Escape from China

As I’ve said before, China can be a wonderful place, as long as you play by its rules. There are many things to praise about the CCP — the one that’s helping bring technology to the countryside, or the one that helps certain (but by no means all) minorities maintain their culture. But as I also have always said, there is more than one CCP. And the CCP you’ll read about in this superb essay by Chinese writer Liao Yiwu is the worst of the worst.

Liao was once imprisoned for daring to write a poem about the government’s harsh handling of the student protestors of 1989, and his books, needless to say, can only be published abroad. After being barred from entering the US to attend a PEN conference, his handlers told him if he tried to go to the airport he would be “disappeared” just like Ai Weiwei.

For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.

China for him had become a prison in which he was destined to rot. That was unacceptable. He had to write, and he would do whatever he needed to to secure the freedom to express himself.

Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.

Escape he does, crossing from a border town in Yunnan to Vietnam, and finally making his way to Berlin, where one of his books is being published. This is a remarkable story of bravery and refusal to be silenced by government terror.

Which leads me to an observation I made in China last week. Somethings seems to have changed. Censorship, which my Chinese friends used to laugh at as a nuisance, has become a front-and-center national issue. As always on these trips, I talk to as many Chinese people as I can about their feelings toward the government. Granted, these spot interviews are thoroughly unscientific, but I have always found them revealing. In the past, most of the responses I got were along the same lines: We don’t really love the government, but it gets things done, and anything it sets its sights on doing will happen. In general, this is a good thing. We don’t love our government but we support it and are proud of our country.

During the run-up to the Olympics I heard more positive things about the government than ever before. People defended it aggressively in light of the riots in Tibet, and national pride seemed to be at its zenith, which wasn’t too surprising. Along with Tibet, this was when AntiCNN began its successful campaign to convince China it was the victim of a vast media conspiracy to make them look bad. Everyone seemed to close ranks and display their love of China, even placing a “heart China” alongside their names on MSN.

Has there been a sea change? Again, this is not scientific in the least, but all I heard this time, from taxi drivers to old colleagues to new friends, was harsh criticism. The one word that permeated each discussion was “Weibo.” Something about the Wenzhou train crash and its harmonization on Weibo seemed to have struck a nerve with many Chinese (and foreigners, too). Finally, suddenly, censorship moved from being a nuisance to outright repression.

The reaction to the cover-up was across the board: the government had lost the trust of its people, and all the glory they were claiming for its new high-speed rail system was built on sand. Some said they would never ride the fast trains now that they know they are unsafe, and they place the entire blame for that on the government. A government that pledged the trains were safe, and then covered up its flaws. And then censored all conversation about it. This was one whammy after another, and the Chinese people seemed to reach a breaking point. And I don’t see how their trust can be re-won.

With sites like Weibo, it’s becoming impossible for the Chinese government to hide under a cloak of secrecy. They can try to stamp out conversations but it will be like whack-a-mole; one will flare up as the other is extinguished. And the more they censor, the more outraged the public will become.

People might be furious at the government, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimistic. The vibe I got was one of outrage mixed with resignation. And for the umpteenth time, I know this was not a representative sample. But it seemed so prevalent, it couldn’t have just been a coincidence that everyone wanted to complain about the handling of Weibo.

The CCP faces a rocky road as it seeks to repair the damage it created for itself. Millions of their people will be watching them, and attempts to silence them all on the microblogs will be an exercise in futility. China’s relationship with its own citizens seems to have entered a new phase, and it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.


Tiananmen Square (again?)

I know, it’s been over-discussed and picked over. But China Daily actually has an op-ed piece today on the subject, and it begs for comment. It’s rare to see any mention of this topic at all in the Chinese media, but it’s depressing (though not surprising) to see a story that is totally one-sided.

The gist of it is that the massacre is all a big myth, concocted by a Western press that lies its head off. Everyone’s lying about it. Reporters who I know personally are lying about it. The only ones telling the truth is the government.

Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most Western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media.

The usual Western media conspiracy, always out to harm China.

The editorial’s “argument” is that they found “some reporters in the square at the time” who said they saw no massacre, and that’s good enough for them, despite a mountain of evidence. Case closed.

This is weasly, because as everyone knows by now there was no massacre inside the square, as was first reported during “the fog of war.” Sometimes an uninformed journalist continues to refer to a massacre inside the square, and that is sloppiness. That there were shootings and deaths on side streets and other parts of town on June 4 — in other words, a massacre — is a matter of fact, just as it’s a matter of fact that an angry crowd killed a handful of soldiers. What is not known is how many were killed, but even if it was just a few it’s still a massacre. (My country had its own massacre, Kent State, in which four students were killed. A massacre is a massacre.)

I won’t labor the point with my own interpretation. Instead, let’s just go to some eyewitnesses.

First, Chinese author Ma Jian writes of his interview with a man who was in the crowd who had his arm crushed by a tank and is now an amputee.

“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.

What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.

“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”

Timothy Brook, who received a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University and taught in Shanghai:

The first rounds of fire catch everybody by surprise. The people in the streets don’t expect this to happen. There are a couple of hospitals right near Muxidi, and the casualties start showing up within 10 or 15 minutes of the first round of gunfire. The casualties run very high because people didn’t expect to be shot at with live ammunition. When they start firing, people say, “Oh, it’s rubber bullets.” Even after it becomes clear, even after they realize that the army is going to go ahead at any cost, people still pour into the streets. This is the amazing thing: People were just so angry, so furious at what was happening in their city that they were not going to step back and let the army do what it was doing. This is why the casualties from Muxidi on east towards Tiananmen Square were so high. This is the major military confrontation of the evening.

Self-described former Maoist and reporter for the Globe and Mail Jan Wong (same link as above):

That Saturday night the army started coming in … the city, and so the people rushed out again. This was becoming a regular occurrence: Every time people said, “The army’s coming,” everybody would rush out and stop them. And they rushed out this time, except the army shot them, and so they started running down the alleyways.

People in [the Muxidi] apartment buildings could hear all this. It was summertime and the windows were open, so they heard the gunfire; they heard people screaming; and they saw the soldiers shooting at people. They would lean out their windows and scream at the soldiers and curse them and throw things. I had that feeling myself. I wanted to throw things out the window of the Beijing Hotel because you just felt anger: “Why are you doing this to the people?” …

What they did was they just raked the buildings with their gunfire, and they were shooting people. People were being killed in their own kitchens because these bullets were very lethal. … They just shot at them because they were trying to get into the city. They had been ordered to take Tiananmen, and they were going to get there no matter what it took.

From Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the whistleblower who blew the cover of the conspiracy to convince the world there was no SARS in Beijing, and who was later harassed for his efforts:

I was chief of the department of general surgery on June 4, 1989. On the night of June 3, I heard repeated broadcasts urging people to stay off the streets. At about 10 p.m., I was in my apartment when I heard the sound of continuous gunfire from the north. Several minutes later, my pager beeped. It was the emergency room calling me, and I rushed over. What I found was unimaginable–on the floor and the tables of the emergency room were seven young people, their faces and bodies covered with blood. Two of them were later confirmed dead by EKG. My head buzzed and I nearly passed out. I had been a surgeon for more than 30 years. I had treated wounded soldiers before, while on the medical team of the PLA railway corps that built the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. But their injuries resulted from unavoidable accidents during the construction process, while before my eyes, in Beijing, the magnificent capital of China, lying in front of me, were our own people, killed by our people’s army, with weapons supplied by the people.

Even eyewitness Philip Cunningham, who often supports the CCP, wrote of that day,

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The editorial repeats all the cliches of the deniers. Referring to a book by Philip Cunningham, it says:

It quotes one of the student leaders, Chai Ling, as having said that creating a “sea of blood” might be the only way to shake the government. If frustrated students leaving the square carried out those petrol bomb attacks on troops, then the anger of the government becomes a lot more understandable. But I doubt whether any of those responsible for the original phony story will get round to details like that.

There were some attacks on troops, and that hasn’t been denied. But most of the demonstrators leaving the square did so peacefully. Most of the shooting was not in response to petrol bomb attacks. And one foolish and out-of-context quote from Chai Ling does not make for an excuse for a massacre. Blogger Xu Eberlein, one of my favorites, adds some nuance:

Reading excerpts of the newly published Tiananmen Moon by Philip Cunningham, the very journalist who interviewed Chai Ling 20 years ago, made me feel that Chai Ling might have been more innocent than some have thought. Although her idea of using bloodshed to arouse people was hardly a moral one, she appeared to be sincere and serious about the student movement and was indignant toward some other selfish power-thirsty student leaders. As such, I’d like to believe the young Chai Ling twenty years ago was a humanly imperfect idealist, as young activists are. If she sometimes took herself too importantly, it was largely because of the situation: being young and the leader of a mass movement can carry anyone away.

I can go on and on with more testimony from reporters and Chinese citizens who were all there and whose stories are strikingly similar. I can cite the Tiananmen Mothers. There is no shortage of proof. And this isn’t about whether the students were right or wrong, or whether there was or wasn’t violence on both sides. There remain many unanswered questions about June 4, and there’s no doubt blame on all sides. And there’s no doubt that in the confusion and violence there were contradictory stories that got large public play (just as we saw after the killing of Bin Laden). Fog of war. There are myths, such as reports of a massacre inside the square. But the fact remains, many peaceful citizens who had left the square were fired upon in back alleys and many died. Hundreds? A thousand? We’ll never know, but the CCP, which keeps meticulous records, does know.

It’s good that China Daily is at least discussing the subject. A pity it’s the same old China-as-victim, Western-media-as-villain nonsense.

June 4th may not mean much to most Chinese today, and even those who were directly involved have moved on, and some would rather just forget about it. I understand that. But truth is truth, history is history, facts are facts. The CD editorial is another effort to bury the truth and cast all the blame on foreign media. This is an easy out, and is used whenever China has something to hide. Claiming all the media are lying seems kind of crazy. It’s a conspiracy theory, as nutty as claims by some that China is conspiring to take over the world. Do they really believe all the reporters and eyewitnesses colluded to mislead the world? Only China would make a claim like that.

Update: Gotta love this line from the comments:

The Chinese press is truely independent from the truth and our wise leaders make sure that there is no wrong or incorrect information in the news. This is the correct and scientific way with Chinese characteristics. And it makes me proud to be a Chinese.

I am assuming this is parody. At least I hope it is.


Tianamen’s ghost alive and well; Foursquare banned in China

Gady Epstein on China’s decision yesterday to ban Foursquare nationwide after it was used to arrange gatherings at Tiananmen Square:

The blocking of Foursquare, while perhaps temporary, is yet another reminder that the Communist Party of China is serious about controlling history, as I wrote about last year at this time, and is just as serious about controlling the dangers of Web 2.0. Chinese social networking services are in self-censorship mode today — in the case of the portal Sina, even removing emoticons of candles and flowers from its microblog. To some extent the party’s strategy has been successful: Many in China, especially younger generations, have little clue what happened 21 years ago on June 4. Of those that do remember, some unknown percentage — perhaps a quite high percentage — have chosen not to care too deeply, a sort of willed forgetting in service of today’s prosperity that author Chan Koon Chung broaches in his Chinese novel “The Fat Years.”

….Those who choose to remember, meanwhile, continue to do so today — in various ways on the Chinese Internet, quite brazenly on Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook for those who use a VPN or proxy service to get around the Great Firewall, and many in their own quiet ways offline. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s issued a statement today, translated here, asking that Beijing “sincerely confront the major human rights incident of June Fourth.” Hong Kong holds its annual march and candlelight vigil tonight. Up to 50,000 people there are expected to show that they choose not to forget.

All of those who insist the Chinese people don’t care about this anymore leave out this key point: today’s apathy and indifference toward the incident is government-induced. Epstein in the above article calls it “willed forgetting.” I left the following comment on this topic over at Elliott Ng’s excellent post today:

The only point I disagree with is that it’s been forgotten due to “the busyness of life.” In neighboring Hong Kong there are still sizable demonstrations, and the world still remembers the day vividly. Just look at twitter last night. It is only where the incident has been filtered out of the search engines and banned from any discussion in the media that it is forgotten. The Nanjing Massacre is not forgotten, and those remembering it are just as busy as those forgetting the TSM. Out of sight, out of mind. Gady is spot on – this is willed forgetfulness, and the one doing the willing is the government. That is the high price that comes with a one-party authoritarian state; Big Brother controls the brainwaves and can convince people that ignorance is strength and freedom is slavery.

[Also via Elliott, whose post offers an array of excellent links, I found these superb photos from 1989 over at Slate. Highly recommended.]

I got quite annoyed at myself several days ago when I put up a post on Tibet and gave a finger-wagging lecture about how whenever China censors and cracks down on basic liberties it tells the world it is still a weak country, insecure and in the grip of a seemingly unending inferiority complex. I got so annoyed at my own self-righteousness I deleted it. But I look at this story and I think, maybe it’s not too harsh or self-righteous. It may come across that way, especially when Westerners say it, but it still needs to be said.

As China embarks on an expensive and ambitious campaign to build up its soft power, it should look right here, at this sort of behavior. Soft power is all about hearts and minds. The US sacrificed much of its own soft power under Bush, and you’d think China would learn from that. Bullying and suppressing aren’t good strategies for winning global admiration.

Update: CDT has some great articles, videos and photos on its site, which today is bathed in black. You must go see those videos (like this one). No wonder the whole incident has been hermetically sealed and locked away.


New report on Tiananmen Square “incident” traces hundreds of the dead, wounded and imprisoned

Go to this page and check out the PDF file. This is not a summary of all those who were killed and wounded, just a sliver. The report was released in Chinese last year and the English translation was made available today. From the summary:

Compiled from available information, including the Tiananmen Mothers’ database, as well as in-person interviews, the report tells the stories of 195 people who were killed in the June Fourth crackdown, and provides information on 57 people who were wounded or disabled, and more than 800 individuals who have been imprisoned or detained in Reeducation-Through-Labor institutions for offenses related to the crackdown in more than a dozen provinces, including the seven people still in prison today….

“This report is an invaluable resource for those who want to understand the on-going human costs of the June Fourth crackdown, and an important tool for promoting official accountability,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of HRIC.

Those killed were men, women and children from all walks of life, including students, peasants, truck drivers, performers, engineers, peddlers and even a party secretary and deputy to the Beijing People’s Congress. They were from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and as far away as Liaoning Province. The report provides their personal details: names, ages, home locations, occupations, circumstances surrounding their deaths, family backgrounds, and information on surviving family members.

The youngest victim was Lu Peng, a 9-year-old third grade student (#34) who was shot in the chest by martial law troops around midnight, June 3-4, and died immediately. The oldest was Zhang Fuyuan, a 66-year-old retired hospital worker and Communist Party member (#166) who was working as a guard in a construction site of the Design Institute of the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry. On the evening of June 3, Zhang was among a group of residents near Changanjie who were chased and fired upon by martial law troops as they ran into a hutong.

Other victims include Zhang Jian, 17-year-old high school student (#181) who was shot in the heart by soldiers on his way to see his uncle and aunt on June 4 and was dead on arrival at the Peking Union Medical college Hospital; and Dai Wei, a 20-year-old cook in the Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant (#42) who was shot in the back on his way to work on the evening of June 3 and died in the early morning of June 4 in the Post and Communications Hospital.

In the report, Jiang tells of families of the dead who never received any compensation or even official accounts of how their loved ones died. These families have never even been allowed to openly mourn their deaths.

As for the living, the report provides the names of the more than 800 prisoners identified, and more detailed information on many of them, such as lengths and types of sentences and locations of imprisonment, offenses of which they were convicted, and age, occupation, home location and other personal details. The report also tells the story of many who have been released from prison but have not been able to find work, and continue to suffer economically, politically and psychologically.

Human Rights in China urges the Chinese authorities to respond to the appeal in this report for an official re-examination of the events and to the Tiananmen Mothers’ call for investigation, compensation, accountability, and dialogue.

To my friends who find this dull, repetitious and water under the bridge, please move on. For me, this remains an open wound, and as long as the CCP keeps stonewalling, the much beloved phrase “Reform and Opening Up” will ring at least partially hollow. Those who keep demanding more contrition from the Japanese for their crimes against humanity should demand the same from their own rulers. I’m not saying the TSM was anywhere near the scale of the Nanjing Massacre, but murder is murder.

Update: Amnesty International’s blog tells us what’s going on in Hong Kong today:

Commemorative activities organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (The Alliance) were brought to an abrupt halt by police on May 29th and 30th.

The organizers had followed procedures for regulating public assemblies, but the police claimed additional ‘entertainment’ licenses were required, confiscated exhibits including two statues of the Goddess of Democracy and arrested 15 people.

Amnesty released a public statement commemorating today’s anniversary, in which we condemned the Chinese authorities’ efforts to cover up the massacre and bring those responsible into investigation. Furthermore, we continue to urge the Chinese government to stop suppressing citizens who exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

Three cheers for One Country, Two Systems.


21 years ago today….


Via CDT, AP photographer Jeff Widener’s photo of two amateur photographers taking shots of the “goddess of democracy.”

Later in the week Widner would take the most famous photo to ever come out of China.

I have to admit, I want to move back to China. It’s always in my heart, and sometimes I feel like dropping everything and heading back. But no matter how much I love China, I will never forget what the government there is capable of, the good and the bad. The government can bulldoze over the old Gulou hutong (and do check that link), they can scrub uncomfortable references from the Internet, but they cannot delete what happened that day, and no story of modern China is complete without including it. Never forget.


Top 5 China events of the decade (for me)

A week ago the Shanghaiist asked me if I’d prepare an end-of-year or end-of-decade list of what were for me the top 5 China-related event.

Now that the post has been up on their site a few days, I’m reprinting it here for posterity. These are not necessarily the most important things that happened. The Sichuan earthquake, for example, is more important than some of my other choices. There were too many to choose from, like Sun Zhigang, the tainted milk scandal and Hu’s tremendously important strides in bringing Africa closer to China. Instead, these are the items that touched me on a very personal level, inspiring me to feel joy or outrage, hope or gloom.

From Shanghaiist:

Richard Burger worked in Greater China (mostly the PRC) as a PR executive for more than six years, the last few months of which he spent as editor and columnist for the English-language Chinese daily newspaper The Global Times. He is also the author of one of the oldest and most respected China blogs, The Peking Duck

What a difference ten years has made for China, from the new kid on the block to one of the world’s most influential movers and shakers. Since 2000, China has turned the notion of “New World Order” on its head.

During those 10 years we’ve watched China experience some breathtaking highs and painful lows. I first started watching China early in 2001, when I moved from the US to Hong Kong, and still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I heard the big news that made it to No.1 on my Personal Five Most Significant China Stories of the decade.

1. July 13, 2001: Beijing is named host city for 2008 Olympic Games

This announcement created a wave of euphoria that only intensified as the Opening Ceremony approached. From the moment it was reported until the Olympic Green was locked down at the end of August 2008 we’ve never seen so many people so motivated for so many years over a sports competition. Nothing since has ever topped this one.

2. April 20, 2003: Chinese government holds live on-air SARS press conference

I know, that sounds kind of dry. But if you were there watching it live you’ll know just how jaw-dropping it was. Some of the world’s most tight-lipped, rarely seen leaders took live questions from the international media pool in Beijing and revealed there were hundreds more known cases of SARS in Beijing than they’d admitted earlier. Afterwards, the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing were fired for negligence of duty and the May holiday was canceled to keep people from traveling. Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.

3. April 7, 2008: A Chinese hero is born

It couldn’t have been better scripted by the propaganda department: A graceful young woman, an Olympic torchbearer confined to a wheelchair, is attacked in full public view in Paris by a pro-Tibet activist determined to grab the Olympic torch from her hands. She refuses to yield, using her body to protect the torch as if it were a child. The timing was incredible: China was reeling from criticism of its handling of ethnic tension in Tibet, and photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it. This sense of commonality and closing rank was to be matched only by the volunteerism generated by the Sichuan earthquake the next month – a close runner-up for this list.

4. June 16, 2009: Chinese court frees Deng Yujiao

The release of Deng Yujiao, the 21-year-old Chinese karaoke waitress turned folk hero who stabbed to death a drunken party official who tried to force her to have sex, resonated with everyone in China. Originally found guilty of murder, her plight captured the imagination of Chinese activists and netizens and her release was historic, proving that with enough pressure from an energized and outraged public the Chinese government will respond to injustices that in the past were swept under the carpet. We’ll know in the year ahead if it truly marked a turning point.

5. June 2009 – present: Post-Olympic communication crackdown

After opening its Internet more than ever before for the 2008 Olympic Games, China took a sharp swerve in the opposite direction the next year. The ominous clouds of heightened censorship moved in prior to the 20th anniversary of the “Tiananamen Square Incident” with the banning of Chinese and English-language social media sites and it kept getting worse right through the October 1 festivities, with no end in sight to this day. Many had misread the April 20, 2003 press conference as a sign China was ready to open up. In some ways it has, but the Internet remains more censored than ever.


I know we all have our different picks for a list like this. So feel free to suggest your own.


1989, a ripple effect from Tiananmen to Checkpoint Charlie?

Foreign Policy offers an interesting if somewhat debatable book excerpt on the role the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations played in influencing soon-to-follow demonstrations in Europe, where less than six months after the crackdown in Beijing the Berlin Wall would crack as well, realigning the world’s long-entrenched geo-political structures in ways that we still can’t completley comprehend even today. The dust of the ripped-down wall, like that of the World Trade Center, has yet to fully settle.

In the eyes of the author, Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zak Chair of history for U.S.-China relations at Cornell University, the fact that the world’s foreign correspondents had congregated at the Square in May 1989 for Gorbachev’s visit helped ensure the students’ story would spread to all corners of Europe.

The events of Tiananmen Square shocked the whole world. Ironically, it was the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow that exposed the crackdown to a global audience, as hundreds of journalists and cameramen who reported on Gorbachev’s visit stayed to cover the students’ demonstrations….

The effects of the Tiananmen tragedy ricocheted throughout the entire communist bloc, especially in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe. In Moscow, Gorbachev, in spite of his disapproval of the CCP leadership’s behavior, tried to avoid criticizing Beijing directly (though the impact of the Tiananmen crackdown indirectly restricted his ability to influence and control developments in the Soviet Union, and he was even less willing and likely to resort to force in dealing with activities related to the disintegration of the Soviet Union).

In almost every East European country, the pro-democracy movements grew rapidly in the following summer and fall of 1989. These opposition movements took the opportunity of international Communism’s deepened legitimacy crisis to wage new offensives against the Communist authorities in their own countries. The Communist leaderships were all facing difficult dilemmas — they could neither afford to take a totally defensive attitude toward the pro-democracy movements nor dare resort to violent means.

During the following summer and fall, Eastern Europe experienced great unrest, eroding the political foundation and undermining legitimacy of every Communist regime there, culminating on Nov. 9 and 10, 1989. In Germany, the uprising masses brought down the Berlin Wall and with it the symbolic divide between the East and the West. By December — with the execution of Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — the communist bloc in East Europe had virtually collapsed.

Somehow, the Chinese Communist regime survived the shock waves of 1989. After a three-year period of stagnation, Deng used a dramatic tour of southern China in the spring of 1992 to regenerate the “reform and opening-up” project, initiated by Deng and the CCP leadership in the late 1970s. What has followed, as is well known today, is China’s rapid economic growth — despite continuous stagnation in the country’s political democratization — in the last decade of the 20th century and entering the 21st century.

The argument – that the TSM exacerbated the fissures that ultimately pushed the Soviet Bloc past the breaking point – isn’t easy to prove. Those fissures had been building for decades, and I believe that had their been no demonstrations in China in 1989, the Wall would still have fallen and the USSR would still have disintegrated. China’s political-economic fissures were worlds apart from Russia’s, and I’m afraid any effort to compare them has to be somewhat contrived.

Nothing could have stopped the fall of the USSR — except perhaps if there’d been a madman running the show and not Gorbachev, one of my personal heroes and the man who made the extraordinary decision – unbelievable, really – not to order the shooting of the demonstrators who stormed Checkpoint Charlie in 1989. Would that Deng had shown similar restraint (like, say, using tear gas and rubber bullets), maybe he, too, would enjoy Gorbachev-like status. His legacy is great; a pity about that one bright shining stain.


Peking Duck blocked as Twitter, Flickr, etc. open

Since about 10am today my site has been blocked. Hopefully in a few hours I’ll be able to say, “False alarm” and delete this post. But until then, I’ll be a bit nervous. Maybe it’s because of my comment in this thread yesterday, where a reader asked if I was worried about getting blocked and I replied:

this site has been blocked from time to time, but at this point the government realizes that while foreigners here can tolerate youtube and twitter being blocked, going without TPD would be altogether unacceptable.

In case one of the 30,000 censors felt offended by my seeming arrogance, let me explain – I was being humorous, ironic, funny. Now, can you lift the block?

Adding to the irony, for the entire week prior to the block this site was running June 4 stories non-stop. As soon as I stopped and put up a non-TAM post the ax falls. Go figure.

To be fair, it’s possible this is not a block at all but a server issue, though the way it times out, without the usual server error, makes me suspicious.


Repost: Interview with a 1989 Demonstrator

In 2003, shortly after I left Beijing for Singapore, one of my clients mentioned to me his participation in the 1989 demonstrations as a student in Shanghai. As I listened to him talk, I realized I had an opportunity for an extraordinary interview. It’s always been my favorite post on this blog, for whatever that’s worth, and I wanted to repost it in honor of tomorrow’s anniversary. I wrote it originally for the now defunct Living in China website, and wish I could include the comments that were posted there six years ago.

The post was a turning point for me personally – the first time I really “got” how today’s Chinese view their government and what it did 20 years ago. For better or for worse, my friend David speaks for many Chinese. This post is as close as I’ve come to an actual case study of how China’s successful young professionals view one of the country darkest moments. I didn’t realize that at the time, but coming back drove the point home. It’s especially relevant right now, as everyobdy thinks back to that impossible moment in history.

Interview with a 1989 Demonstrator
December 17, 2003

Below is the interview I posted a few day’s ago on Living in China. It tells of the evolution of a former flag-waving protestor in the 1989 demonstrations in Shanghai. If you’ve ever looked back at the Tiananmen Square days and wondered what those students are doing and thinking today, you may find this interesting.

David S., 34, is now a prominent executive with a multinational technology company here in Singapore, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on his company’s public relations. When I heard that David played a part in Beijing’s sister demonstrations in Shanghai, I asked if I could interview him about the role he played and how he looks back on those days nearly 15 years later.

What made this so interesting for me was seeing the evolution of a 1989 demonstrator, from flag-waving rebel to a proud supporter of China and its government. It is a remarkable story.

Some of David’s viewpoints are quite different from my own, but that isn’t relevant. At the end, I offer a few of my own thoughts, but I don’t want to editorialize about which point of view is right or wrong.

Q. What brought you to the demonstrations in Shanghai?

It’s hard to understand this if you weren’t there, but it would have been abnormal for me not to go to the demonstrations. We all went, it was just natural. My classmates and I were swept up, we simply had to go, it was the natural thing to do. Suddenly, we were all participating.

You have to be aware of the situation in China at that time. It was as though there were two parallel systems, one being the economic system, the other the political system. These systems were like two wheels that weren’t on level ground, and along the way tension built up over a period of nearly 10 years, ever since Deng came back to power after the Cultural Revolution. That tension was tremendous, and no one could escape from it.

Chinese society consists of multiple layers – peasants, students, soldiers, factory workers. At that time, there was tension at every layer of the society. People were confused and frustrated. Earthquakes happen when different layers rub against each other at a different pace, and finally the earth can no longer contain the energy and it erupts. That’s the type of tension that was behind the protests.

So much about the economy had improved and was changing, but politics – the government – remained status quo. In the 1970s, if you said anything disrespectful of Mao, you’d be executed. In 1989, if you said something negative about Deng in public you could still be in serious trouble.

It was the students who were most sensitive to this. Our parents all worked for the state, and there was still little or no private enterprise. They were not as concerned about ideology and change. They only had to worry about feeding their families. But as students we were more liberal, more free-spirited and more engaged in ideologies. We weren’t concerned about raising a family. We were not necessarily practical; we were very idealistic.

Historically, most great movements in China were started by students. Even today, we celebrate China Youth Day on May 4th. That’s because when the KMT [Kuomintang] were still in power and the Communists were outlawed, the students demonstrated for the Communists on May 4th. General Tuan Qi Rui was the warlord over Beijing at the time and he opened fire on them in the street. So after the Communists took power they dedicated that day as the nation’s youth, which is still a holiday today.

Q. Where were you, and what was your own role?

I was studying medicine at the Shanghai Second Medical University, now a part of Fudan University. I was asked by my classmates to be the flag bearer because I’m quite tall, so my role was to carry the flag and wave it in front of the demonstrators. Every day we would march from the university campus all the way to the People’s Square, and I was in the front holding and waving the flag.

Q. Looking back, are you glad you did it? Do you have any regrets?

No, I don’t have regrets and I don’t think what we did was in vain. It was important for us to make our voice heard. For my generation, the crackdown had huge implications for our lives, probably like the JFK assassination had for Americans.

But I have to admit I am no longer interested in politics, especially now that China is undergoing a natural transition toward democracy, with the economy being the core and the catalyst for that change. And nothing can stop that change, no matter how much the Communists want to preserve their old values.

Q. We all know about the violent crackdown in Beijing. How was it handled in Shanghai?

There was nothing like the martial law that took place in Beijing. The Mayor of Shanghai at the time was extremely competent, and he made an appeal to the city on TV and he calmed everyone down. I’ll never forget, he said something that was ambiguous and politically brilliant: “Down the road, truth will prevail.” That could have meant he was sympathetic to the students or totally with the government. But it was very calming to hear him say it.

The mayor organized factory workers to clear the roads, not the army. These workers were the parents and uncles and aunts of the students. Some members of the student body tried to stir up these factory workers, and I think that was a very dangerous thing to do. Students demonstrating was one thing, but if it was factory workers – that would need to be stopped, and there would have been a riot. That’s why Beijing was much more tense.

Bringing in the factory workers truly showed the leadership and tact and common sense of Shanghai’s mayor – Zhu Rongji. Beijing is the political center, but Shanghai is the financial center, and it could absolutely not fall into chaos, no matter what. That’s why you saw factory workers and not the army.

Q. How did you hear of the massacre, and what effect did the news have?

My father and I heard about it on the radio, on ‘Voice of America’. That was the only source there was. Soon we all knew what had happened. We watched CCTV the next day. The reporters were wearing black and some of them were obviously in a deep state of grief, their eyes visibly red, as they announced that the anti-revolutionaries had been put down. I saw those reporters with my own eyes, and soon afterwards they were replaced.

At the moment the news broke of the crackdown, I was angry. How could it happen? All of the demonstrations were peaceful. How could they justify tanks and machine guns? I gave up all hope in my own government, and I felt ashamed to be Chinese. We were also disappointed in [then] President Bush – he was softer than we wanted. All that Bush did was impose sanctions, and that disappointed us. We were in a dilemma. We wanted the US and others to do something, but we also knew that would have hurt us.

That was part of being 20 years old in China when you haven’t seen the world, no Hollywood movies, you’ve only read Stalin-style textbooks. I matured ten years overnight, and I also became a little cynical.

For so many years China had a stringently controlled educational system. From kindergarten to college, we all read the exact same books and took the exact same exams. We always believed everything that the government told us, and they told us it was an honor for ‘the people without property’ to shed their blood and sacrifice their lives for the cause of communism, fighting against the two great enemies, the Nationalists [KMT] and the Capitalists. We were brainwashed.

After Tiananmen Square, most of us believed that all government was evil. We saw that our government would kill us. I remember how my aunt told me she went to the Tiananmen Square area shortly after the crackdown and there was someone saying through a megaphone that there had never been any shooting even though she could see the bullet holes on the walls, which were soon cleaned up.

But now, that sense of shame is gone. When I look at it all objectively, I believe the government did the right thing. Maybe they didn’t do it the right way. I still have reservations about the tanks and the machine guns. But at that time they couldn’t afford to sit down and negotiate. The students wanted power, and in 1989 the social cohesion wasn’t there to support that. It was only 10 years after the Gang of Four, and it wasn’t like today. In retrospect, Deng at that time couldn’t afford to show further weakness. He had to hold the country together. Yes, we paid the price in blood, but we are still one country, one nation.

You have to realize that Deng changed my life – everybody’s life. He opened new doors for all of us. In 1982, my mother was among the first batch of scholars who were sent abroad to study, and she went to Harvard. She returned to become the director of a major Shanghai hospital. So we are grateful. And soon so many other changes happened.

I feel a great respect for our leaders. There are some, like Li Peng, who I still have no respect for. But Deng – soon we felt as though he had torn down the Berlin Wall. I wondered, if Deng had not handled the demonstrations the way he did would China be the country it is today? The whole nation is changing and people are more affluent, and I feel proud of being Chinese. People once looked down at us, and now they have respect for us.

Q. But what Deng achieved – could he not have done it within a more democratic system? Did there have to be the ruthlessness?

After going to the US for five or six years, I saw that the level of democracy there can only happen in a society with a certain level of education. What the people of China now need is leadership. China is one century behind the US, and you can’t expect us to change that fast.

This is why many Asians resent it when Americans try to insist that the Chinese adopt their style of democracy. Shanghai may be ready, but if you go out to the surrounding areas, you’ll see it just isn’t possible, that it will take more time. I believe that one day, China will have Taiwan-style democracy, but it has to be built on a strong economy.

Q. I agree that Western-style democracy isn’t right for China today. But can’t there be a compromise? Can’t the government be strong, without tolerating abuse of the poor by corrupt officials, without tolerating the marginalization of AIDS victims, without arresting kids who write about government reform on the Internet?

The way we view human rights is so different from the West’s. We have 1.3 billion people and many of them go hungry. Putting food on the table and a roof over its people’s heads is what our government has to worry about. AIDS, corruption, the Internet – that is all secondary to the leadership of 1.3 billion people. If I were running China today, I would not be able to hear all the different parties. I would have to have my own agenda and stick to that agenda. I believe that if a secret vote were held today most people in China would vote for the CCP.

For more than 150 years, starting with the Opium Wars, our national pride has been bullied by the Europeans, the Russians, then the Japanese. Now China is an economic and a military power. And it has no intentions of being aggressive. So I am not giving up my Chinese citizenship. Ten years ago I would have jumped to do that.

Looking back, I firmly believe the government did the right thing, though they could have handled it better. We paid a high price. Our leaders in 1989 could have shown greater human skills and greater negotiating skills. But let’s live with Communism for now and change things one thing at a time. The Chinese now have a much better life than they did 100 years ago. Not so long ago, my house was the first in our hutong to have a television set. The whole neighborhood would come to our backyard and sit on the ground to watch. It was just a 9-inch TV, and we put a large magnifying glass in front of it so everyone could see – that is how inventive we Chinese had to be. And now, so many families have two color TVs. They enjoy a better life, they have pride, they just put a man into space. Over the next couple of decades, China will probably overtake Japan. The world now needs China as much as we need them.

Thank you, David.

This was definitely an eye-opening interview for me. Coming from my own background where the rights of the individual are sacred, I was intrigued to hear such a different point of view. As readers familiar with my writing know, I am not quite so easy on the CCP, and don’t feel all can be forgiven under the mantra, Change must take place slowly. But I have the highest respect for David, and find the story of his transformation and his great personal success to be impressive and inspiring.


The Tiananmen Taboo

Quite simply one of the best articles I’ve ever read about the June 4 “incident,” by banned Chinese author Ma Jian. It includes a brief interview with a participating PLA soldier, and a heart-wrenching account of a man in the crowd:

“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.

What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.

“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”

As the sun began to set, we retreated into a restaurant. I stared out at the darkening walls of the Zhongnanhai compound and thought of the government leaders inside sitting down for a family meal in their sumptuous villas, their cats and dogs scampering around their feet.

Liu Hua turned to me and said, “Those bloody Communists! What right did they have to take my arm from me? If they don’t apologise for the crackdown and offer justice for the victims, I’ll take them to the courts!”

“Be sure to keep all your evidence and medical records safe,” I said. “The day of reckoning is bound to come.” I’m always surprised by how much faith the Chinese place in the legal system. In a country that has no rule of law, our only weapon in the fight for justice is the strength of our convictions.

Stories like this and so many others I’ve been reading this week help dispel a myth that some revisionists are trying very hard to propagate, namely that the shootings took place mainly in self-defense as mobs of enraged workers tried to murder police officers and PLA soldiers. And that did happen in a few places on a very limited scale, but that violence was not representative of the demonstrations. Most of the rounds were fired directly at peaceful, innocent people who wanted to make their country better (and yes, there were some idiots among them, as there are likely to be whenever you are dealing with that many people). Those who fell can’t be forgotten. The fact that the government ordered this can’t be forgotten.

Someone raised the question on Twitter this afternoon – ironically shortly before the blockade – whether angry bloggers and people who will wear white shirts on Thursday and twitterers and others making noise about the anniversary really believe they’ll make a difference. I guess I can only speak for myself, but that question never really comes up when I blog. This is just a way for me to articulate my feelings. Maybe I know I won’t change anything, but exercising my right to self expression and putting my feelings down “on paper” and sharing them with others is a fundamental freedom and, for me at least, helps to clarify things and hopefully may even lead to new perspectives and new knowledge (I’ve learned a lot from some of my commenters, and from the incredible people this blog has brought into my life). Tiananmen Square, however distant it is from the memories of the Chinese people, is still an important event, a significant moment in China’s history and one that mustn’t be erased. By contributing to the dialogue I have no illusions about effecting change, but it’s better than silence, at least for me. And I’ll be wearing white on Thursday, if only because it will make people think.