May 2009

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This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book, and describes the set-up for one of the most famous interviews of the final days of the student movement. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website.

A petite sun-bronzed woman wearing a stained white tennis shirt and dusty beige trousers sits next to me in the back of the taxi, grimacing as if in pain, weeping quietly to herself. Named to the police blacklist, she says she fears imminent arrest. Up front the driver sullenly surveys the streets, scanning the road for Public Security vehicles.
As the car glides down a leafy thoroughfare in the diplomatic district, Wang Li, who had been chatting quietly with the driver, turns around to make an announcement.
“Driver supports the students,” he says. “He will help us.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I know. Where you go?” he asks, switching into English.
“Tell him, let’s see… I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
Chai Ling, the so-called Commander in Chief of Tiananmen Square, had come to me this morning saying she wanted to “talk,” but for the moment I couldn’t get a word out of her. I had brought along a small tape recorder and camera along as part of my hasty response to the startling and unsolicited request for an interview, but we had yet to find a safe place to talk.
A graduate student from Shandong studying psychology at Shida, she rose to sudden prominence during the world’s biggest hunger strike. This morning she had approached me in the hallway of the Beijing Hotel as I was on my way to breakfast. It was so weird seeing her there, a fugitive from the police hiding in plain sight in a government hotel lobby. I naively invited her to join Bright, Wang Li and myself for breakfast in the Western Restaurant in the old wing of the hotel. But this wasn’t a Long Island kind of problem that could be worked out in a diner over a cup of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast.
Face drawn with tension, almost morbidly silent, the famous hunger striker, who barely gave her food a second glance, explained in a low whisper that she wanted to record some kind of final statement, a sort of last will and testament. I looked at Bright, who declined to offer an opinion, though her eyes implored me not to get involved.
I got involved, mostly out of curiosity. It didn’t make for a leisurely breakfast, and it left Bright, who had just come to see me, in the lurch, for in no time I was trying to secure a taxi at the front door of the hotel. Chai Ling had so far escaped the notice of the police, but not a group of hawk-eyed journalists from Hong Kong, one of whom recognized her as the Tiananmen commander and begged to join us. There wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so Bright, who was already less than enthused about radical student politics, offered her seat to Patricia, the Hong Kong journalist, and then we were off.
Now we were on the road. Where to, nobody knew.
“Let’s go northeast,” I suggest. “Take the road by Worker’s Stadium, then go to the Great Wall Hotel, you know, around there. Do a big circle around the whole embassy district, okay, we just want to drive around for a while, okay?”
What should we do now? If the fugitive pressing against me in the back seat was truly in danger of arrest, maybe we should go further out of town. In any case, we could stay on the road for a while. The taxi is not cheap, but if no place Is safe, Is it not better to keep moving?
“If policeman follow,” Wang Li says, turning around to peer at us, “I tell you, okay?”
He was speaking English again. What was it with his sudden switch? Who was he trying to impress?
“Where is camera?” he asks a moment later, and then I understand. He, a mere student at some kind of culinary school in the provinces, is trying to impress Chai Ling, the radical diva from Shida, who has already bagged a degree from Beida.
No sooner had I handed him my pocket-sized Olympus, than he started snapping away with dramatic flair, as if he were a hotshot photojournalist.
While the driver patiently snaked up and down the leafy boulevards of Sanlitun, I suggested to the conspicuously silent woman warrior sitting next to me that we talk now, in the car, but she recoiled from the idea. True, some taxis were bugged, but the odds of that were slim. True, the car was probably too noisy to make a decent recording, but what was all this about anyway? Even if the driver was later quizzed about suspicious passengers and duly filed a report on us, we would be somewhere else, sight unseen.
Despite Wang Li’s suspicious examination of cars going our way, he didn’t think we were being followed. For the last few weeks, Beijing’s secret police had been slacking off on the job, at least it seemed that way. It was enough to make one believe in rumors; either Politburo member Qiao Shi and his Public Security Bureau were sympathetic to the students or the pullback of policing was a deliberate trap.
Chai Ling, lost in a silence so deep that she seemed almost voiceless, quietly vetoed the idea of doing an interview in the car. Instead of talking, she penned a stark message on a piece of scrap paper:

This may be my last chance to talk, I entrust (Jin Peili) Philip Cunningham to tell my story to the Chinese people of the world. –Chai Ling, MAY 28, 1989 10:25 AM
Her extended silence gave me time to contemplate the import of the note. I was both moved and disturbed that someone in fear of her life wanted me to speak “to the Chinese people of the world” on her behalf.
Holding in my sweaty palm what was essentially a last will and testament made me realize how quickly the tables had turned. Was this the same defiant young rebel who had risen to prominence during the hunger strike, supported by enthusiastic crowds of a million or more? Was this leader of the Square, the strident voice of the public address system, the Joan of Arc of the movement who refused to talk to journalists?
Little of that was evident now. The intense young woman sidled up next to me in the back of the taxi was in a deep funk, vulnerable, isolated in her own heavy thoughts; the only ambition she betrayed was her quiet persistence in trying to arrange an interview.
“So, where are you going?” The taxi driver asks, shooting me an impatient look in the mirror. For all of Wang Li’s shenanigans, he has failed to impress even the driver. It was also safe to assume that the driver expected me to do the paying, in FEC of course. But if he were greedy, he wouldn’t have minded the last half an hour of going in circles. What he minds is the lack of clarity about our destination.
“I’m thinking,” I answer. “Just go north for a while.”
All I knew is that we had to get away from the omnipresent gaze of the state security apparatus. I gave the driver some seemingly firm coordinates, north, east, north, east, as I needed to keep him busy until I could up with a safe destination. It was against the rules of martial law for journalists to interview student leaders and I wasn’t even on a work visa. I’d been arrested before, for activities inappropriate for a foreigner, and didn’t relish being taken into custody again. Where could we do such an interview? I leaned forward, face in my hands, unsure of what to do next.
The temporary BBC office in the fancy hotel came to mind, but it was a day too late because yesterday was my last day working for them. And BBC’s London-centric producers were not exactly sensitive to things I cared about. For one, they struck me as nonchalant if not naïve about the degree of government surveillance that they themselves were under and the possible impact it might have on any Chinese who visited their well-watched offices. I knew better than to bring apolitical friends into such a fishbowl environment, let alone a student rebel on the police blacklist.
The American TV news outfits had similar security problems. Although I knew Eric Baculinao, a former student radical from the Philippines would be interested, NBC’s office was no place to bring a fugitive from the police; they were located in the belly of the beast, renting facilities inside the state-run CCTV television center. CBS News had chosen to set up camp way out in the west Beijing boondocks, ensconced in comfortable but remote the Shangri-La Hotel, while CNN and ABC at least had the advantage of being on this side of town. But taking Chai Ling to a news bureau full of official snoopers and electronic surveillance was risky if not stupid. We had to go somewhere unofficial, somewhere off the map. The kind of place I’d take a friend, the kind of place I’d be comfortable taking a date.
“That’s it! I know a place! ” I announce, giving the driver directions to an expatriate apartment complex out on Airport Road. If we got past the front gate and then past the doorman in my friend’s apartment block, we’d be okay.
The car picked up speed. After half an hour of random turns and amateur plotting on the part of the unusual collection of passengers, the driver was relieved to get some concrete instructions so he could be rid of us.
Finding an unmonitored residential location where foreigners and Chinese could mix without being carded and closely observed by guards at the door was a habitual problem in Beijing, especially vexing for stubborn believers in free cultural exchange like myself. Things were basically set up so that foreigners could socialize with other foreigners, tourists with tourists and Chinese with Chinese. Maybe we could make that work for us.
On this day our group defied easy categorization, composed as it was of two Chinese citizens; one a fugitive listed on a police most wanted list, the other a young rebel not nearly as well-known as he wanted to be, and two non-Chinese; an aggressive Hong Kong reporter and an American freelancer less than enthusiastic about playing journalist with police on our tail.
In a way I was the most obvious problem, being the only laowai made me a lightning rod for attention. Caucasians in China, whether newly arrived or resident for decades did not have the option of disappearing like a fish in the sea of the people. We were rather more akin to lighthouses, forever emitting signals that revealed our presence.
So, the best way to become less glaringly obvious was to find an enclave where there were lots of other equally distracting people, such as a suburban hotel designated for foreigners, or an expatriate residential compound.
I chose the latter. Living in gritty Beijing had given me some practical experience in seeking out comfort zones. Wanting to avoid the watchful gaze of the police rarely had anything to do with politics, it was more a question of pride; an effort to establish a sense of human dignity and to lead a half-normal social life. While I was aware that even native Chinese couples had problems of their own finding privacy, at least they could meet with relative anonymity in an apartment block or even in a gated park, whereas a mixed couple was an easy target for neighborhood snoops and zealous watchmen.
One place where I had found a semblance of normalcy on previous occasions was the Lido Hotel and its associated apartment complex, located on the northeast edge of town. Though the Lido was technically restricted to foreign passport holders, it had a large ethnic Chinese population from overseas and it was easy enough to bring Chinese friends inside to use the pool and eat in the restaurants there. Bright and Jenny both liked it; they found it less intimidating than the grander hotels. But it was still a hotel.
As the driver approached the Lido, I advised him not to enter by the hotel gate but instead to go around to the back in order to directly enter the apartment complex. The driver paused at the rear gate while the sleepy guard gave us a brief visual inspection. Waved through without incident, we all breathed a bit easier once inside the compound. I had the driver follow the meandering course of a private drive that led us past a pair of empty tennis courts adjacent to a low-rise apartment block.
Wang Li and I briefly discussed the merits of keeping the car, since taxis were a rarity except at the big hotels and a new one might be hard to find. But the driver had no interest in waiting, so I paid him and he sped off. If were to be questioned, he could always plead ignorance.
I lead the way, taking a deliberately roundabout course to make sure we weren’t being followed, detouring past some well-stocked shops, including a pharmacy and a grocery carrying pricey imported goods from Europe, Hong Kong and America. As we walked past window displays and shelves stocked with consumer items that most Chinese could only dream about, Wang Li paused to clean his smudged glasses for a better look. I could tell he liked the place already.
Adjacent to the shopping wing of the Lido was a quiet path leading to the low-rise tower where Lotus and Albert lived. Wang Li came up to me as he surveyed the premises with interest. “Almost no Chinese around,” he exclaims, nodding his head in approval. Chai Ling and the Hong Kong journalist, both about the same height with hair about the same length, followed silently a few steps behind, like traditional women.
I shepherd our group past the front desk of the “foreigners-only” apartment building, hoping it won’t be necessary to answer any questions, but if it is, it will fall on me to do all the talking.
As luck has it, the doorman is not at his station so we easily slip into the dark lobby and hurry into a waiting elevator. I hear the guard returning to his post just as the elevator door closes. So far, so good. By force of habit, I check the ceiling of the elevator for the familiar protruding lens of the surveillance camera, usually wedged in the corner, but there was no sign of that.
We get out on the top floor and I run ahead to the door of Lotus and Albert’s apartment, knocking excitedly. The door opens a crack.
“Who’s there?” asks Lotus, clearly not expecting company.
“It’s me, the homeless traveler,” I say, joking so as to not raise alarm. The chain was undone and the door opened wide.
Lotus smiles warmly. “Philip! Good to see you!” she exclaims buoyantly. “I see you brought some friends. Come in. Welcome everyone. Come in!”
She greets me with her customary bear hug. “You just missed Al, he went out to play basketball with Justin.”
“Lotus,” I start. “I gotta talk to you. We have an unusual situation here.”
“That can wait, Philip, first things first.” Lotus was possessed with the angelic patience of motherhood, the non-stop experience in dealing with unusual situations.
She gave my disheveled friends an approving look and greeted each of them warmly in Chinese. She knew the face of someone in trouble when she saw it, putting her arm around the gaunt, almost catatonic Chai Ling, as if to comfort her, before I even had a chance to make introductions.
“Come on, come on inside!” she said. “Don’t be so polite! You all look so hot and tired, let me fix you something to drink.”
“Lotus, this is Chai Ling, a student leader from Tiananmen…”
To Lotus the name or fame of a person mattered not a bit. But the fact that I brought along a protester from Tiananmen Square did. Lotus, still a 60’s activist at heart, and a true believer in people power, the power of ordinary, everyday people that is, had been an enthusiastic observer of the demonstrations since the students started marching.
She had us sit down in the American-style dining room while she scurried about the kitchen, putting the kettle on and preparing some snacks. Wang Li scrutinized the apartment intently. Was he judging it for security features, or just trying to sate his unquenchable curiosity about the world of luxury and privilege behind high walls, a world from which ordinary Chinese were normally barred? Unable to remain still for long, he leapt up and joined Lotus in the kitchen to get a closer look at some of the modern, imported appliances.
When Lotus tried to make some small talk in Chinese, she used a motherly tone of voice that reminded me of the way she spoke to her daughter in front of guests.
“Philip has many Chinese friends, even though he is a foreigner, a white foreigner, he likes to be with Chinese people.” She went on and on, sometimes switching to Mandarin, her accent even more heavily Cantonese-inflected than that of the junior journalist from Hong Kong.
“Lotus, come on already!” I was impatient, not only because I’d heard this description a dozen times before, but because we had more important things to worry about. “This girl, I mean this woman, is on the run,” I explain, imploring Lotus to give me her full attention. “She wants to talk about something, something serious.”
Lotus looked at me with a quizzical smile, not fully comprehending.
“Sorry, I don’t know if it was a good idea to bring her here, but we are really in a bind. I hope this doesn’t get you into trouble, at least I don’t think we were followed.”
My friend in need reads between the lines expertly. “Are you asking me if this place bugged? The apartment I don’t know, probably not. But the telephone? Yes.”
“I don’t want to get you and Al in trouble, I mean he works for a big company, you’ve got your family here, this could be a bit risky.”
Lotus and Al, like many of their peers from the top of the baby-boomer generation enjoyed a solid income from the corporate world but still had a lingering fondness for radical causes. And they were sincere about it.
“Look, what are friends for? I want you to relax with your friends for a minute, I will talk to Al when he gets back.”
“Where can we talk?”
“Just make yourselves at home,” she answered. “Boy it’s noisy here, what’s that outside? Construction or something?” As I pulled the small handheld tape recorder out of my bag I realize with some disappointment that we had traveled a long way only to find a noisy location. “I want to do a taped interview.”
“Nia’s room is quiet,” Lotus volunteered. Nia, whose name was inspired by the word Tanzania, in recognition of early Chinese communist efforts at diplomatic outreach to Africa, was just getting into her teenage years.
Lotus knocked tentatively on the door of her daughter’s room. “Nia? Can you come out for a minute? I’d like you to say hello to Uncle Philip and his friends.”
Nia reluctantly emerged, mumbled a shy hello and ran back into her room, closing the door.
“Uncle Philip and his friends would like to talk in your room,” Lotus adds, trying to coax her pretty teenager out of her private fortress. “Is that okay, honey?”
The door pops open a crack and Nia peeks out, as if in partial acquiescence to her mother’s request, but the look on her face indicated it was anything but okay. She was probably wondering why Uncle Philip and the visitors couldn’t just talk in the living room like regular grownups did.
“Nia, please come into the kitchen. I want to talk with you about something,” Lotus insists. As soon as the teenager was pried from her room, we got the green light. “Okay, guys, go ahead. Sit down inside, sit down! Nia said you can borrow her room. Right, Nia?”
We awkwardly filed into the small bedroom, acutely aware we were invading the private realm of a teenage princess. There were dolls and teddy bears, a McDonald’s poster, an unmade bed of pastel sheets and an armchair.
“Everything okay?” Lotus inquires.
“I guess so, um-huh.”
“Just a minute!” Lotus disappears, seeking to placate Nia who is understandably confused.
After getting Nia settled in the living room to watch TV, Lotus busies herself in the kitchen. “That’s a good girl,” I hear her say to her daughter before she come back to us with a tray of sliced oranges. “Sorry I don’t have anything better than this.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, taking the tray and putting it down.
“Philip?” Lotus says with a touch of admonishment. “Why don’t you serve these to your friends?”
“Thanks, of course,” I pass the orange slices around, then ask Lotus if I could borrow her video camera.
“You want the Handycam? You’re lucky. I just charged the batteries, they will last for two hours, is that long enough?”
“I certainly hope so,” I answer with a laugh. I figured this thing, whatever it was, would be over in five, ten minutes, max. While Lotus went to get the camera, I examined the room.
With the window closed and the air conditioner off, the room was quiet enough for an interview, but with four of us in there it was already starting to get quite stuffy. I decide to open the Venetian blinds open for light, inviting in the dry heat of the sun.
Wang Li peers out the window to survey the surrounding courtyards before settling next to Patricia on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Lotus comes back in and snuggles into the armchair, fidgeting with the dials and buttons of her camera. I move some stuffed animals out of the way so that Chai Ling and I could sit down next to each other on bed facing Lotus and the camera. I confer quietly with Chai Ling in Chinese, instructing her to introduce herself and tell us about the student movement.
“Do you have enough light, Lotus?” I ask, switching to English. “How’s the sound?”
For some reason Chai Ling takes my comments to Lotus as a cue to begin talking.
“The police are looking for me,” Chai Ling starts, breaking her long silence. “My name is on a blacklist. If I am caught, I will get fifteen years in prison.”
I got the tape recorder rolling, but Lotus was still fiddling with the camera. Meanwhile the cramped, poorly-ventilated room was starting to feel like a sauna.
“I’m sorry, just a minute please, I say, trying to cue Chai Ling to the camera. “Lotus are you ready?”
Our hostess has finally found a reasonably comfortable way to film without a tripod by scrunching up in the armchair, balancing the camera on her knees.
“Okay, Chai Ling,” I say, signaling the start of the interview. “Why don’t you tell us who you are and how you got involved in the student movement?”
My interview subject is slow to react, as if weighted down by her own thoughts. She looks away from the camera, staring blankly at the wall.
“No, I think it’s better if you look this way.” I say, pointing to the blinking red light of the camera. “Here, hold the tape recorder yourself.”
The student leader takes the compact cassette recorder and holds it in front of her mouth, as if she was addressing her followers with a megaphone. I motion for her to keep it down, away from her face, to put it in her lap.
“Okay, let’s start, what do you want to say?”
“I think these might be my last words, the situation is getting grim,” she says, words emerging slow and methodically at first. “My name is Chai Ling, I am 23 years old. Isn’t it strange, my birthday was on April 15, the same day that Hu Yaobang died?”

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With press reports circulating about Timothy Geithner’s plan to speak at Peking University/Beida tomorrow, this might be the perfect time to dip into China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and read Geremie Barmé’s “Facing Up to Friendship” (pages 212-214), a smart look at the talk Kevin Rudd gave at the same campus on April 9, 2008. (If you don’t have the book, check out the earlier and slightly shorter version of it that appeared in the April 12, 2009, edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, under the title “Rudd Rewrites the Rules of Engagement.”)
For two typically smart wrap-ups of readings about Geithner’s visit (what he’ll be doing, how the trip is being covered, you name it), see this by Sky Canaves of the Wall Street Journal’s “China Journal” blog, and this at the China Digital Times.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published a fascinating article by Maureen Fan, paired with a very effective video that the same reporter narrates (hat tip to Shanghaiist for bringing both to my attention), that combines architectural and family history. This is because the grandfather of the Post‘s Beijing bureau chief was Robert Fan, a leading local architect who designed, among many other buildings, the one pictured here.

I won’t try to summarize her piece, which is part memoir and part analysis of the fate of buildings her grandfather designed (some of which are shown in the accompanying video), as it is well worth reading in its entirety. I will just note that the video is a nice one to pair with the two-part “Jews in Shanghai” episode from the “Sexy Beijing” series that’s been recommended on this site before (and been lauded by NPR). In this episode, the American filmmaker Anna Sophie Loewenberg (who goes by “Su Fei”) and her father seek out the house in Shanghai that he lived in as a child.

A final note is that there’s a link between the two videocasts provided by the wonderful Shanghai historian Lynn Pan. The “Jews in Shanghai” episode opens with Su Fei shown reading one of Pan’s early books (In Search of Old Shanghai) and Robert Fan’s life and contributions to the city’s built environment are discussed in Pan’s latest publication (Shanghai Style).

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This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website


Philip J Cunningham with “Commander-in-chief” Chai Ling in front of the student command center 
By Philip J. Cunningham 
On May 26 I got another glimpse of student command central, when Chai Ling was at the height of her power. She was holding court in the broadcast tent, the ideological hothouse of student-occupied Tiananmen Square. It wasn’t easy getting in. I had to pass three rings of student security to secure an “audience.” 
The BBC had yet to give me any kind of ID, so I learned to talk my way into things. My only “press” pass was my wit, which worked okay because I liked to talk and could do so in Chinese. There were times when the well-known call letters BBC did not suffice to gain entry, while merely saying I was looking for a friend from Shida might do the trick. The closer I got to the student center, the higher the likelihood I’d run into someone who’d seen me before, which also helped expedite entry. I could remember most of the faces, if not names, of the hundreds I’d spoken to in the last few weeks, so overall I had a high degree of mobility on the cordoned-off, people-controlled Square. 
As a provincial student leader, self-appointed or otherwise, Wang Li expected and obtained a certain amount of access to the Beijing student command center at the Broadcast Tent. What Wang Li lacked in social cachet as an unknown provincial student from Xian, I think he started to make up for by speaking on behalf of the BBC, since he was now on the payroll and knew he could impress fellow students with his important international connections. Student security guards were vigilant about keeping ordinary Chinese away from their “leaders,” but by becoming a leader, or media person, many of the petty controls could be circumvented. 
Wang Li put in a word for me with the provincial students, but they seemed terribly disorganized and no interviews or memorable conversations came out of that effort. After jointly touring the provincial student outpost near the museum, we cut west and headed towards the broadcast tent in the center of the Square. The amateur security got woollier and woollier as we pushed towards the center, so we temporarily split up when he got permission to enter a controlled area that I couldn’t enter. Wang Li rushed ahead on his own, to see if he could find a student leader willing to talk to me. In the meantime, I decided to wing it, slowly working my way past various student gatekeepers until I ran into a familiar face from the Sports Institute. 
“Hey Jin,” yelled a boisterous baritone, “what are you doing here? Good to see you, come over here!” 
It was Crazy Zhang. When he got within arm’s length he gave me a few friendly punches that actually hurt. He wasn’t called crazy for no reason. The last time I saw him he was wearing a khaki green cap with a red headband around it. 
“Go fight someone else!” I shoved him back. 
“Better not try anything or I’ll have to throw you out of here,” he said with a straight face. 
The smart-aleck muscle man grabbed me by the arm and led me up the north steps of the monument’s marble base past a guarded security rope. He directed me to descend the steps on the east side of the monument to a roped off area from which it was possible to enter the broadcast tent. When I got inside that zone I found Wang Li standing outside the tent. He waved me over with his usual sense of urgency. 
“I’ll leave you here,” said Zhang, this time with a gentle pat on the back instead of a threatening punch. “See you later.” 
Wang Li ran over excitedly, barely avoiding a collision with the solidly built Zhang. 
“What is it?” I asked. 
“Come now!” he said excitedly, “Chai Ling, she wants to talk to you.” 
“Chai Ling? Where is she?” 
“By the tent,” he shouted. Since we were both already inside, the innermost perimeter, it was just a matter of turning the corner of the monument to reach the entrance of the broadcast tent. 
There she was, the queen bee in the middle of a humming hive. She was petite and pert, wearing a loose-fitting white sports shirt with sunglasses hanging on her collar. She smiled in greeting when she saw me approach, but didn’t say anything. There were people on her left and people on her right and from the looks of it, they all wanted a piece of her. There were excited discussions about some pressing matter or another, but I couldn’t hear very well because a noisy diesel generator was roaring a few feet away. Just as I was about to ask her a question she was called away, disappearing for a few minutes into the shadows of the truck-sized tent. 
The petite, bronze-faced leader popped in and out of the broadcast tent a half a dozen times in as many minutes while attending to the minutiae of running the tent city of Tiananmen Square. Behind a well-secured safety rope, there was yet another group of student supplicants bearing urgent requests. There was a small patch of empty ground in front of the broadcast tent where I thought I might hold a quick interview, if one didn’t mind the hundreds of onlookers just a few feet away on the other side of the rope. I could already feel the heat of open-mouthed stares building up. Who is the laowai and what is he doing on the inside? 
This was the command center, where strategic decisions were made and announcements broadcast to tens of thousands on slow days like today; a week ago it had been the center of a swirling human cyclone a million strong. No wonder the student organizers are called leaders, with crowds of that size some kind of structure is necessary. 
Deep in the throng of wannabes who did not have permission to enter the command center were three familiar white faces: Eric, Fred and Brian. Being good journalists, they didn’t take no for an answer, they wanted in. 
When the usual, “We’re BBC!” didn’t work its charm, they started pointing to me, as much as a ruse to slip in as a bid to get my attention. They were turned back, however, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. To make matters worse, a student warden asked me to translate, leaving it to me to say, “It is not allowed to go inside the rope without special permission.”
Rather than say that, I just hinted to the crew that I was working on it, and went back to the leadership tent to see if I could arrange something. I stood around, baking in the heat of the sun and soaking up unwanted glances when Chai Ling finally walked over and offered me her hand. 
“Ni hao,” she said, stepping forward to greet me. 
“Ni hao. You’re at Shida, right?” 
“Yes, graduate student, educational psychology.” 
“Do you know the service building? You know, the Insider Guest House above the campus store. . .” 
“I know that building. You speak Chinese very well.” 
We were interrupted by a young man who whispered to Chai Ling a flurry of messages and handed her some hand-scribbled notes on onionskin paper. The exchange went on for a few minutes, then the young man withdrew back into the tent. She turned around to resume our chat, apologizing with a weak smile. She was sunburned and looked tired, I started to have my doubts about arranging an interview. 
“Maybe I can talk to you somewhere else, some other time” 
“Now is fine, but I only have a few minutes.” 
“Is it okay for them, um, you see my BBC friends, over there, for them to come in here? We can set up the camera right here.” 
“You can do that,” she replied. Wang Li heard the word and went to get the crew. Chai Ling got called to the side with another student matter, and I helped the crew get inside the rope. 
“What’s going on Phil?” Brian asked impatiently. 
I explained that one of the top student leaders agreed to talk to us. 
“Why don’t we set it up over here?” I pointed to the “front gate” of the tent and Eric and Fred went to work. Held back by a human chain of interlocked arms, student guards and rope, the curious throng strained to get a glimpse of news in the making. It was a relief to have student security handling crowd control this time around.
Entry to student-controlled zones was tightly guarded at times 
Allowing a foreign news crew to enter the “VIP” zone just added to the air of intrigue. In a flash, we were the center of attention. Several Europeans with cameras tried to sneak into the command center by following on the coattails of the BBC crew, but they were all stopped by truculent student guards and turned back. Some of them started to make a scene, yelling angrily in English. Just to keep up appearances and to indulge student illusions of control, journalists had in recent days gotten into the habit of flashing any old ID cards before walking into student-controlled areas loaded with cameras and recording equipment. But that gambit didn’t work this time. 
“Vie kant vee go in?” pleaded one of the Europeans. 
“Vee also are from zee press!” his companion, added. 
“Vie you let zem in?” the first man complained. “It is not fair is it?” 
Unlike our tension-fraught visit to the water strikers last week, this time BBC was on the inside and our “competition” was left dangling on the other side of the ropes. Among my colleagues, who knew very well what it was like to be excluded, I could detect not an ounce of sympathy for those left on the outside. 
Foreign newsman at Tiananmen were generally supportive of the democratic tide but not one another. By now even student media handlers like Wang Li knew the value of exclusive access, and the access game worked both ways. Some journalists had been to Tiananmen everyday, and not without justification could they feel indignant at being refused access, or having to settle for reduced access. 
After some heated deliberation, the student guards agreed to allowed a single photographer to come in, but not the two complainers with video gear. Instead, a photographer from Vogue, French edition, was respectfully escorted in and started snapping pictures. At one point he turned to me to ask some questions about Chai Ling. He said he was working on a story titled “Role model for a Generation of Women.” 
By the time BBC had set up camera, Chai Ling was back. The generation/gender role model and I did a short pre-interview chat while the French photographer did his thing. She and I talked about the relative merits of Shida and Beida. She liked both campuses, but she had joined Beida’s hunger strike committee because she had more friends there. 
Eric gave the signal that the Beeb was ready to roll. I had suggested to Chai Ling that we do an informal interview, hoping we could get a few candid comments on tape without a formal set up, but Brian had different ideas. 
“Move out of the way, Phil!” he said, nudging me to the side to take a stand between the two of us. 
“What do you mean?” I said, trying to regain my footing. “I’m talking to her.” 
“I do the talking, Phil!” he said, “Okay Eric, start rolling.” 
I stepped back dejected but not defeated. I watched Brian talk, then gesticulate, then resort to primitive pantomime, as Chai Ling was not able or willing to converse in English. Seemingly oblivious to the language gap, he went on doing this for a few minutes, getting lots of puzzled looks but no words in response. Chai Ling looked at me, then at him and back at me again. 
Brian threw up his hands in frustration and walked away.”Turn off the camera!” he instructed Eric, then turned to me. “Listen, will you? We need someone who speaks English.” 
While the BBC reporter paced about impatiently, apparently looking for another interview, Chai Ling resumed talking to me with rapid-fire delivery, telling me things I hadn’t even asked about. She started to give a very emotional account of her involvement in the movement. I don’t think she knew much about video recording and perhaps she did not care, because the camera was not rolling. It wasn’t even mounted on the tripod anymore. I detected pain in her expression and listened intently, trying not to be distracted by the mumbling and grumbling behind me to the right. She kept on talking and I kept on listening. 
Out of the corner of my eye I could sense the crew was busy, probably packing up, but I did not break eye contact because I wanted to hear what this intense young woman had to say. There was something dark and troubling in her countenance. 
She continued to pour her heart out. After a few minutes I realized that the film crew had definitely not just stepped back to change tapes or put in a new battery. Going, going, gone. They wrapped in a huff and disappeared without saying a word. 
Chai Ling and I shared the mutual embarrassment of having an interview fall apart even as we spoke, leading us both to shrug our shoulders and laugh. She continued talking politics, in a low voice but with great energy and emotion, telling me the student movement had come to a crucial turning point, the future was full of uncertainty. There were serious conflicts between rival student groups. The Beijing students were tired but tempered from weeks of demos and the hunger strike. It was the provincial students, relatively late arrivals, who were pushing for action. Chai Ling said there was a plot to destroy the movement and she didn’t know who to trust anymore. She spoke of betrayal, of fear, and of her sense of responsibility as a leader. We were interrupted again, this time by a student messenger. Upon the receipt of some urgent communique, she turned to me and said she had to go, asking how to get in touch. 
“Bei-jing Fan-dian, 1-4-1-3,” I said, giving her my room number at the hotel. 
“I want to talk more,” she said with a soft-spoken intensity. “Can I trust you?” 
I waited for her to say more, trying to understand. 
“I want to run away. . .” she said. 
“It is getting very dangerous!” 
“Yes, you should be more careful,” I said. “But what did you say, run away?” 
“A Chinese person told me that the British Embassy is offering political asylum to student activists. What do you think about that?” 
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible, but not likely. Who told you that?” 
“I think it may be a trap.” 
“I just don’t know.” 
“Can you ask about that for me?” 
I told her I didn’t know anyone at the British Embassy but I said that maybe one of my “good friends” at the BBC did. Then I added my own advice. “Be careful about dealing with foreign embassies. If you go to a big embassy, it could be used against you politically. Maybe the embassy of a small, neutral country is better.” If she went to the US Embassy I was afraid she would become a political pawn in US-China relations. I didn’t think that the British Embassy would be any better. Worse yet, what if it was a trap? What if the asylum offer had been made by an undercover agent, a trap set by Chinese police to discredit the nationalism of the students? 
“Jin, I must go now,” she said. “See you again!”

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Yesterday, China Media Project’s David Bandurski published a post that highlights the best of what CMP does: muckraking in the China media and blogosphere, in this case regarding school construction in Sichuan. If CMP isn’t already on your RSS feed, we encourage you to add them. In the meantime, Bandurski kindly agreed to let us re-post this piece on the suppression of findings regarding shoddy school construction in Sichuan.

By David Bandurski

China Economic Weekly, a spin-off magazine of the official People’s Daily, ran an important story Monday about the collapse of school buildings in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. But the story, posted initially to People’s Daily Online, was removed by day’s end, a sign that some important officials at least were not pleased.

The original URL for the story at People’s Daily Online is now replaced with a tell-tale trace: “The page you wish to view no longer exists.”

Nevertheless, this is a story to keep your eyes on and one that amply illustrates the complexity of China’s media environment. Where did the story come from? Why was it allowed to appear at all?

The story’s jumping-off point is an academic study on construction quality in the quake zone launched last year by Tsinghua University, but it makes much more explicit the findings of the study as they are relevant to the problem of school collapses.

The story, by reporter Zhou Haibin (周海滨), uses the numbers in the Tsinghua study to make it clear that schools surveyed by a team of experts suffered far more crippling damage in the quake than did government buildings. For example, while 44 percent of government buildings studied were still deemed usable, having sustained little seismic damage, only 18 percent of school buildings studied were still deemed structurally sound.

The article quotes the author of the paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, as saying that . . .

. . . the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

The long and short of it: negligence by local government officials.

Lu Xinzheng runs a decent personal website in both Chinese and English, which includes PDF downloads of much of his research over the last few years. There’s contact information too, but we’re supposing the news has already cycled past the earthquake anniversary so far as those editors back in New York and London are concerned, right?

Anyhow, a list of Lu’s recent earthquake-related research is here. One of the most interesting papers is a study of the structural weaknesses of buildings in last year’s Wenchuan earthquake. In this study, Lu and his colleagues write about the notable thinness (and hence weakness) of vertical supporting columns in frame structured buildings in Sichuan, which either buckled or broke when the quake struck.

“In the Wenchuan earthquake, most of the many frame structured buildings that either were damaged or collapsed were of this sort, particularly spacious and open buildings that were purely frame structured (most of which were school classroom complexes, see figure 8),” Lu and his colleagues write.

Fortunately, yesterday’s story from China Economic Weekly has not disappeared altogether. As of 10:51am today the story was still available at Qingdao News.

The article’s headline also appeared today in a list of “recent news” in the Chongqing section of People’s Daily Online, and the link was still active, taking readers to this Chongqing page with the full text of the report.

A search in the WiseNews Chinese news database suggests the story also ran yesterday on CCTV’s international website, and on the website of China News Service.

A partial translation of the China Economic Weekly story follows:

Seismic Investigation Team Reveals Causes of Severity of School Collapses in the Wenchuan Earthquake
China Economic Weekly
Zhou Haibin (周海滨) reporting from Beijing and Sichuan

This reporter recently received a copy of an academic paper called “An Analysis of Seismic Damage Caused to Structures in the Wenchuan Earthquake,” written by a seismic investigation team from Tsinghua University, Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University. Of the 54 government buildings that the investigative team studied, 13 percent (or 7 buildings) were deemed to have been irreparably damaged [by the quake]. Of the 44 school buildings that they studied, this ratio was 57 percent (or 25 schools), more than four times the level [of damage] seen with government buildings.

Numbers reveal damage to be most serious among school buildings

After the earthquake struck on May 12 last year, Tsinghua University arranged for a team of relevant experts to travel to Sichuan, and they teamed up with civil engineers (土木结构方面专家) from Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University, making a series of three investigations into seismic damage to structures [in the earthquake zone].

The investigative team classed structures sustaining seismic damage into four categories: 1) usable, 2) usable pending repairs, 3) use to be ceased, and 4) immediate demolition. Buildings were divided into types according to their purpose: school, government, business, factory, hospital and other public buildings.

According to the statistical chart provided in the paper, China Economic Weekly has determined that 44 of the 384 structures studied were school buildings. The numbers provided in the chart reveal that of the 44 school buildings studied, 18 percent (or 8 buildings) were deemed usable, 25 percent (or 11 buildings) were deemed usable pending repairs, 23 percent (or 10 buildings) were labeled “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 34 percent (or 15 buildings) were recommended for immediate demolition.

In comparison, the percentages in all categories for the 54 government buildings were: 44 percent usable (24 buildings), 43 percent usable pending repairs (23 buildings), 9 percent “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 4 percent for immediate demolition (2 buildings).

The paper also points out that schools and industrial structures suffered more serious seismic damage due in part due to the functionality of their designs. Schools suffering seismic damage were largely structures of masonry, with large-spanning rooms, large openings for doors and windows, projecting corridors, and in some cases no allowances made for quake resistance, so that their earthquake resistance was low. Factory building were also largely masonry structures, usually of small scale and spaces consisting predominantly of parking areas where there were few personnel. For this reason, little consideration was given [in factory buildings] for earthquake resistance, and seismic damage was rather severe.

Government buildings mostly used reinforced concrete frameworks, and seismic damage to these was minimal . . .

Ever since the quake struck, public opinion in China and overseas has turned to the issue of construction quality in the quake zone. Addressing concerns about “tofu engineering” [shoddily built structures], Sichuan’s acting vice-governor Wei Hong (魏宏) said in answer to questions from reporters that the collapse of schools in this major earthquake was the unavoidable result of natural disaster.

The author of this paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, believes that the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

Images and the full text of the above article are available at the China Media Project website.

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