Wednesday, April 24, 2019



“Leica” is at risk of becoming a taboo word in China, and not just for the over-sensitive censors, but for ordinary Chinese netizens as well. The brand name has not been entirely blocked yet, and links to its discredited “Tiananmen” video still show up on Baidu search, at least at the time of writing, but authorities and anti-authoritarians alike seem to agree that it touches on a sensitive topic in an insensitive way.

A number of journalists, photographers and eyewitnesses to the Tiananmen uprising of ’89 have joined the chorus, echoing Beijing in its displeasure, though for starkly different reasons. As someone who bore witness to the joyous demonstrations and terrifying crackdown that followed, I count myself among those troubled by the Leica ad.

The problem is not that the Tiananmen protest being invoked; far from it, most veterans of the peaceful uprising applaud efforts to keep the memory alive and look forward to the day when crowds can gather in peaceful commemoration at Tiananmen Square.

Rather it is the commercialization of the tragedy of June 4, 1989--using it to sell a product-- that leaves a bad after-taste. Leica’s treatment of this definitive event in modern Chinese history is tone-deaf and exploitative; it’s like using the Kennedy assassination to sell Coke, or perhaps closer to the point, the collapse of the Twin Towers to sell cameras. Even in countries where censorship is minimal and advertising reigns supreme, it is callous to re-enact tragedy to boost business.

Leica’s ad agency is unapologetic. It certainly enjoys the right to make edgy adverts and tacky promos, and, in the same spirit of freedom, people have the right to boycott Leica products if they don’t like what they see.

Leica’s PR department, sensing trouble, quickly soft-pedaled involvement in the promo, saying it was not “official,” but why did they sponsor it, then? What were they thinking?

It looks like Leica wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, the lens-maker has an exclusive and lucrative deal with Huawei, China’s flagship phone manufacturer, to integrate its camera technology into their popular product, and indeed the Leica brand appears on the back of Huawei phones. On the other hand, Leica would appear to be distancing itself from both embattled Huawei and China, both increasingly subject to US circumscription, by producing a subliminally racist piece of corporate propaganda that is guaranteed to rile.

Suffering apparent flashbacks to a brutal confrontation in Africa, Leica’s fictional photographer treats the most distressing moment in modern Chinese history like a wild safari; what counts are the heroics of getting the “kill” shot.

Although Tiananmen Square had its share of gonzo journalists parachuted in, most of the working press tried not to make themselves part of the story. The Leica angle perversely suggests that heroics of snapping a photo is the story. It focuses on the journalist’s cultural ignorance and elevates it to a point of pride:

“I don’t understand what you are saying,” says the American cameraman. “I don’t speak Chinese.”

Certainly that was true for most journalists in Beijing at the time, but it was no badge of honor not to know the language, not then, not now.

How much power would the words, “I don’t speak English” (voiced gruffly in a foreign language) carry if a foreign visitor with a camera got in a confrontation with a US policeman or military personnel?

Worse yet is the promo’s closing line. When the “hero” zeroes in for the kill shot of the man in front of the tank the narrator says:

“We smile to ourselves and proudly whisper, I am a hunter.”


This not only incenses the censors of Beijing but hurts the pride of news collectors who were actually there in Beijing in 1989 and saw things quite differently. It wasn’t a hunt, it was a heartbreaking story. Though one could detect a world-weary hint of pride in the professional cameramen, and they were all men, what with their war stories and scars they bore from covering violent conflicts around the globe, I was touched by their cool under fire and the compassion they brought to the indifferent gaze of the camera.

Those of us who stood witness to the rise and fall of people power were humbled by it, there was nothing dashing or heroic about seeing a city besieged by its own troops. And the essence of the story wasn’t about a man dawdling in front of a line of retreating tanks. The June 5 photo remains visually intriguing, but it was after the fact, a mere coda to a vanquished rebellion.

Online critics took issue not just with the “hunter” narrative, but the casting of a white American male in that role. In 1989, the “elite” Western press corps was indeed mostly white and male. There were frontline exceptions to this; Melinda Liu of Newsweek and Kate Adie of BBC both did exemplary reporting, and many Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese and journalists from Hong Kong who did vital work behind the scenes, or behind the veil of non-English language media.

As gunfire emptied the streets, journalists sought shelter in the Beijing Hotel. Like the character in the Leica ad, a Hong Kong reporter who had been confronted by Chinese police, came running to my room where the BBC crew and a Chinese student activist were already holed up. Some details of the re-enactment ring true; we dimmed the lights and pulled the curtains in the room to avoid being targeted, and we hid video tapes in the bathroom air vent. During the all night vigil I shared with John Simpson and the cameramen, we watched from the balcony facing the square until the room next door was hit by gunfire.

The Leica promo is exploitative and the gist of it is wrong. The hotel doesn’t look right, the sole Chinese character, a villainous guard, doesn’t talk right, and the star cameraman looks like a wannbe action hero, but perhaps the most telling slip of all is the camera. It was not a Leica but a Nikon that produced the iconic photograph of the man standing in front of the tank.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Author with Zhang Jian on Tiananmen Square in 1989

Zhang Jian was a lively, spirited student volunteer, a patriotic force of nature who could often be found holding court, telling amusing stories and interrogating intruders around the base of the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square during the turbulent days of May 1989. 

Only 18 at the time, Zhang volunteered to help with security during the hunger strike. As he later explained, things were very fluid and every one higher up in the chain of command soon quit or walked off until he had no one above him and he became the de facto head of student security on the Square. When the troops entered the precincts of Tiananmen in the early hours of June 4, he was with a group of protesters who were shot at close range. He took three bullets in his thigh but survived. The others with him did not make it.

I first encountered Zhang Jian at the Physical Education Institute in the north of Beijing. We chatted several times later on the Square and some of his fellow students arranged transport for me from campus to the Square when cars were hard to find. I called him "Crazy Zhang" and they all agreed he was crazy in a good way.

At that time the above photo was taking, he was among those controlling access to the student leaders who gathered in the so-called “broadcast tent” in the shadow of the central monument in the Square. He ran security under the “command” of Chai Ling and Feng Congde and was on the Square until he was shot during the early stage of the military sweep. He went into hiding and then persevered in low profile as best he could. Over a decade would pass before he eventually found his way to France. 

Zhang Jian remained loyal to the dream through many years of hardship and exile. His passing is lamented but his spirit is not forgotten.

Thursday, April 4, 2019


Philip J Cunningham

A mysterious female gate-crasher to the heavily-commercialized Mar-a-Lago presidential residence in Florida tells the secret service guards she's going for a swim, and they let her in, only to discover she is carrying four phones, two passports and a twitchy memory stick, but no bathing suit. This alone is enough to make the caper at Mar-a-Lago sound like a budding Hollywood film, and in a way, it is. 

A China spy story in the making.

Hollywood tropes not only fire up the imagination but help us fill in the gaps. Celluloid memes are ready for the taking--for strivers, media myth-makers and voyeurs alike. Well-shaped narratives not only entertain but inform; they paint the world in a way that appeals to pre-conditioned prejudices, easy to grasp and easy to remember. 


That's the teaser for the April 2, 2019 episode of The Young Turks, hosted by TV personality Cenk Uygur, who promotes it as the largest online news show in the world. Even before the facts were in, it was quick to trump up the China spy angle. Clickbait?

Russia Today, no stranger to manipulating the news, likewise invoked the China spy angle right from the start: 


Coming from Russia, the irony is thick. In a few short words, the RT story makes fun of the US Secret Service, questions lax Presidential security and plays around with the espionage angle, stoking up fears already stirred up by the US media, while absolving Moscow of fear-mongering by putting the term ‘Chinese spy’ in scare quotes.


That's the early report from Fox News. In contrast to its usual sensational coverage, the headline is rather fastidious with the facts, couching the claim on a statement made by the “feds.” 


The New York Times first report on the breaking story subtly shifted the emphasis from an individual to a country. There wasnt much hard information to report at this point, so it was left up to the Times' readership, already primed by the prim Gray Lady’s long-held, unladylike editorial grudge against Beijing, to connect the dots. 
Senior Democratic senators such as Charles Schumer, Mark Warner and Diane Feinstein reacted to the news by raising the specter of targeting by “foreign intelligence services,” no doubt sensing an angle on which to discredit Trump, but even anti-communist Republican Marco Rubio, who has been quick to jump on the anti-China bandwagon, downplayed the China spy whispers: 

“That’s always a threat, but I don’t know enough about this person or this case to make a bold pronouncement on what happened here or what this is about.” 

The US media, suffering from Trump derangement syndrome in the wake of the conning developer’s soul-jolting victory in 2016, has shown an abject willingness to trade sensation for profit. The result? A never-ending need to feed the advertising beast, to demonize and misdirect, a need to titillate, hyperventilate and find an angle, especially an angle that sells, like anything dealing with Trump.

The reason why this small story is worth watching is because the American public, tired of the inconclusive Russian collusion story, is ready for a new sensation. The discredited media is scrambling to find something fresh, a new juicy target for fear-mongering. 

Enter a femme fatale named China, stage left.

It’s not that espionage is not a problem; it is. Both the US and China have much to answer for in the cloak-and-dagger realm. But the adding the word “China” to “spy” before the facts are in ups the ante in a way that plays sexy in media terms, but is patently unfair. If the media gets sloppy, or carried away with sizzle and fizz of a malicious and perhaps salacious China angle, it will be hurtful to ordinary citizens from China and to Americans of Chinese descent as well.

China spy. Secret Service. Infiltration. These words have a sharp ring to them, ready to go straight to film. Hollywood narratives have a life of their own and a rich after-life. One need not have seen the films to know of the fictional villain Fu Manchu.

And yes, even the bumbling spy has a rich pedigree, more Peter Sellers than Sean Connery. Take your pick: Get Smart, The Man Who Knew Too Little, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Spies Like Us. 
The Tinseltown touch, serious or silly, simplifies the plot. It helps make good-guy-vs-bad-guy sense of situations that are not entirely good, bad, simple nor easy to make sense of. 

The purported agent Zhang Yujing is clearly no Nikita. And no self-respecting member of the Charlie’s Angels trio would forget the bathing suit. 

Its not inconceivable that she was sleuthing sub rosa, a modern Mata Hari intrigued by the apparent porousness of Trump’s Crackerjack Palace, looking for a vicarious entry into a flashy world of intrigue, cash and proximity to power.

So, was the trespasser a con, or perhaps the victim of a con? Both? Neither? A freelance snoop? A state agent? Too soon to say.

But it can be noted that Ms. Zhang Yujing is just one in a long line of individuals, not all of whom were well in the mind, who were partially successful in breaching the security perimeter of a presidential residence, yet rarely has the trespasser’s race and nation of origin been as much a part of the story as it is with her. 

What was the racial identity of the last three people who hopped the White House fence?  

In today’s retrograde political climate, where strongmen reign supreme, and walls and barriers of all kinds are being erected, there is an ever-present danger of demonization or vilification of people lumped together as members of a group, whether the categorization be perceived or real, racial, religious or national. 

The age old us-versus-them is back with a vengeance.

If documentary evidence leads investigators to establish a direct link between the alleged spying activity and a foreign government, so be it--then it's a spy story in which race and nationality may indeed factor in, and factor in fairly. Until such a time, it is better to withhold judgement of her mission, if indeed she even had one.