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.