Wednesday, June 3, 2009

THE PEOPLE'S ARMY AND THE PEOPLE

(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.

“What?”

"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.