April 2009

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In several previous posts, we’ve directed our readers to the prize-winning film “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” and the excellent accompanying website, which provides a wealth of information for those seeking to understand the complex events of 1989.  The film has generated controversy from the start, but we’ve learned that there’s now a new development, a lawsuit directed against the film-makers.  To learn more about the situation, we’ve turned to Geremie Barmé, whose role in the film and the website have been described before.  Here are the questions we’ve put to him and his answers:

CB: What exactly is the lawsuit about?

GRB: In May 2007, Jenzabar, Inc., its CEO Robert Maginn, Jr., and its President Chai Ling, filed suit in Boston against the Long Bow Group, claiming defamation and trademark infringement.

On the first page of their complaint, Chai Ling, Maginn, and Jenzabar claimed that Long Bow was, “Motivated by ill-will, their sympathy for officials in the Communist government of China, and a desire to discredit Chai, a former student leader in the pro-democracy movement in China’s Tiananmen Square…”

Specifically, the lawsuit cited the posting of ­mainstream news articles about Chai Ling and Jenzabar on our website and the use of the term “Jenzabar” in the keywords or “metatags” used to index and describe the contents of certain pages of the site. With respect to their trademarks, they alleged that Long Bow intends to “confuse their [that is, Jenzabar’s] customers” by luring them to our site in order to make money. They demand “a disgorgement to Jenzabar of Long Bow’s ill-gotten gains.”

There is no defamatory material on our website and Long Bow has never had a single query about Jenzabar or their products.

We believe this lawsuit was and is intended to intimidate and silence us. Costly legal defense jeopardizes Long Bow’s very existence. A small non-profit corporation cannot afford hundreds of thousand of dollars in legal fees. We believe that their legal case cannot stand up in court, but given the costly procedures Long Bow may not survive long enough to have our day in court.

CB: How is the Long Bow Group responding to the charges?

GRB: In response to the complaint, Long Bow asked the court to dismiss all of Jenzabar’s claims. In August 2008, the court dismissed the defamation charges. With regard to Internet trademark claims, however, it is extremely difficult to have a case thrown out of court before a trial because Internet commerce is relatively new and the law is considered to be “unsettled.”

The judge recognized that: “Jenzabar seems unlikely to prevail on this claim because of the dissimilarity of Long Bow’s business,” but nevertheless allowed Jenzabar to try to prove its case. We take the view, of course, that trademark law does not stretch so far as to squelch the mere reference to a company’s name on a website that reports news about the company and its officials, especially when there is no competition or commerce involved. In fact, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” website does not use Jenzabar’s logo, lettering, or tag line on any of its pages. It simply uses the company’s corporate name, Jenzabar, to refer to the company. Moreover, a clear disclaimer on the relevant pages states that the site “is in no way affiliated with or sponsored by Jenzabar, Inc.” Even without such a disclaimer, we feel that no reasonable person could believe that our website was sponsored or endorsed by Jenzabar. Nor could anyone conceivably mistake the two companies. As the court recognized: “Jenzabar develops software; Long Bow makes films.” (For further details including all documents filed with the court, go here.)

We believe that the claim of trademark infringement is only an excuse to sue us. The real issue is whether a corporation should have the power to prevent people from using its name in public discourse to refer to it and discuss its conduct. This is a First Amendment issue.

CB: How can people learn more about this situation?

GRB: Those with an interest in issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech can visit the website related to our film.  This site contains our public Appeal regarding the vexatious litigation being pursued by Chai Ling and Co of Jenzabar Inc. as well the details of the case. Those who wish to show support for us can sign on to the Appeal.

CB: What does endorsing the Long Bow Group Appeal mean?

GRB: Support for the Long Bow Group Appeal (go here for details) indicates that any instance of a corporation using its money and its power to stifle debate and suppress or alter the historical record is a profound cause of concern, in the academic community and beyond. Endorsement does not mean that signatories have to agree with the opinions expressed through the Long Bow Group’s films or websites, but rather it means taking a stand in upholding the principles of free speech.

CB: Any final thoughts you want to share with our readers about the past or present controversies associated with the film and/or the website?

GRB: I would draw your readers’ attention to the implicit irony in the present situation. I have only recently been in New York where I was interviewed by the “60 Minutes” team who were compiling an audio-visual presentation to be screened during the PEN International event at which Liu Xiaobo, one of the initiators of the Charter 08 in China, was to be recognized. I recalled Liu’s role in the tragic events of 1989 (for more on this, see my 1991 essay “Confession, Redemption and Death”, recently reprinted online here). Xiaobo also features in our film “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”, as indeed does Ms Chai. One could outline a crude schema, one that allows for the following narrative arc:

—Liu attempted to play a moderating role in 1989 and, along with Hou Dejian, was crucial in the peaceful retreat of students and other protesters from the centre of Tiananmen Square on the tragic morning of 4 June 1989. Since then, and following a period of incarceration, Liu has resisted various pressures for him to leave China choosing instead to pursue his beliefs through activism. His latest contribution being his role in Charter 08, for which he was detained by the authorities last year.

—Ms Chai, soi-disant Goddess of Democracy, fortunately avoided capture in 1989 and has enjoyed the benefits of academic training in the United States, and a business career since then. In her pursuit of her career and in the process of self-re-invention since 2007 she has been pressing a legal case against the Long Bow Group in what amounts to what in my opinion is an ill-disguised attempt to close down our website and ultimately to punish us for “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”.

During the making of that film Chai turned down requests to be interviewed (see also the reference to this in the Wikipedia entry on Chai). As early as 1995 she has made ludicrous (and I would venture libellous) accusations against my colleague Carma Hinton and our film. A prime example dates from 1995 (months before the film was even completed!):

…certain individuals have for the sake of the gaining approval of the authorities racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them.  And there is another person with a pro-Communist history [Carma Hinton] who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to reveal something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white. (Quoted and analysed in the chapter “Totalitarian Nostalgia” in my 1999 book In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture, Columbia University Press, p. 331.) 

In essence, Chai’s 1995 comments were repeated in the 2007 action against Long Bow (included in our 15 April 2009 Appeal), which contains the calumny:

—“Motivated by ill-will, their sympathy for officials in the Communist government of China, and a desire to discredit Chai, a former student leader in the pro-democracy movement in China’s Tiananmen Square, Long Bow Group, Inc. (“Long Bow”) has published false content concerning the Plaintiffs on the website it maintains (the “Site”) and has collected a misleading sample of statements from outdated articles to circulate half-truths and falsehoods, and to create false impressions about Jenzabar, Chai, and Maginn. To ensure that this content is widely viewed and as damaging as possible, Long Bow makes unauthorized use of Jenzabar’s protected trademarks to direct traffic to the Site. As a consequence, Jenzabar’s clients and prospective clients are diverted to the Site and its defamatory content, causing reputational injury and loss of business opportunities.”

As well as the following risible claim:

—“Upon information and belief, Long Bow’s defamatory statements are motivated by malice toward Chai, as well as Long Bow’s desire to discredit Chai and advance Long Bow’s divergent political agenda.” (For more of the same, visit our site.)

I was in Beijing during the harrowing period of May 1989. I was friendly with Liu Xiaobo (whose work I had studied since 1985) and saw him during the movement and was familiar with his views and activities. I was also witness to the extremism of people like Chai Ling. One could observe that certain mindsets and patterns of behaviour, be they found in individuals in China or subsequently in those who became sojourners in the United States, remain little altered despite changed personal circumstances. The contrasts I witnessed in 1989, and about which I wrote thereafter, remain as stark today as they were twenty years ago.

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China Beat sent out a note to a few scholars and journalists who have carefully watched and written about the events of 1989, asking them to send in short commentaries detailing what they wish more people knew, associated with, or remembered about that spring. We ran the first piece in this limited series, by John Gittings, last week. This is the second piece.

Jonathan Unger is a Professor at Australia National University, the former editor of the China Journal, a co-author of Chen Village, and editor or co-editor of many books, including The Pro-democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces.

By Jonathan Unger

Looking back in time from a distance of two decades, we are apt to forget the economic circumstances in which the nationwide protests of 1989 arose, as well as the vantage points of the protests’ participants.

In the late 1980s, people across China felt frustrated and angered by inflation and mounting corruption. This dissatisfaction had been moving toward a crisis point over the previous couple of years despite the fact that urban living standards, on the whole, had been rising steadily throughout most of the Eighties. But expectations of a better life had been rising even faster, and when inflation in 1988 began to overtake wage rises in the state sector, frustrations sharpened. Workers who had been willing to countenance the corruption of officials when their own wage packets were growing healthily became resentful in 1988 and 1999 when they saw that the close kin of officials were cutting themselves an undue share of the pie while their own slices shrank.

What held the protesters together was the very fact that theirs was a protest movement, without a clear platform. Had there been one, far fewer people might have participated – for the solutions to China’s economic ailments favored by different groups among the protesters were very much at variance. Some of the protesters who came into the streets – in particular the leading intellectuals and most of the students – wanted the economic reforms to proceed faster. Others among the protesters contrarily had discovered that the economic reforms had not been to their advantage: particularly those in the working class whose incomes were declining, and those whose jobs were no longer secure or who had already been laid off. Only a fragile unity was pasted together among these groups. The better educated had little sympathy for the circumstances of the laborers, and for much of the time the university students sought to keep the working class at arms’ length, preventing workers from entering the perimeters of their own demonstrations.

All the same, more than merely anger at economic woes and corruption held the various protesters on the same side of the political divide. They did project a vague common vision of what they wanted, and it was summed up in the word “Democracy.” The word was blazoned on a multitude of their banners. But by “democracy,” few of the protesters meant one person, one vote. Most of the university students and intellectuals had no desire to see the nation’s leadership determined by the peasants, who comprised a majority of the population. Many urban residents held the rural populace in disdain, and their fear was that the peasants would be swayed by demagogues and vote-buying.

Some of the protesters were nonetheless vaguely pro-democratic just so long as democracy could be put off to a future time. The then-Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang favored a policy called “neo-authoritarianism,” under which the Party would act as a benevolent autocracy until such time as the middle class had developed sufficiently to predominate in a very gradually democratized polity. Until then, China would remain in a state of tutelage, much as Sun Yat-sen had proposed in the 1920s. This was the program of the Party’s reform camp, and it drew support from among the urban educated elite.

If not immediate political democracy in the shape of multiparty elections for the nation’s leaders, what some of the educated protesters in Tiananmen Square wanted, rather, was an independent press that could play a watch-dog role over the political leadership. They wanted access to more interesting magazines and films. They also wanted what they considered a more fair distribution of incomes, in which they would be beneficiaries. They wanted academic freedom, and the ability to safely advise and constructively criticize the government.

But their use of the word “Democracy” also represented more than that, and its mass appeal lay in this additional dimension. Above all, the great bulk of the participants in the protests wanted freedom from the petty constraints imposed upon them at their place of work or school. For decades, access to travel tickets, entertainment, accommodation, medical care – a vast range of advantages and sanctions large and small – had been controlled by work-unit bureaucrats, who dispensed favors to those who kept their noses clean or, worse yet, to those who obediently kowtowed to these Party hacks. People wanted out from under these stifling controls.

Everywhere across China, they named their new student groups Autonomous Student Associations (in China, literally Student Self-ruling [zizhi] Associations). So too, the organizations that the intellectuals established almost invariably were titled Autonomous associations. The workers’ groups were titled Autonomous Workers’ Leagues. The key demand quickly became that the government recognize their organizations, and not exact retribution for having established them. What the urban populace of China was demanding, in short, was no less and no more than “civil society” – an intermediary sphere between state and society that is not controlled by the state and that creates a ‘space’ between the polity and the populace. In China, even innocuous independent organizations had not been allowed. For the previous forty years all “mass organizations” were creatures of the party-government. What the populace essentially demanded was simply an opportunity to relate to each other without interference or oversight. It was for this reason that this word Autonomous held importance to them.

It was precisely these demands, harmless though they might appear, that seem to have frightened the old men of Zhongnanhai, China’s Kremlin. It is likely that the crisis could have been brought peacefully to a close had they formally recognized the new organizations’ right to exist. But from beginning to end, China’s leaders felt they needed steadfastly to refuse that recognition. Their whole conception of the reformed Leninist state was at stake. Earlier in the Eighties, they had already bent enough to allow advisory forums containing “leading personages” to be formed. But even if some semi-autonomous forums were to exist in the new China, they, the Party leaders, would initiate them. First the students and then quickly other social groups were taking that initiative out of the Party’s hands, were grabbing the nettle for themselves. It signaled to the aged Party leaders a dangerous political environment in which people not only were shaping their own operational sphere but, worse yet, might well wish to use that new-found ground in future to play an active role in the political arena. In fact, they were in the midst of doing so in Tiananmen Square. This went against everything that the Party leaders were accustomed to or believed in – which is that the Communist Party is uniquely positioned to steer China into a better future, without interference. They were not willing to see the Leninist polity, their polity, successfully challenged and weakened.

Out in the Square, meanwhile, a new rights consciousness was quickly emerging, but it was still a crudely formed consciousness. As noted, the protesters who had joined one or another of the new jerry-built associations had been acting on an emotional feeling about what they were against – irritated by corruption and the difficulties in the economy and tired of the Party’s control over so many aspects of their lives. But very few of the activists and protest leaders held any real notion of what type of political structure might conceivably take the place of the strong-handed Party machine. Very few, even among the intellectuals, had any coherent political program to offer – just very vaguely worded demands for a liberalization and relaxation of the system. It was a movement of protest that was groping blindly in the dark.

Then and Now
If anything, many of the protesters at Tiananmen were more in favor of political liberalization than they are now. At the time, they admired Mikhail Gorbachev and the political reforms he was carrying out. But the collapse and dismemberment of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the corruption and plunging living standards that soon followed under Boris Yeltsin’s rule soured China’s educated on the idea of Party-led political liberalization along Gorbachev’s lines. By the mid-1990s, young Russian women were flowing into China to work as prostitutes. Chinese considered this shocking evidence of Russia’s penury and humiliation. Many of the urban educated who had demonstrated in 1989 began to feel relieved that China had followed Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic rather than political reform.

Nevertheless, many of them today still think of themselves as pro-reform, albeit in modest ways. They are apt to shake their heads in dismay at China’s environmental problems and express hopes that the government will give greater priority to the issue. Those with expertise are often eager to offer up suggestions on how to enact this or that small, incremental reform. What pass in China for academic papers are often really policy prescriptions on how to improve one or another aspect of China’s physical or administrative infrastructure, or relieve traffic congestion, or provide for a more effective education curriculum.

Generally, the urban educated today have what they wanted at the time of the Tiananmen protests. They feel they can make such recommendations and that their expertise is respected. They and their children also now have their personal space, in the shape of access to websites, chat rooms, and a wide variety of publications and films. They can say what they want so long as they stay within increasingly generous boundaries and do not challenge the Party’s political monopoly.

Above all, in their material livelihoods the urban educated are doing very well, whereas at the time of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, they had good reason to be angry. Their salaries were low, and sour jokes circulated about private barbers earning more with their razors than hospital surgeons with their scalpels. But in the years since, there has been a deliberate government policy to favor the well-educated. Year after year the professionals on government payrolls have been offered repeatedly higher salaries. During one year in the late 1990s, the pay of all of the academics at China’s most prestigious public universities was literally doubled in one go. Opportunities to earn high salaries opened up just as much in the private sector. Many of the university students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 now drive cars and live in fancy high-rise apartments. They have gained a lifestyle that they had never imagined possible, and they do not want to upset the apple cart. If the government’s plan was to co-opt the salaried middle class, it has worked.

Reflecting on the Tiananmen protests, one of the most famous of the student leaders, Wuer Kaixi, flippantly articulated their desires, “So what do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.” They now have all that, in spades.

As a result, the members of the educated middle class, including many of the former university students who crowded Tiananmen Square two decades ago, have become a bulwark of the current regime. Summarizing a large survey of political attitudes in Beijing, a recent book concludes that, among all urban groups, “those who perceive themselves to belong to the middle class and who are government bureaucrats are more likely to support the incumbent authorities.” If there is another outbreak like Tiananmen, in fact, many of them might prefer to be on the government side of the barricades.

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China Beat has been running excerpts from Philip Cunningham’s forthcoming memoir, Tiananmen Moon, over the past few weeks, and Cunningham will continue to share selections from that work in the weeks to come. However, he also recently wrote this essay, which reflects on the way 1989’s events are remembered and written about. It was also posted at Informed Comment, History News Network, and the Bangkok Post. We thought it was of sufficient interest readers to run it again in full here.

by Philip J Cunningham

“Tiananmen” is a taboo topic in China. But even in places where it is remembered and commemorated, the Beijing student movement of 1989 is best known for its bloody ending on June 4, a tragic turning point of unquestioned significance, but one which tends to obscure the amazing weeks of restraint, harmony and cooperation in crowds that swelled to a million at the height of an entirely peaceful and extremely popular social movement.

Twenty years ago, as hundreds of thousands demonstrated day after day in Beijing, as ordinary citizens joined in or supported the student protesters with offers of food, drink and hearty cheers, crime all but disappeared and with it everyday suspicions and the habitual selfishness of an alienated populace. A remarkable degree of forbearance was evident on all sides, the government included, making it possible for a truly peaceful mass movement to emerge and blossom in the sunshine of that fateful Beijing spring. Even the provocative hunger strike, despite its grim overtones of self-starvation, did not claim a single victim and was wisely called off after one week.

Given the way the media works, perhaps reflecting something intrinsic to the workings of memory itself, there is undue focus on the big-bang at the end, the ultimate failure of the movement, rather than its peaceful flowering. The brutal crackdown of June 4 tends to eclipse the breath-taking accomplishments of April 27, May 4, May 10, May 13 — indeed nearly every day in mid-May 1989 —until martial law was declared. After the troops were moved in, protesters started to panic and mutual threats became more pointedly violent.

Of course, mourning the dead and injured, mourning the lost opportunities for China, bemoaning the injustice is essential in taking measure of what happened. But what about the good times that preceded the blow-out, the soaring dreams taken wing, the beauty of a peaceful uprising?

The understandable, but ultimately misplaced media focus on a handful of nervous politicians and their hot-headed student interlocutors has obscured not only the considerable restraint showed by the communist party and its leaders for much of the period in question, but also occludes the positive, in some cases, outright remarkable contributions of the student leadership who performed brilliantly as crowd facilitators and morale boosters. Key actors on both sides of the barricades were less than democratic in word and deed, but they were adept at utilizing native, communist-influenced political tools to manage people power to an impressive degree.

The focus on the failure of the movement, and the foibles of those best known as its representatives, also obscures the even more weighty and valorous contributions of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens whose defiance was singular and courageous, who made China’s biggest peace fest both peaceful and festive. Nobody was really in charge of the crowd, as much as student activists and government emissaries might try, the crowd was self-policing and constantly undergoing spontaneous transformations, at once creating the conditions of its own existence and reacting to subtle shifts in the prevailing political winds.

While focusing on a handful of individuals is perhaps necessary for narrative simplicity, if not coherence, we need to constantly remind ourselves about the multifarious ‘silent majority’ who were out there in the streets of Beijing, hoping to augur in and witness the re-birth of a more equitable and just China. Even for those without a clue as to what democracy might mean, there was courage and conviction in the way so many showed their feelings with their feet, voting with their bodies rather than ballots, putting their lives on the line, come sunrise, come sunset, at Tiananmen Square.

Now that twenty years have passed, it is time to go beyond the hate inspired by the crackdown, beyond the ad hominem attacks on inept octogenarians, dithering party cadre and inexperienced student activists, and instead to look at the larger picture of a million souls gathered purposefully and with great self-discipline on the streets and plazas of Beijing, and many more across China, who were part of a rare transformative moment in history. Nearly everyone involved, despite their disagreements, stubbornness and imperfections, exhibited a potent love for country and fellow citizens.

Now that twenty years have gone by, it is a time for reconciliation, a time to ponder the tragedy not with a desire for revenge or recrimination but with a plain telling of the truth, as best as a multidimensional and in some respects unknowable truth can be told, and to accept that this revolutionary drama-turned-tragedy, this alternatively uplifting and gut-wrenching karmic kaleidoscope, was composed of ordinary, mostly well-meaning people acting in predictably human, if not always completely noble, ways.

When mourning the victims of June 4,1989, when challenging the uncomfortable silence that has descended upon an otherwise much reformed, much more open China, let us recall not just the bloodshed that ended the popular uprising at Tiananmen, but the sustained participation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who, simultaneously empowered and laid vulnerable, contributed to the inspirational flourishing of peaceful protest in May 1989.

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Last week, we ran the first part of a series of popular Chinese jokes, translated by Guo Qitao, a UCI history professor. While the earlier jokes were from the Cultural Revolution period, the two jokes presented today are more recent and address issues at the core of the Chinese people’s concerns about their nation: responsible governance, inequality, and corruption.

Translated and Glossed by Guo Qitao



Jiang Zemin mounted the gate at Tiananmen Square to survey the scene.[1]
Looking south, he saw a sea of grubby officials all on the take;
Looking north, eight million workers with no money to make.[2]
To the east, ships of smuggled goods were coming into port;
To the west, the unwashed masses all left with no support.[3]
Looking down, Falungong was still doing its thing;[4]
Looking up, American missiles were plummeting.[5]
Behind him would-be successors were vying to be Number One;
In front lay the late Chairman Mao and so he asked: “what‘s to be done?”[6]
The Chairman said: “you lie down in my place, and let me have another run.”

–Anonymous, circa late 1999-2000

[1] Jiang Zemin served as Secretary General of the Communist Party of China from 1989-2002, as President of the People’s Republic of China from 1993-2003, and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989-2004. These positions made him the preeminent political leader in China from 1989 until his retirement.
[2] Northeast China has been home to much of China’s state-run heavy industry; since the 1990s, workers at these state-run factories have been laid off in droves.
[3] The fruits of China’s economic “take-off” have not been distributed equally; while wealth in cities along the eastern seaboard has burgeoned, China’s largely rural interior regions in the west have remained poor.
[4] Falungong (lit., “Dharma Wheel Practice”) is the name of an outlawed but popular breath-control and exercise cult. In April 1999, practitioners of Falungong staged a silent protest outside the central government compound in Beijing.
[5] This is surely a reference to the U.S.-NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.
[6] The mausoleum to Chairman Mao, housing his preserved body, is situated in the center of Tiananmen Square, directly south of Tiananmen Gate.

The Rookie Cop

A young man gets hired as a local policeman. He is issued his new uniform, and to celebrate his new job, he decides to take in a movie.

He goes to the movie theater and stands in line to buy a ticket. When he gets to the ticket window, the woman selling tickets takes one look at him and says, “Oh, you must be the new policeman for this area.”

Pleasantly surprised at being recognized, the new policeman asks, “How did you know?”

The ticket seller says, “Only a rookie cop would stand in line to buy a movie ticket. The seasoned ones just walk right up to the front of the line.”

The policeman nods in understanding and enters the theater. When he hands his ticket to the ticket taker, the ticket taker says: “Oh, you must be the new policeman.”

Surprised again, he asks: “How did you know?”

The ticket taker says: “Only a rookie cop would actually buy a ticket to come into the movie theater. The seasoned ones just walk right in.”

The policeman nods in understanding and finds his seat in the movie theater. An usher walks by, spots him, and yells out: “Oh, you must be the new policeman!”

Surprised that everyone seems to know him, the policeman asks incredulously, “How did you know?”

The usher responds: “Only a rookie cop would actually sit in his assigned seat in the theater. The seasoned ones sit in the front row, and they even kick their feet up and rest them on the lip of the stage.”

The movie begins, and just then the new policeman’s cell phone rings. It’s an emergency call from Headquarters. The new policeman is told that the Public Security Bureau has just gotten a tip about a prostitution ring that seems to be operating out of some rooms in the back of a certain movie theater. The new policeman has been assigned to investigate.

As chance would have it, the new policeman is sitting in that very same movie theater. Eager to take on this new assignment, the policeman quickly makes his way to the back of the movie theater. He takes out a flashlight and checks the doors of the back rooms. He hears noises inside one of them, and he kicks the door in, rushes into the room, and turns his flashlight on a man and a women lying naked on a bed.

“Aha! I’ve caught you,” says the new policeman.

The prostitute looks up from the bed and says: “You must be the new policeman.”

“How did you know?” says the new policeman.

The prostitute points at the man lying beside her on the bed and says: “Only a rookie cop wouldn’t recognize his Bureau chief.”

–Anonymous, circa 2005-06

China Beat sent out a note to a few scholars and journalists who have carefully watched and written about the events of 1989, asking them to send in short commentaries detailing what they wish more people knew, associated with, or remembered about that spring. Here is the first of their responses.

John Gittings is a research associate with the Centre for Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental & African Studies and a former writer and editor at The Guardian. He is the author of The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market and numerous other books and articles, including this 2008 review essay, “Here Be Dragons…

There are always two points I make about 1989:

1. It was the Beijing Massacre, not the Tiananmen Square Massacre: only one or two seemed to have been actually killed in the square (I’m not even entirely sure of the evidence for that); though some students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou after they had marched out of it. This is not a pedantic point but reflects the important fact that it was the laobaixing, the people of Beijing, including students, who were killed, not students alone. Most were killed either as the army made its way in or, after it had occupied the square, when it fired lethally to keep protestors (and bystanders) at bay, and in subsequent days up and down the avenue. I don’t think it helps either to continue to say that thousands may have died (as in the weaselly formula “hundreds if not thousands” used by one wire agency). Most estimates of massacres are likely to err on the high side: this was hundreds not thousands — and it does not diminish from the horror in the slightest.

2. While the students were the mobilizing force, the events of May-June 1989 should be understood as the time when a coalition emerged of students, dissenting scholars, worker activists, and the ordinary people of Beijing — particularly the mums and dads who watched over the barricades and who reproached the soldiers for forgetting about army-people unity. It was this coming together of different social forces which so freaked out the reactionary/conservative/dinosauric leaders.

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