(June 3, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)
The driver of the gypsy cab carrying the camera crew hit the brakes with an unexpected jolt, narrowly avoiding a collision. The way forward was blocked by a militant swarm of pedestrians milling about on West Chang’an Boulevard. At Liubukou, not far from the guarded entrance Zhongnanhai, traffic was choked up with the carcasses of three smashed buses and shards of broken brick and glass. We stepped out of the car cautiously, not sure the bricks had stopped flying. The tension in the air was almost visible, like heat hovering over a hot road.
The buses resembled beetles that had been attacked and stripped of meat by an army of ants. The interiors had been picked clean by the mob, upholstered seats ripped apart, metal bars bent out of shape. This was no ordinary case of looting, but an expression of hatred to the fingertips, hatred to the bone. Why the anger, the sacking of a bus? I asked around and was told the story of the Trojan horse. The bus had been full of lethal weapons, ammunition and other military supplies.
"Guns!" a vocal vigilante explained.
"Military issue! There were hand grenades were on the bus!"
But why were the seats pulled apart, the windows smashed?
"The army tried to trick the people," another man interjected.
"They tried to make it look like we had the weapons! It was a trap. They are looking for an excuse. It is they who are criminals, not us!"
A student brought me over to see the evidence. Rifles, machine guns, tear gas cylinders, daggers and grenades were piled on top of the bus for all to see, but wisely placed out of reach. There was a twin danger; a distraught demonstrator might be tempted to grab a weapon and turn it on his tormentors, or the conscientious men guarding the weapons might be accused of collecting them with violent intent; either way creating an excuse for crackdown.
It had all been so sporting up until now, a battle of wits, a battle of wills. A battle of empty hands, empty stomachs, incantatory voices, and tired feet. The introduction of military hardware changed the game entirely. It made a mockery of a month of non-violent struggle. Who was funneling in the weapons? Were they a pretext to crack down or the tools to do so?
“The bus and the weapons are part of a conspiracy to smuggle in troops and weapons to attack Tiananmen,” explained a young man in a white shirt.
"But, what happened to the soldiers on the bus?"
"Those cowards, they ran into the gate of Zhongnanhai. They ran away, they are afraid of the will of the people," he said choking up with anger. "They are afraid. . ."
Although I did not disagree with his words, the strident and unforgiving tone of his voice unnerved me.
"If they didn't run away," added another self-appointed spokesman, "They would face the justice of the masses."
“Justice of the masses,” echoed another man approvingly.
Mass justice, vigilante justice, just what does that consist of? By now I was worried that our BBC crew might become embroiled in a misdirected mass action for some perceived slight, so I erred on the side of caution, quietly asking permission to take some pictures on the bus. Permission granted.
While Ingo and Mark recorded the scene, I studied the tense, shiftless ring of bodies lining the intersection between the broad boulevard and the side road that led to the music hall. There were angry scowls, twitching limbs, nervous facial tics and palpable worry in people's eyes. It was spooky and made me want to leave.
While the film crew did their job, I jotted down some of the anti-government slogans and graffiti on the roadside walls.
DON'T BETRAY THE PEOPLE!
NEVER TRUST THE MOTHER FUCKING GOVERNMENT!
IS THE PEOPLE'S ARMY AFRAID OF THE PEOPLE?
Thousands of people stood around shiftily, but their faces lacked the reassuring neutrality of the idle loafers one normally encounters in China. There wasn't much to do, but there was much to think about. Things were way past the point where people wanted to practice English or know where we were from. A number of the young men near the bus stared right through us, numb with rage and fear perhaps, nerves frayed by acidulous thoughts.
Conversation, even among partisans on the same side of the barricade, was difficult. Loquacious small talk, the lubricant of Beijing street life, had all but dried up.
What was happening to the marchers, once so resilient, so peaceful, so optimistic for so many weeks. Were these the same people? If so, were they not fast approaching a psychological breaking point? It pained me to look at them, there was venom in their eyes.
Chai Ling had given a clue as to the true nature of the movement in its current decayed state; it was about blood, but with a twist. Both sides taunted and provoked, intimidated and humiliated, hoping the other side would attack first. Once the blood started to flow, all sorts of unreasonable actions could be justified, once the blood started to flow, an upsurge in sympathy would accrue to those most effectively portrayed as victims of the violence.
That’s what made the hunger strike so effective, if one side could claim victim-hood, the other side started to look like a cruel victimizer. Conversely, that’s why the government was recklessly sending in probes, discarding weapons in plain sight, setting up a pretext. If the people attacked the soldiers, if the generally beloved and legendarily pro-citizen PLA themselves became victims, the polarity of sympathy could be flipped, with the students and their ilk seen in a novel way, not as lambs being led to slaughter, but wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The mounting war of nerves, designed to make the other side look like the predator, brought to mind the haunting lyrics written by Chyi Chin; the northern wolf, cold fangs bared, dust and wind blowing, ready to strike.
The weather was an irritant in its own right. It was hot and muggy, and yet dark for midday. What sun there was, was filtered through a thick haze, the air was stiflingly still. We took our establishing shots, asked a few more questions and beat a quick exit, and not a second too soon. It occurred to me that in a moment of mass panic, our gear could be mistaken for weaponry. Once we broke ranks with the raw, almost seething crowd, a number of unfriendly comments were hurled in our direction, as if we were abandoning them, or somehow colluding with the government.
Even with our heads bent low, we had inadvertently become target for the pent-up anger around us. The driver sensed this, and got in the habit of patiently and deferentially fielding questions from those around us, even those who banged on the car demanding to know who was inside. The driver knew what to say and when to say it. He had uttered not a word in the parking lot when we were cornered by the police, but was quick to mediate when we got caught up in civilian disputes, such as happened in a backstreet hutong near Qianmen when a posse of indignant residents prevented us from filming.
The atmosphere was so edgy, I started to fear the undisciplined crowd more than the highly-restrained soldiers. There were more than a few people looking to vent their anger on anyone, anything. Mercifully, the driver’s gift of gab helped keep things on an even keel and served to deflect those who might otherwise see us as a convenient target.
The rusty jalopy, loaded down with our oversized western bodies and heavy gear, lurched and sputtered along the agitated, littered streets in the direction of the Great Hall of the People. Before we had a chance to establish where we were going, the driver pulled over to the curb and opened the door for us.
"Take pictures here," he instructed matter-of-factly, as if he had suddenly become our producer, and in a way he had. “I will wait for you in the car."
We went along with the driver’s suggestion, taking some of the gear with us, but we didn’t even bother to set things up. Nothing of importance seemed to be happening, maybe that was the point, a chance to rest in the shade. The Great Hall of the People towered to the east over the tiled rooftops of low-rise brick dwellings.
Back alley residents moped around listlessly. There were the usual drifters and loafers, but the habitual stares were glazed over a bit. A brick wall blocked our view of the nearest intersection, but we weren’t looking for escape routes. It was calm, perhaps a bit too calm given the bulging eyes and absence of earthy voices, but calm enough for our attention to revert back to things BBC, talking about our recent trip to the countryside, the June 2 follow-up interview with Chai Ling and other excursions I had been on since getting re-hired by the Beeb on May 29. I distributed popsicles to the thirsty crew as we shuffled slowly in the direction of the Great Hall.
We were sufficiently inattentive to the oddly muffled crowd dynamics to get us on the topic of what to do for lunch. But when we turned the corner, all conversation ceased mid-sentence.
Whoa! Before us a thousand soldiers in full battle dress occupied the street. They had staked out a bit of strategic high ground, running from the rear of the Great Hall of the People to Chang’an Boulevard.
Where did they come from? How did they get past all those people on Tiananmen? Had the Square been breached? Then I recalled the Beijing whispers, long pre-dating this crisis. There were said to be secret underground tunnels all around Tiananmen, leading to and from the Great Hall, Zhongnanhai and other government power centers.
It was as if they just popped in out of nowhere. The uniformed military men, well over a thousand strong, were in crisp formation unlike the rag-tag army units we had seen the night before. Though surrounded by civilians pleading for peace, the men looked beyond persuasion, quietly fired up, ready to kill. If the soldiers in white T-shirts and green pants who jogged into town last night could be characterized as slightly unfriendly, then the fully equipped soldiers today were outright hostile. The only saving grace was their utter immobility, like an army un-earthed from a century’s sleep.
The sight of a battalion of People's Liberation Army soldiers facing down a mass of unarmed protesters on the back steps of the Great Hall of the People was incongruous and unsettling. The tough men were organized in units, some helmeted, some carrying backpacks, others carrying field radios with thick black antennae sticking up into the air. Their self-restraint and inaction encouraged us to move around for a closer look. I helped the crew get set up on the wide marble steps of the back door to the Great Hall, the dignified solidity of the building somehow stiffened our reserve. After getting our establishing shot we approached the ring of soldiers for close-ups. We inched in on the soldiers, careful to look for an escape path in case something untoward happened.
In front of us a tense negotiation was in progress, as members of the neighborhood and student negotiators pleaded with the men in green. The discussion appeared to bear no fruit, argument seemed futile, but at least it was still possible to talk. The soldiers however, were clearly under some kind of disciple that made them impervious to the naive charm of fellow citizens begging for peace.
The situation could get out of hand all too quickly. I scanned the ceremonial cityscape for possible escape routes and hiding places. Would it be safer to go back to the steps of the Great Hall or dive into some courtyard? Would the thick walls of the public bathroom over there provide cover? Would the soldiers use tear gas or clubs? What about guns?
The troops deployed today were the real deal. This was the sort of iron-fisted response to political protest that I feared most when I joined Bright and Jennifer as they stepped through the gates of the university out onto the streets of Beijing on May 4.
We broke the law against demonstrations and nothing happened. Students took to the streets day after day and nothing happened. Students took over the Square and nothing happened. Soon the numbers swelled to a million, student leaders talked of overthrowing the government and nothing happened.
No crackdown, no nothing. The blossoming of the Tiananmen movement was as much the result of inaction as action. It was widely believed that the government, at least part of it, supported the students. China was going through some sort of paradigm upheaval, bigger than any of the parties involved, and to date it was a mercifully peaceful transformation.
The natural outcome might well be political reform that allowed for more personal freedom and open discussion. Or so it seemed.
The army units now entering Beijing by stealth were game changers. In a matter of days, the government’s alleged patience took on a more sinister air. The unwillingness to crackdown the day martial law was declared did not mean there was tacit support for the students, nor did it reveal a compassionate desire for reconciliation; it was just a logistical logjam. It had taken two weeks to move the army into place, and now that the troops were finally face to face with the protesters, things were a lot less ambiguous than before.
I went back to our pre-arranged meeting spot and looked for the driver to discuss a plan of action in case all hell broke loose, but the driver and the old jalopy were gone.
What a time to abandon us! I paced up and down the street where he had told us to wait for him, furious at his betrayal.
"Are you all right?" asked a man who had been watching me. My consternation was visible.
"Are you lost?"
"No, I'm looking for someone.”
"The driver? Perhaps he has gone."
I had trusted him. Was I such a poor judge of character?
"It is not safe here, but you will be okay if you walk in that direction," the man said pointing south.
“But I have to find the car, our stuff is in it!"
“What can I do to help?”
The stranger surely meant well, then again how could one know for sure? Judging the trustworthiness of strangers, in the best of times an inexact science, but at a time like this it could be the difference between escape and entrapment.
I thanked the man for his advice and retreated to the wall near the intersection to commiserate with the crew. Being penned between maze-like hutong and the back of the Great Hall, with thousands of soldiers blocking traffic the path to Tiananmen was claustrophobic.
The gear was gone but an uneasy equipoise prevailed. The soldiers were, for the moment, content to ignore us. Perhaps we could get back to the Square the long way, circling the south flank of the Square on foot, cut past the Public Security compound and eventually make our way back to the Beijing Hotel.
The crew wanted to bail, but just as soon as we commenced our roundabout retreat, there was a surprise.
Our driver was back! He ran up to us, waving to get our attention, huffing and puffing out of breath.
"Sorry, friends, I was busy."
"Where'd you go? We were looking all over..."
"I took an injured man to the hospital," he said, wiping his sweaty forehead with his sleeve.
"What? The hospital? I was almost going to shout 'but you're working for BBC!' when I realized that I could hardly fault him for an impulsive act of compassion.
"What do you mean, hospital? What happened?"
"A man was beaten by a soldier, he was bleeding all over. The hospital is far, all the way over by Chongwenmen,” he said breathlessly.
“Sorry. It took so long."
"No, forget it. I guess, what you did is more important."
"Thank you for understanding." he said shaking my hand, nodding to the others. "You are true friends of the people."
Touched by his concern for others, but not in a comparably altruistic mood ourselves, we decided to return to the hotel with our gear while we could. On the way, the driver suggested we stop by the hospital to take a look. Maybe we could film some of the people who had been wounded, and we all quickly agreed. The broken-doored jalopy offered scant comfort or safety as we meandered through streets bubbling with nervous energy. Getting out of car quickly was no longer the issue, the streets were menacing.
The driver veered south, edging his way through the crowd, patiently snaked around clusters of people left and right and finally made it to Chongwenmen intersection via a series of back alleys.
The driver pulled up to the emergency room entrance of the hospital. A middle-aged woman with bobbed hair wearing a white smock shook her head no, dismayed at the sight of a car full of foreigners, emphatically shooing us away. Wang Li and I got out, with the help of the driver, and approached the prim-looking lady.
"Nihao! Women shi yingguo dianshitai laide," We're from BBC television, we'd like to talk to some of the patients who were injured today. . ."
"You are here in violation of martial law!" she railed loudly. She then parroted word by word a few lines from the martial law regulations. Unmoved by her reasoning, I repeated our request.
"We won't take any pictures, we just want to find out what happened and talk to anyone injured in the fighting."
"As I said," she rejoined, raising her metallic voice an octave, "You are in violation of martial law!"
Wang Li asked me to slip him my little camera, allowing him to walk into the hospital unnoticed while I distracted the woman, who was sounding more and more like a communist party tape loop. She repeated her martial law statement a third time.
"Would you like to say that to the camera?"
By now Ingo had the camera rolling and he was coming our way.
"Get that camera out of here!" she screamed.
She ran after Ingo and Mark, allowing me to slip inside. Wang Li waved me into a sick room. One man, heavily bandaged said he was struck by the military police outside Zhongnanhai. There were several other patients recently wounded. I ran out to see if we could somehow get Ingo in with the camera. This time the woman in charge planted her body between me and the entrance.
"As I said, you are in violation,” she sputtered. “If you don't leave immediately I will, I will..."
I tried to win the support of onlookers to swing things in our favor, a technique that worked when we were of one mind with the masses.
"Just admit it," I said to her, keeping an eye on the group around us, "You're only saying that because you have to, right? In your heart you side with the people, don't you?"
"Get out of here!" she screamed, raising her arm as if to hit me.
What could we do? She may have been a broken record, but this was her workplace. My bid to win lateral support failed badly, no one budged an inch. I backed away from the enforcer and told the crew to pack it up.
A familiar-looking young man with a wispy beard came forward. He was wearing a loose-fitting mint green cotton top that looked like hospital garb, and I would have taken him for a patient wandering the halls were it not for the stenciled words, 1989 Democratic Tide and tell-tale autographs scribbled across his shirt.
He was a student and he had been watching us in silence. Just at the moment when we gave in and started to pack up, he came over to me to talk.
"That woman is unreasonable. She should have let you in."
"Thanks for the encouragement," I said. It surprised me that a Chinese person would readily take my side when I had been arguing, rather rudely, with another Chinese.
"Sometimes I wonder if I should even bother."
I heard you," the young man added. "You have the right to say what you said."
Even though you're a foreigner, he might have added.
The young man's sun-scorched, high-cheeked face reminded me of someone. Where had I seen him before? Apparently he had a similar sense of deja vu.
"Aren't you with ABC?" he asked me.
"No, BBC, England, though I am from America."
It struck me as uncanny that he should ask about ABC. The police had closed down ABC and inspected the office after a copy of the May 28 tape was intercepted at the airport. I had to assume they were looking for me since they were somehow tipped off about the interview I did with Chai Ling.
"My name is Meng, I am a student, from the Central Academy of Drama," he said.
Meng and I got talking and realized we had much in common, driven by a shared desire to keep on top of what was happening at Tiananmen. He looked dangerously undernourished, presumably the result of the hunger strike and water strike. I invited him to join the crew for something to eat, which he agreed to do only if we would make quick work of it in order to hurry back to the Square together.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Chai Ling in the Palace Hotel on June 2, 1989 with the author and the Panorama crew
June 2, 1989 (from notes and transcripts)
The slow but inexorable self-diminution of the crowd means that the risks are greater then ever for the few who remain. Still, there are compensations, if only delusional ones. The minority of the protesters who refuse to leave in effect can now claim the Square as their own. They are what’s left of yesterday's vanguard and the cheering millions.
The drop in population has material compensations as well, tents and donations are meant for those on the square. For those who remain, there is leg room and elbow room at last. It is no longer necessary to line up for the subterranean public toilets located under the entrance of the Revolutionary History Museum.
Interestingly, the vendors are among those who refuse to leave despite the entreaties of martial law authorities. They continue to ply their humble trades, whether out of moral support for the embattled students or profit is hard to determine, now that the Square is awash in cash from generous Hong Kong benefactors.
Freshly-cooked food is now available on every corner of the Square, for a price.
The plaza looks grimmer and dirtier than before, but the ghosts of those who once gathered here linger on in memory. The Goddess herself is a latecomer, a symbol designed to spark life into a dying movement. Does she stand there so that the protesters may leave, or does she beckon them to stay?
In a way, the hastily-constructed, yet alluring statue could be seen as a substitute for student flesh and blood; she makes the defiant last stand so that others may retreat with their heads held high.
Art for life; a concept as old as time in China. The democracy statue, though Western in style, is very much in the spirit of the terracotta warriors who “died” with the powerful Emperor Qin Shihuang in ancient Chang’an.
Countless soliders and courtiers who might otherwise have been designated for sacrifice upon the death of the ancient emperor some two thousand years ago were spared by the magnificent clay army that took the fall instead. But even as the Goddess promises to protect, she also provokes, with her back to the Martyr’s Monument and her face staring straight at Mao.
Those who remain behind on the Square move as if haunted by the echo of last months million footsteps and hypnotic chants. It brings to mind to mind the image of a theatre-goer who is reluctant to vacate their seat after the last curtain call or a frustrated sports fan resistant to exiting the stadium after the big game has been lost. It’s hard to leave an arena so rich with emotive memory, even though others are streaming out.
Puddles of cooking oil, popsicle sticks and litter strewn across the Square strongly suggest that the party is over. There are a handful of bright-eyed student volunteers, some of them no doubt new recruits from colleges in the countryside, doing their best, sweeping and tidying up, putting the refuse into piles for collection. But who is going to come and collect the rubbish is anybody's guess. The government is refusing to send their sanitary workers into such a “chaotic” situation, perhaps shrewdly hoping the filth will drive the kids from the square.
Tiananmen Clinic, a makeshift operation born of the hunger strike, is still operating. First-aid tents are staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses observing their version of the Hippocratic oath by attending the weak and sick residents of the Square. Scores of empty cots and unused blankets make one think back to busier days. For the seriously ill, the volunteer ambulances still whine their way onto the Square, but much less frequently than before. The roped lifeline, which miraculously parted the sea of the people for emergency access in the days when hundreds of thousands mulled about, is unnecessary now.
The area around the Martyr's Monument is the only part of the Square that has any depth of crowd on this day. During the high tide of the hunger strike, the student command center on the monument was almost impenetrable, surrounded by human ropes and rings of supporters. When the crowd started to thin out, the monument became exposed and up for grabs, like a shipwreck at low tide.
I walk over to the broadcast tent to see what’s going on behind the curtain today. The pavement to the east of the tent is the scene of some commotion. A Hong Kong delegation is handing out pro-democracy T-shirts and posing for photographs with the Beijing student leaders. Recognized immediately, I am quickly ushered into the roped-off “plaza” of the broadcast tent.
And there she is, the queen bee, dressed in a sporty green and white striped shirt and summer shorts. When Chai Ling sees me she smiles, runs over for a perfunctory hello and then disappears into a tent before I have a chance to learn the latest. A few minutes later she pops out again, talking to some students here, posing for photos there, mixing with journalists and well-wishers from Hong Kong.
She is cheerful and bouncy, darting in and out of the shady tent like a squirrel collecting acorns. The tent today is under a smoggy halo of its own making, due to the noisy, sputtering power generator that is throwing up a stinking cloud of noxious exhaust. In search of fresh air, I move to the other side of the tent where I run into a group of Hong Kong visitors whose clothing is as loud, and alien to Beijing, as their Cantonese voices. These are the people Hou Dejian worked with to put on the Happy Valley concert and they have come, at considerable risk and not without patriotic panache, to show their support for the movement with materiel and money.
A smiling round-faced man with a thinning mop of frizzy black hair introduces himself to me in English.
"Hi, I'm Johnny Shum!" he says with a warm smile, offering his hand, Western-style.
I sense a hint of disappointment when it becomes apparent that I didn’t know him from Adam or recognize the apparently famous name, but upon meeting him I found him so delightfully flamboyant as to be unforgettable.
"I'm a producer from Hong Kong. Hey, I saw you talking to Chai Ling, you know her?"
“Sort of. . .” I say, not sure of how much to reveal.
“She's really something, isn't she?” he continues, switching into near perfect English. “I think she's the most impressive of the student leaders, don't you? Where are you from, are you American?”
“Yes, and I take it you're from Hong Kong, right?”
“Yes, I'm a well-known film producer, I'm pretty well-known, in fact, everybody knows me in Hong Kong. I put together the Happy Valley concert. Did you hear about that? We raised quite a lot of money. So here we are. Today we're hosting a little banquet for Chai Ling.”
A banquet? Only a food-lover from Hong Kong could dream up such a thing. A gourmet banquet for China's most famous hunger striker! A few days ago she was running for her life, now she's commander in chief of Tiananmen, being feted by Hong Kong stars!
Johnny Shum goes on to explain that he had just flown up to Beijing to personally present the money donated to the Beijing student leaders. He is staying in the Palace Hotel and he is confident he can get Chai Ling in there unnoticed. A sizeable retinue of his followers, now gathering conspicuously around him, nod in agreement.
My lady-comrade-in-distress from May 28 flashes a smile at me again as a Hong Kong photographer takes aim and shoots a dozen or so snaps of her standing with Johnny Shum. When the cameraman stops to change film, I finally get her ear. “I want to talk to you some more. About what you’re doing, your thoughts on democracy,” I begin. “What it means to you, and well, there are others things too. You see, I am now working on a BBC documentary, and the producer is a woman and she wants to hear a woman’s point of view.
Chai Ling seems vaguely interested, but explains that she has already made plans to go to the Palace with the Hong Kong delegation.
I tell her that BBC had cameras in the Palace Hotel and perhaps we could find a guest room to talk in. I give her a number to reach me at after she is done with lunch.
“We will be in the same building, so we’ll meet there, okay?”
“Okay,” she says. “I'll do it.”
“Where exactly will you be in the Palace?”
“Please talk to him,” she says, motioning towards Johnny Shum, “I've got to go now.”
Before I could firm up the details she had gone, so I sought out Johnny Shum who simply beamed with a contagious sort of good cheer.
We chatted about the movement and how important it was to keep people's spirits up. I told him Chai Ling had agreed to an interview and that I wanted to meet her in the hotel right after the banquet. I also warned him to be on guard against surveillance or being followed. He was respectful and courteous, assuring me he would look after the young revolutionary to make sure everything went all right.
Jenny is thrilled at the news. She had been bugging me to find a Chinese woman involved in the demonstrations who was willing to talk on tape and now we had access to the student commander in chief.
“I'm in room 555. The lighting is good, and I've got all my gear there,” cameraman Ingo offers, “So, why don’t you ask her to come to my room?”
Simpson, who knew all about the May 28 interview, although we had never talked about it, approved.
"Phil, this is your interview," he offers graciously. "I'll bow out. You call the shots on this one."
We take the van back to the Palace and wait in room 555 listening to our stomachs growl, wondering if they’d gotten to the hot soup finale yet at in what must have been a sumptuous banquet with the Hong Kong delegation. I even start to wonder if Chai Ling would show up at all, and I wasn't alone in my doubts.
“Phil, are you sure about this?” Jenny asks nervously.
“What if she doesn't come?”
Fortunately for my credibility, just then Chai Ling makes a belated arrival.
Maybe it was the smiles instead of tears, the renewed confidence instead of insecurity or maybe it was just the bright summer clothing, but she seemed like a different person from the reluctant fugitive who I had interviewed on the sly just days before.
But a few times could be an eternity in Tiananmen time. Was I not a different person today too? This time around I wasn’t forsaking my day off to help a damsel someone in distress, but rather was conducting an interview for one of the biggest and most influential TV stations in the world. Was I using her? Was she using me?
Her entourage hovers nosily in the doorway to the standard-sized guest room. One of them had the courtesy to ask if they could come in and watch the interview and I said yes, seeing the eagerness in their eyes. Still, having so many people squeezed into the room threatened to make the interview stiff and theatrical.
Chai Ling had addressed tens of thousands on the Tiananmen broadcast system under much more trying circumstances, but in those moments she was heard, not seen. When we did the interview in the Lido apartment where Lotus lived, the camera was a low-grade consumer lens, the lighting inadequate. Here, in this professionally-lit room before the lens of a Sony Beta camera she was truly under the microscope, and if BBC included her in the finished documentary, her viewers would number in the millions.
"Okay Phil, we're rolling. . ." announces Ingo, eye to the view-finder, body now crouched behind the huge, high-tech camera.
I take a seat facing Chai Ling, then ask her what Tiananmen means to her.
"We can say that Tiananmen was a symbol for the student movement up until May 13. After that it became a symbol for Chinese people in China and around the world in the quest for democracy. Now we have set up a University of Democracy there. . ."
"Tiananmen means a lot of things to a lot of people," I say. "What about the masses? Doesn't Tiananmen also stand for the New China, for Mao Zedong?"
"The masses have shown a lot of admiration for the students," she answers. "They see the students as their own sons and daughters. It has transformed from a student movement to a democracy movement for the whole people. The Chinese people have stood up to demand power, a new China is being born, a country that belongs to the people."
Her speech tends to colorful fixed phrases and platitudes, a not uncommon habit born of imbibing propaganda and memorizing the texts necessary to excel in one’s studies. Her rhetoric, already stylish, was more recently honed and sharpened by winging it extemporaneously on the Square.
She seems so much more in control of her words than last time. And yet right from the start it is obvious that this interview lacks something the other one had. Call it candor, call it spontaneity, call it ruthless honesty at a fearful junction, but Chai Ling’s words this time around, as carefully chosen and crafted as they seem to be, somehow pale in comparison to the dam-burst stream of consciousness that she unleashed on me the other day. She still speaks like quicksilver, she still has an answer for everything, but the answers aren’t as interesting.
Jenny catches my attention and gestures as if to ask what’s going on. Although she didn't understand a word of Chinese she knew a run-on answer when she heard one.
"May 4th was another big day; we launched the New Democratic Enlightenment Movement, our goal to raise the political consciousness of the whole nation."
She says the May Fourth march was double-edged; the very success of it almost put an end to the idea of continuing the protests, something that jived well with what I had observed on campus.
"I suggested two demands, a reversal of the dongluan verdict and an open dialogue, which were accepted by the others. Our aim was very clear, we wanted to see the real face of the government and how it would react to the hunger strike. Would they ignore us, use delay tactics or suppress us? We wanted to see how the people would respond, we wanted to see if there was still hope for China."
Now she’s sounding more like she did last time. She seems bent on spinning a narrative that will guarantee her place in the history of the movement. Isn’t that what last week’s last will and testament was all about?
"The students and masses stood shoulder to shoulder on midnight May 20 when Li Peng's speech was broadcast. The common citizens of Beijing voluntarily poured out to block the movement of military trucks. At the same time we started a hunger strike of 200,000 people. It was a sad, emotional, powerful scene."
The masses? A hunger strike of 200,000 people? She’s got to be kidding. A few weeks ago, back on campus, she would have been thrilled to get a dozen people to join her hard-line effort. Now she talks about “the masses” and drops numbers in the hundred thousands with a kind of propriety, as if the crowd is hers to have.
"Li Peng's government is a sham government. He wants to suppress righteousness and stand in opposition to the people. We call for the convocation of the National People's Congress to dismiss him and to set up a new government! We therefore needed to restore our physical energy and resumed taking food."
She says she tried starting a new hunger strike on the 20th but quickly gave up the idea when it failed to catch on. She had called off the previous strike when people started to eat. It occurs to me that a big part of being a leader at a time like this was anticipating, and then shrewdly following, the will of the crowd.
"Students are the most determined fighters for enlightenment and democracy. Management is effective and democratic enlightenment education is being carried out more effectively. Tiananmen was made into a last stand for democracy."
Last week I consented to set up an interview with a young woman in distress. This time I feel like I'm talking to a skilled politician. When she was crying I wanted to believe everything she said was true. Now I am beginning to feel like an unwitting player in a well-crafted public relations exercise.
I ask her why she came to me last week, what with all the talk of going underground and running away.
"I wanted to resign, believing that other people with ability would take my place and lead the movement. It should be able to produce more people like myself. But after some more thought I realized it might not be so. If there is no one more capable than I, no one more trustworthy than I, then I should not give up. To do so would be a crime against the movement. That's why I am the Commander-in-chief today."
Had her Beida friends told her she was indispensable to the movement? Or was it someone higher up? Had she fallen under the protection of a powerful patron?
“The Chinese have needed emperors to rule them for thousands of years. There has never been freedom of speech, freedom of the press or personal security."
Part of what helps her stand out from her peers is her ability to project emotion and read her audience well enough to connect. She is a good at words, but it is the underlying emotion that makes her words stick. She is charismatic, but that is not to say democratic.
So I ask her if she thought China could be democratic.
"It could take sixty or seventy years. I hope there will be a day when we will be our own masters and that the country is ours. To strengthen our country we must struggle from generation to generation."
Seventy years? That's how long it had been since the original May Fourth Movement! Seven decades! Everyone on the Square seems so stressed, so impatient, and now here is their brash young leader estimating that their goal just might be achieved in the twilight of their lifetimes if they live to be ninety-something.
"We have demonstrated to the whole world that we are orderly, reasonable and strong. To tell you something from the bottom of my heart: if this movement fails it will be a tragedy for the whole people. It will mean that the democratic consciousness and qualities of the people are not high enough. If we fail it is because we are predestined to fail, a few thousand students in the Square cannot do anything about it. But if the movement succeeds, it will be a victory for democracy. It will be a kind of liberation of the whole Chinese race."
She is as eloquent as ever, but the racially-tinged language doesn’t sit right with me. However, I take it to mean she is not used to speaking to foreigners, she is not used to thinking in truly international terms. She is speaking to me as she would speak to a Chinese person, assuming a shared appreciation of Chineseness.
I ask her if the movement is being led by a black hand, someone behind the scenes.
This movement precipitated due to chance factors, it was not premeditated. There is no governing theoretical framework. We just follow our feelings! It is a spontaneous and pure demand for democracy. The students stand at the leading edge."
After we have about half an hour on tape, I signal “cut” to the cameraman and the lights go off.
Chai Ling, star-status reaffirmed by the lights and cameras and undivided attention that we had pointed at her, is once again swamped by her Hong Kong supporters. They ask for her autograph and we all pose for a few snaps. Then I escort the petite commander in chief out of room and out of the clutch of her fans. She and I take the elevator to the high-ceilinged lobby and make a bee-line for the exit, hoping I can get her out of this army-owned hotel without incident. We agree to take separate cabs in different directions just as a precaution.
A single taxi arrives Chai Ling and I look at each other, each gesturing for the other to go first.
"You go first!"
"No, you go first!"
We argue with polite formality over and over until we defeat the purpose of making a quick, quiet exit. The doormen, though they probably did not know they were looking at a wanted student leader and a foreigner engaging in activities incompatible with his visa status, watch our verbal exchange with passive curiosity. Lobby cameras might have recorded the scene, but there is no unusual activity around us.
Finally a second taxi pulls into the driveway, enabling us both to depart simultaneously, with mutual respect and self-respect, without the nagging feeling that one of us has left the other one stranded.
Monday, June 1, 2009
(June 1, 1989, from journal and notes)
With the arrival of June, Tiananmen has lost the flush of spring. The carefree, colorful, Dionysian days are over, the rebels who linger are looking dusty and grim. The unforgiving winds of martial law have cleared the Square of all but the most hardened and determined. Spring flowers have come and gone, only tumbleweed and the hardiest of perennials remain in place. Even as life on the Square starts to wither, life outside the Square is beginning to thrive again. Life is getting back to normal in many parts of Beijing, if the lethargy of life under the hot, sweltering summer sun could be considered normal.
The Panorama crew and I had arranged to meet University of Michigan professor Ken Lieberthal at his hotel, but decided against interviewing him there. Most hotels were heavily monitored, which made doing interviews awkward. But there was an aesthetic concern as well; the hotel didn't look "Chinese enough" for our television segment. I directed the van to take us to nearby Ritan Park, a setting that offered Qing Dynasty walls and an altar to the sun, hand-carved mountains and miniature lakes, shady pavilions, sculpted bushes and spring flowers.
But the park dedicated to the sun was unusually sunny this day and the merciless heat and humidity left our interviewee soaking in sweat and the crew irritable before we had even asked the first question.
Ritan Park might have been a dream location for the illumination-greedy electronic pixels of the video eye, but it turned out to be something of a nightmare for the boom microphone. A gang of boisterous kids who had been rough-housing it in the shade on the other side of the pavilion we chose for our shoot quickly discovered that teasing foreigners was more fun than playing king of the mountain. There’s no telling such kids what to do, so we acknowledged defeat and shifted sites to get outside their turf, but now piqued with curiosity, they just followed us, screaming and giggling with merriment.
What if anything, I wondered, did they know about the goings-on at Tiananmen Square? Even if they had not actually seen the big marches, they still would have heard their parents, aunts and uncles talking about the huge demonstrations in the center of town.
But the kids were resistant to any questions or authoritative words I could conjure up and in their own teasing way made me as aware of my limitations in colloquial Chinese as I had felt with Chai Ling when she was going full bore. Though the novelty of seeing the big blond foreigner speaking Chinese was sufficient to stop them in their tracks for a few minutes, kids will be kids and they soon went back to kicking, screaming and horsing around in defiance of my formal and informal bids for cooperation. It didn’t seem right, asking them to leave, since we were invading their playground, even if they were little brats. How comical we must have looked to them, six big foreign tourists with bulky cameras taking pictures of a man in a suit and tie whose shirt was stained with perspiration.
But the kids were resistant to any questions or authoritative words I could conjure up and in their own teasing way made me far more aware of my limitations in colloquial Chinese than any recent adult interlocutor. Though the novelty of seeing the big blond foreigner speaking Chinese was sufficient to stop them in their tracks for a few minutes, kids will be kids and they soon went back to kicking, screaming and horsing around in defiance of my formal and informal bids for cooperation. It didn’t seem right, asking them to leave, since we were invading their playground, even if they were little brats. How comical we must have looked to them, six big foreign tourists with bulky cameras taking pictures of a man in a suit and tie whose shirt was stained with perspiration.
The sun beat down relentlessly. Every time a kid jumped, poked, screamed, sang or cried out loud, our soundman would stop the interview, the producer would frown, the correspondent would get irritable. And then they would all look at me, as if I had a magic wand for making kids behave themselves.
Kids challenge adults in ways that defy a competent response. I wondered if China's aged leaders looked down on the kids at Tiananmen with the same mix of futility and frustration?
Despite the heat, noise and interruptions, I think Simpson and Lieberthal enjoyed locking horns. And Clayton seemed pleased; we had gotten some interesting and authoritative comments on tape.
I was feeling more relaxed than I had felt in days. Being in the park put me in a reflective mood; there was no sign of strive here. The pounding heat of the sun reminded me of my days as tour guide and Yangtse River cruise director. Summer temperatures could reach oven-like proportions, but there was no stifling of the imagination when ancient, eternal China bared itself to the intense scrutiny of the sun.
Tiananmen Square with all its troubles all but disappeared from my thoughts, though it was just a few miles distant.
I snagged a roving vendor and purchased a dozen sun-warmed containers of sweet fruit juice for the crew, which, though appreciated, did not quench anyone’s thirst but rather served to remind everyone how hot and thirsty they were.
We then headed back to the Jianguo Hotel, looking forward to entering the revolving doors of the air-conditioned lobby. And the crew made their entrance confidently, like cowboys barging into a saloon, even though we weren’t guests there. What a contrast from the cautious, diffident way Cui Jian and his local friends entered the same lobby a month before to visit a friend who had actually booked a room.
With one interview in the can, the crew, comfortably sprawled out on the sofa and soft chairs of cool lobby, quiet broken only by the tinkle of piano keys, wondered out loud if we might find an environment such as this in which to conduct our next interview. Forget the local “color,” how about a quiet, shady place with beverages? I jokingly suggested we set up our next interview in a German beer garden and to my surprise the crew not only nodded enthusiastically in approval, but when they learned there was such a place, they insisted on it.
Our next interviewee, Baltimore Sun correspondent John Woodruff met us in the front lobby of the Jianguo Hotel, a short walk from his office in the Qijiayuan compound for diplomats and journalists. We had a leisurely conversation with him and his bilingual Chinese assistant in the American-style coffee shop, replete with a long lunch counter and waitresses who spoke reasonably good English. The Jianguo, tooled to foreign tastes and specifications as it was modeled after a California hotel, was a popular lunch place for the expatriates and visiting China hands.
After a satisfying lunch paid for with a very big wad of Foreign Exchange Certificates, not a single one of us in a mood to battle the heat. So I gave the van driver instructions to take us directly to a German style beer garden on the edge of the diplomatic district.
The beer garden had everything the Ritan location lacked; --it offered easy parking, English speaking staff, cold beer, access to rest rooms and umbrellas to shade the sun.
We didn't have permission to film there but the prospect of arguing with a drunk customer or some expatriate hotel manager was far more manageable than a confrontation with Public Security, not to mention those terrifying kids. Trudging in with all our camera gear raised some eyebrows, but nobody complained once we ordered a generous round of drinks.
It was the ultimate lazy setup until a group of German tourists sulked and bad-mouthed us like unhappy campers for invading "their" beer garden. The midday drinkers were nosey and noisy, one of them managed to peer into the camera and ruin a few shots. Simpson got cranky; he was happier in the field, heat or no heat, but the newspaperman proved to be an engaging interview and technically speaking it was a smooth shoot.
John Woodruff criticized the communist leadership in tough, no-nonsense terms. He railed on angrily about corruption, the existence of a class system as reflected in the use of luxury cars, and the problems of working under constant surveillance. After the red light went off, Woodruff gave Simpson a copy of his book and invited us back to the Baltimore Sun bureau for a chat.
In his Qijiayuan office, John Woodruff showed us some file photographs the Sun had of Zhao Ziyang playing golf. Jenny thought we might be able to use it in conjunction with our Ming Tomb golf course footage, so she had the crew record the photos. Privately I exchanged a few words with Woodruff, who I had known when he was a Knight Fellow at the University of Michigan, about the interview I had done with Chai Ling and my concern about getting the sensitive and controversial interview tape safely out of the country. One copy, which ABC News had dispatched by courier to Hong Kong had already been confiscated by Chinese police who also temporarily closed down ABC’s Beijing offices while searching for illegal interviews.
John Woodruff, who already had plans to go to Tokyo, volunteered to take the videocassette tape out of the country in his pocket. Trusting him as I did I gave him my only copy.
Woodruff said it would be an “honor” to carry it, knowing full well the tape could land him in trouble at customs. Ken Lieberthal, with whom I had broached the topic during a brief meeting in the Beijing Hotel had refused the “honor” of taking the tape out, explaining he had ongoing business with China and had to avoid such things “like the plague.” That’s when I began to understand the difference between an academic and a journalist.
Indeed, ABC too had proved a reliable choice, despite the mishap with the Hong Kong bound tape that was confiscated from the courier’s luggage before leaving Beijing. The ABC guys had wisely made multiple copies and when Lotus told me she had been asked to courier a tape to Tokyo as a favor to a friend in the ABC bureau, I thought it ironic that she of all people should be involved in smuggling it out. I knew for sure the backup copy of the tape had made it out when I heard from ABC that a short excerpt of the “crying student leader” footage had just been aired on the nightly news.
We left Woodruff in his office and made the short hop over to the Friendship Store, not that any of us had any desire to shop. For the purposes of the documentary we wanted to capture on film the notorious rudeness of the doormen and plainclothes cops who were known confront and bad mouth ordinary Chinese who tried to enter the well-stocked shopping emporium for foreigners. Cameraman Ingo set up the camera in the van, which was strategically parked near the entrance to the store. Soundman Mark put on some dark sunglasses and appeared to be just hanging out in the sun, girl-watching, but he was, in fact, blocking view of the camera in-between takes, allowing Ingo to film the suspicious guards surreptitiously. There weren't many people shopping on this day; the only useful footage we could get was a shot of two country bumpkins being ejected from the premises.
Economic apartheid was one of the factors that created frustration and discontent; I had seen numerous posters and heard many a slogan denouncing corruption during the early days of the movement, though few were talking about it now. Though we were acutely aware of the differential treatment of foreigners and Chinese, it worked for us and against us, and as far as I could tell it hadn't been an issue during the demonstrations.
Most college students rarely set foot in this side of town, a point driven home when I cruised this same thoroughfare in the convoy of ten thousand bicycles, and fewer still, other than musicians and ardent English practicers, plied the hallways of the luxury hotels.
Trying to figure out what students were protesting about was like trying to track a moving target. Yesterday it was corruption, today it was dialogue, tomorrow it might be a call for a blanket amnesty. Even after observing the student protests for a month, I could not say with any real confidence what the root cause of the demonstrations was, nor could I say where things were going. So it surprised me, listening to the BBC crew talk about what they had read and heard from English language news sources, that so many people in the Western media were laboring under the narcissistic assumption that it was all about democracy in the sense of “them” wanting to be more like “us.”
Democracy or not, there was a documentary to be made and a rigorous London-based schedule to adhere to. There were many things we didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t know, because the stalemate on the Square showed no signs of abating. Come what may, one thing was ironclad; in deference to television scheduling, we had to wrap this thing up in a week.