Tuesday, June 2, 2009

FROM THE SQUARE TO THE PALACE


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.

“Pretty sure.”

“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.