to. Perhaps worse yet, worse than the devious sloganeering that became so counterproductive it was quietly abandoned, was the subsequent silence, a soul-chilling silence that only gets louder with each passing year.

I have written this book to challenge that silence.

It is a personal account, at once subjective and idiosyncratic, partial and incomplete, but it aspires to elucidate what modest truth might reside in subjectivity. It is the story of a serendipitous traveler finding himself on the inside of a major uprising, marching shoulder to shoulder with young Beijing rebels and sleeping on Tiananmen Square under the open sky. It is the story of the friendship between a foreign student and his local friends at a time of great upheaval. There are shocking discoveries and humorous asides, journalistic scoops and partisan advocacy, resulting in police troubles and political intrigue. It is also a love story, the chronicle of an affection that speaks to the love of a people, and also a tragedy, for that love ends in heartbreak, when the people’s dream is destroyed.

Looking back on the one month period covered by this memoir, it is striking how often the mood on the ground corresponded to the movements of the moon in the sky, though few of us were fully conscious of it at the time.

The full moon over Tiananmen marked the lyrical and literal apogee of the peaceful protests in May 1989 when the citizens of Beijing flocked to Tiananmen Square a million strong to celebrate what was hoped would be a brilliant new chapter of Chinese history.

The demonstrations faltered and stalled out as the moon began to withdraw its protective nighttime illumination, while the army delayed its crackdown till the darkest night of the month, the night of no moon.

Tiananmen Moon is divided into four sections reflecting the ebb and flow of the lunar illumination that fateful month.

The narrative that follows is a testament to the beauty and wonder of a popular uprising that went better than anyone had a right to expect before tragically going awry. It is commemoration to all who ever marched in peaceful protest or engaged in civil disobedience or waved the banner of rebellion and sang songs evoking the eternal hope of building a better tomorrow.

The story starts out at Tiananmen under skies that were truly blue, skies that eventually cloud up and turn to gray. More startling, though, is the transformation of Tiananmen, which in the course of a few weeks goes from being the grandiose place that deserved nothing less than an arching blue sky, to a synonym for cruelty, from a talismanic word to a search engine taboo, from a monument dedicated to remembering past glory to a memory-draining black hole in the heart of Beijing.

This book is dedicated to the wonderful things that once were, and to all the residents of Beijing who took part in the protests of 1989, most especially to those martyred souls who didn’t live to see the fruits of their great sacrifice.

(from the preface of Tiananmen Moon)