Wednesday, May 27, 2009


May 27, 1989

After an early morning walk around the square, I went to the Palace Hotel, where most of the BBC TV crew was now holed up, and took the elevator to the makeshift office fashioned out of a suite of guest rooms. I told BBC this would probably be my last day freelancing for them, and might have called it quits then and there if, had it not been for the day’s intriguing assignment. John Simpson asked me if I would like to join the crew for a shoot in the countryside. The plan was to make an informal visit to a village and ask people what they thought about the student demonstrations. This difficult task was made infinitely more difficult after a government-appointed interpreter struck up a friendship with Simpson and asked if he could tag along. That a government spy had been embedded in the BBC office by official fiat seemed likely to me; barbarian handlers appointed by the state were standard fare in Beijing news bureaus.

I knew from journalist friends such as Jimi Florcruz at Time and John Woodruff at the Baltimore Sun that one had to learn to live with government-appointed minders, some of whom were genuinely nice and could be quite useful at times, but then again, one didn’t invite them along for the ride when pursuing sensitive subjects or when interviewing people possibly at risk.

On the way to the van in the Palace Hotel parking lot, John Simpson introduced the new member of the crew as Mr. Tayng, pronouncing his name like it was a brand of powdered orange drink. The Britisher mangled the name is such an authoritative way that no one bothered to correct him.

Exiting Beijing, what with its roped off protest zones, revolutionary posters, slogan-shouting crowds and general traffic anarchy was like taking a step back in time to the “unchanging China” that had been the norm before the protests had begun. Advertising, what little there was, took the place of banners and wall posters. People were going about their everyday lives, eating, cooking, cleaning, making ends meet.
Once out of downtown, the posters and head-banded traffic wardens vanished and things looked weird in a familiar way, pretty much as they always had.The drive along tree-lined roads to the dusty countryside north of Beijing was pleasant diversion from the revolutionary intensity of Beijing and our excursion went without incident until we actually tried to do some journalism.

The idea was to stop along the roadside to do some spot interviews with farmers on the way to or from the fields. We wanted to know what they knew of recent events in Beijing and what they thought of it. As soon as the government interpreter figured out what was going on, he protested, politely explaining that we needed Public Security permission to interview villagers. He instructed us that we would have to go back to Beijing to get official authorization if we wanted to do something spontaneous.

Fortunately the crew was accustomed to dodging such Orwellian protocol and knew what I meant when I said, "forget about the interviews, let's get some "scenic shots.” If Simpson could only keep Tayng distracted long enough, --they sat next to one another and it seems they shared an interest in “Tayng” poetry-- the crew and I might be able to get away with doing some quick, unobtrusive interviews alongside the road.
With this little subversion in mind, Eric and Fred pretended to be setting up some generic "countryside" shots of corn fields, cattle grazing and farmers at work at this quiet bend in the road while I sought out some farmers willing to talk on camera. Tayng interrupted his lofty conversation with Simpson to exchange a few words with a well-dressed Chinese man who pulled up on motorcycle.

They conferred briefly, and then turned their attention to me. The minute I started to talking to a farmer who I had intercepted on his way home from the fields, Tayng came running over.

"Stop! stop! You cannot talk to these people," he cried out pathetically. "You do not even know who they are!"
"But Mr. Tayng, we didn't come all this way just to take pictures of rice fields," the producer pleaded. "We want to see the real China."
"I see, well, I have a good idea. This man over here said he will take us to his village. As foreigners, you would like to see a real village, wouldn't you?" Tayng said, pointing to a well-dressed man who appeared to have been waiting for us. I gathered he knew the man, judging from a poorly suppressed smile of recognition.
"I think we should interview these people right here," I spoke up, "They told me they are willing to talk on camera."
"Sorry, that is not permissible," Tayng said authoritatively. I begged to differ, but Mr. Tayng won the argument.
We climbed back in the van and followed the well-heeled man on wheels to his home in Zhuang village. Mr. Tayng was giddy with his find. "You see," he told the crew proudly as they set up the camera, "what we have here is a double lucky!"
"What, my good man, is a double lucky?" our senior correspondent asked, trying to keep a straight face.
"Yes. A double lucky symbolizes the success of Deng Xiaoping's dual modernization program, it shows economic reform and open door policy."
"How so?" The Englishman pressed for more detail.
"This man is a rich peasant, that proves the success of Deng's agricultural policies.” He said, beaming. “He is a also a part-time seaman and has traveled around the world doing trade with foreigners, confirming the success of Deng’s open door policy.”

A short time later we found ourselves sitting in Double Lucky's home sipping tea and admiring his household appliances. The august correspondent asked questions and Tayng translated, at one point revealing, incredibly, that this “typical common peasant” had been to England twice in the last year. Why wasn't I surprised when the accomplished peasant voiced complete support of government policies? Tayng did not mistranslate often or intentionally, he didn’t have to; he had the situation totally under control. I watched with jaded interest as he exchanged mysterious little comments to the interviewee, carefully staying off camera but “conducting” the interview nonetheless.

"This is an interview about the success of the open door policy," Tayng said in Chinese, by way of introduction, and added, without translating, the most telling words of all. "We will compensate you for the trouble."
"That guy's a spy if I ever saw one," Wang Li muttered in disgust, walking out of the model farmhouse to spit his venom on the dusty, dry earth of the tidy courtyard outside.

The interview wasn’t a total loss, since the pro-government voice could arguably give our reporting some balance. But I didn’t like the way we were roped into it, and I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Double-Lucky got even luckier thanks to the interview.
"I think 100 FEC would be enough," Tayng hinted to our correspondent, "to pay him for the inconvenience we have caused."
“Phil, are we close to the Great Wall?” asked Simpson.
“Not really.” I didn’t know what to say. We get steered to this Potemkin village by a government-appointed interpreter, now the boss from London wants to call it a day and play tourist. I was already ill at ease because Tayng was on a par with the most obsequious barbarian-handlers that I had the “pleasure” of working with while freelancing for NBC. But I was a local hire, which put me pretty low on the totem pole, somewhere between barbarian and barbarian handler.

I convinced the crew to save the Great Wall for some other time, suggesting that we instead visit the Ming Tombs, also a tourist destination, with the reed-thin justification that we could get some shots of the adjacent golf course where Politburo members such as Zhao Ziyang were said to play. Ever since marching on May Fourth, it had been my understanding that official corruption and party member privilege were among the core issues at the heart of student protest.

But the situation on the ground was changing quickly. Martial law made it harder to work openly as journalists, and if Zhao Ziyang had indeed fallen from power, our expose on official corruption with him as a focus was oddly off course. Nonetheless we spent an afternoon of hiking around the Ming Tombs, combined with a quick visit, cameras rolling, to the clubhouse of the private golf course that boasted Zhao Ziyang as a member.

Then we headed back to Beijing. Just before nightfall on the outskirts of the city we spotted a military convoy. It had more trucks than we could count and it appeared to be heading south, directly towards Beijing.

Simpson asked the translator to tell the driver to follow the troops.
"But that's impossible!" cried Tayng.
"Mr. Tayng, is that convoy headed for Beijing?" Simpson asked, his sharp news instincts switching on.
"No. Absolutely not!” The translator said confidently.
“Where then?”
“They are not going in the direction of Beijing,” Tayng insisted.
“John, they are going south. That is definitely the direction of Beijing,” I piped up from the back seat where I had been whispering conspiratorially with Wang Li.
“Thanks Phil. Now Mr. Tayng, what do you think the convoy is doing?” the correspondent asked.
“It is not a convoy, sir. It is just routine troop deliveries, I mean exercises.”
"I see, okay," he said, "Let's follow them for a while."
"Yes, I understand, follow for a while," Tayng parroted obediently. He then addressed the driver in Chinese, "Listen to me. You don't have to follow the trucks."

Wang Li overhead the interpreter’s soft-spoken threat and thrust himself into the conversation. He loudly told the driver to ignore Tayng and to go after the convoy. Tayng muttered, “don’t follow,” smiling for the benefit of the BBC reporter who had only a rough idea of what was going on.

The driver turned off the engine and sat quietly, shut down by conflicting orders. A short, but hostile argument erupted, with Wang Li accusing Tayng of being a spy and Tayng accusing Wang Li of being an agitator. Of course, Simpson and the camera crew knew an argument was an argument, but they were unsure as to who was on their side.
Tayng then whispered to the driver. "It is your decision," he said, his lips glistening with saliva. "Say no to them. We are not going to do it, you get it?"
"Now, Mr. Philips," the translator announced loudly in plain English, pretending to talk to me but crafting a message intended for Simpson's ears, "Ask driver if he want to go or not and you translate him the answer."
"Don't be stupid!” I interjected. “I just heard you tell him to say no!"
Things got heated with the three of us arguing in loud tonal Chinese in the back of the van. Fortunately Eric and Fred took advantage of the fray to point the camera at the military convoy while we each tried to persuade the driver to follow a desired course of action.

The poor driver didn't know whom to listen to and just stared out the window at the dust clouds being kicked up by the passing army trucks. In the end, the driver, and I couldn’t really blame him for this, played it safe and refused to follow the trucks. The convoy had since rumbled out of sight, and we were losing light, but the crew shrewdly decided to set up a shot in a field adjacent to the road.
The BBC reporter stared into the camera and made a few authoritative remarks about the vast countryside of China, a passable ruse since we were in the leafy suburbs of Beijing.

A few minutes later, we heard the rumble of a new convoy of trucks and before Simpson could finish a sentence, Eric swiveled the camera on the tripod and zoomed in for the shot. We watched in abject silence as a huge convoy rumbled by, truck after truck packed with men in uniform. Although we could not detect any weapons, the antennae of field radios sticking out of gaps in the canvas topped trucks wobbled menacingly as the convoy groaned forward.
The sight of so many soldiers pressing forward with such purpose made me ache to get back into the protective fold of citizen-controlled Beijing, but it also made me wonder how much longer such a thing could last.


Philip J Cunningham with "Commander-in-chief" Chai Ling 
in front of the student command center

(May 26, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)

On May 26, I got another glimpse of student command central when I went to visit Beijing Normal University graduate student Chai Ling in the broadcast tent.  She had catapulted to fame as one of the key leaders of the hunger strike and was the best known of the female activists. She was now holding court inside the makeshift broadcast facility, the ideological hothouse of student-occupied Tiananmen Square. Even though I knew the right people, which is to say the right students, it wasn’t easy getting in, and in the end I had to pass three rings of ad hoc security to secure an “audience.”
The BBC had yet to give me any kind of ID, so I was on my own when it came to playing journalist and gaining access. My only press pass was my wit, which worked well enough on the go when things were going well, but fell on deaf ears in formal situations. If I wanted to penetrate the crowd, merely saying I was looking for a friend from Shida often did the trick. In the end it really just came down to pluck, attitude and knowing a few people. The closer I got to the student center, the higher the likelihood I’d run into someone I knew or who knew of me, and such little interactions, witnessed by the gatekeepers, helped expedite further entry. I could remember most of the faces if not names of the hundreds I’d chatted with in the last few weeks, so I smiled, bumbled and nodded my way through, enjoying a high degree of mobility on the cordoned-off, student-controlled square. But favors granted could be favors denied as well, so oftentimes it was better not to ask permission but just to sort of assume it to wing my way in. I did not want to be like the smug photographer who climbed on top of Sun Yatsen’s portrait and who later carelessly strolled into a shot in progress, but access was critical to journalism. With awareness of surroundings, due deference and a measure of humility, one could get around. Knowing the turf and knowing at least some of the people made it easier. Projecting an aura of calm confidence not only opened doors, but often made it possible to enter without knocking.
As a provincial student leader, self-appointed or otherwise, Wang Li was a quick study in the art of access, and we made for an unusual team, each leaning on the other to increase our limited leverage. He sought and obtained a certain amount of access to the Beijing student command center at the broadcast tent through persistence and close observation of how things worked. That was precisely how he inveigled himself into our BBC circle to begin with, and among fellow Chinese he could make other sorts of claims; that he was a representative of students from Xian, or equally imaginatively, the he was a representative of BBC. What Wang Li lacked in social cachet as an unknown chef-cum-provincial student “leader” from Xian, --surely there were fellow students who could call his bluff on that--  he could compensate for by speaking on behalf of the “English Television Station,” a claim that was underscored with a higher degree of plausibility. He could boast having a room in the Beijing Hotel (my room) and could say he was doing errands for BBC, which he was doing, and he could tell others he was “with” us, which to all appearances, he was, a perception reinforced every time he was seen huddling with us in public. Student security guards were vigilant about keeping ordinary Chinese away from their “leaders,” but by making a plausible claim to be a student leader or global media person, lower rung defenders and student guards could be wowed, if not won over.
So when Wang Li put in a word for me with the provincial students, I suspected he was really putting in a word for himself, to exploit his connection with the BBC. Most of the introductions he arranged for us amounted to nothing, as his “friends” and “fellow leaders” were either terribly disorganized or not very knowledgeable. No interviews and not a single memorable conversation came out of his effort to penetrate the provincial HQ that he claimed to be such a central part of.
Brian Barron and his camera crew were less than impressed with the joint tour that Wang Li and I had conducted through the “provincial students headquarters” on the east side of the square. To them it was just another swath of crowd, and they had seen a lot of crowd lately. We duly dragged the BBC crew past the usual blankets and bodies, but could find nary an English speaker in the provincial outpost. I attempted to elucidate some significance in the that they camped out near the museum, but it basically seemed to consist of down-on-their luck, out-of-town students squatting on the square, occupying Tiananmen at least in part because they were low on money and had nowhere else to go.
At last we gave up on the provincials to see what the Beijing students were doing. We cut west and headed towards the broadcast tent in the center of the square. I had made the mistake of telling my BBC associates that I had been inside the central broadcast tent because they now wanted in. I agreed when they suggested it would make for good television, but I seriously doubted we would get permission to film inside. Student security got woollier and woollier as Wang Li and I scouted ahead, pressing towards the center. When he got permission to enter a controlled area that I had been denied entry to, we split up. Wang Li rushed ahead on his own to see if he could find a student leader willing to talk to me in the name of BBC. In the meantime, I worked the perimeter, looking for a way in, testing various student gatekeepers until I ran into a familiar face from the Sports Institute.
“Hey Jin,” yelled a boisterous baritone. “What are you doing here? Good to see you! Hey, come over here!” It was Crazy Zhang.
When Zhang got within arm’s length he taunted me with a few friendly punches, pummeling away until it actually hurt. He wasn’t called crazy for no reason. The last time I saw him he was wearing a khaki green cap with a red headband around it, today he just acted like a street fighter.
“Go fight someone else!” I said, shoving him back.
“Better not try anything or I’ll have to throw you out of here,” he said, suppressing a grin.
The smart-aleck muscle man grabbed me by the arm and led me up the north steps of the monument’s marble base past the flummoxed student guards guarding a security rope. He then directed me to descend the steps on the east side of the monument to access the roped-off mini-plaza from which it was possible to enter the broadcast tent. When I got inside the zone, I saw Wang Li was there too, standing outside the tent. He gesticulated at me with his usual sense of urgency.
“I’ll leave you here,” said the solidly-built Zhang, this time with a gentle pat on the back instead of a blow. “See you later.”
Wang Li ran over excitedly, barely avoiding a confrontation with the ever-alert Zhang.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Come now!” he said excitedly, “Chai Ling, she wants to talk to you.”
“Chai Ling? Where is she?”
“By the tent,” he shouted. Since we were both already inside the innermost perimeter, it was just a matter of turning around.
There she was, the queen bee in the middle of a humming hive, standing by the tent. She was petite and pert, wearing a loose-fitting white sports shirt with sunglasses hanging on her collar. She smiled in greeting when she saw me approach, but didn’t say anything. There were people on her left and people on her right and from the looks of it they all wanted a piece of her. There were excited discussions about some pressing matter or another, but I couldn’t hear very well because the diesel generator was noisy and roaring just a few feet away. Just as I was about to ask her a question, she was summoned away on business.
The bronze-faced female student leader popped in and out of the tent a half a dozen times in as many minutes while attending to the minutiae of running the tent city of Tiananmen Square. Behind a well-secured safety rope was yet another group of student supplicants bearing urgent requests. I studied precious patch of empty ground in front of the broadcast tent, thinking it might be a good place to hold a quick interview, though it would be hard to concentrate with hundreds of onlookers just a few feet away on the other side of the rope. I could already feel the heat of open-mouthed stares building up. Who is the laowai and what is he doing on the inside?
Today the command center commanded a smaller crowd than in days past when the number of people in and around on the square reached about a million. On a slow day like this, almost a week into martial law, it was probably only in the tens of thousands. But even with crowds diminished to that extent, it was unimaginable to have no governing structure, so the idea of a command center, however modest, was appealing in its own right. Likewise, the idea of student leaders fit the bill, even if their leadership was self-assumed and their powers were largely imaginary.
Deep in the throng of wannabes who did not have permission to enter the command center were three familiar Caucasian faces: Eric, Fred, and Brian, the latter of whom caught my ear.
“Phil, Can we get in?”
“I don’t know.”
Being a professional journalist, he didn’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. He wanted in and in he tried to go. But the rote-like “We’re BBC!” didn’t work its usual charm, nor did it help when he tried to point out he was with me. It was funny to think that Wang Li used me, a day hire, to represent himself as a liaison for BBC, and now the two of us non-BBC people stood inside the gate in the guarded VIP zone, while the real BBC crew had to wait in the crowd, pressed in on all sides, tugging on the perimeter rope, begging to get in. They repeatedly asked for, and were repeatedly denied entry. After multiple rejections, I felt there wasn’t much I could do about it. To make matters worse, a student warden asked me to translate for the foreigners, leaving it to me to say to my so-called colleagues: “It is not permitted to go inside the rope without special permission.”
But I couldn’t bring myself to say that, even if it meant losing access myself. Instead, I just walked over to the rope and chatted with the crew, telling them to be patient, telling them I was trying to work something out. I  went back to the entrance of the leadership tent to see if I could arrange a pass but the leaders in a position to make a decision were busy with other things. I lingered listlessly by the flap door of the tent, baking in the heat and soaking up unwanted glances until Chai Ling finally came over and offered her hand.
“Ni hao,” she said, stepping forward to greet me.
“Ni hao. You’re at Shida, right?”
“Yes, graduate student, educational psychology.”
“Do you know the service building? You know, the Insider Guest House above the campus store . . .”
“I know that building. You speak Chinese very well.”
We were interrupted by a young man who bent to her ear to whisper a flurry of messages with his hand cupped over his mouth, as if unwilling to let me hear a word of it. This was followed by the exchange of some scribbled notes on onionskin paper, which were duly read and examined. The interaction dragged on for a few minutes until the young man nodded and withdrew back into the tent. Chai Ling turned around to resume our chat, apologizing with a weak smile. She was sunburned and looked tired. I started to have my doubts about the wisdom of an interview, and despaired of getting BBC past the rope.
“Maybe I can talk to you somewhere else, some other time.”
“Now is fine, but I only have a few minutes.”
“Oh, yeah, well, is it okay for them, um, you see my BBC friends, over there, those three, for them to come in here? We can set up the camera right here.”
“You can do that,” she replied. Wang Li heard the word and went to give the crew a thumbs-up. Chai Ling got called aside to attend to some business, while Wang Li and I helped the crew get inside the rope.
“What’s going on, Phil?” Brian asked impatiently.
I explained that one of the top student leaders had agreed to talk on camera.
“Why don’t we set it up over here?” I pointed to the “front gate” of the tent, which gave a view of the monumental obelisk and the outlines of the Great Hall in the background. Eric and Fred went to work. Held back by a human chain of interlocked arms, vigilante guards, and a length of rope, the agitated throng of spectators pressed forward, straining to get a glimpse of news in the making. Whatever it was that had been worth standing in the hot sun to gawk at a few minutes before was now doubled in voyeur value with the arrival of the madcap foreign TV crew. Student security was easier to appreciate on the inside looking out, and the way they handled crowd control in this instance was impressive and effective.
But allowing a foreign news crew to enter the “VIP” zone just stoked the curiosity of those outside, adding to the air of intrigue, and it wasn’t just Beijing civilians who were caught up in the unfolding drama. Several Europeans with cameras tried to sneak into the command center by following on the coattails of the BBC crew, but they were each in their turn stopped by truculent student guards and turned back. Some of them started to make a scene, yelling angrily in English. Making a pretense of protocol to indulge student illusions of control, journalists had in recent days gotten into the habit of flashing press cards before lumbering into student-controlled areas loaded down with weighty cameras and recording equipment. But that gambit didn’t always work.
“Vie kant vee go in?” pleaded one of the Europeans.
“Vee also are from zee press!” his companion added.
“Vie you let zem in?” the first man complained. “It is not fair is it?”
Unlike our tension-fraught visit to the water strikers last week, this time the BBC was on the inside and our “competition” was left dangling on the other side of the ropes. As for my colleagues, who knew very well what it was like to be excluded, I could detect not an ounce of sympathy for those stuck on the outside.
Foreign newsmen at Tiananmen were generally supportive of the democratic tide but not of one another. By now, even rogue media handlers like Wang Li knew the value of exclusive access, and the access game worked both ways. Some journalists assiduously made the trip to Tiananmen every day, and understandably felt indignant at being summarily refused access or being left to lurk on the perimeter.
After some heated deliberation, the student guards agreed to allow a single photographer to come in, but not the two complainers with video gear. Instead, a photographer from Vogue, French edition, was escorted in and immediately started snapping pictures. At one point he turned to me to ask some questions. He said he was working on a story titled “Role Model for a Generation of Women.”
By the time the BBC had set up the camera and sound, Chai Ling was back. The generation/gender role model and I did a short pre-interview chat while the French photographer did his thing. She and I talked about the relative merits of Shida and Beida. She liked both campuses, but had been more active with the Beida hunger-strike committee because of her friends there.
Eric gave the signal that the Beeb was ready to roll. I had suggested to Chai Ling that we do an informal interview, hoping we could get a few candid comments on tape without a formal setup, but Brian had different ideas.
“Move out of the way, Phil!” he said, nudging me to the side to take a stand between the two of us.
“What do you mean?” I said, trying to regain my footing. “I’m talking to her.”
“I do the talking, Phil!” he said. “Okay Eric, start rolling.”
I stepped back dejected but not defeated. I watched Brian introduce himself, ask question, then gesticulate, and finally resort to primitive pantomime because he wasn’t getting any answers. Chai Ling was not able or willing to converse in English. Oblivious to the language gap, he made the tourist mistake of repeating himself in loud, childish tones, and this went on for a few minutes, getting lots of puzzled looks but still no words in response. Chai Ling looked at me, then at him, and back at me again. Brian threw up his hands in frustration and stormed away.
“Turn off the camera!” he instructed Eric, then turned to reprimand me. “Listen, will you? We need someone who speaks English.”
While the BBC reporter paced about impatiently, apparently looking for another interview, Chai Ling resumed talking to me with rapid-fire delivery, telling me things I hadn’t even asked about. She started to give a very emotional account of her involvement in the movement. I don’t think she knew much about video recording and perhaps she did not care, because the camera was not only not pointing our way, it was not even rolling. It wasn’t even mounted on the tripod anymore. I detected pain in her expression and listened intently, trying not to be distracted by the mumbling and grumbling behind me to the right. She kept on pouring out words and I kept on listening.
Out of the corner of my eye I could sense the crew was busy, probably packing up, but I did not break eye contact because I wanted hear what this intense young woman had to say. There was something dark and troubling in her message, matched by the severity of her countenance.
She continued to pour her heart out. After a few minutes, I realized that the film crew was no longer hovering behind me, nor was it the case that they merely stepped back to change tapes or put in a new battery. Going, going, gone. They wrapped in a huff and disappeared without saying a word.
Chai Ling and I shared the mutual embarrassment of having an interview fall apart even as we spoke. With a shrug of the shoulders and a little laugh, our exchange resumed.
She continued in a low voice talking strategy and politics with animation and emotion, saying the student movement had come to a turning point. The future was full of uncertainty. There were serious conflicts between rival student groups. The Beijing students were tired but tempered from weeks of demos and the hunger strike. It was the provincial students, relatively late arrivals, who were pushing for action. Chai Ling said there was a plot to destroy the movement and she didn’t know whom to trust anymore. She spoke of betrayal, of fear, and of her sense of responsibility as a leader. We were interrupted again, this time by a student messenger. Upon the receipt of some urgent communiqué, she turned to me and said she had to go, asking how to get in touch.
“Bei-jing Fan-dian, 1413,” I said, giving her my room number at the hotel.
“I want to talk more,” she said with a soft-spoken intensity. “Can I trust you?”
I waited for her to say more, trying to understand.
“I want to run away . . .” she said.
“It is getting very dangerous!”
“Yes, you should be more careful,” I said. “But what did you say, run away?”
“A Chinese person told me that the British embassy is offering political asylum to student activists. What do you think about that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible, but not likely. Who told you that?”
“I think it may be a trap.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Can you ask about that for me?”
I told her I didn’t know anyone at the British embassy but I said that maybe one of my “good friends” at the BBC did. Then I added my own advice. “Be careful about dealing with foreign embassies. If you go to a big embassy, it could be used against you politically. Maybe the embassy of a small, neutral country is better.”
If she went to the US embassy I was afraid she would become a political pawn in US-China relations, like Fang Lizhi had become during the brouhaha over the US-China banquet. I had no reason to think that the British embassy would be any better. Worse yet, what if it was a trap? What if the asylum offer had been made by an undercover agent, a snare set by Chinese police to discredit the nationalism of the students?
“Jin, I must go now,” she said. “See you again!”
“Yes, it was good talking to you. Xiao xin!” I added, urging her to take care as she fell into a huddle with her comrades. “Be careful!”

Entry to student-controlled zones was tightly guarded.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009



“Tiananmen’s anniversary unimportant to China’s youth,” laments the Los Angeles Times. “Tiananmen now seems distant to China’s students," opines the New York Times.

With the approach of the twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989, there have been a spate of news stories comparing young people in China today with the students who protested at Tiananmen, and the comparison is usually not a flattering one. Apathy has replaced activism. Propaganda has replaced knowledge. Today’s youth are characterized as the “stupid generation,” or at best, “hip but clueless.”

I think such comparisons are unfair.

First of all, twenty years is a long time. Why should young people today be compared to aunts and uncles who were on the march when they hadn’t even learned yet to walk?

The students in 1989 in their day were no different in this respect. They did not spend a huge amount of time pondering why they were or weren’t like the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

If anything, it was precisely because they had little or no first-hand contact with the horror of Mao’s social experiment gone awry that they could in good faith and unremitting optimism write provocative wall posters and take to the streets, naively hoping for positive results.

It seems student activism, to really get off the ground, and to have any integrity at all, requires forgetting the past, --or at least not being beholden to it-- as much as invoking it.

Referencing the past as a guide to one’s actions, especially in a place where the past weighs as heavily as it does in China, is intimidating to the point of despair.

The conditions under which the 1989 generation came of age are not repeatable, nor desirable. China is in many important respects a better country today, much more liberal in terms of lifestyle and individual choice, though politics remains hemmed in as before.

China is also incontestably more prosperous, more open and open to much more information, though media controls remain. One glaring gap in an otherwise improving picture, is that Tiananmen remains a taboo in China today.

It is fully understandable that older observers might get periodically nostalgic about the euphoric burst of people power that erupted on the streets of Beijing during the Sino-Soviet summit twenty years ago. For anyone who was there, or felt a part of it from media immersion; it will always be a part of them.

It was a time in which ordinary people found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. But students were reacting to a unique environment, not inventing it.

There was a perfect storm of campus restiveness, Western media readiness (thanks largely to the expected pomp and circumstance of the Gorbachev visit) and a win-or-die Politburo impasse; all of which conspired to allow something small, narrow, and local to snowball into something large, broad and universal, over many weeks involving millions of people.

No wonder those of us who were there were swept away by the cyclone-like force of it. But one can’t help but notice how quickly the West’s willingness to identify with the cause of Chinese protests waned, when, in subsequent years, the crowd turned its angry gaze first to the US, and later, Japan.

Demonstrations subsequent to Tiananmen tend to be dismissed as phony demonstrations, reeking of government interference. But there was ample evidence in 1989 that one faction or other of the government was ever trying to play the crowd, infiltrate and direct the course of the protests as well.

The hyper-nationalistic students I interviewed after the anti-American and anti-Japanese demonstrations in 1999 and 2005 were not that different from the impulsive, idealistic and overly excitable students I marched shoulder to shoulder with in 1989.

The forward rush of feet, the billowing red flags, the hypnotic cadences of slogan and song chanted over and again in concert with the reckless enthusiasm of youth were in evidence in each instance, though there were differences in quality and scope.

The Tiananmen demos were rigorous but peaceful, politically daring, but welcomed in open arms by ordinary citizens. The 1989 protests endured for weeks and laid claim to revolutionary iconography in the central plaza of the Central Kingdom’s capital, making for unforgettable symbolic spectacle. It gave one the feeling of being in the center of the world.

But that was then, this is now. Different conditions call for different strategies and different solutions. Some of today’s battles may be fought out entirely on the internet or in courts or in civil society forums. Other little insurrections will, tragically, fail to get the attention they deserve until things take a violent turn, and then we’ll hear about them.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of unrest going on in every part of China, but if it doesn’t happen in a convenient place under the nose of the media, it may as well be deemed a non-event. China’s Public Security Bureau routinely releases shocking statistics that suggest China hardly goes a day without dozens of demonstrations or “mass incidents” erupting somewhere or else in the provinces, to the tune of thousands of little insurrections a month.

Demonstrating in a country as obsessed with stability as China is not a surefire course of action and is often counter-productive, but it continues to happen to an alarming degree. It’s not desirable politically, but today’s China is built on the back of innumerable mass incidents, the revolution culminating in the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic being the biggest one of all.

So is it not just a bit smug to say Chinese today are apathetic, that they are victims of propaganda and know nothing of the spirit of Tiananmen? The spirit of ’89 is alive and well every time someone, somewhere peacefully asserts a basic right or speaks out on a trying issue or pleads for a little more justice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


The view from room 1413 in the Beijing Hotel.

(May 20, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)

From my balcony I could see the helicopters as they banked and began to hover and circle over the Square like a pack of metallic dragonflies. What was the purpose of that? Were they filming? Was Tiananmen under attack? Was this it? The time said 9:30. I called the BBC office, but they hadn’t heard anything about any helicopters. I called Melinda Liu at Newsweek and got the same response. What helicopters?
I flipped on the TV to get a second opinion on what I had just seen with my own eyes. CCTV had nothing to say about helicopters either, but a few minutes later an announcement was made saying martial law was now officially in effect. Last night the TV station had made repetitive announcements about the imposition martial law, but the rote threat had no visible effect except to make the mass of protesters bigger and angrier. Now, apparently, it was official, aside from the commotion caused by the helicopters, the view outside looked pretty much the same.
The student strikers may have held the high spiritual ground, but the sky was up for grabs. Buzzing the crowd in formation with a few loops around Tiananmen Square was the government’s way of showing they were in control even though they weren’t, at least not yet. Tiananmen was still a liberated zone.
The streets were already starting to fill up with the usual morning tide of marchers, a few more scurrying about than usual, but they had never really emptied during an extraordinary night of ceaseless marching and shouting. The dominant refrain of the moment, clearly audible even at this height, was, “Down with Li Peng!”
There was a familiar soft, scratchy knock on the door. Bright was back!
A moment before it seemed the sky was falling, but the instant I saw her smile I knew everything was more or less okay.
“How’d you get here?”
“I flew!” she said, thrusting her arms outward as if she were a bird. She was in a mood that defied the doom and gloom outside.
“You didn’t see the helicopters?” I asked curiously. I found myself feeling it had been nothing but a dream, after all.
“Oh, the choppers?” she said nonchalantly. “They’re just dropping leaflets about martial law, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” I was relieved and disappointed at the same time. What did she mean, “That’s all”?
With the pressure building up like this, I was tempted to think that the sooner things came to a head, the better it would be for a resolution in the long run.
Thanks to CCTV’s steady stream of strident announcements,  martial law was being rolled out with great fanfare. That’s why everyone was up all night, running around so defiantly, part last hurrah, part mobilization. With conflict imminent, the end seemed near.
Martial law regulations as stipulated on the TV screen sounded serious but so far it didn’t amount to much. Were the helicopters just a brassy reminder that it was time for everyone to pack up and leave?  The kindest interpretation was to view them as  aerial shepherds, herding the students on their way, though the taunt might make the rebels want to resist all the more. The leaflet dropping seemed wasteful and redundant, basically repeating an announcement that had already been made ad nauseam on television. Then again, the target audience did not watch CCTV, not on the square anyway.
In a way it had been a media war from the start, and the plucky students innovated so fast the government had trouble keeping up. The students had taken to the streets because they could not vent their thoughts in the state-controlled media, epitomized by the turgid People’s Daily.
Student march routes and means of transportation varied, as did the slogans. Now the government, even with its mighty media monopoly, had to go to the streets to get its message to the propaganda-deprived students, who used party newspapers, if they bothered to read such rags at all, as mats to sit down on to lessen the chill of dusty flagstones. Students looked not to government mouthpieces but instead relied on homespun chants and word of mouth, brush-pen manifestos and hand-painted slogans, low-tech mimeographs and megaphones to create their own media ecology. In the confines of this new liberated space, they could condemn government actions and say things the government media wouldn’t countenance.
If the media power was asymmetrical, there were compensations. Obvious underdogs, charming when they had to be, the students had already won the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the foreign press; the dour Li Peng and his nameless minions didn’t stand a chance. This development gave students media reach that in some ways exceeded that of the government; the high-tech, high-production coverage they were getting from foreign TV crews like the one I worked for, amplified the message of their humble fliers and playful chants,  giving them instant international renown.
But I still couldn’t make sense of the lackadaisical implementation of martial law. The use of army helicopters to drop paper leaflets was intimidating or comic, depending on how one looked at it.
“Last night they said martial law goes into effect the day after the announcement, right?” I asked. “Like at ten a.m. or something. Well that’s now. So? So are we under martial law?”
“No, actually it starts tonight,” Bright explained. “That’s why I came over now.”
“But so far, martial law seems like a joke.”
“Not a joke. Tiananmen Square is off-limits. They say no interviews. It is serious; if you are discovered working for BBC without a journalist visa, you can be arrested and kicked out of China.”
That took the wind out of my sails. What protection did I have? I was not an accredited journalist and didn’t even have a paper contract with the BBC. As an American working for a British company, I fit the profile of individuals who had been expelled from China recently, like the American reporter who got kicked out of China while working for Agence-France Presse; two strikes with one blow.
Bright, who had been bugging me to bring this up with the BBC, pressed me again on the issue.
“Well, I asked Mark, you know, that milky-faced guy, and he said not to worry; he would be the judge of what was safe and what was not.”
“What does he know?” Bright said abruptly, sounding more agitated than I had seen before.
It was ungrateful of me not to be more responsive to her advice; she was already my bellwether, and what’s more, she really, really cared. All along, she had helped me see the direction of things and she continually helped me put things in a larger perspective. She had green-lighted my decision to march with the students in early May, but had warned me to go slow and proceed with caution when it came to working for the foreign media, advice I was only beginning to appreciate.
She had made her point, but I didn’t want to quit, even though my follow-up conversation with BBC had hardly been reassuring. When I had pressed to be involved in discussions involving the safety precautions and suitability of assignments, the BBC producer raised his eyebrows with incredulity. He then made a concession, designed as much to help the BBC get off the hook, I suspect, as to protect me. He said I should not carry the tripod or camera gear since that would provide incriminating evidence of the BBC having hired a non-accredited freelancer.
Bright and I went out on the porch. The helicopter buzz-by had the effect of agitating the street marchers to a new level of stridency. Not only was the crowd not cowed, if anything, traffic to the square was on the upswing. The air resounded with a variation of an old chant:
“Dadao li peng! Gankuai xiatai, renmin wansui!”
“Down Li Peng! Step down quickly! Long live the people!”

I was aching to know what was going on at the square. Was the movement falling apart with dispiriting fear or digging in with last-stand defiance. What if students packed up and marched home? What, if anything, would take the central place occupied so long by the hunger strikers? What was the new focal point?
As we spoke, a raspy, automotive roar echoed and reverberated in the street below.
“Look, the Flying Tigers!”  Bright called out excitedly. “Here they come again, let’s count how many this time!” She got carried away with childish enthusiasm as the “Flying Tigers” motorcycle brigade roared by. Bright explained that the “fei hu” circled the old city clockwise by racing along Second Ring Road, much like the path of the bicycle demonstration. They cruised by the hotel and then throttled their way to the square, an obligatory and welcome detour on the southern link of their journey, a sign to all that all was well.
Motorcycle convoys, being bossy, noisy and associated with gangs, according to my Long Island sensitivities, were not things to be admired—they conjured up images of Hell’s Angels and traffic accidents. But in this besieged context, the revving and roaring, even the trail of exhaust of the hot engines, was life-affirming and reassuring.
The motorcyclists provided up-to-the-minute information about developments around the city, with a focus on military moves and policing. It was a dramatic innovation in the ever-evolving media tug of war, filling the information vacuum created by official propaganda. The sputtering bikes were the protesters’ early warning system in case of attack, the vanguard should a crackdown be set into motion. They tirelessly patrolled the outside perimeter of people-controlled Beijing.
 “Sixty seven, sixty eight, sixty nine . . .” Bright counted out loud like a schoolgirl. “I counted sixty nine, how many did you count?”
Although I wasn’t counting, I shared the visceral joy in watching the Flying Tigers roar by in formation. They circled Beijing as sentinels, on the lookout for trouble, intrepid representatives of a besieged population, like U.S. General Chennault’s original Flying Tigers, American pilots who came to the rescue of China before the formal outbreak of war with Japan. I liked the comparison, not just because it was a reminder that Chinese and Americans had once been comrades in arms, but because derring-do in difficult situations could change the course of history.
A workers’ brigade followed on foot and bicycle, filling in the elastic wake left by the Flying Tigers, and the shouts of the marchers were, if anything, louder than usual, matching the noise of vibrating mufflers with vociferous militant chants.
“Dadao Li Peng!” “Down with Li Peng!”
“Dadao Li Peng, dadao Li Peng, dadao Li Peng, dadao Li Peng!”
Bright surprised me by adding her voice to the cacophony of thousands below. Her father had worked for Zhou Enlai and her she was castigating Zhou’s adopted son, communist goody-two-shoes, Li Peng.
The tempo and pitch of the repetitive, catchy “Dadao Li Peng” slogan surged until it sounded like nonsense syllables. The rhythmic, hypnotic cadence reminded me of a cross between a Balinese monkey dance chant and John Lennon’s ditty, “number nine, number nine, number nine.”
Bupaliuxue, bupazuolao!” “Don’t be afraid to spill blood, don’t be afraid of prison!”
Another rhythmic formula, but one I found considerably less agreeable. Why talk about spilling blood? What kind of bravado was that? Part of what gave the powerless, vulnerable students a modicum of moral power was their strict adherence to non-violence.
            Fandui junguan, fandui jieyan!” The angry protesters screamed. “Oppose curfew, oppose martial law!”
Pretty soon, Bright’s lips are moving in unison with the chanting of the crowd and she’s not just lip-synching. Her excited response to the rebellious currents roiling below confused me.
One day she tells me the government is going to be overthrown, the next day she advises that I quit the BBC to avoid arrest. So what’s with martial law? It’s serious, she says, but the hour of implementation keeps changing. It’s dangerous, she says, but she rides her bike here and she’s out on the porch shouting slogans in solidarity with the radical marchers below.
Given the contradictory streams and adverse currents, I wondered if it were possible to hate Li Peng and like martial law?

Looking down at Wangfujing intersection from 1413