Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A CHINA-BASED SCHOLAR SPEAKS OUT AGAINST PUTIN'S WAR

 

 

Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice” is the title of a thoughtful essay published by a Shanghai based scholar named Hu Wei. The article, which first appeared on the website of the Carter Center in Chinese, laid out the author’s reservations about China’s seeming embrace of Russia at a time of ruinous war.

 

To Chinese readers, it appeared in a bilingual publication known as “Zhongmei Guanxi” which publishes in English under the title “US-China Perception Monitor.”

 

Shortly after the Chinese original was uploaded, an English translation followed.

Hu Wei’s article was an unexpected hit, if it’s hits that one is looking for. It swelled traffic on the publication’s website in a way that no other article had ever done before, and eventually garnered over a million views, mostly in China.

At a time when China’s official media is hewing close to a pro-Russian narrative, often repeating the assertions made by Russian officials word-for-word,  the unexpected take-away from his long essay was that it was time to decouple: “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to cut off ties as soon as possible.”

The optics of China backing Russia during its shocking war of aggression against the sovereign state of Ukraine are not good, and the threat of sanctions, which an unexpectedly unified West imposed on Russia in short order, could eventually be applied to China as well. “China should avoid playing both sides in the same boat,” Hu Wei said, adding that China should “give up being neutral and choose the mainstream position in the world.”

 

Although Hu Wei did not make any claim to represent Chinese officialdom, saying this article “does not reflect the view of any party” he is reasonably well-placed in the state bureaucracy and is a respected scholar. Articles such as his are commonly distributed among officials for deliberation and debate.

 

Hu Wei’s affiliations include serving as Vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, as Chairman of the Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, Chairman of the Academic Committee of the Chahar Institute.

 

Hu Wei studied at Fudan University under the influential theorist Wang Huning and later became a professor at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. Hu Wei was once close to Wang Huning, who has served in the administrations of Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping and is currently a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.  

 

Hu was once close to his teacher Wang Huning but it is not known if they are still in touch since the latter has to abide by the protocol of his high-power position. 

 

Any expectation that Hu Wei’s lone voice in the wilderness represented a possible change in thinking on the part of the Chinese government was shot down when his article was erased from China’s internet and his article was denounced as “dangerous and reckless.”

 

The Carter Foundation, which proudly reflects the bridge-building tradition of President Jimmy Carter on whose watch full diplomatic relations were established between the US and China, suddenly found itself a “pariah” on account of the Hu Wei article. Western news publications are by now familiar with the cat-and-mouse game of China’s censors by which individual articles are blocked, and sometimes entire websites, rendering them invisible in China outside of VPN users who can, with effort, circumvent much of the information control.

 

But for the publication of a foundation such as the Carter Center, which shares with The National Council on US-China Relations, the US-China Friendship Association and China-US Focus a mission expressly dedicated to US-China ties, the blow comes a bit unexpected.

 

As US-China Perception Monitor editor Liu Yawei explained on Twitter on March 15:

 

“I regret to share that both our English- and Chinese-language websites are now completely inaccessible in China, but we at @uscnpm do not regret publishing Hu Wei’s voice on China’s approach to #Ukraine.”

 

The editor’s dream of publishing a viral article was followed by the editor’s nightmare of having one’s site closed down in its most vital market.

 

The current level of tensions between US and China put editor Liu in a difficult position. On the one hand he wants to offer a platform for scholars on the mainland to express themselves, but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

 

And as is sadly too often the case these days, no sooner did the article take flight, than he started getting hate mail. Here is an example of an anonymous attack posted in Chinese on the Carter Center Twitter feed:

 

“The Carter Center has gone further and further down the wrong path. Scholars provide suggestions and references, policymakers listen to different voices and make independent judgments, but publishing Hu Wei's internal reference article is very irresponsible…

History will remember who is who and who is not.”

 

When dealing with China, where the protection of free speech remains tenuous, journalistic integrity is not just about daring to publish challenging pieces and letting writers speak out but also finding the right tone and making an effort to protect contributors.

 

Fearing that Hu Wei might suffer repercussions for his essay, Liu stated clearly on his publication’s Twitter account that Hu Wei’s work was not solicited.

 

“The following article was submitted by the author to the Chinese-language edition of the US-China Perception Monitor. The article was not commissioned by us, nor is the author affiliated with the Carter Center or the website.”

 

Finally, Liu Yawei, speaking in his own voice, got in what may well be construed the last word on the topic, at least for now.

 

“Great powers do not punish their own scholars for disagreeing with their official policies.”

 

 

 

 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

BIDEN-XI: A RASHOMON MYSTERY OF A PHONE CALL




 

The leaders of the US and China are talking, which is good, but the readouts of the March 18 phone call between presidents Biden and Xi are at sharp odds. One hopes that some conciliatory dialogue took place off the record, because the record, even allowing for the Rashomon-like variance of official readouts, is not encouraging.

 

That’s not so much to say the two sides disagree about what was actually said as it is to say each side cherry-picked comments for their own purposes.

 

The two sides “read” the phone call differently in accordance with domestic considerations and foreign policy goals.

 

The US statement laid out US policy along with “implications and consequences” of Chinese military aid to Russia. The Chinese statements were rambling calls for peace.

 

The rhetorical flushes of the Chinese readout make a bid for the high moral ground:

 

“China has always advocated peace and opposed war.”

 

Yet tellingly, China does not once castigate Russia for launching the war, or describe Russia’s bloody armed entry into Ukraine as war or invasion; it is merely portrayed as a “crisis.”  

 

Xi takes on the role of a lofty and philosophical statesman calling for peace, negotiation and dialogue. He sees China’s role as a humanitarian one.

 

However a closer look at the official rhetoric suggests a hidden callousness. For one, China never acknowledges that its political partnership with Russia, officially confirmed as a pact on February 4, might have been an integral part of Putin’s war strategy.

 

Despite protestations of it being a country “always” for peace, China continues to give Russia a pass even though it is uniquely culpable for sending its tanks and guns into another country. 

 

Likewise, China’s complaints about sanctions—a peaceful tool with which to combat armed aggression—is more a reflection of China’s fear of being sanctioned than a reasonable critique.

 

In both the Xinhua readout and in other statements by China’s state run press, there is a great deal of talk about the urgent need for Ukraine and Russia to sit down and talk.

 

Stop being naughty, kids. Fighting will get you nowhere.

 

China seems to be acting like the adult in the room, but this calculated stance is at once ruefully naïve and deeply deceptive.

 

Who could possibly disagree with the idea that both sides need to talk, right?

 

Dialogue is good.

 

But a dialogue between victim and victimizer is not a meeting of equals.  A productive conversation is unlikely to follow.

 

What about the victim of an unprovoked assault such as rape?  

 

To describe a bloody invasion as a rape may be indelicate, but China still can’t stop talking about “the Rape of Nanking,” the massacre that took place when Japan’s Imperial Army occupied China’s capital in 1937.

 

China can't forget it.

 

Yet Russia is assaulting Ukraine in real time and this war is televised. There’s no hiding that Russia is pounding the towns and cities of its neighbor with missiles and bombs.

 

Yet China looks the other way.

 

To be fair, Xi is not his brother’s keeper. It is Putin who is most to blame. Putin and his collaborators and his willing executioners.

 

Yet one can’t help but feel sorry for the hapless Russian troops who are forced to fight a war they don’t want to fight, and rare flashes of protest in Russia are timely reminders that this war reflects Putin’s stubborn will, not that of his people.

 

But the tanks and guns keep rolling in.

 

Is this the kind of situation where dialogue even makes sense?

 

China thinks so, and in doing so it hopes to convince the world that Xi Jinping is a profound and lofty thinker. But until Xi decouples with Putin he has no moral ground to stand on.

 

Xi Jinping almost certainly wants Putin to come out of this debacle with his prestige intact, no matter the cost to Ukraine, because Xi has publicly hitched his fortunes to this most-reviled man.

 

In the February 4 Russia-China pact, Xi calls Putin his "best friend," and it was the Chinese side that insisted the relationship be described as having  "no limits."

 

The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1939 between Germany and Russia similarly turned a cold eye to the bloodshed in the "bloodlands" of what is today Poland and West Ukraine.  Whether or not the Xi-Putin pact will go down in history as a similarly grotesque and colossal mistake is best left to future historians.

 

What the Sino-Russia pact means in the here and now is this:

 

China can't start to solve the problem until it stops being part of the problem.

 

Unless Xi immediately decouples with Putin and withdraws all aid and propaganda support to Putin's monstrous project in Ukraine, Xi is putting himself at risk of being seen as a co-conspirator.

 

Ukraine is being brutally assaulted by Russia in real time. The wanton destruction of schools, hospitals, churches, theatres and residential blocks continues apace.

 

From the day Russia invaded Ukraine; Chinese media was under instructions to “support Russia/blame US and NATO.” This ludicrous editorial slant was unsustainable and it has subsequently been eased to a position of “show humanitarian concern for Ukraine/don’t oppose Russia.”

 

Either way, the Chinese media is quick to pick up and amplify echo Putin's lies and whitewash his crimes while his military continues to rain missiles on the bombed-out cities and gutted villages of the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

CHINA TV NEWS: THE MORE YOU WATCH THE LESS YOU KNOW

 

CCTV's Rem Koolhaas-designed flagship tower in central Beijing


 

By Philip J Cunningham

 

If you build a dazzling new flagship building in Beijing and a well-funded network of shiny TV studios around the world, will journalism follow?

 

Not necessarily.

 

China spends an enormous amount of money on media but has little to show for it. CCTV television news reports in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, have been deceptive at best, straining under a mix of guidance from above and reflexive self-censorship. 

 

The result is news that not only lacks news value, but news so skewed from the truth that one knows less, not more, after watching it.

 

Not that it would cost much money to remedy -- just a poster board and a brave staffer willing to stand in front of the camera to protest the propaganda would be a bracing good start. 


Russia One producer Marina Ovsyannikova protests the untrue news

 

Chinese state TV reports on the war have been eerily in lockstep with Putin-directed Russian propaganda, which is problematic enough, but at times they have gone even further, bending over backward to present Russia in a good light, not just by parroting Russian propaganda, but in some cases, outdoing it.

 

Dubbed a “special military operation” in propaganda-speak, the invasion took place on the heels of Putin’s much-heralded February 4 visit to Beijing during the Olympics. The adulation and self-celebratory scope of Chinese TV Olympic reporting was such that concurrent US media “noise” about an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine was dismissed as misinformation, ill will or sour grapes. There's truth in the saying that people only hear what they want to hear. 

 

That clouds of war were gathering over the Russian-Ukrainian border was never really allowed to register in Beijing, instead such reports were ridiculed and dismissed.

 

I have written in detail elsewhere about how Chinese state television, under pressure to be pro-Russia and anti-America, scrambled to come up with explanations for the abrupt non-invasion invasion (the term “invasion” was scrupulously avoided in deference to Moscow.) 

 

From day one of the war, CCTV reporting was  twisted and contorted, by commission, omission and misdirection. The shocking Russian invasion was never once condemned or even lightly chastized. Indeed, it was coldly deemed to be a matter in which the Russians "had no choice."  

 

Through verbal acrobatics and convoluted logic, Russia's war of invasion was instead decreed to be the fault of NATO and the US. 

 

Consider the example of the bombing of Kiev TV Tower which CCTV news show video footage from, but deceptively suggested was not a direct hit, and not carried out by Russia, only for Russian media to admit to the surgical attack aimed at the TV tower just hours later.

 

China Central Television’s clumsy and deceptive coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine is troubling in and of itself, but it is part of a larger retrograde move to more censorship, rather than less. Also troubling is the rise of the Xi Jinping personality cult, a Stalinist innovation that propped up Mao way beyond his "best by" date,  and caused untold harm to the Chinese people. The cult was carefully eschewed by Deng Xiaoping and it was not applied to his hand-picked successors. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were powerful but beholden to collective leadership and term limits. The blind adulation of Xi Jinping, his "no limits" friendship with Putin, and the "no limits" extension to his tenure is really bad news for China.  

 

Things have gotten so bad, gone so quickly retrograde, that Xi Jinping's rule makes the turn-of-the-century reform era looked positively engaging and bubbling full of promise. Before Xi, earnest efforts were being made to bring China, and its flagship television station, up to an international standard, to join the world, not an axis against it.

 

I spent a considerable amount of time in the corridors and studios of CCTV in the early 2000's as a Knight Journalism Fellow and Fulbright researcher. At the time of my media research, the party still had a very strong editorial hand, but something close to real journalism was also possible, on an increasingly wide range of topics. At the time, CCTV's broadcasting center was located on Fuxing Road near Yuyuantan Park, appropriately within view of Beijing Television Tower. 

 

My visits to the belly of the beast of China's broadcast empire came at the invitation of veteran CCTV producer and former Brookings Fellow, Li Xiaoping. She asked me to make suggestions, contribute memos and attend strategy meetings. Among other things discussed were ways of raising the standards of CCTV's news talk shows, which at the time were almost entirely scripted, taped, edited and censored.

 

The move from canned programs to live broadcast  was part of an internal push to present news more efficiently, if not more compellingly, and once the decision was made to move in that direction, the role of in-house censors was reduced. 

 

Li Xiaoping invited me to appear on what I was told was the first, or at least one of the earliest  live news programs done at CCTV. It was exciting, and while it quickly became apparent that untoward expression could be hemmed in by the strategic choice of discussion topics, the anchor's interventions, and framing of the narrative, I was almost always allowed to speak my piece.

 

During breaks in my academic schedule teaching media studies in Japan, I was frequently invited as a guest commentator at CCTV, including the flagship English language program “Dialogue,” and a number of other live specials covering cultural events, historic commemorations and China’s space program.


The first program I did on Dialogue was instructive in how taboos are enforced and violated. The show was devoted to a discussion of Mao Zedong and I was forewarned not to talk about "Mao's women." But when host Yang Rui asked me about "Mao's swimming" I misheard the question, so we sort of stumbled on the topic anyhow. We had a similar contretemps on the rise of Bo Xilai, who was then at the height of his fame and power. Words were said and words that weren't supposed to be said went uncensored, and that was just par for the course of live TV in that period. 

 

Only once, when I got into an argument with a member of the PLA brass about the China's naval activities in the South Sea did the program get trimmed. It aired live, there was little remedy for that while it was happening, but it did not get re-broadcast as was the usual practice.


During the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, at which time China was under some pressure to embrace press freedoms, I found the provisional, and fleeting, opportunity to talk about taboo topics such as dissident Wei Jingsheng, the Dalai Lama and the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, but the discussions were kept short by a host eager to change the topic.


That's admittedly not much of a breakthrough, but nowadays it's hard to find even a narrow shaft of daylight between the party line and what studio guests are permitted say. 

 

The window in which such topics could even be breached on Chinese TV has gradually closed and for the most part has remained closed ever since.


The beginning of the end came after the 2008 Olympics, when China's pride-obsessed ruling party was less eager to please, and the world, engulfed in economic turmoil, was no longer watching.

 

Although my association with CCTV as guest commentator was irregular and conducted entirely on a freelance basis, I made a number of good friends there and it was gratifying to see state TV broaden its editorial scope in the years when such broadening was possible.

 

The youthful, free-thinking, energetic staff who were vying to produce quality programs in the spirit of journalism were up against tall odds even then, but they were free to be creative and skirt around constraints as best they could.

 

There was a whiff of change in the air, and things were really were looking up for while, during the late Jiang Zemin, early Hu Jintao years, at least up until the 2008 Olympics, after which things got tight again.

 

For a span of a few years, intrepid reporters and producers were tackling what had previously been forbidden zones. Chinese TV was never entirely credible, and it always suffered by its association with the canned propaganda of the Xinwen Lianbo evening news show at 7 P.M. 

 

But just as semi-autonomous newspapers broke free of the yoke of People's Daily, TV news was no longer tightly moored to the evening propaganda show. In the margins and in unexpected corners, journalists were at work doing journalism and things did get measurably better, both technically, and in terms of expression, perhaps best described as more freewheeling than free. Each month saw little breakthroughs, not just in using satellite links and state-of-the-art studio equipment, but in tackling topics that previously could not be discussed comfortably on air.

  

The changes were incremental, perhaps not as substantial as I thought at the time, but it was a whole different world from China’s airwaves in 2022 under paramount leader Xi Jinping. Although technical developments have continued to keep apace with state-of-the-art practices, editorial control has tightened and over the last decade, and any serious movement in the direction of truly free speech tends to get nipped in the bud.

 

Worse yet, CCTV has further debased itself by taking on the cringe-inducing role of being an abject accessory to punitive and coercive measures, such as forced on-air confessions of dissidents, prisoners in cages and critics of party power.

 

Even the relatively “international” CGTN broadcast network, a billion-dollar boondoggle designed to “tell China’s story to the world” is only free to do credible news when the story is of tangential interest to the party. I knew senior staffers at CCTV in Beijing who thought the glitzy outreach overseas was a waste of money until the day that journalism could be practiced at home.

 

Just as the Internet has proved to be as much a tool for control and oppression as a tool for liberation and freedom, so too TV has proved itself malleable and capable of being twisted to serve bad ends. Despite well-coifed anchors and trendy graphics and a network of studios that spans the globe, China state television, the only game in town, is clearly not ready for prime-time.

 

If surveys of China’s citizens sometimes yield shocking results, by which a majority support Russia in its war against Ukraine, for example, or groundswell of anger at the US for secretly running non-existent bio-weapons labs in Ukraine, it is because the average viewer is woefully out of the loop. When it comes to consumers of CCTV News, there's ironic truth in the adage, "the more you watch the less you know." 

 

If China's good citizens are lost in a sea of lies, it’s in part because Chinese TV has skillfully led them there.  

 

Day in and day out, the world's most populous nation is being spoon-fed lies, distortion and even hate. There are many factors involved in this, but centralized TV news is a central part of the problem. 

 

There probably won't be any disruptions to CCTV news broadcasts as was recently witnessed in Russia, when a prime time news program was interrupted by courageous staffer Marina Ovsyannikova who stepped into view of the camera holding up a poster that said "No War." 

 

As oppressive as Russia is, it's even harder to imagine anyone doing that in today's China, though there were some notable acts of journalistic defiance during the Tiananmen demonstrations three decades ago. 

 

Nowadays CCTV news presenters and producers just plod along, as timid and meek as ever, dutifully carrying out orders, telling the news not like it is, but as the party elders tell them to tell it.

 

 

 




Friday, March 11, 2022

CHINA-RUSSIA AXIS: DEZINFORMATSIYA, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE

 



 

By Philip J Cunningham

 

Anyone who relied on Chinese media coverage of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine to understand what was going on might be excused for not realizing an invasion had taken place. Under Beijing's media guidance, not only was “invasion” a proscribed term, state media workers were pushed to show Russia in a positive light.

 

This, and the concomitant guidance that the US should not be portrayed positively has led to some extremely skewed Chinese coverage. For example, despite the daily mounting evidence of Russia wreaking destruction on Ukraine, the "crisis" is blamed, by some acrobatic leap of logic, on NATO and the US. Meanwhile Russia, far from being the aggressor, is seen as within its rights, “forced to” engage in a “special military operation” as a counter-attack to preserve its "security."

 

Russian propaganda goes even further. Ukraine is disparaged as an illegitimate, dysfunctional territory brimming with Nazis and drug addicts, and while some gullible rubes and rabid social media commentators might believe that, the Kremlin doesn’t and never did.

 

The lies they tell are tools in a linguistic arsenal, salvos in a war of words.

 

Both Beijing and Moscow use propaganda to shore up the image of the state, the paramount leader and the ruling party. That’s par for the course in authoritarian countries, and it’s worth pointing out that such dynamics, while not as centralized, are in play even so-called democratic countries, where information manipulation takes the form of spin, advertising and public relations.

 

The best disinformation contains a kernel of truth and fits narrative preconceptions so neatly that little room is left for doubt.

 

It isn’t always about lies, but it’s always about deception.

 

Leaving aside the reputational damage incurred when state media veers into odious lies and ludicrous untruths of the sort emanating from Moscow today, leaving aside the daily carnage and mounting civilian death toll caused by Russia’s one-sided bombardment of Ukraine, leaving aside the lofty principles of democracy and free press, let’s look at the autocrats themselves.

 

They have a problem with echo chambers of their own making.

 

You get cognitive dissonance. You get a situation where you don’t exactly believe your own public relations, and your audience might not fully buy it either, but it leaves you too distrustful to believe what anyone else is saying.

 

Worse yet, you begin to see traitorous disloyalty in disagreement from the party line. It gets personalized.

 

Looking at China’s long history of emperors, internal critics tend to get smashed and suppressed, as in “Hai Rui Upbraids the Emperor” and other instructive tales. 

 

Again and again, the strong men of history surround themselves with sycophants and yes men. Loyal opposition is quashed, honest criticism gets pegged as “disloyalty.”

 

The result is a systemic bottleneck, an impoverishment of information flow. Healthy channels of vital feedback dry up.

 

Leaders hear what their loyal courtiers tell them, and loyal courtiers tell them what they think they want to hear.

 

A modern day variation of this dynamic is called “drinking the Kool-Aid,” based on the chilling tragedy known as the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978 in which ritual obedience and information control led to the deaths of over 900 cult members.

 

When a powerful state media machine goes into propaganda overdrive, cooking up a concoction of good and bad ingredients, stirring together truths with untruths, imbibing the disinformation mix can have deadly results.

 

Impaired information flow was a key factor that led to Putin’s monumentally disastrous decision to invade Ukraine. It’s not necessary that he believed there were really Nazis and drug addicts running Ukraine. It was enough to flood the zone with lies so that confusion reigned. False narratives sucked up the oxygen of the information ecosystem, killing off the kind of corrective data that would help make a more informed judgement.

 

Ensconced inside his echo chamber, Putin woefully underestimated the resolve of the US to counter his gambit, a somewhat plausible misapprehension in the aftermath of the dysfunctional Trump presidency, in which Putin played a hidden hand, and by the seemingly panicked, played out, and undignified retreat of US military from Afghanistan. 

 

Add to that, perennial quibbling in Europe, the shock of Brexit, and the departure of the savvy, East Germany-raised Angela Merkel, and Putin saw a landscape he was unafraid of. He believed his own over-confident reading of geopolitics, reinforced by the lying Lavrovs around him and his isolation from ordinary folk. Surrounded by yes-men and dezinformatsiya specialists, he started to drink his own Kool-Aid.

 

China suffered a mild version of the same breakdown in information flow, its media in hysterical overdrive on account of the not incorrect assessment that the US-Indopacific strategy was geared towards containment. What’s more, China was fighting the reputational headwinds of a Winter Olympics faced with rolling diplomatic boycotts, bad Western press and pandemic-related anxieties.

 

As a result, it is completely believable that Xi Jinping might have found comfort in conferring with fellow strongman Putin in Beijing on February 4, at a time when both men were desirous of mutual support to counter US influence. Together they beamed confidence, and given the lack of serious domestic challengers, each was free to imagine a bright future of “no limits.”

 

The US CIA director William Burns has said that Xi Jinping is upset because his intelligence people didn’t gauge the full implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This cannot be confirmed, but many people, even in the echelons of Russian oligarchs and power circles, were genuinely surprised by the sudden descent into an intractable war. With propaganda flooding the zone, even leaders have a hard time determining what is really going on.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

ECHOES OF 1989 TIANANMEN PROTESTS STILL LINGER



Why was all traffic halted at Tiananmen Square on July 29, 2019?



Philip J Cunningham

Tiananmen Square can be forbidding, even in the best of times. It is open to the sky and exposed to the elements, offering no shelter from sun, wind, rain or snow. It rained hard and long the day of my visit last July, but by late afternoon the rain was reduced to a light drizzle and the sky was clearing to the west.




Emerging from the subway exit at Tiananmen East, I find the glow of the sky ethereal and the square tight under wrap. It was hard to know on any given day what degree of access would be permitted and denied, and the likelihood of being turned away was high in a season fraught with sensitive anniversaries. 


It was a maddening political moment, for late July was equidistant from the lingering security paranoia about a just-passed June 4 day of silent mourning, an event that could not be named, and the active, publicized commandeering of space in central Beijing to prepare for the celebration of October 1 National Day.




Hemmed in by  political restrictions, I was nonetheless keen to retrace some of the steps I had taken in 1989 to see how life had changed along the highways and byways of the kinetic protest movement, retracing marches to the Square and exploring campuses that had been hotbeds of rebellion at that time. But most of all I wanted to make a quiet ritual visit to Tiananmen Square. 

The square remains a special place, at once personal and impersonal, uplifting and disconcerting, as full of good memories as bad, a place where day trippers can still wander and wonder within shifting confines. Its vast dimensions invite expression and reflection. 

During my visit, news of the vigorous protests in Hong Kong had yet to officially break the great firewall of China, but unsanctioned reports were leaking about large-scale peaceful protests and street battles raging in places like Admiralty and Wanchai. It was as if justice denied in the three-decade blackout about the Beijing crackdown had come home to roost in the one part of China where free expression was still possible.

Tiananmen Square is a long way from Victoria Park in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong, alone in the Chinese world, has obsessively kept the spirit and memory of Tiananmen 1989 alive with annual marches and citizen-driven commemorations. 

The pilgrimage to the center of Beijing is one that I have undertaken repeatedly over the last three decades, sometimes with my children in tow. 

Tiananmen is not always easy to get to, and getting there does not guarantee access, but I get as close as I can, even if I’m sidelined. It’s a way of paying my respects to the victims of a terrible crackdown and also a way to take the pulse of how China is dealing with the consequences of the repression of the movement after all these years. 
   
There are days when the atmosphere is relaxed, when one might even chat with men flying kites and watch rural visitors snapping photos or kids running free unafraid of traffic. But for the victims, there has been almost no progress in terms of reconciliation, rehabilitation or reversing of unfair verdicts. The tragedy extends to the present day because the party that ordered tanks and troops armed with guns to crash through the crowds and crush a peaceful uprising still shows no signs of accountability or of repentance.

Tiananmen Square 1989 during the height of the protests

On this particular day, July 29, 2019, security was almost air-tight; it took only a few tentative steps out of the subway station to realize I was penned into an inspection zone, blocked from accessing the square.  It was touch and go at first as to whether or not I would gain access. On past visits I got inside more often than not but I knew what it was like to be turned away. 

A foreboding, guarded, fenced-in plaza on semi-lockdown had come to be the norm. There was no line to enter the inspection booth; it was as if people had given up trying. I was not carrying my passport, but I got chatting with the bored, and not entirely unfriendly guard who reluctantly waved me through after a few questions and a hard look at a picture of my passport's visa page which I kept on my phone.



Once I got past the checkpoint, the tension of inspection dissipated, and I found something open, inviting, ethereal, almost otherworldly about the atmosphere of the empty plaza.  It took a moment to realize something was wrong, and then I pinpointed it. It was utterly silent. The square was absent of movement, even on its periphery.

The habitual vehicular flow that traversed the north face of the square had vanished, making for an eerie mood. The normally bustling area in front of Tiananmen Gate was devoid of pedestrians, it was like a still from an apocalyptic film, a world from which people had been whited out.

I sighed and pressed forward, knowing that I was pressing my luck. July 29, 2019 wasn't just another routine lockdown on a just another hot summer's day. It fell midway between two security nightmares--one in which nothing was allowed to happen, the other in which everything had to happen on cue. Tiananmen Square security, still wary of the 30th anniversary of June 4, 1989 that had just passed was now tasked with keeping everything under control for the massive military parade of October 1. But it wasn't just that, either.

It was the day of Li Peng's funeral.

When death of the most-hated premier in modern Chinese history was announced on July 23, 2019, I was asked by the South China Morning Post to write about his political legacy. My take on the topic, published two days later, was bound to rile the censors, Li's loyal political base and communist press-watchers in Beijing.



To now wander around the storied square on the very day that Deng Xiaoping's successors, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping solemnly saluted a crony associated with one of the party’s most egregious crimes against its own people offered bitter food for thought.

It was one thing to ban the commemoration of an epochal event that China’s ruling party can never forget but is unwilling to confront, and quite another to salute one of the people responsible for a crime you can’t talk about. It was like salt thrown on an open wound to hear the lofty party-speak surrounding the death of a cold-hearted party hack, recycling without a hint of rethinking or regret the shame-faced lies that the party has been circulating for three decades.

The party's default mode is to claim righteousness, thus making a mockery of those who were wronged and relegating the truth of Tiananmen to the dustbin of history. This historic atrocity, like other major miscarriages of justice in the tumultuous years of communist rule, cannot be addressed, redressed or discussed openly in China today. 

Li Peng's casket was being interred with full honors at Babaoshan Cemetery where many of Mao’s good soldiers are buried. Former party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was premier Li's key rival in 1989, but subsequently fell from grace with the party for opposing the June 4 crackdown,  is pointedly not interred at Babaoshan but at a private cemetery in accordance with his family's wishes.  

The flag ceremony, now taking place a  distance from where I stand  holds no interest for me other than to note that the red flag of Tiananmen was not flying high, hoisted as it was at half-mast to mark the passing of the supposedly "revolutionary" hero. 

A lot of negative things have happened at Tiananmen Square, but it remains an emotive spot and a positive symbol of people power both for the state and its discontents. There's something essentially neutral about the broad urban plaza, something in its vast scope and scale and sheer exposure to the heavens that invites the mind to recollect, reflect and let the imagination to soar. 


The view from the Revolutionary History Museum steps on May 16, 1989

On this day, as I position myself by the steps of the Museum of People’s History facing the Great Hall of the People, I get thinking of the ebullient crowd that once gathered there, and remember fondly how the colonnaded facade of the museum provided a convenient spot to meet friends and temporarily escape the commotion and heat of the crowd. 

The museum steps in 2019 fenced off and guarded by a public security truck

Looking from the museum to the Monument to the People’s Heroes I thought of the hunger strike that unfolded in its shadow and how the museum steps offered a comfortable perch from which to view a crowd of one million.

A meeting of campus friends in the courtyard above the museum steps in 1989  
 
The first time I was invited to the student command center in the center of the square, I got pulled aside and questioned by a student guard who I wrote about in my book, “Tiananmen Moon,” giving him the moniker 'Crazy Zhang.'
 
Zhang Jian in May 1989

Zhang Jian, a student at the College of Physical Education, was a great believer in the cause and an exemplary activist despite being a mere freshman. Passionately protective of his older peers, who for a short time ran a protest a million strong from the  monument, he was shot during the crackdown, but survived. 

However, after a difficult life made infinitely more difficult by a government that didn’t want him but was reluctant to let him go, he eventually made it to France where he died in exile this past year, aged 48. 

I thought of his youthful bravado as I look upon the deserted square, and think of so many others whose fate was forever changed by those turbulent times. It was he who escorted me to the student command center, nestled against the southeast corner of the pediment of the Monument of the People's Heroes, to chat with the student leaders in charge of running things on the square. 

Author in front of the 1989 student command center with student leader Chai Ling

This led to a series of clandestine interviews, including a teary last-will-and-testament from student "commander-in-chief" Chai Ling, excerpts of which feature prominently in Carma Hinton's 1995 documentary, "Gate of Heavenly Peace."  

May 28, 1989 interview with Chai Ling

 
After martial law was declared and most-wanted lists were issued, desperation mounted to the point that Chai Ling and other students started to talk about how violence might be introduced to what had been until that time an entirely peaceful movement. I disagreed at the time, and I can't see how it would have improved things in retrospect, but I also had a great deal of admiration for student resourcefulness and courage in the face of great odds.
As it turned out, despite all the heated rhetoric of "blood flowing on the square" and the like, students were steadfast and self-disciplined in keeping the peace until the military crackdown violently crushed the movement, after which pandemonium broke out. 
 
Chai Ling and Wang Li aim for Hong Kong  
 
The peaceful and relatively apolitical British enclave of Hong Kong was the light at the end of the tunnel for activists like Chai Ling and Wang Li who sought my aid and advice in mapping out an escape to the south. Their journeys turned out to be challenging, protracted and complex, but ultimately successful.


Rebel broadcast command center by monument in 1989   

 
 
 
 The same corner of the Martyr's monument is now off-limits
 
 
 
Gazing at a square so empty it almost aches for human activity, I was possessed of the sense that restless, hungry ghosts still wander here, awaiting the verdict of history. As Martin Luther King wistfully said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward towards justice.”

Wide view of the square on the 25th anniversary
 
Why was it that Li Peng, who lived to 90, was being saluted when his politics led so many young idealists to be robbed of life and dispatched to early graves? It was the wrong place and the wrong funeral, but the arc is long and perhaps it is starting to bend.

The martyrs of 1989 were remembered in Hong Kong again this year, and this annual rite of remembrance and mobilization was quickly followed by a series of Hong Kong protests against a bill that would see its citizens extradited to the communist-controlled courts of the mainland.

The two popular uprisings, past and present, somehow became linked in my mind, the commemoration of something old bleeding into the outbreak of something new. As I paced quietly up and down the east side of the square, my phone inexorably pinging my location even as surveillance cameras whirred, security vans glided by and soldiers marched in formation. Trying to evade the notice of white-shirted, crew-cut teams of plainclothes guards, I felt like a trafficker in historic secrets trying to slip past the long arm of the thought police.

A sole cyclist cruises down Tiananmen East 

Even as I plodded across the balefully abandoned ground zero of Chinese political protest consecrated by the idea that ordinary people could take history into their own hands, a new chapter of Chinese people power was unfolding in Hong Kong with intriguing parallels and linkages. For one, popular participation in both events broke the one million-mark; a stinging slap in the face to a government whose legitimacy rests on grand claims to represent the people. In both cases, the massive outpouring of discontent challenged the party’s sense of self and its monopoly on power. 

I found gratification in furtively following events on my VPN-enabled phone, checking in on news banned in the mainland via a proxy server on the internet.

A different story was being told by orthodox outlets such as People’s Daily, China Daily and CCTV. State news reports about Hong Kong’s large peaceful marches, coming on the heels of the Tiananmen memorial march in June and echoing the peaceful spirit of Tiananmen, were nowhere to be found. Instead, there were censored tidbits, focused on patriotic flag-wavers saluting the party’s rule, isolated acts of desecrating of the flag by “rioters” and out-of-context reports about civilian battles with police. 

Yet the official dispatches, even if only half true by design, could not be entirely discounted. Violent tactics, undertaken by a radical vanguard of protesters who stormed the legislative building and the airport, were being reported on both sides of the information divide. 

Given that democracy is as democracy does, there was something disconcerting about the front-line of masked operators and stick-wielding bullies in Hong Kong who intimidated ideological opponents and stirred up incendiary conflict for its own sake. The umbrella, once a symbol of peaceful protest, was now being deployed both to block the view when someone was roughed up and as an instrument to beat people with.

In contrast, the oft ebullient crowd in 1989 was remarkably peaceful and kept in check by student facilitators and internal discipline until the tragic moment when tanks rolled in. 

The two movements remain unique, yet share a similar gravitas and some sympathetic vibrations, like twin baskets swinging uneasily from a bamboo pole hoisted over the shoulder. It would seem the ghosts of an improperly interred past continue to haunt China, even in its furthest corners, especially in its furthest corners. 

Hong Kong, which to its credit long carried the peaceful torch for justice denied at Tiananmen, was now the scene of fierce, smoky, pitched battles in its own streets, driven by questions of identity, fears for the future and resentment of the status quo. 


The central monument on the square in 1989

]Tiananmen Square taken on 25th anniversary of crackdown

During my walk, it was only near the National Museum, where a brief onrush of bodies streamed past me at a designated opening in the gate, that I felt briefly connected with the vibrant Tiananmen of old. Not only did the flurry of foot traffic bring a semblance of life to the otherwise sterile environs, but the press of gently impatient bodies, if only for an instant, brought back the memory of fording the gentle, cooperative crowds of the day back in 1989. The echo of footsteps, shouts, murmurs and cries of 1989 came back as I moved to the north face of the Square under a darkening sky. 

A small stream of vehicular traffic traversing Chang An Boulevard now and pedestrians, after a strict inspection of ID and bags, were free to promenade near Tiananmen Gate.

Tiananmen East on May 16, 1989

Tiananmen East on July 29, 2019


The portrait is an obligatory photo-op so routine and iconic as to seem banal unless one makes an effort to think about it. Why do tourists, local and foreign alike, still vie to be pictured with Mao? Why do the selfie-snapping hordes still permit a megalomaniac responsible for so much misery to photo bomb their lives? When will enough be enough? 
 
And yet there was something oddly touching in seeing today’s youth, innocent of history, solemnly pose with Mao in a way that looked earnest and forward-looking.

Where such innocent hope reigns, can disenchantment be far behind?
 


Students from an art school pose in front of Mao

Tiananmen Gate is a sturdy landmark and a natural focal point. It has outlasted the emperors and remains the capstone of the exquisite geomancy of the Square.


 
I wondered about the celebratory pomp and authoritarian flexing scheduled for National Day, with its big, bully military parade slated for the day, and gala fireworks at night. Was it not at risk of being upstaged in real time given all the fire and fury on the streets of Hong Kong? 

In contrast to the unsettling news emanating from Hong Kong, it was utterly tranquil, here in front of Tiananmen Gate, the fabled ground zero of Chinese rebellion since May 4, 1919. Almost too still, since the facade of stability came at the price of obsessively policing freedom. 

Reflected serenely in the tranquil puddles on rain-soaked pavement as a technicolor sunset gives way to the velvet cloak of night, Tiananmen Gate shines. Despite the ever-present surveillance, intrusive security and troubling political portent, one can gain a glimpse of crushed hopes and indestructible dreams in this forbidden zone, even on a most forbidding day.