Thursday, February 1, 2018


A first-hand account of events at Tiananmen Square in 1989

(excerpt from the 25th Anniversary Edition, Rowman&Littlefield, 2014)
“Trying to Remember, Trying to Forget”

Now that China has landed a spacecraft on the moon, let us hope it can also find the confidence and courage to come to terms with the bloody crackdown on the demonstrations of Beijing Spring in 1989, a peaceful uprising that was briefly, brightly, and unforgettably illuminated by the full moon high over Tiananmen, only to be smashed in the darkness of June Fourth, the night of no moon.

Frozen in time by China’s recalcitrant censors, preserved in aspic by cameras and sepia-toned eyewitness accounts, the dramatic events of Tiananmen in 1989 retain a lasting immediacy. Although the Beijing authorities have taken untold measures to erase the memory of their immoral actions, the beautiful, transformative, and tragic events of Beijing Spring will not be easily forgotten.

Even if we don’t talk about the past, it influences our world and its flow affects us. Think of how the world has changed since being hit by the shock-wave that emanated from the rag-tag protests at Tiananmen Square, sweeping across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union like a force of nature, rippling out in ever-larger concentric rings, rocking China’s body politic to its core, while electrifying the world with the whiff of rebellion and the scent of the impossible being possible. Even with hopes dashed at its epicenter, the social quake brought about change. Within months, the Berlin Wall fell; and within two years the Soviet Union crumbled, its communist party disbanded and kicked into the dustbin of history.

As a participant in the events described in Tiananmen Moon I was just one of a million people caught up in the midst of a peaceful uprising, a solitary observer and tentative foreign partisan in a multitude teeming with unsung heroism and perseverance, unbridled hope and pride. For over a month the mass mood was cooperative, spirited and generous; it was orderly and peaceful right up until the cataclysmic end. When I left China after the crackdown, I felt myself a refugee of Tiananmen, heartbroken by the horror of tanks rumbling onto the people’s Square, sickened at the sight of gun-toting soldiers opening fire on disbelieving citizens.

After exiting Beijing in June 1989 with a BBC television crew, carrying a contraband cargo of video tapes of the crackdown, I settled for a while in Hong Kong, where I wrote the basic narrative at the core of this book, and worked on two documentaries about what I like to call Beijing Spring, firstly the The Rape of Liberty (not my title) for BBC Panorama and later Tragedy at Tiananmen (not my title either) produced by Ted Koppel for ABC News.

Japan’s NHK News acquired my video footage and photos and HBO bought the film rights to my story based on my journal and notes. Shortly after moving to Japan, which appealed to me as a place where the excesses of both communist China and capitalist America were kept at bay by a unique and ancient culture, I was flown to Hollywood, picked up in a limo and taken to Chateau Marmont where I was treated royally, mixing with Hollywood CEOs and stars, activists, and eager young actors interested in that thing called Tiananmen.

It was exciting to talk to people like musician Tan Dun, whom I met at Ai Weiwei’s home in New York, to discuss a score for the film, and to reminisce with student activists Wu’er Kaixi, Shen Tong, and others who had already escaped. When HBO publicized their intent to do a film about Tiananmen, a number of Chinese film personalities including Joan Chen, Luo Yan, Yang Fengliang and Zhang Yimou got in touch about the project.

Ed Hume, a scriptwriter from Massachusetts whose apocalyptic film The Day After tackled nuclear issues with dramatic flair, wrote up my story for HBO based on the timeline of my journal and interviews. The script "Tiananmen Square" was earnestly wrought but it did not feel like my story to me, in part because of standard artistic liberties, such as putting my character next to the man standing in front of the tank. In fact, I saw many men and women standing in front of armed personnel carriers and tanks, but not the iconic shot. 

More generally, I was felt frustrated by the negative narrative arc flaunted by the US mainstream media –an obsession with death and destruction on a single day in June rather than the uplifting beauty of the movement as it blossomed in May. The tragic turn of events has been amply reported, but less so the bright and transformative spirit that reigned supreme until the tanks came rolling in.

In those pre-CGI days, to do a film about Tiananmen Square presented daunting logistical obstacles. The handful of East Asian locations that possessed the resources to construct a film-set Beijing were reluctant to offend the real Beijing, even arch-rival Taiwan. And HBO had marketing concerns as well; I got a memo saying Tiananmen Square had “too many Chinese people in it.”

The success of Joy Luck Club a few years later put to rest that ridiculous assumption, but in 1991 making a story with a mostly Chinese cast was not considered mainstream. After two years of script revisions, HBO decided to green light a film project called Stalin starring Robert Duvall and an all-Caucasian cast instead of Tiananmen Square with its teeming millions of Chinese. My consolation prize from HBO was to spend a few days on the set of Stalin as it was filmed in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Japan was my oasis away from all of this confusion. I found a kind of alternative realm, a place akin to the China of the 1980s where I could enjoy anonymity and lose myself in the crowd, exploring the arts and culture of a great civilization. Japan, so close, yet so far from China, seemed a perfect place to take refuge from the harsh political crackdown on the mainland. I spent the next few years trying to forget Tiananmen, helped by the easy hedonism of Tokyo and deep immersion in Japanese culture and language.

But the more I turned my back on China, the more it called after me.

In May 1990 I was channel surfing in Tokyo when I came upon a half-hour program on Japan’s TV Asahi called Sunday Project. Surprisingly to me, it contained the video footage of one of my interviews with a Tiananmen student leader. Curious about how the station had acquired the tape, I went to the studio. The producers recognized me right away, and they quickly acknowledged having purchased it on the black market. A spare copy of the tape had been unspooled and rolled up and hidden in a sock by a dissident who found a way to exit China. I was not upset about the outright piracy; it could mean only one thing: the roguish student activist Wang Li, who I had last seen in Beijing on June 5, had gone south to Shenzhen and slipped across the border. It pleased me that he was alive and well and plucky enough to escape to Hong Kong.

TV Asahi apologized in a contrite but creative way, offering a kind of compensation I couldn’t resist. Would I travel to Paris and meet up with their Europe correspondent to cover the “emergence” of rebel fugitive Chai Ling from the underground? She and her husband, Feng Congde, were guests of President Mitterrand and his wife, Danielle. A press conference was scheduled a few days hence, so I was whisked off to the airport in a company car (one has to live in Japan to realize what a rare luxury that is) and found myself in Paris as part of the media circus covering a couple I had helped bring fame to, a reunion made all the more dramatic by the year of media silence they had maintained in hiding.

The producers of TV Asahi then asked me to cover a political conference being held in East Berlin where Chinese exiles, such as deposed Zhao Ziyang aide Yan Jiaqi, Germany's Petra Kelly and other dissident luminaries were invited to talk about the changes 1989 had wrought on China and the world.

A few days later I found myself in a car with my errant ex-schoolmate Wu’er Kaixi, crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the broken city of Berlin that had already seen a breach in the wall but still functioned under two governments and two systems. The ethnic Uyghur Wu’er Kaixi, with whom I shared an attachment to Beijing Normal University and a passion for music, turned out to have been the first beneficiary of the advice I gave to popular folksinger Hou Dejian during Beijing Spring, suggesting that he change the lyrics to “Descendents of the Dragon” to account for citizens of China of diverse ethnic backgrounds. At the Happy Valley Concert in Hong Kong in May 1989, Hou Dejian altered the line about “black hair, black eyes, and yellow skin,” making special mention of the non-Han Wu’er Kaixi.

After that whirlwind tour, I settled into TV production work at NHK in Tokyo where I was called on to create a pilot and then a series for a magazine-style news show called China Now. A joint venture between NHK and CCTV, China Now was more about culture than politics, constrained as it was by the touchy historic sensitivities of the two East Asian rivals. I had free rein in writing scripts, but was restricted to drawing on raw footage from the two cooperating networks. It was mild stuff, some would say “soft touch” propaganda, but narrating it got me in trouble nonetheless. A line about the “listless drift” and “ideological vacuum” in post-1989 China incensed Chinese authorities and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing lodged a complaint. NHK apologized, saying the script in question was written by “the gaijin,” as if my non-Japaneseness was sufficient explanation for the indelicate phrasing. A short time later, NHK offered to double my salary but with the condition that I yield editorial control. I promptly quit, traveled around the world, and began my career as a freelance writer.

Five years after Beijing Spring 1989 I traveled across China, where things were beginning to thaw despite the cold political winds that still howled across the changing landscape. I visited student leader Wang Dan after his release from Qincheng Prison at his mother’s apartment in Beijing where we talked, recorded an interview, and played guitar. A plan to meet him at the old Summer Palace known as Yuan Mingyuan fell through due to the arrival of police. I had foolishly used a phone to contact him, a phone that was in all likelihood monitored on both ends; at the Beijing Normal University guesthouse and at his home.

Beijing-born filmmaker Carma Hinton put me in touch with political prisoner Wei Jingsheng. He had been recently released from sixteen years of detention and was living at home on the west side of Beijing. He proved a gracious host.

We talked for hours over tea, with a portion of the conversation recorded by a friend with a video camera. During the interview, the phone rang several times, in one instance a cordial query from Charlene Fu at AP, asking about Wei’s controversial meeting the previous day with visiting US State Department official John Shattuck at the China World Hotel, but the rest of the calls were silent hang-up calls, seemingly a warning of sorts. At one point the lights flickered and the electricity was cut. It transpired that we had been under the observation of neighborhood snoops the whole time.

A week later both Wang and Wei were arrested and put in detention again. Enraged, I went back to Japan where I wrote and agitated for their release. I worked with Akiba Tadatoshi in Japan’s House of Representatives and wrote for Asahi Shimbun to raise the profile of their cases, at which point the Chinese government complained. I got a call from Michel Oksenberg, former National Security Council China specialist who was my academic advisor from the University of Michigan, alerting me to the fact that I had fallen under surveillance in Tokyo. He said Beijing had dispatched a team to Japan to investigate. At the time I had in my possession copies of prison letters from Wei Jingsheng smuggled into Japan by Japan-based dissident Huang Rui and was preparing to publish them as an exclusive with Asahi Shimbun.

New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Nicholas Kristof got wind of this scoop and asked to see what I had, which I agreed to share on the gentleman’s condition that he not publish anything until the story came out in Aera, the Japanese magazine that had been fact-checking the story, translating and working with me for a month. The New York Times broke its promise and jumped the gun when they published my material under their Tokyo correspondent’s byline before it was released in Japan, in the Sunday Times news section and the Week in Review. I was ashamed to admit to my hard-working Japanese colleagues at Asahi Shimbun that the Pulitzer Prize winner’s handshake meant nothing, and after that I could better understand why Japanese journalists viewed the Pulitzer as a partisan award for well-connected Americans.

As I got involved with Amnesty International in Japan, working for Wei Jingsheng’s release with the help of his sister and Japan-based dissident Zhao Nan, surveillance was stepped up on my Tokyo apartment and I started to be tailed by Japan’s security force known as Ko-an, or Public Security. Professor Michel Oksenberg invited me to Stanford and I spent a few weeks stateside, where I worked on stories for Time and the LA Times, while talking to a diverse array of people interested in China rights issues, ranging from Nancy Pelosi to the LA Times and Human Rights Watch.

In the United States I fell under a weird kind of surveillance too, first in the form of telephone stalking by the Human Rights Watch founder who called my friends and relatives in order to prevent me from writing about Wei Jingsheng—he claimed he alone had the right to publish Wei’s letters— and more chillingly, I was shadowed in New York City with such precision that the “human rights” advocate was able to interrupt meetings in progress while I talked to publishers about the prison letters.

I was also robbed of the tape after arranging a showing of the Wei Jingsheng interview at the Human Rights in China office in Manhattan. The staff invited me to dinner in Little Italy, hoping to convince me to give them a copy of the tape that I had expressed an unwillingness to part with. When we parked in front of Ferrara Café, the co-founder of Human Rights in China solicitously suggested that I “hide” my copy of the coveted interview for safekeeping in the trunk of my friend’s car while we ate cannoli and sipped cappuccinos. After dessert we went back to the car to discover that the trunk had been pried open and the tape was missing, though nothing else of value was taken. My China-hating Chinese host laughed it off telling me my hometown of New York had a lot of crime.

The fifth anniversary was especially gloomy, because two men that I had great respect for were behind bars, one the leader of the Democracy Wall movement, the other the most-wanted leader of the student uprising at Tiananmen Square. Furthermore, it was disenchanting to see that some of the US-based human rights activists who made the most noise about injustice in China were locked into a China-can-do-no-right, America-can-do-no-wrong attitude, while drawing on National Endowment for Democracy funding to promote what was essentially a neo-con agenda.

The sixth anniversary saw the release of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a PBS documentary that I contributed to as a freelance consultant. I provided the filmmakers with copies of documents, notes, an early draft of this work, raw video footage, and a number of still photos. It took an uphill struggle to get the film made; at one cash-strapped juncture the director Carma Hinton was offered $10,000 by the founder of Human Rights Watch on the condition that she not include my videotaped interview of controversial student leader Chai Ling in the film. The director, to her credit, was not so easily swayed and she produced a nuanced and insightful work about the Tiananmen demonstrations that managed to annoy, delight, irritate and educate Americans and Chinese alike.

My only disenchantment with the well-crafted Gate of Heavenly Peace was the narrative structure that put student arrogance and folly at the center of the story rather than those most responsible for the tragic outcome; the tank-driving, gun-toting soldiers and their superiors. But I understood the conundrum in dramatic terms. The students were amateurish, accessible, vulnerable, and their foibles well documented; while the government strongmen actually responsible for the bloodshed were beyond reach, hidden behind thick walls.

The ninth anniversary year was tinged with a touch of hope, in large part because Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng were free again. Due to an extraordinary series of chance events I found myself resident on the same college campus as 1989 student leaders Wang Dan and Chai Ling, as well as Chen Xiaoping, a teacher who had been imprisoned for his supporting role at Tiananmen. Wang Juntao, a former associate of deposed President HuYaobang and the so-called “Black Hand” of the demonstrations was there too, kindly giving me his bicycle before moving from Cambridge to New York. Also in town was Liu Xiaobo’s hunger strike associate Gao Xin, writing books about politics, and dissident poet Bei Ling, who published the literary magazine Qingxiang.

As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard I was invited to every China-related function and event which ran the gamut from schmoozing with Joseph Nye and Ezra Vogel as they wooed rich but not entirely reputable philanthropists such as the flamboyant Hong Kong heiress Nina Wang to a private pow-wow with China’s top spy, Xiong Guangkai, with whom we dined in the Harvard Club.

I saw Wei Jingsheng immediately after his arrival in New York City and again when he spoke at the Kennedy School. I’d often see the studious Wang Dan in the Asia library and ran into Chai Ling several times on the Harvard Business School campus.

Even Jiang Zemin came to Harvard that year, against the advice of Henry Kissinger, but seemingly intent on some photo-op one-upmanship over Taiwan’s Lee Teng Hui, who had recently been feted at his alma mater of Cornell University.

As Nieman fellows, Chen Xiaoping and I were invited to attend Jiang Zemin’s speech in Memorial Hall, but we were required to sit apart and were assigned seats with security men on both sides. Still we were allowed to attend, unlike dissidents such as Chai Ling and other critics of Beijing. One such person was Huang Wenguang, who traveled to Cambridge from Chicago for the event and ended up joining a protest on the edge of the security perimeter.

Before the talk I had invited Huang to my apartment in Cabot House and shown him one of my souvenirs from 1989, a mint-green shirt stenciled with the words 1989 Democratic Tide acquired during a hasty exchange of shirts on June 4, 1989 with a student activist in the hopes that he could escape arrest during the crackdown. To the activist Huang, the shirt had almost talismanic power; he asked if he could wear it to the demonstration at Harvard, and I said he could. The provenance of the shirt was memorable enough, but it was the ink on it that really made it special. It was covered with autographs, last testaments, and whimsical hand-scribbled messages written by fellow strikers during the darkest days of the struggle. It was sweat-stained and faded from the sun. 

One point of contention about the Jiang visit left unresolved till the last minute was whether or not China’s president would abide by university tradition of taking questions from the audience; otherwise the event amounted to a pompous photo op where one side did all the talking, sort of like CCTV News at seven. I talked about this with Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, and several East Asian studies professors. The Fairbank Center suggested we submit written questions to be vetted in advance.

After the president of China had finished his speech, the Harvard master of ceremonies Ezra Vogel told the audience that Jiang had kindly agreed to take a few questions. Hearing that, I jumped up from my seat and declared, “I have a question,” which Professor Vogel answered with, “Not you! You do not have the floor!” He paused, and then invited a former student of his to lob what sounded like a pre-arranged softball of a question.

Incensed at the charade, I remained standing and shouted in response to what I perceived as collusion between the eager-to-please Harvard hosts and the Chinese side, saying “da dao ducai, minzhu wansui!”

The hall was tense and silent. My shout of “Down with dictatorship! Long live democracy!” carried well enough for Jiang Zemin to respond, “Although I am 71, my hearing is quite good. I heard that.”

The gala event ended awkwardly. Ezra Vogel later apologized for denying me the floor, saying he mistook me for a Taiwanese protester. In his biography of Jiang Zemin, Robert Kuhn also makes mention of the incident, referring to me as a Taiwan-born professor.

A few days later, the activist Huang Wenguang returned the 1989 Democratic Tide shirt to me, cleanly laundered. It was a thoughtful gesture and an unintended loss, ironically evocative of fading memories. The precious autographs, poems, and slogans were washed away but for a few indistinct characters.

The tenth anniversary, for which there was a reasonable expectation of public remembrance, was completely overshadowed by the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The opportunity to chastise China for taking a tragic crackdown and calling it a “an incident” was lost when the United States took a tragic bombing and dismissed it as “an accident.” Chinese students marched in anger, pelting the US Embassy with bottles and garbage. To this day, the most conclusive summary I’ve heard about the Belgrade bombing came from then-White House official Ken Lieberthal, who investigated the case for President Clinton and concluded, “shit happens.”

Over the years, the drumbeat of remembrance has tended to grow louder and louder as the fourth of June rolls near. The Chinese government is always on guard, ever on the lookout for signs of discontent and eager to find distractions to change the topic.

The fourteenth anniversary was muted in the wake of SARS, a mysterious illness that shuttered businesses and emptied the streets more thoroughly than all the tanks assembled in 1989.

The fifteenth anniversary saw students take to the streets again, only the anger being vented was narrowly focused on an anti-Japan theme, a fit of outrage so consummately controlled by the party that it could be turned on and off like a faucet, unlike 1989 where things had been largely spontaneous before reaching a critical mass and runaway effect.

On the seventeenth anniversary, I was reunited with a precious photo album I had long given up for gone, lost in the mayhem of getting out of Beijing and settling in Tokyo via Hong Kong and Hollywood. A Japanese newspaper editor discovered the negatives in office storage, where they had been misplaced some fifteen years before. When he learned I was teaching in Japan at Doshisha University, he sent the photos to my office in Kyoto. Looking at the Technicolor images of my younger self and my friends amidst the swirl of the masses during the height of the protests brought memories flooding back; it was China calling again. I have included a number of the “lost” photos in this book.

The Olympics presented an opportunity to show the world how much China had transformed itself, but the display, dazzling as it was, focused on the material instead of the spiritual and gains that were made in the name of the Olympics vanished almost as completely as the temporarily clean air. As a frequent guest on Chinese TV, I tried, with only fitful success, given the way news topics were narrowly framed and taboos enforced, to talk candidly about things that mattered. The few times I managed to bring up the topic of 1989 on TV, the urbane host deftly changed the topic. During the Olympics,

I described Wei Jingsheng as a patriot who loved China in his way, and also suggested, on air, that the Dalai Lama should be invited to speak on the program instead of punishing foreign leaders for meeting with him. CCTV tolerated it, barely, but was not amused.

On the twentieth anniversary I published the first edition of this book. I never dreamed the topic would still be taboo after so many years, and the official verdict unchanged. The silence in China continued to be deafening, while overseas commemorations saw dissident squabbles and the sanctimonious US press preaching to the choir.

When the June Four anniversary rolled around in 2011, I was in Beijing. I paid my respects to the lost and all-but-forgotten ghosts of Tiananmen by spending the evening with a friend walking around the north side of the Square. Security was tight. I looked longingly for Beijing people from the ’89 generation, people who like me might be quietly remembering, but the ages and accents hailed from other times and places. 

It was very much a solitary remembrance.

The way the anniversary goes “unremembered” in China is partly compensated up for with the moving annual tributes staged in Hong Kong, which was far from the carnage in 1989 but has carried a candle for the victims of Tiananmen ever since.

On this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, there are healthy signs that people simply won’t forget despite the government’s heavy-handed control of the media. Rock singer Cui Jian, who figures in the narrative that follows, was offered a chance to perform in the Spring Gala put on by CCTV during the lunar New Year. When asked what he would sing, he suggested Nothing to My Name, the unofficial ballad of the impoverished students at Tiananmen Square. He was then uninvited and removed from the program line-up, but the rebel spirit marches on.

Shanghai Daily surprisingly gave Tiananmen Moon a mention in print, even though the book is banned in China. I attribute this to a visit to the newspaper’s editorial office a number of years earlier when I met a group of writers and editors. The conversation was focused on the topic of incremental reforms in China’s state media until an elderly gentleman got up from the table for a short break. All of a sudden, I fell under the scrutiny of eager eyes and conspiratorial grins.

“You were there, right?” asked an editor.


“The Square.” It needed no elaboration.

“Yeah. You too?”

“Yeah, I remember you.”

“I was there too,” said another journalist.

“Me too,” said yet another.

Then the party elder came shuffling back into the room. We were talking about the weather by the time he was in earshot. 

That was still pretty much the state of play of Beijing’s buttoned-down newsrooms when I left China, but hope springs eternal.