Monday, June 1, 2009

UNDER THE SWELTERING SUN




(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.