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