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The Beginning of the End

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing Spring, which ended in the so-called Tiananmen Massacre of June 1989. “Moderate” students and intellectuals blame other, more “radical” students for the bloody conclusion. Veterans of the square, as the authentic “freedom fighters” (their words), look down on those who were overseas at the time. Activists who stayed in China after June 1989—often in jail—dismiss the exiles. And the exiles, mostly in France and the US, have splintered into groups of reformists, cultural chauvinists, democrats, neo-Confucianists, soft-authoritarians, and so on. Some thrive in the West, making money, trading on fame; others, less adept in the ways of the marketplace, sulk in regret, chilled by the loneliness of freedom, and dream of returning to the stifling embrace of China.

Two new documentary films about the events in Tiananmen Square have brought these internecine battles to wider public attention. Both are partisan. The first, Moving the Mountain, tells the story of 1989 from the perspective of a student “radical” who was at the square, managed to escape to the West—and is thriving. It is a propaganda movie for what its main hero calls a democratic revolution. The other film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, argues the case for moderation, compromise, and slow reform, and takes the radicals to task for harming the reformist cause by pushing the protest movement too far.

Near the beginning of both movies we are shown the famous image of a young man defying a tank. Millions watched this small, defenseless figure as he refused to budge, while the tank swerved furiously this way and that. Here was a great twentieth-century drama neatly compressed in one photographic image, to be dissected, mulled over, celebrated, and deconstructed by journalists, academics, writers, filmmakers, and other interested parties all over the world. But not everyone read the picture in the same way. The young man, so tiny, so vulnerable, could be seen as a tragic figure, a symbol of the futility of empty-handed opposition to brute force. But he could also serve as a heroic model for future resistance. The Chinese government took another view: the incident was proof of the sweet tolerance of the People’s Liberation Army. After all, the tank could simply have flattened the boy.

* * *

While The Gate of Heavenly Peace tends toward the tragic view, Moving the Mountain is more in the heroic mold. The main character is Li Lu, a student from Nanjing who came to the protest movement relatively late. The movie has the air of a political bio-pic, shot in the snazzy, exotic style of an Asian airline commercial. For atmosphere there is an intrusive sound track of loud, portentous music (by Liu Sola) that drones on without respite. The narration is by Li Lu himself. His development in the film is remarkable. The hero’s early life, as a bullied young bourgeois class enemy who finds his manhood (after overcoming his terror of lizards), is reconstructed in dramatic black-and-white images. This fictionalized Li Lu is followed by real shots of the hero as an obscure firebrand in Tiananmen Square—“We have to take it to extremes,” he says at one point. Then he reappears in a tuxedo, arguing for democracy in fluent English at the Oxford Union, and finally we see him hard at work as an MBA and law student at Columbia University. In his own words, Li Lu is sure to be “summoned by history” again. His only worry is that “time won’t be enough to be prepared when the time comes.”

Chai Ling, the former “commander-in-chief” of the Protect Tiananmen Headquarters (Li Lu was her “deputy”), is also featured in the film. She, too, speaks excellent English, and her development has been no less extraordinary. From the gaunt, sometimes hysterical, but undeniably effective student activist, she has been transformed into someone altogether more polished. While studying at Princeton, she traveled the world in search of encouragement, prizes, money, and support for her cause. She now works for a consultancy firm in Boston and is an active lobbyist for Chinese democracy. More than any other former student leader, it is Chai Ling whom moderates and so-called reformists blame for the debacle in Beijing. Called the “goddess of democracy” by some of her supporters, she is the arch-extremist to her opponents—a fighter against communism with the mind of a Red Guard. But in the film she speaks eloquently about having fought in Tiananmen Square “for our basic right to the freedom of speech guaranteed under the Chinese constitution.”

There are others. Wu’er Kaixi, the cherubic protester who behaved like a rock star after escaping to the US—girls, much swagger, big bills—has calmed down and is more reflective about past mistakes and less glib than Li Lu. Wang Dan, always the most moderate and soft-spoken among the student leaders, speaks in Beijing about the need for the exiles to return to China if they still want to play a constructive role. Then there is Wang Chaohua, who no longer believes in political activism. Shocked by the bloodshed, for which she still holds herself partly responsible, she has retreated into American academic life. She blames the students for self-aggrandizing naiveté. Listening to Chai Ling talking about her struggle for democracy, she half snorts, half sobs: “Thinking you could change China. I don’t really…well…never mind.”

Finally, there is Wei Jingsheng, veteran of the 1970s’ Democracy Wall movement. He wrote the famous wall poster in 1978, demanding democracy as a fifth modernization, apart from Deng Xiaoping’s promised four. What is democracy? he asked. “It means the right of the people to choose their own representatives.” For this Wei spent more than ten years in jail. The protest movement of 1989 began with a petition by Chinese intellectuals for his release. He was freed briefly two years ago. The filmmakers managed to catch him before he disappeared into the Chinese gulag once more. About the Tiananmen massacre Wei observed that mistakes had been made by the students as well as the government, but that only the government should be blamed for the killings.

The differences among former student leaders are barely concealed in the movie. Wang Chaohua’s contempt for Chai Ling is not concealed at all. But the rifts that already existed in 1989 erupted into a furious row after Moving the Mountain opened very grandly earlier this year in New York, with Madonna, Richard Gere, and other stellar philanthropists in attendance. Wu’er Kaixi criticized Chai Ling and Li Lu for their irresponsible radicalism. By “sabotaging” an agreement reached among student leaders and intellectuals to leave Tiananmen Square, he said, the radicals shared responsibility for the bloodshed that followed. This echoed similar accusations by reformist intellectuals in China. The journalist Dai Qing wrote that Chai Ling was guilty of a serious crime, and wondered if she should not be arrested “for organizing the students to occupy the square.”1 These remarks refer to a decision made in May to remain on the square until June 20, after a committee of student leaders and intellectuals had voted to withdraw on May 30. Since it is crucial to the Tiananmen debate, I shall return to this sequence of events later.

* * *

Of the two documentaries, The Gate of Heavenly Peace is by far the better-made film. There is nothing slick about it. The filmmakers have gathered extraordinary footage, not only of spring 1989, but of the student protests of May 4, 1919, the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Cultural Revolution, and much else. The atmosphere of the Beijing Spring is conveyed beautifully in all its pathos, drama, hope, craziness, poetry, and violence. Both Hinton and Gordon known China very well—Hinton grew up there, the daughter of William Hinton, author of Fanshen, a well-known documentary study of revolution in a Chinese village. Backed by a team of experts, including Jonathan Spence, Andrew Nathan, and Geremie Barmé, they have put the Chinese democracy movement in a cultural and historical setting. One could not wish for a better example of an expert’s view of Chinese history. If Moving the Mountain is hagiography, this movie is meant to put the record straight. “We’re not promoting a particular cause or a particular leader,” said Hinton to The Washington Post. “We want to portray the student movement in all its complexity and contribute to a more healthy discourse over what occurred.”2

In fact, however, the movie does promote a cause. It is the cause of moderation and reform, personified by Zhao Ziyang, who lost his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party after the crackdown on June 4, and has been living more or less under house arrest ever since. The film judges the radicals, and Chai Ling in particular, harshly. This is done through deft editing and a vaguely historicist approach. In the movie’s effort to correct the sentimental outsider’s view that the Tiananmen demonstration was about democracy, the student activists are placed in a particular historical frame of revolutionary protest.

* * *

The story as told by Hinton and Gordon goes something like this: Tiananmen Square was once the heart of the Chinese empire, the seat of imperial government. On May 4, 1919, eight years after the empire had fallen, patriotic students protested on the square against a corrupt Chinese government, for allowing chunks of the country to be given away to foreign powers at Versailles. Science and democracy were to cure China of its decadence. The narrator in The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives the following, entirely accurate explanation:

In official Communist Party history the student protests of 1919 were but a prelude to the revolutionary makeover of China. But in fact many of the leading voices of the May 4 era spoke not for revolution but for democratic reform. After their days of street protests many students went back to school, took up various professions, and continued to work for social change. Those who saw no hope for reform joined the Communist Party to fight for an ideal society. Over the decades the voices championing gradual change were stifled by conservative power-holders or drowned by cries for revolution. By marching into Tiananmen Square, the students of 1989 were saying to the Party: we are the true inheritors of the May 4 movement. But the May 4 spirit they were most familiar with was the one the Party had taught them.

On the anniversary of May 4, in 1989, Zhao Ziyang made conciliatory noises. Contrary to the Party line, he did not brand the student demonstration “turmoil.” He proposed a dialogue to resolve the tension between students and government. The students debated what to do. Reformists and moderates advised them to return to their campuses and build democracy there. Some intellectuals had ties to the reformers inside the government. Others were afraid of the consequences if the confrontation went too far. But since Zhao did not speak to the students directly, the radicals decided to push harder. After a week of debate on the square and at university campuses, a hunger strike began, and Chai Ling and her supporters took the upper hand. This is when Li Lu talked about going “to extremes.”

* * *

iconCatherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images
A student from Beijing University sits cross-legged on May 14, 1989, one of several hundred students staging a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square as part of the pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government.
Craig Calhoun, an American sociologist who was teaching in Beijing at the time, has written a sympathetic but not uncritical account of the Beijing Spring. The hunger strike, he writes, “was an emotion-charged, highly public declaration that existing conditions were intolerable, that reform was occurring so gradually as to put off democracy and freedom to the far distant future. The strikers’ statement was simple: We cannot afford to wait.”

This view might strike a person who knows little about Chinese history as reasonable. Why should people not rebel against a corrupt regime which denies them their constitutional rights? In fact, despite much rhetoric about dying to save the nation, the students’ demands were not revolutionary. They wanted the government to promptly engage in a serious dialogue with the Beijing Students Dialogue Delegation, and they wanted the student movement to be recognized as a patriotic democratic movement. The last demand was important, since on April 26 the official People’s Daily newspaper had denounced the students as counterrevolutionary rioters. To be called that was not only dangerous, but an insult to young people with a heated sense of patriotism.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, however, from its deeper historical perspective, puts a more sinister spin on some of the students’ actions. Again and again parallels with May 4 and the Communist Revolution are drawn. Leaders like Wang Dan, who wanted to call the demonstration off after Zhao’s promise of a dialogue, are cast in the role of the moderates who returned to their universities in 1919. Those such as Chai Ling, who elected to stay, are the heirs of the fanatics who drowned out the moderate voices with their cries for revolution. “If democracy came to China,” says the narrator’s voice, as we see the huge white Goddess of Democracy being erected opposite the portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989, “what would it look like? Whose features would it wear?” The camera cuts to the marzipan features of the Great Helmsman: “There seems a chance at least that the face would look all too familiar.”

This point is driven home by a skillful use of interviews. The crucial witness for the prosecution is Chai Ling herself. The filmmakers have used a notorious interview she gave to an American reporter in his hotel room on May 28. Snippets of this interview are scattered through the film as evidence of her thirst for blood. It was taped on the day that protesters on the square had refused to retreat. Chai Ling was in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. She made some very damning remarks:

My fellow students keep asking me, “What should we do next? What can we accomplish?” I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?

There is some room for ambivalence here. The word qidai usually means “to hope for,” but can also mean “to expect.” Chai Ling might have meant the former, but the latter would also make sense. She had uttered sacrificial sentiments before. But her immediate problem was that she saw no way to clear the square, even though she knew that a violent crackdown was more than a possibility. Chai Ling still maintains that she meant “to expect.” But her tearful rambling about blood, death, resisting “traitors,” and wanting to “overthrow” the government, was not a sign of moderation.

* * *

Since she refused to be interviewed for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Chai Ling could not offer her own thoughts in hindsight. I spoke to her on the phone. Of course, she said, she would not use similar language now. But one had to understand the atmosphere in Beijing then. Her words had reflected the sentiments of many people at the time. The protesters were scared. Talk about dying for the nation was a way to conquer their fears. Why then had she refused to be interviewed by Hinton and Gordon? She said there had been some misunderstanding. Later she called back to say she was afraid that such an interview would be selectively used against her.

Cutting in and out of Chai Ling’s recorded hysteria are the voices of such people as Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic, of Wang Dan, Dai Qing, and Wu Guogang, one of Zhao Ziyang’s former advisers. None of them was in favor of the hard-liners in the government. All except Wu, who was in the US, were detained at one point or another after the massacre. All had sympathy for the students on Tiananmen Square; Liu Xiaobo even went on a hunger strike two days before the crackdown. And yet they are all critical of Chai Ling’s do-or-die approach.

Liu Xiaobo describes some of the students as “children playing at war.” About her own failure to persuade the students to compromise and leave the square, Dai Qing says: “We intellectuals were caught between an irrational government and irrational students.” Like other liberal intellectuals, Dai Qing, herself the daughter of a PLA general, had looked for a “third way” which would have allowed Zhao Ziyang and his reformers inside the party to slowly liberalize China. The reformers, she explains in the film, needed social stability. The hard-liners used all manner of tricks to set Deng Xiaoping against the reformers. Student radicalism, she said, gave them the perfect tool. For if the students proved intractable, the government would have to get tough, and the reformers would lose their authority. So the reformist intellectuals acted as increasingly desperate mediators between the students and the Communist reformers.

It was an impossible part to play. For the intellectuals often ended up preaching to students who were rapidly losing control. Li Lu, who hardly features in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, was right in saying that the hunger strike of May 13 changed the whole picture. The student movement became a popular movement. Students, especially Beijing students, are commonly regarded as spoiled brats (which they often are). But the hunger strike galvanized workers, journalists, doctors, nurses, bureaucrats, professors, merchants, and even some soldiers and policemen. Reporters from the People’s Daily appeared on the square to apologize for having printed lies. They demonstrated for press freedom. Workers formed an independent union. They wanted better working conditions. Peasants marched in from temporary building sites. They wanted a better deal.

* * *

When the government declared martial law on May 20, defiance only increased in Beijing. Whenever troops from the People’s Liberation Army tried to advance toward the square, they were pushed back by crowds of Beijing citizens. And whenever students on the square talked about withdrawal, workers or new arrivals from the provinces shouted them down. On May 15, for example, the day of Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in Beijing, a student leader named Shen Tong called for a tactical retreat from the square—to give the government “face” and give Zhao Ziyang some room for maneuver. A worker yelled at him: “Are you worthy of being a student leader? You’re letting all of the people of Beijing down. You’re letting the workers down. To say you want us to leave makes you a traitor to the movement.”

The problem, in short, was that no one, not Chai Ling, not Dai Qing or Liu Xiaobo, not Wang Dan, or anybody else involved in the movement had the authority to tell the protesters what to do. Much is made in The Gate of Heavenly Peace of the fact that Chai Ling was not elected as a leader, unlike representatives of more moderate student associations. That is correct. But elected student representatives had no more authority on the square than Chai Ling. This was a protest movement, not a constitutional democracy. Chai Ling had power, to be sure, but it was based on rhetoric, not coercion. As long as she could ride the emotions of the crowds, they would listen to her. And this was a role to which she was particularly well suited. Chai Ling had the makings of a first-rate demagogue. But that is all she was; there was never any question of using force.

There were many critical moments during the month and a half on Tiananmen Square: the memorial service for Hu Yaobang, the deposed reformist leader, on April 22; the People’s Daily editorial on April 26 describing the students as counter-revolutionary rioters; the hunger strike demanding talks with the government on May 13; martial law on May 20; and perhaps most fateful of all, the decision on May 28 to stay in the square. That day the dilemma faced by the student leaders, especially Chai Ling, came to a head. The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives one version. Chai Ling gives another. Moving the Mountain skips this crucial event altogether.

* * *

The Gate of Heavenly Peace first: On May 27 there was a meeting of students and intellectuals, collectively known as the Alliance to Protect the Constitution. Chai Ling reported on conditions in the square. Hygiene was terrible, the mood fractious. All present voted to withdraw on May 30. Wang Dan’s announcement of the decision at the square is recorded on film. It is a telling image: the glum, sour faces of the crowd, the slim, elegant figure of Wang, speaking calmly, almost quietly through a megaphone, a young Beijing intellectual addressing a crowd of workers and provincial students. What followed is not shown in the film, but narrated. Li Lu objected to the decision and Chai Ling backed him. On April 28 the radicals vetoed the plan. They would stay until June 20, when the National People’s Congress was scheduled to convene.

Chai Ling herself gave me the following account: on May 26 three hundred representatives of the people in the square took a vote. Eighty percent chose to remain indefinitely. The next day, she attended the meeting with the Alliance intellectuals. All voted to stay until June 20. But after she reported that conditions were bad and money was running out, a “purely technical” decision was made to withdraw on May 30. She returned to the square and told Li Lu. He was furious. The government had been making deals with some students to retreat, he said. There were secret government agents about. A plot was being hatched. So they had to stay.

There are other variations. Craig Calhoun reports that Chai Ling “was ambivalent, alternately denouncing all attempts to withdraw as ‘capitulationist’ and expressing her own fears and desire to pull back.” But all accounts agree that the decision to stay accorded with the mood on the square itself. Those who wanted to leave had already left. Those who had arrived recently from outside Beijing wished to remain. As the narrator of The Gate of Heavenly Peace says, the vote to stay was never less than 80 percent. Not the elite students and intellectuals of the capital had prevailed, but the provincials, backed by the workers, many of whom were scared to return to their schools and workplaces. Whatever Chai Ling may have thought or said, there is nothing much she could have done at that stage to affect the outcome of the movement she had done so much to continue.

* * *

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a valuable cultural document. It adds a great deal to our understanding of Chinese class tensions, political factions, historical references, intellectual currents, and even artistic trends. It makes the point forcefully that many students in China were so warped by Communist education and a more traditional kind of romantic idealism that democratic ideas often got drowned out by talk of “blood sacrifice” and “saving China.” But by spending so much effort interpreting and denouncing the often childish rhetoric of Chai Ling, the film ends up being a bit warped too. For it leaves the impression that the Beijing Spring revolved entirely around Chai Ling’s demagoguery. More than that, it suggests that because Chai Ling and her friends had a shaky grasp of democracy, the movement itself was not democratic. The question left dangling is whether slow reforms, negotiated between intellectuals and Communist officials, are more likely to result in a democracy than sustained popular protest. Or to rephrase the question: Were Chai Ling and her supporters, however overheated their rhetoric, wrong to keep the protest movement going?

Remember that the student protesters refused to use violence until the end. This made them quite different from the Red Guards, to whom they have been compared. Remember, too, that their stated demands were not revolutionary. They did not demand the overthrow of the government. The protest started with a petition to release political prisoners. Then, on April 22, mimicking the deferential gestures of imperial China, the students begged Li Peng on their knees to end corruption, to recognize their right to form an independent student union, and to hold a dialogue on equal terms. On May 4, Wu’er Kaixi announced that the student movement wished to promote “freedom, human rights, and rule by law.” On June 1, the three main student groups, including Chai Ling’s Protect Tiananmen Head-quarters, had four demands: an end to martial law, withdrawal of occupying troops from Beijing, an end to news censorship, and a guarantee that student protesters would not be punished.

People who claim to know China often say that Chinese students have little idea of what democracy means, whatever their fine phrases. After all, they say, China has no tradition of rule of law. And “ordinary” people are more interested in ending corruption than in establishing democracy. Perhaps so. But everyone in China knows what it feels like to be subjected to arbitrary rule. The lower your social status, the more you feel it. Traveling through China I have often found that “ordinary” people wanted to talk about rights and the need for a better legal system, whereas people with higher connections were more likely to explain that such things were not really so important in China, that Chinese had their own ways. The traditional way to cope with arbitrary rule is to cultivate good relations with officials, whether they be hard-line or reformist. The students were surely right to insist that freedom of speech, rule of law, and the right to form independent institutions are better ways. And what are these, if not conditions for democracy?

* * *

In any event, none of the students’ demands was ever granted. Government leaders did see the students, but to lecture them, not to hold dialogues. Reformists, including Zhao Ziyang, promised that, given enough time, they would sort things out. But when Zhao met students in the square on May 15, he was in tears and said it was “too late.” Perhaps more could have been accomplished if communications between the reformist officials and the students had been better; but to insist on that is to miss the point of the protest, which was to avoid playing politics with one faction in the Communist Party or the other. Tiananmen Square, as it were, had declared independence.

The most moving aspect of the Beijing Spring was the failure of the government to intimidate. The more the government threatened to use force, the larger the crowds and the greater their resolve to stand firm. Calhoun rightly stresses the “sense of inspiration,” which “seemed set against a background of shame about the passivity of the Chinese people in the face of repression.” Patriotic sentiments often sounded overwrought, but watching the events on television in 1989, I was reminded of the Philippines three years before, when people finally stood up to Marcos and proclaimed themselves “proud to be Filipino.” Dictatorship, like a foreign occupation, is above all humiliating. It forces people to behave like slaves. To have withdrawn from the square, then, however expedient for factional politics, would have perpetuated the humiliation.

This is why I find it hard to fault Chai Ling, or Li Lu, or any of the other people who refused to appease the government. Rather than comparing them to Red Guards, or to European and American students in 1968, it might be more accurate to think of them as resistants in a country under occupation. In an occupied country, reasonable, moderate members of the elite often think it best to cooperate with the more moderate types in the occupation government. That way they might actually improve life a little, prevent the worst from happening, protect some victims, make the best of things. Resistants, on the other hand, are frequently hotheads, adventurers, fanatics, nationalists, and so on. They like to talk about sacrifice and saving the nation. Their actions often cause many innocents to die. But their effect on morale is incalculable.

Feng Congde was Chai Ling’s husband at the time of the protest. He told the makers of The Gate of Heavenly Peace why he stayed in the square: “We were telling people throughout the country that there were still people who dared to fight back.” That is why the boy who defied the tank inspired not only Chinese but millions in Eastern Europe. Once people have dared to fight back, no dictatorship can ever be sure of its power again. In that respect, if in no other, the protest in Tiananmen Square was the beginning of the end of Communist Party rule in China.

  1. Quoted from the Chinese-language paper Xingdao ribao in an essay by Ming Ruan, entitled “The Gamble Before the Last Judgment.”
  2. Washington Post, June 4, 1995, p. C3.
Topics: 
Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

Moving the Mountain
a documentary film directed by Michael Apted, produced by Trudie Styler

The Gate of Heavenly Peace
a documentary film directed and produced by Carma Hinton, by Richard Gordon

Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China
by Craig Calhoun
University of California Press, 333 pp.

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This article was first published in the December 21, 1995 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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