Tuesday, May 19, 2009


As the movement wore on, posters critical of Deng started to appear. Here old "Xiaoping" is represented by a popular homophone for his name: "small bottle."

(Excerpt from May 19, 1989 entry for Tiananmen Moon)

The hunger strike had reached a critical stage. The weakest of the strikers were nearing death, but the government, despite a stab at public relations through an awkward televised dialogue, showed no sign of making significant concessions. Flush with the success of filling Tiananmen rim to rim with people, but unable to show any real gains, the student movement was stalling out with nowhere to go. The sweeping numbers seen in the past two days were not easily sustainable; the headcount was down.

The BBC van made it almost halfway across the north face of the bustling Square when the amateur traffic police supervising access to Tiananmen got suspicious. We were pulled over by a motley group of students, some in borrowed uniforms, others with the usual headbands, not far from the marble bridges by the entrance to the Forbidden City.

"Where is your pass?" barked one of boys in a traffic police outfit. Besides the ill-fitting uniforms and their obvious youth, the thing that most strongly suggested that the “officers” were imposters was the footwear; they wore rubber sandals and scuffed up sports shoes.

The driver who had replaced Min, a new hire from the Great Wall Hotel, picked up on this right away. "We support the students!" he shouted felicitously.

"So what?” One of the young guards snapped. “Everybody does. You still need permission to drive here!"

I felt like I had stepped in a time warp and landed in the midst of the Cultural Revolution when adult-hating, authority-defying Red Guards still roved the land.

"We are BBC from England. We have come to make a news report," I said, stepping into the reporter’s shoes, hoping our world-renowned call letters would settle it. On this late morning outing I was out solo with a camera crew. That meant that I had to take on the reporter/producer’s role of pressing for access. I could not resort to "I'm only the interpreter," when things got tough. Now I was Brian.

The unkind light of the overcast sky drained Tiananmen of its usual color just as the excess of ropeways and checkpoints were choking the flow of traffic to the Square. Despite scant on the job experience, the self-appointed traffic cops were already jaded, doing their job with a bored authoritarian relish. There was a long, slash of empty road running several hundred yards in both directions lined with townspeople on both sides; people twice the age of the students followed orders as given, either out of respect at the sight of the uniforms or by indulging them for the sake of shared hopes.

Where there were no rope barriers, there existed invisible lines that few dared to cross. The bare pavement gleamed in the diffuse light of the clouded up sun.

While the student traffic marshals huddled to argue the merits of the “England B-B-C” case among themselves, Eric, Fred and I stepped out of the van, physically expressing our unwillingness to be fully beholden to kids in uniform. We stretched our legs on the edge of the forbidden zone, surveying the unexpectedly semi-hostile terrain. Bright, who had gone against her better judgment and come along for the ride at my urging, remained inside the van.

"You cannot step out of the car here!" shrieked a youthful voice.

"And what do you propose we do?" I snapped back.

“Go back!”

Ignoring his command, Fred, Eric and I held our ground.

"Stop! Just wait!” ordered the student marshal.

We waited but nothing happened. Curious about what kind of deliberations the “authorities” were making in regard to our fate,

I decided to walk over to their roost, a police box on a traffic island, only to find they weren’t talking about us at all. Three young revolutionary traffic wardens, all female, were engaged in banter with members of the opposite sex. Each had school pins prominently tacked on to their baggy uniforms. While they gabbed, I snapped a picture, prompting a vociferous reaction.

"No pictures!"

"Why not?"

"That is the rule!"

"Whose rule?"

"Students’ rule."

"We are going to the Square," I said with measured firmness, thinking of Brian’s argument with the water strikers, "to talk to the hunger strikers."

"You cannot go to the Square,” shrieked a young woman. “It is not permitted!"

"No? Well, at least can we, oh I don’t know. Hmm. Boy you must be tired standing out here.”

“No kidding!”

“Hey, why not let us set up our camera over there?” I offered. That way we can talk to some people on the edge of the Square without going inside, okay?"

The artless compromise worked. The young gatekeepers saved face, or in any case were now able to get on with their all-important chitchat, and I secured for BBC a foothold on the outskirts of the Square. Still, I couldn't believe we had been refused entry to Tiananmen. The whole point of Tiananmen was that it is open to everyone, was it not? The walls, those ubiquitous Chinese walls, were getting in the way again.

We unloaded the camera gear, arranged a place to park the van and tiptoed our way into the human labyrinth, gradually picking up speed as the amateur traffic cops, now almost out of sight, preoccupied themselves other vehicles and questions of teenage romance. We were about halfway to the monument, well into the thick of things, when a pretty woman wearing makeup and a floral pattern dress emerged from a thicket of people with a small entourage in tow. When I heard someone say she was a TV news announcer, I hopped over a rope and needled my way through the onlookers, all with their backs to us, to get closer. I listened intently as she fielded questions, then asked one of my own. At first she was reluctant to give me the “floor.”

"Oh? You speak Chinese?" she responded coolly, in English.

"You are with CCTV?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking elsewhere, barely acknowledging my presence.

"We're from the BBC. Can you tell me what is happening now?"

"I've really got to run, but I can tell you this, the situation is quite grave," she said, pausing to look around nervously. "I was asked by someone in the government to deliver a message to the students."

"What is the message?"

"Zhao Ziyang is. . ." she paused, looking at her escorts, "I'm sorry, I really have to go."

...The word "student" was suffering from hyperinflation. It was hard to do anything around Tiananmen without getting the approval of someone who had no qualifications other than a red headband and a school pin.

Who are these "students" anyway, but young people nurtured by the state, a tender elite who had not yet worked a single day in their lives. And what were they in danger of becoming? The new Red Guards! In the Cultural Revolution donning a red armband gave young people the right to terrorize their elders. Teachers, parents and party officials were hounded, sometimes to their death, by the young and ignorant. Afraid to disagree, millions pretended to support Mao's disastrous policies during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Could such madness happen again? It was enough to give me a sense of pity for the embattled government.

Bright, who was uncomfortable moving in the company of journalists, went to look for her friends. I agreed to meet her later, then joined Eric and Fred in lugging the gear across the Square, wary of “young Nazis” ready to pounce on us in the name of the students, while hoping to get deep enough into the now heavily segmented Square to score some good visuals of the "hunger strike.”

Row after row of big, boxy buses had been parked on the north side of the monument, creating an impromptu trailer park for the starving strikers, grouped, as ever, by university affiliation. The area defined by the busses had the look and smell of a refugee camp. Doctors and nurses administered first aid from tents interspersed throughout the lot. A steady wail of sirens assured that the sick and the unconscious were being attended to. Supplies of glucose, intravenous drip equipment and big bottles of medicine were stacked inside a makeshift pharmacy. Boiled drinking water was stored in plastic Coke bottles, jars and vacuum flasks.

Damp sleeping bags and blankets were draped out on the roofs of buses for an airing out. A student willing to show me around explained to me how the buses were lined up in such a way as to enhance security, creating narrow, restricted alleys between them.

Near the center of the Square, a woman with the charismatic √©lan of a stage actress was singing patriotic songs on the top of her lungs to the accompaniment of a single accordion. This was precisely the kind of stuff that looks good on television, so we followed her from bus to bus. This gave us a chance to peek inside several buses, something that would have been difficult to arrange otherwise. Security was tight in the wake of visits from China’s top leaders. Both Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng had visited strikers on these buses this morning, perhaps keeping an eye on each other as much as greeting the strikers. The mere presence of a foreign film crew was not enough to impress anyone anymore.

Bright found me and took me to see Lily who was still on strike. The student security guards, understanding us all to be friends from Shida, were gracious enough to allow us to talk with her but she made it clear she could not be interviewed. According to discipline, Lily had to stay with her group. No one was supposed to talk to the press except the designated spokespeople, and then they were guided by rules of what constituted official student policy. There were all kinds of instant and arbitrary rules for visitation, so we could not chat for long. Lily had lost some weight and was looking pretty grim and parch-mouthed, but I was comforted by the thought she wasn’t on a strict zero-calorie diet.

A few days before, we found her in the hunger strike zone quietly nibbling on a chocolate bar. I asked her if chocolate was permitted during the hunger strike and it was her impression that it was. In any case, she had made no secret of it, she had chocolate smeared above her lips. But even with the high-calorie chocolate intake we were worried about her and quietly expressed the hope that she wouldn’t persist. What's the point of winning a symbolic victory only to lose a life? Although the hunger strike was having a tremendous impact, galvanizing the sympathy of an entire nation, a good motherland should not consume its young.

Lily wasn’t the only striker unavailable to our camera. With the crew in tow, I was shooed away from each and every bus the moment I tried to do an interview. The fact that the BBC wanted interviews in English further complicated the search. A few times I managed to find someone at least tangentially related to the strike, a volunteer or whatever, quite willing to talk and adequately articulate who would suddenly balk when I explained that they would have to talk to me in English.

At last I found a young striker willing to say a few words in the lingua franca of the western world. Standing on the steps of his bus, he hungrily finished the cigarette lodged between his thin, parched lips, then coolly flicked the butt away. Recent weight loss, a skinny frame and the untended whiskers on his face made him look twice his age

"How do you feel?" I asked for openers, wondering it the nicotine helped stave off hunger.

"We, uh, no. We want dialogue to government." His English had been more impressive off camera.

"Yes and, you must be very tired and weak. Where do you sleep?"

"Sleep?" he asked as if he were trying to remember how to put an English sentence together. "We sleep on bus."

"I see some sleeping bags on the roof, does anyone sleep up there?"

"I don't understand."

"That's okay, um, let's see, where is the toilet around here?" I asked, repeating the question in Chinese.

"Behind bus," he said. He pointed to a blanket that was rigged up to block the back seat of the bus from view.

Since the strikers had presumably consumed nothing but water for days, the jerry-rigged urinal did not leave much of a stench. The hunger strikers were spared from having to trek to Tiananmen's inconvenient, but serviceable underground public toilets.

"Did you see Zhao Ziyang when he came here this morning?" I asked.

"Not really." He switched into Chinese to explain that Zhao had boarded a different bus, but his friend had seen him and gotten his signature.

"You have many signatures on your shirt,” I said, continuing in Chinese. “What is that all about?"

"To remember my friends," He said, muttering something in Chinese, while groping around for something in his pocket. He produced a pen and asked me in to sign his cap.

"Phil?” interrupted Eric, peering up from behind the camera. “Are we doing an interview or what?"

The cameraman was not just puzzled to see me offering my autograph in the middle of an interview, he was also nudging me, reminding me to keep the conversation in English. I indicated that he should keep rolling.

"Okay. So, where were we? Let’s keep this in English, please."

"I have to. . ." broke in a sweet female voice just off camera.

Standing behind the English-speaking striker towards the back of the bus was a pretty woman with long hair wearing an airy cotton dress. She clutched a Coke bottle in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other. She looked like someone who had gotten on the bus to Woodstock and ended up at Tiananmen by mistake.

"Are you allowed to drink that stuff?" I asked, pointing to the red-wrapped plastic bottle in her hand.

"I eat Coca-Cola everyday," she said in English, pausing to take a swig of the bubbleless brew, "but I eat no food."

The starving students had taken to swigging the flavored sugar water from Atlanta in their ascetic battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Now wonder journalists, not to mention ordinary citizens, were kept at a distance.

"My friend," the young man explained, "He, she, ah, Institute of Minority."

"Phil. You can't interview two people at the same time,” Eric said, flashing a look of frustration as the interview fell apart. “Will you tell her to get out of the shot?"

"I am talking to someone else now,” I duly scolded her. “Please move back, will you?"

She just kept looking at me.

"Back, please, will you? I will talk to you later."

To my chagrin, our featured English speaker was puffing on a new cigarette. It wasn’t just the noxious smoke that bothered me: it also caused the interview to have a visual continuity problem, cigarette in mouth for some quotes, not others.

"Okay Phil, I think we got enough here," Eric abruptly announced. Then the Woodstock waif stepped forward with a bounce, smiling in recognition.

"You’re Jin Peili? Am I right?” she asked. "Remember party with Zhou Duo?"

"Zhou Duo, um oh, yes…" I was stalling for time. I couldn't remember this flower child but I remembered Zhou Duo very clearly. A prominent intellectual who dabbled in business but preferred talking about the issues, he had a hosted a salon-style dinner party at his house a few years ago. Most of the talk was highbrow, --politics, philosophy and ideology-- a cultural salon of sorts.

At the party, I remember meeting a slightly plump, round-cheeked young woman from the Minorities Institute who could speak passable Thai. Could this be her?

"Suay mak!" I said, testing the waters. I told her she was beautiful in Thai. Not exactly a traditional greeting, but it worked because she broke into a shy smile.

"Phood thai dai mai khrap?" I continued, "You speak Thai, don't you?"

"Kha! Sawatdee kha, chue meo, kha,” she said, greeting me in practiced standard Thai, adding that her nickname was Meo, meaning cat. She pressed her hands together in a traditional wai to greet me. Meo was not Thai but she was from the Dai minority in Yunnan Province and could speak a dialect that allowed for mutual comprehension. Her fellow hunger strikers hovered close to us, watching with rapt incomprehension.

"Nong Meo, at first I did not recognize you. You have become so thin!"

"It is so good to see you!" she smiled warmly. I could see Eric folding the tripod, Fred packing up the sound gear, getting ready to go.

"I want to see you again, how can I get in touch?"

"I have no address, you can find me on the bus 1-0-5-6.”

"But what about your home address?"

"Today is day seven of the hunger strike, I will stay here till I die."

Her words shocked me. If this hunger strike continued, a decision wholly in the hands of other people, she might not live another week. I reached out and hugged her. She reciprocated, holding me tightly.

Why did someone so young, with so much promise have to face a grueling death from starvation? What madness politics is, what it puts people through. I let go, and said goodbye, stepped off the bus and ran, eyes unable to see clearly, as I strove to catch up with the others.

"Your friend is very beautiful," Eric said, trying to show he wasn’t angry as we lumbered back to the van waiting on the other side of the ropes. Just then there was a loud crackle and hiss, the student PA system was being jacked up to full volume.

"Please get off the buses and report to your group leader, please get off the buses and. . ."

It seemed something important was about to happen, so I asked the crew if they could wait long enough to give me a chance to see what was going on.

I asked around and the answers I got were as different as people’s faces, --a party line explanation had not been settled on yet. Reporting was a bit like asking for directions; one needed to ask the same question repeatedly in order not to be steered in the wrong direction.

Why are the buses being evacuated, where are the hunger strikers going?

"Nothing's happening, who are you?"

"It's the announcement for the daily meeting."

"It's nothing special, everyone has to get off the buses for bus cleaning hour."

"A new strategy is to be declared."

"There will be an important announcement at four."

Unsure of whom to believe, I convinced the crew it was worth waiting till four to find out, although we were plenty hungry and tired by then. We set up the camera and filmed the tragicomic scene of hunger strikers exiting their buses in disheveled states of wobbly infirmity. Group leaders barked commands into battery operated megaphones. The limp and hobbling strikers, some of whom could barely stand without assistance, were lined up in neat parallel rows as if they were army recruits about to be inducted into boot camp. A middle-aged man standing near us was being besieged with questions. I pressed closer to find out what was being said.

"The students do not aim to topple the government," he was explaining as the clutch of listeners pulled in more closely around him. "Second of all, the hunger strike has seriously weakened its members. There will be a new strategy to deal with the government's threat of violence. Finally, the hunger strike will end at 6:30 today."

I wanted to find out who the man was, but he was whisked away in a flash by student handlers, with easily a dozen people chasing after him. Students addressed him respectfully as "teacher,” but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a professor. My guess was that he was with the Academy of Social Sciences, one of those scholars who served as a bridge between the government and students.

Another “teacher” who had been standing near me while the first man spoke breathlessly related that someone from CCTV had told him that Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who had broken ranks with the leadership by openly showing support of the students, was now out of power.

If true, that was big news. The man added that the Square could be attacked at any time now and pointed out that the students, weak and sick as they were, could no longer offer effective resistance.

I heard others argue that the strike should continue. Surprisingly some of these voices came from the strikers themselves, which just goes to show how people can get bent on a particular course of action and how hard it can be to snap out of.

Despite their discomfort and debilitating hunger, they had become national heroes, they were "our students,” the good soldiers of a good historic cause. If and when the strike ended, they would have food in their bellies and could be nursed back to health, but the movement would lose its soul and they would be regular nobodies again.

So who was calling the shots around here? The student leaders were clearly in charge of the strikers, but who was in charge of the student leaders?

For the sake of friends like Meo and Lily, I was hugely relieved to see the hunger strike come to a close. As I watched the sickly supplicants accept their rations of warm orange drink and bread, I said a prayer of thanks that nobody had perished.

A doctor made the rounds, cautioning the strikers to first consume liquids and not to overeat. Tea and soup were the foods he recommended. That was good advice in theory, but neither was available on the Square so it came down to a break-the-fast of lukewarm orange drink and sweet rolls unloaded out of blue plastic crates. It was touching to watch these young heroes nibble, then wolf down their first meal in a week. Somewhere in that hungry gang of hunger strikers were Lily, Meo and other friends. I was content to know that bus number 1056 would not be anyone’s terminal address.

As relieved as I was, I had to admit that the moment the hunger strike ended a flame was extinguished at the center of Tiananmen. The hunger strike of the Chinese students, like acts of self-denial of Mahatma Gandhi, captured the people's imagination but set a terrifyingly high standard. How much are you willing to suffer for your country? What better way to show selflessness, in a land where "have you eaten?" is a standard greeting, than to willfully deprive yourself of food? The collective act of self-sacrifice had served to purify the movement, to distinguish it from ordinary power-grabbing politics. For a few extraordinary days, Tiananmen had assumed the quasi-sacred aura of a sacrificial altar.

Had Zhao really been pushed out of power? Zhao’s early morning appearance at the Square was a tardy show of support, but the students I met were moved by his gesture, some even asked for his signature. Did anyone ask for Li Peng’s signature? Whatever Zhao’s game was, whether it was a genuine show of support for the idealistic uprising, or a last-minute attempt to shore up his own crumbling power base, he had not been able to turn things around.

From what the second “teacher” had been saying, there was a partisan quality to the movement, at least behind the scenes. Though both Li Peng and Zhao had respectively met with students, only one had any support from the students. If tacit support for Zhao in return for Zhao’s tacit support for those who supported him was part of the equation, his downfall called for a new formula.

Zhao had told the strikers he was too late, yet his timing was propitious in a way. Word leaked to the street of his downfall caused the hunger strike to end. As to who was calling the shots, I could not determine, but the outcome was reasonably good. It was a miracle that, in a strike as large as this one, not a single striker had succumbed yet. And now no one would; it was over.

The rocky road of Chinese revolutionary history was littered with stirring examples of self-sacrifice in the name of the collective, often to the point of martyrdom, yet this unexpected twist was a testament to how much things had changed in the 13 years since Mao’s death, how “normal” China had become, how much it had recovered from the wounding mass hypnosis of Cultural Revolution. This time around the “heroic” exhortation to self-sacrifice was tempered with a healthy dose of selfishness. Chocolate was okay, milk was better. Coca Cola not out of the question. The restoration of individual dignity was tentative and incomplete, but it found expression here as little acts of self-preservation along with the larger solicitous concern for the failing health of the young heroes.

What could well have become a serial, suicidal disaster ended on an upbeat humanitarian note. The gripping dramatics of withering away in public paradoxically imparted a life-affirming aura to the movement. But what now would sustain the spirit and the unity, what now could possibly recapture the lost urgency and focus of the hunger strike?

What was the next logical move on the giant chessboard of Tiananmen?