6/4

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A much shorter version of this piece originally appeared in the New York Times, part of a series there on “Tiananmen Square, 20 Years Later,” which also features pieces by Ha Jin, Yu Hua and others.

By Zhang Lijia

Whenever “1989” is mentioned, people in the West instantly think about the protesting students in Tiananmen Square. In fact, although it started in Beijing and was led by the students there, the democratic movement was a nationwide event, drawing together people from all walks of life.

Twenty years on, I remember vividly every detail of that day when I organized a demonstration among the workers from my Nanjing factory in support of the movement. It was Sunday, May 28, a week before the crackdown in Beijing.

The death of Hu Yaobang had triggered the spontaneous democratic movement. The popular former Communist Party secretary-general had been ousted, in part for his sympathetic view towards students’ protests. When the government rejected their request for his rehabilitation, Beijing students marched towards Tiananmen, demanding greater freedom and democracy. Like a match thrown onto kindling, students from all over the country took to the streets. They were soon joined by ordinary citizens who were disgusted by widespread corruption, rising inflation, and lack of personal freedom.

By then I had been working for a factory, a missile producer, for nine years in Nanjing, my hometown. The factory was a mini-Communist state, housing us in identical block buildings, feeding us at dining halls, indoctrinating us at meeting rooms and controlling our lives with strict rules: no lipsticks; no high heel shoes or flared trousers; no dating for the first three years at the factory. Every month, all women had to go to the hygiene room to show blood to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant.

To escape, I decided to teach myself English in the hope of getting a job as an interpreter outside the factory with one of the foreign companies. What I learnt, of course, wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package. I dared to be different: wearing short skirts and having boyfriends. After I mastered enough English I became obsessed with listening to the BBC, which broadcast news very different from our propaganda. I attended politically-charged lectures at Nanjing University, debating if Western-style democracy was the answer for China.

On that Sunday in May, after watching televised images of workers in Guangzhou marching in the rain, I decided to organize a protest. I telephoned all my friends at the factory, and some of them informed their friends. We got the banners and placards ready in just a few hours.

Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, about 300 of us set off, as if for battle, defending a noble cause. Walking at the very front, I held a red flag and felt a sense of liberation that I had never experienced before. Behind me two workers carried a cloth banner that read, “Here come the workers!” The little strips of bright red cloth tied to our arms and heads flamed in the wind.

We marched toward the Drum Tower, Nanjing’s version of Tiananmen. On the main street, our group melted into a flow of marchers. Before us walked students from a technical school; at our tail were several dozen workers from a glass-making factory. We chanted slogans like “Long live democracy!” “Down with the repressive government!” “Anyone who dares to crack down on the democracy movement will be condemned for 10,000 years!” Onlookers cheered us on. Along the way, hundreds more workers from our factory joined in, which made ours the largest demonstrations among workers in Nanjing during the movement.

During that time, my ear was glued to my shortwave radio, and I learned about the crackdown at Tiananmen from foreign broadcasts. The following year, I left for England, feeling defeated and pessimistic about my country’s future. In 1993, when I returned, I was surprise by China’s booming economy. Many commentators had predicted that the authoritarian regime would have collapsed, especially after the massacre. It lacked political legitimacy and had an over-centralized power structure.

Over the past twenty years, apart from short spells living abroad, I have been more or less based in Beijing. I’ve witnessed and reported, as a freelance journalist and writer, China’s remarkable transformation: the economy has charged ahead like a steed without a reign; foreign trade and investment have expanded greatly; and China, with its successful foreign policy, has become a more important player on the world stage.

One might argue that China still has no real democracy or it has not made fundamental improvements in civil or political rights. Many topics are off-limits, such as the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Of course, discussion of ‘June 4 Movement’ remains a taboo. But that doesn’t mean the Party has not learnt some lessons from those events two decades past.

Over the years, amid overwhelming economic and social changes, it has navigated its way forward, proving to be more flexible and adaptive than ever before and very resilient.
The leaders make it clear to citizens that that it is futile to pursue political reforms. Political debates that once buzzed at university campus in the 80s and excited me and my fellow idealistic youth are nowhere to be found.

The country’s paternalistic rulers consciously channel people’s energy into making money. The Chinese people have indeed embraced the consumer culture whole-heartedly.

The authority has been crushing hard on potential threats: Falungong was outlawed and dissidents were thrown in jail. On the other hand, it has loosened certain controls and granted people more personal freedom. We can now choose our own life styles. Lipsticks, high heel shoes, the width of trousers, and one’s period, dating and sex life all fall into a place called ‘privacy’ which didn’t really existed before.

These improvements shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Personal freedoms and the emergence of an urban middle class can potentially lead to democratic processes, as seen in other Asian countries.

However, China seems to be different. The urban professionals and the business people have been absorbed by the Party as a new “elite” class. The entrepreneurs are welcomed into the realm of politics, and Party members have flowed to the private sectors. The mixture of power and business makes it hard to distinguish private from state-owned in today’s hybrid economy.

Back in 1989, the educated urban elites enthusiastically took part in the democratic movement not only because they felt that economic change required political relaxation but also because they were bitter about their low salaries, their poor living conditions and lack of opportunities while the children of the high-ranking leaders made easy and vast profits. In a TV interview, when asked what they wanted, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leading students leaders at the Tiananmen replied, somehow flippantly: “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone.”

And it is not just Nike shoes or other designer goods that Chinese have gained. Many urban professionals are now proud owners of cars as well as their own homes. They find themselves the beneficiaries of the government’s strategic generosity policy, enjoying higher salary and other perks. Academics now can travel abroad freely. And most choose to return after their study abroad.

My sworn sister, who works for Nanjing government, has an enviable lifestyle, living in a flat she bought at a knock-down price, enjoying medical care and being driven around everywhere. She was sympathetic to us protesters back in 1989. But why would she want to protest against the government now?

Ever since the “May 4 Movement” in 1919, intellectuals and students have always been the frontrunners of mass demonstrations. In recent years, public protests have occurred all over the country like mushrooms after a spring rain, mostly by victims of land seizure or laid-off workers. With the economic downturn, 2009 will probably see more protests. But without the participants of intellectuals, such outbursts of discontentment are unlikely to grow into a national movement or cause large scale social turmoil. The urban elites are too content with their lives to upset anything, though they’d describe themselves as liberal and pro-democracy if asked.

As for today’s university students, they grew up in an affluent society. China’s growing wealth and rising position in the world have made them assertive and nationalistic. The outburst of nationalism in the wake of ‘Tibetan Unrest’ last March was just an example. At least for the time being, if the students go out to demonstrate, it will more likely be against some foreign power rather than its own government.

There’s still a cage in China. But for many, my fellow marchers from Nanjing included, the cage has grown so big that they can’t feel its limitations. The movement in 1989 didn’t reach its final goal – to bring democracy to China. But I wouldn’t describe it as a total failure. Without the effort by the hot-blooded students and all those who participated, the rulers might not have expanded the cage.

Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of “Socialism is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, which came out in May in paperback.

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In Taiwan, June 4 marks another anniversary, namely the 185th day of Chen Shuibian’s detention without having been convicted of a crime. Chen was first ordered to be held in custody on the night of November 11, 2008, with actual detention beginning on November 12. Taking into account the few days during which he was released in December, Chen’s incarceration has lasted almost 200 days now, with no end in sight. In principle, he can be held in detention indefinitely due to the fact that he has been charged with a felony, and because prosecutors have expressed concerns that Chen might flee the country, engage in collusion with other suspects, or tamper with evidence and witnesses. If a judge agrees with these arguments, an extension can be granted every two months. Efforts by Chen and his legal team to challenge prosecutorial evidence in court have also served to lengthen the term of his detention.

Despite the fact that his detention started on November 12, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office did not indict Chen until December 12, charging him with accepting bribes, laundering political donations, and looting public funds. The extent of Chen’s corruption (as well as that of his family members) is said to have extended to the tens of millions of U.S. dollars, and lasted throughout his 2000-2008 presidency. Legal proceedings are currently underway to determine the guilt or innocence of those accused. Chen’s wife has also been indicted, while just yesterday his son and daughter were listed as defendants and may be charged with perjury.

When the state decides to break an individual, it can draw on an array of weapons in its arsenal, including torture, imprisonment, harassment (often extending to loved ones and friends), confiscation of property, and the denial of citizen’s privileges, all of which involve the stripping away of an individual’s human rights. Another form of this abrogation is detention, with its resulting loss of freedom and daily humiliations.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of detention in democratic nations. It is certainly justified when suspects are hardened and violent criminals who threaten society, but this is clearly not an issue in Chen’s case. Detention can also be viewed as legitimate if it is regularly utilized in certain types of cases (such as corruption and tax-evasion). In Taiwan, however, detention of politicians on such charges is almost unprecedented. Over the years, numerous politicians of all stripes have been accused of corruption. Some have been found guilty and sent to prison, while others have been proven innocent. Only a small percentage has been subjected to detention (most are allowed the right to bail), although many suspects have fled the country and are currently living high on the hog (swine flu notwithstanding) in China and the U.S. Apart from Chen, however, no Taiwanese politician has been detained for such a long period of time on corruption charges without having first been convicted of a crime.

Regardless of whether Chen is found guilty as charged, Taiwan’s judiciary has come under considerable criticism for its handling of the detention process, and in particular the decision to change judges during Chen’s detention hearings. Following his indictment on December 12, the three-judge district court panel originally presiding over the case decided to order Chen’s release (without bail), something that is often allowed once suspects accused of non-violent crimes are indicted. In Chen’s case, however, this ruling prompted prosecutors to appeal twice to the Taiwan High Court. During the second appeal, the original panel was replaced (amidst rumors of pressure from ruling KMT lawmakers), and the new panel ruled on December 30 that Chen’s detention could continue.

The events described above have prompted questions about the circumstances and motivations underlying Chen’s on-going incarceration. Concerns have been raised about other aspects of Chen’s case as well, including a skit performed by prosecutors at a Justice Ministry party that appeared to mock Chen’s behavior when he was placed under arrest. As President Ma Ying-jeou’s Harvard Law School mentor, Professor Jerome Cohen, has observed, ”At what point does the presumption of innocence becoming meaningless and pre-conviction detention morph into punishment for a crime not finally proved?”

And that is the tragedy of the current situation, for having a top-ranking politician found guilty after a trial deemed fair and impartial would constitute an immense boost in prestige for Taiwan’s judicial system, while also sending a crystal-clear message to all politicians facing similar forms of temptation. However, a conviction following proceedings that suggest Chen is presumed guilty and likely to be found guilty as well would represent a major step backwards, and risk causing a reversion to traditional views of the law as being simply a tool to enhance state interests.

The other tragedy involves Taiwan’s human rights record. The detention of a former president who may have committed at least some of the crimes he stands accused of hardly compares to the violence that took place in Beijing 20 years ago, not to mention the horrific abuses of human rights (and especially those of women and children) that ravage our world every day. Nonetheless, the deprival of any individual’s liberty and dignity constitutes a challenge to the values that people hold dear. Understandably, Taiwan’s judicial trials rank rather low on most leaders’ ”to do” lists, and after the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo fiascos it is hardly our place to lecture others about human rights. Nonetheless, indifference would not seem to be the answer, for only when people effectively question the state’s authority does it grudgingly relinquish the assertion of its might over the rights of its citizens.

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A set of links to readings about 6/4 from various sources:

1. A short and straightforward documentary from Al Jazeera (in English), posted at YouTube in two parts: Part I and Part II. This documentary has notably less emphasis on the influence of Western-style democracy than the average (Western) doc on the subject, and more on the opposition to authoritarianism…

2. Mara Hvistendahl has written a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education on a well-trod topic—the shifts in China post-89, particularly among those of the 6/4 generation. Yet, Hvistendahl, in addition to getting the basics right (unlike others we could—okay, we will mention), phrases the current tensions between those who want to remember 1989 and those who have already forgotten it in a compelling way:

Even the staunchest critics of China’s regime acknowledge it now allows discussion in areas that were once off limits. After his release from prison, Zhou became an investigative journalist, tackling sensitive issues like food safety, and only sometimes encountering government intervention. At the same time, some contend that economic growth has merely allowed the Chinese government to fine-tune its control of dissent. As the government’s spending power grew, so did the carrots it could offer for obedience. “The government has great ambition for scholarly work that can make considerable breakthroughs, like shooting satellites into outer space,” says Wang Chaohua, who edited a volume of work by Chinese intellectuals titled One China, Many Paths(Verso, 2003). “But to do work in the social sciences and humanities, you need to have a real independent spirit, and that isn’t what the government wants to see. So you have a lot of political intervention.”

Intellectuals who follow the state line are rewarded with trips abroad and generous research grants, critics say. “There are many research programs now that are sponsored by the government,” says Wang Tiancheng, a former law professor at Peking University. “It’s a type of corruption. They’re buying scholars.”

Wang, now a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, knows that power play firsthand. He spent five years in prison in the 1990s as one of the “Beijing Fifteen,” a group of intellectuals persecuted for their opposition to one-party rule. When he was released from prison in 1997, no university would hire him. “If you don’t go along with the Communist Party, if you don’t censor yourself, you’ll lose out on many benefits, including promotions and honors,” he says.

If the Chronicle version is not available (usually their content is only available to those with subscriptions), the full text was reposted at Howard French’s blog.

3. One of the most extensive profiles of the 1989 leaders that we have seen in the press: at The Guardian, Isabel Hilton profiles not just Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan but also Wang Chaohua, Shen Tong, Diane Wei Liang, Wang Juntao, Chen Ziming, Ma Jian, and Shao Jiang.

4. Hat tip to Danwei (a long time ago), for pointing to “Standoff at Tiananmen,” which is chronicling the events of 1989 day-by-day.

5. James Miles, who was the BBC’s China correspondent in 1989, recalls the events in an audio recording.

6. Jeff Wasserstrom published a piece in The Nation last week, “Tiananmen at Twenty”:

One reason to keep dwelling on 1989 is that common misunderstandings about that year persist, in China and in the West. For example, many Americans still think protesting students were the main victims of the massacre, even though the majority of the dead were workers who had turned out to support the educated youths. Many Americans also misremember those students as people who wanted to bring Western-style democracy to China. The reality was much more complex.

The students did celebrate the virtues of minzhu (democracy), but they spent even more energy denouncing corruption. And while their outlook was cosmopolitan, they were intensely patriotic. They presented themselves as carrying forward a longstanding Chinese tradition: that of intellectuals speaking out against selfish officials whose actions were harming the nation. In addition, the students’ grievances were not all purely political. They complained about the party’s interferences in their private lives and about its failure to make good on economic promises (Wuer Kaixi, a leader of the student movement, noted that a desire to be able to buy Nike shoes and other consumer goods was among the things that inspired members of his generation to act).

China specialists have another reason to revisit 1989: to stay humble. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of China, but each of us was surprised by what happened twenty years ago–if not by the fact that a massacre occurred then by how long it took for the tanks to roll; if not by how many people risked their lives to fight for change then by the role rock music played in the protests.

7. NPR recently broadcast an interview by Louisa Lim with Jiang Rong (the author of Wolf Totem), which touches on the events of 1989 as well.

8. The Economist examines memories and remembrances of 6/4’s anniversary:

The party has also tried to deflect attention from the army’s contribution to the slaughter. Twenty years ago the official media repeatedly sang the praises of dozens of soldiers killed during the “counterrevolutionary rebellion”—and posthumously considered “guardians of the republic”. Now they are all but forgotten. Meanwhile, public support for the armed forces, which was badly damaged in 1989, appears to have rebounded. The army’s rapid response to the deadly earthquake in Sichuan Province a year ago, a gift to party propagandists, played a part in this. When tanks roar through Tiananmen Square on October 1st in a grand parade to celebrate China’s national day (the second such display since 1989), they will be greeted with widespread approval from a nation hungry for symbols of China’s growing power.

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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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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. 
“Jin!” 
“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. 
“What?” 
“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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