May Fourth Movement: Top Five Readings

By Rana Mitter

The May Fourth Movement – so famous in China it doesn’t need a year, although 1919 – the year it happened – has become legendary too. On that date, some three thousand students marched through Beijing demonstrating against Japanese imperialism and started a political movement that would become identified with Chinese demands for “science” and “democracy” through the next century. From the Cultural Revolution to Tian’anmen Square, May Fourth echoes through China’s modern history. The Chinese Communist Party still claims the movement as its point of origin. On May 4, 2009, the movement will be ninety years old. In some ways, its significance to China is like that of the Sixties in the West – a celebration of youth and possibility combined with often extremist and hardcore politics.

But what was this event, why did it matter, and how can you find out more about it?

Here are five ways into this fascinating topic – famous in China, little-known in the West.

1. Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Viking Penguin 1981): still the classic account of the May Fourth generation and their revolution. Sweeping account that goes from the late Qing all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution, with May Fourth intellectuals at its heart.

2. Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman. Iconic short story by China’s major modern writer, written on the eve of the seminal events of May Fourth, 1919. Searing indictment of traditional Confucian society. Translations into English by Gladys Yang and William Lyell.

3. Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (1986). This is a fine academic account of the movement and its consequences – not for the beginner, but very subtle.

4. Chen Duxiu, “Call to Youth.” Chen’s call to China’s youth to “save the nation” in 1919 symbolizes the May Fourth Movement’s attempt to overcome Confucian attempts to venerate age and instead celebrate youth.

5. “Acting Out Democracy: Political Theater in Modern China,” Joseph W. Esherick and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, in Journal of Asian Studies (November 1990) – classic article on how the 1989 student protesters in China “acted out” their political protests with references to the past.

Rana Mitter is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and the author of works such as A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

A Monster Mash(up) with Chinese Characteristics: Breaking News from the PRC for those Intrigued by the "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" Phenomenon

By the end of this post, readers will have been able to click on a word to be introduced to the sounds of "Redgrass Music" (a genre that uses Chinese instruments in a novel manner), seen the special look of a curious vehicle recently displayed in Shanghai that one journalist has said should be called a "Lexiac" ( like a Pontiac from the front, like a Lexus from behind), and discovered something important that Zhang Yimou and Jane Austen have in common (hint: surprise appearances by the undead are involved in each case). First, though, some background about "mash-ups" (aka "mash ups" and "mashups"), for "China Beat" has dealt with this subject before and even run pieces with mash-up-like titles, but never before confronted the phenomenon of contemporary mash-up mania head on.

The first point to stress is that mash-ups are not completely new by any means. Even if the term has a short history, the mixing and matching it suggests has been taking place in China as well as all sorts of other place for ages. Fusion food was already a big thing way back in the twentieth century. (And what were nineteenth-century creations like chop suey and chow mein if not a kind of culinary mash-up avant la lettre?) Artists have been bringing together elements from and playing with juxtapositions of features of different genres and even different media for centuries, even if it is only recently that such efforts have been called "mash-ups," "samplings," or "post-modern" efforts. Turning from cuisine and art to politics, China is one of many countries that has a long experience with approaches to ideology that involve striking juxtapositions of concepts and assumptions, with just two of many examples being the effort by the Taipings (1848-1864) to fuse aspects of Christian eschatology with various kinds of indigenous concepts and the current experiment with "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," which Nicholas Kristoff has dubbed "Market Leninism," a term that captures even more effectively the mash-up-like quality of the approach.

Still, one could certainly argue that, thanks partly to the ease with which new technologies allow for re-mixing and combining, there's something special about the current rage for various kinds of mash-ups. (Even though the literary one currently making news, which features Austen characters battling zombies could have been published before the days of computers; it could just not, as the creator has noted, been published before Pride and Prejudice went out of copyright and entered the public domain.) The mash-up has become so omnipresent that there's not just one entry for the term in Wikipedia, which likes the hyphen-less spelling of this sort of hybridity, but four separate ones, running the gamut from "Mashup (digital)" to "Mashup (web application hybrid)," with "Mashup (music)," aka "bootlegging," and "Mashup (video)," aka having fun with YouTube (a format that has introduced new audiences to such classics that of the genre that pre-date the coining of the M word as "Bambi Meets Godzilla"
and "Stairway to Gilligan's Island"), in between.

This said, I'll invite readers to figure out where exactly they fall on the spectrum that runs from the "there's nothing new under the sun" to "the coming of the web has changed everything" continuum where mix-and-match creations are concerned, and simply make what they will of these 5 mash-ups created within the PRC (the first two of which have ties to the Warcraft family of games, whose popularity in China we've dealt with before on this site, here and here:

1. Pride and Patriotism and Zombies (hat tip to Danwei)...

Not content to wait to see exactly how Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games, handles the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, some Chinese students, who don't seem to have a satirical intent (but I'm not sure how one would know if they did) have come up with this version of that upcoming event (the real thing takes place October 1, 2009), substituting monstrous and mythical characters from Warcraft 3 (like those shown below) for the humans who will actually do the marching that day.

2. One World (of Warcraft), One Dream

In a similar vein, here, from the ChinaSmack site, is a monstrous mash-up, featuring World of Warcraft characters, which has fun with the song that was used to whip up excitement for the Beijing Games (note the original version of the song below it, which has Jackie Chan and other celebrities taking turns with the lyrics).

3. Redgrass Music (hat tip to James Millward of "The World on a String" blog, and Chris Hesselton for alerting me to the good post awaiting me there)...
The music speaks for itself if you click here.

4. Confucian Blues

Staying with music, there's a fascinating video of novelist/vocalist Liu Sola available here, originally broadcast on CCTV, which looks at her writings and includes clips of her on-stage experiments with fusing styles as dissimilar as Chinese Opera and American Blues.

5. Last and Maybe Least, the Lexiac...
Shown here with front and back views, of course...


Digital Traces of 1989

China Beat sent out a note to a few scholars and journalists who have carefully watched and written about the events of 1989, asking them to send in short commentaries detailing what they wish more people knew, associated with, or remembered about that spring. We ran the first piece in this limited series, by John Gittings, on April 23, the second, by Jonathan Unger, on April 26. This is the third piece.

Yang Guobin is an Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College.  He has written essays on many subjects, including the students protests of 1989, and is the author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, which will be published in June by Columbia University Press.

Media played an important role in the mobilization of Chinese protesters in 1989. Twenty years afterwards, the protest movement is still linked to media, except that it is now the new media. The Internet has become a reservoir of the history and memories of that fateful year.

The most comprehensive English-language material on the Internet is perhaps the web site The Gate of Heavenly Peace run by the Long Bow Group. Because it is already well known to readers of China Beat, I will mention two other sources.

One is CND’s “Virtual Museum of China '89.” CND has a large “Virtual Museum of the ‘Cultural Revolution,” which I often use. Its “Virtual Museum of China '89” is smaller in scale, but nonetheless contains many valuable resources. The archives of the “Virtual Museum of China '89”consist of “Images,” “Sounds,” “Writings” and other documents related to the protest movement. The “Writings” section contains, among other things, a diary by a student in Tsinghua University, two novels, ten special issues about the movement published in English from 1989 through 1999, and many special supplements published in Chinese from 1992 through 1999. The diary had many touching details. For example, the entry for May 20, 1989, the first day of martial law, begins with the following words (in my hasty and awkward translation):

The morning sun lit the Square once again. Nothing happened. No troops were in view. Then there came news from all quarters that this morning, at the main crossroads in the suburbs, local residents spontaneously hit the streets, formed human walls, and blocked the troops from entering the city! I was surprised and extremely moved to hear this news. Who would have thought that Beijing’s residents could do such brave things! Beijing residents were just great!...Because the hunger strike had ended, the medical personnel sent to the Square by the Red Cross began to withdraw today. The two young girls who worked as nurses in our broadcast station were leaving  too. They were reluctant to go and asked us to sign our names on their white uniforms and hats, saying that they didn’t know when we could ever meet again.
The other source is a photo exhibit I found here. The photographer was Kiang Hei. I communicated with him a couple of years ago but have since lost touch with him and haven’t been able to find out the circumstances under which he took these pictures. But the pictures are soul-stirring. For anyone who was there on the scene, they would instantly bring back the sounds and silences and the joys and desolateness of the time. Who was the woman in this picture? What was she saying to the young man facing her, with others in the background listening attentively? The characters written on the yellow paper mean “Children are the future of our country’s democratic movement.” The children of 1989 have grown up. Are they living up to these expectations? The bulletin boards shown in the photograph here look like those in the famous sanjiaodi (Triangle) area in Beida. I passed that area whenever I visited Beida. Eventually, as China forged ahead with its market transformation, the same bulletin boards became plastered all year round with advertisements of TOEFL and GRE preparation classes. Then in 2007, these stands, so closely tied to Beida’s political history, were demolished.

These are not the only traces of 1989 in cyberspace. But they are particularly unforgettable.


Reprint: Conflicts and Clashes are the Social Norm

China Beat checks in regularly with Xujun Eberlein at her blog Inside-Out China, and we've run pieces by Xujun in the past. In early April, she ran another in her series of translations of Chinese materials. We thought this continuation of her translation of Professor Sun Liping's works on social protest was interesting enough to reproduce in full (with Xujun's permission).

By Sun Liping (translated by Xujun Eberlein)

Note: About a month ago I translated an essay from Prof. Sun titled "The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown." His rational and perceptive view attracted wide interest from readers, and that post was linked by many influential websites, including WSJ's China Journal and Danwei.org. For further discussion, I here translate another, more recent article from Prof. Sun. Note his none-confrontational language in treating a confrontational subject, which makes his arguments much easier to consider by different sides. Just one little quibble from me: he makes the US sound too perfect. :-) – Xujun)

[In translation]

Looking back at the mass incidents over the recent few years, one can find a fluctuating curve: Before 2005 it trended upward, was down a bit in 2006 and 2007, and rose again in 2008. What can we make of these trends?

Faced with the same facts, different judgments lead to different paths. For example during the global economic crisis of the 1930s, the situation in the US was the most severe, with very sharp and prominent social conflict. However the Roosevelt administration carried out a series of changes and saved America's democracy and prosperity. Under the same economic crisis however, German, Italy and Japan turned to fascism.

A system needs an easy spirit
The first problem that needs to be resolved is how to view and position social conflict; this is a more important issue than social conflict itself.

A system is not a dead thing; it too has a thinking process, but it is different from that of an individual. Something that everyone understands in everyday life might not be comprehendible by the system. For example during the Cultural Revolution, when a person accidentally broke Chairman Mao's statue, everyone knew he was just being careless, but the system did not have the vocabulary for "accidental behavior." You broke Chairman Mao's statue, you must receive punishment.

Several years ago a serious mass incident occurred in Sichuan. The cause was a simple one: the construction of a power station occupied some farmland, and the conflicting interests evolved into a mass incident. At the beginning, the local government viewed the incident as a farmers' armed riot, and treated it rigidly, which intensified the conflict. Later the central government re-evaluated the incident and gave farmers compensation, thus easily resolving the conflict. This shows that how the system views social conflict is very important.

There exist various conflicts and clashes in society, such as political, ideological, religious, and cultural ones. But the majority are conflict of interest. This actually is a most rational kind of conflict, but our positioning is often problematic. We are accustomed to political, ideological viewpoints, therefore when treating conflict the government is excessively tense and often overreacts.

A system is like a person, and it can be overcautious. Think about it: if it is all-day heavy-hearted, miserable, tense and unsmiling, how can it solve problems well? A system needs an easy spirit. This expression came from football commentary: Watching Chinese playing football, sometimes an early loss can lead to a final win, but leading first will surely cause a final failure. Why? Because the team becomes overcautious. When facing social conflict, we need also to have a normal mentality, an easy spirit. The "easiness" comes from accurate positioning. Only when positioned accurately, can problems be properly solved.

A system needs more self-confidence when facing social conflict
The biggest achievement in the 30 years of reform and opening-up is the establishment of a market economy. Whether a market economy is a "good" one, I think there are three measures: first, whether the system itself is healthy and complete; second, whether there is a good judicial basis; third, whether there is a supporting mechanism to balance interests. The third point is especially important.

Fundamentally, in a society different classes, groups and individuals should have a balanced capacity to fight for their own interests; their rights should be equal. In the past, China used an economic model of redistribution, for example the state designated a person's salary as level one or level two, so there were no fights between people. A market economy is different; people have to fight for their interests by themselves.

During the 1930s recession in the United States, a new policy of theRoosevelt administration was to have unions play a role, thus establishing an interest balancing mechanism, which effectively solved the labor relations problem, and alleviated various conflicts. After that, the entire social situation had a fundamental transformation.

However we should note one point: it is not that, once an interest balancing mechanism is in place, the poor can become the rich, the powerless can become the powerful. An interest balancing mechanism is only a basic condition for a "good market economy."China's reality is that a market economy is established, but an interest balancing mechanism has yet to be.

Take the example of mass incidents, the majority of them are rightful expression of interest. It's like when children run into unsolvable problems, they cry to call their parents' attention. There must be a mechanism to let people express their demands. In this situation, we should have a new understanding of social conflict.

First, social conflict and clashes are part of social normalization. To depend on strict guardianship and the elimination of problems at their embryonic stage is not going to work any more. The government needs to gradually adjust to a society with conflict and clashes.

Second, don't always regard social conflict and clashes as negative factors. On a certain level they also play a positive role. One is as a safety valve: through demonstration etc, people's discontent and stress get released, thus avoiding a direct impact on social stability. Another is as a means to problem discovery. For example when migrant workers wages were held in arrears, at the worst time the unpaid amount reached 100 billion nation-wide. Why in the end did the Premier have to demand the wages for migrant workers be paid? If demonstrations were regarded normal, and migrant workers were able to walk on the streets and talk about their demands at an earlier stage, the situation might not have evolved to such a severe level. When there is no mechanism to uncover problems, the government is not able to keep abreast of developments and to respond, and problems will accumulate to an irresolvable level until mass incidents break out.

Third, we need to form a new concept: the distinction between a good system and a bad one, or a good society and a bad one, is not whether there are conflict and clashes. Rather it should be (1) whether the system or society has the capacity to contain conflict, and how big that capacity is; (2) whether it can institutionalize a mechanism to resolve conflict. A good social system is self-confident when facing social conflict. Otherwise it's seized with panic when conflict is still at an embryonic stage.

In the United States, millions demonstrated on the streets to object to the war on Iraq. Did anyone think American society unstable? No. Then why, when a few dozen migrant workers demand unpaid wages on the streets, does the Chinese government act as if it is being attacked by a giant enemy? This shows a lack of self-confidence.

"Rigid stability thinking" needs to be abandoned
If we analogize social conflict to water, then there are no worries in the US, because the water there is running in a channel. Which direction it runs to, where it makes turns, where it's swift, where it's slow, all are predictable. But in China there is not a channel; when water comes, no one knows where it will run to, thus the only defense is to build dams everywhere. For this, the only solution is to build a channel, that is, to establish rules and procedures, to enhance institutional construction.

At the beginning of 2008, the China Eastern Airline's pilot strike was a typical "flood disaster," in the end there was no winner: the pilots had a heavy loss, their professional integrity was in doubt; the airline also had a heavy loss, tickets were forced to be discounted as was its reputation.

As a matter of fact, pilot strikes are common in other countries, but there are rules and procedures – pilots must first negotiate with the airline; if agreement is not reached, pilots submit a strike petition to the union; after a voting process that passes the petition, then the strike can begin. That is, there is a procedure for strikes. In this sense, China doesn't have such a thing as "strike." What the Eastern Airline's pilots did was called "stop flying," and what the taxi drivers did was called "stop driving."

If the legitimacy of strikes is not acknowledged, then there will be no way to regulate them, and no way to set up a resolution method. Today the Eastern Airline's strike is still unsolved, because no one knows who led the strike, thus there is no way to talk.

Why so far are we still unable to set up institutionalized solution methods and interest balancing mechanism under a market economy? Because we are held back by one thing: the "rigid stability thinking." The debate on the "Labor Contract Law" is a good example. The contact protects labor interest, and presses for the interest balancing mechanism, that much is agreed to. But the enterprises are all bitterly complaining about this law. Is this simply because of the selfishness of the capitalists? No, the fundamental problem is: this law is an attempt to use government-set regulations to replace equality in the game between interest bodies.

In fact, under a market economy, the government only needs to manage three things: one, set and hold a baseline; two, set up and guard game rules; three, adjust or mediate when the game reaches a deadlock. The agenda for the negotiation is set by the sides. However, our present situation is that the government is most afraid to let the sides talk among themselves, fearing the talk would hurt social stability. "Stop talking, I've set the agenda for you." The government always keeps its hand on the market economy.

In the decades before reform, we always overrated the situation of class struggle. Now, some officials overrate the nature of mass incidents, and this forms the "rigid stability thinking." But did stability overpower corruption or counterfeiting? No. In the end, it is our ability to express rightful interest that is overpowered.

Bottom line: one of the tools used by some vested interest groups is to distort the concept of "stability." In addition, some scholars think the social crisis is very serious, possibly able to cause big unrest, but that is a baseless worry. Using a normal mentality to factually judge and position the present social conflict and clashes, and solve them using an institutionalized approach, that is the real way out.


Tiananmen Moon: Beida Summit

Philip J Cunningham marched with student protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and conducted interviews with student activists for BBC and ABC news. His memoir of that time, Tiananmen Moon; Inside the Chinese Student Uprising in 1989, will be published in May by Rowman & Littlefield, but he will be sharing excerpts of it here (such as the first and second in this series).

By Philip J Cunningham

For the second time in a day I’m on the run with Chai Ling. For the second time in a month I find myself in a beat-up jalopy racing towards the Beida student center at Sanjiaodi. Again I am huddled together with members of the vanguard, only this time it’s not musicians wanting to know what the students are up to but the student leadership itself.

The interior of a moving van is a reasonably good place to hide, assuming the driver is trustworthy and the vehicle not bugged. Chai Ling sits behind me in the third row, curled up like a kitten, snuggled next to her puppy dog husband Feng Congde. They look like feuding lovers who have just made up. I am seated in the middle of the second row with a bodyguard named Yang on one side, a professor on the other. Way in the back, and up front, yet more students are squeezed in, keeping pretty much to themselves.

The driver turns north then eventually works his way west. Chai Ling is reviewing the familiar scenery with the intense appreciation of someone ready to take an extended trip abroad. Both she and her husband had been talking about studying abroad; maybe they had one foot out the door already. Start a revolution, then fly away in time for the start of a new school year.

"There's that restaurant!" she exclaims. A few minutes later, she gets nostalgic about another landmark known to her and her husband. "Remember the time we went there?"

The mop-headed driver, who could have passed for the fifth Beatle, zooms at high speed along the ring road, only shifting gears to slow the van down when we get to the busy streets of Haidian District.

"Do you think we could visit Beida one more time?" Chai Ling asks. She does not seem to be addressing the question to anyone in particular.

"That's possible,” the bodyguard next to me says after a pause. "But let's wait till it gets dark."

"Beida, Beida, I want to go to campus! I want to go home one last time!" she pleads with a girlish flair.

Talk turns to politics again. I choose not intrude and cannot fully grasp what is going on, but I don’t want to bring undue attention to myself asking too many questions. From what I could gather, Chai Ling is still on the verge of running away, but due to the intervention of her husband and some friends, she dumped Wang Li and is now going to postpone "going underground" until a more necessary and appropriate time. More importantly, she seems to be enjoying some kind of high-level support for her political line, and even the protection of bodyguards. If so, who was the ultimate protector?

Are the students working in tandem with protégés of the fallen Zhao, or perhaps a military protector? There had been rumors of old generals being supporters of the cause, but students also liked to say they were free agents, not aligned to any faction. That’s what the May 27 meeting was about.

Who could possibly be lending support to the students at this late stage, enough tacit support to make them utterly unafraid of arrest in the Beijing Hotel? Was it Public Security? A rogue intelligence group? Or just plucky citizen volunteers?

And how does the interview we did this morning fit into all this? At that time she expressed disappointment with fellow students but she also talked of overthrowing the government! ABC News had already indicated they were going to use the tape, and it was nothing if not highly incriminating. If Chai Ling is still in town when the interview is aired, her likeness and passionately expressed anti-government ideas will be all that much better known.

Finally, I decided to interrupt their back-seat musings. "Chai Ling?”
“Hi, Jin Peili,” she smiles as I turn around to face her.
“You know, that interview, the interview today, you said a lot of things that could, like, get you in trouble. Are you sure you want it to be broadcast?"
"It's not too late to call ABC and ask them not to air it, or at least delay it," I advise. "If your life is in danger."
"I want it to be broadcast," she answers pointblank, without batting an eyelash.
"But you said some things. . .like about the government, you know, wanting to overthrow it."
"When will it go on the air?" asks Feng, with a sudden perk in interest.
"Sometime tomorrow."
"Don't worry, we will be gone by then."
"You're sure?"
"Yes. After we visit Beida, one last time," he says.

I was beginning to feel the immense responsibility that goes with putting something provocative on the air, especially something political. Millions would see it, but more to the point, it would be closely monitored by Chinese security.

Feng grins at me to dispel my doubts "Don't worry, you've done a good job. We all appreciate your help."

"Since satellite transmission has been cut," I explain, "ABC has to take the tape out of China by hand. It will be carried to Hong Kong or Japan, and then relayed by satellite to New York. The earliest it could be on the air is the evening news, American time, which means early tomorrow morning here."

"It's fine, no problem," he says. Feng is disarmingly self-assured.
"It's not too late to call, if you need more time."
"Jin, don't worry. We will be gone by then."

So, they still plan to run away, and this little jaunt, this little joy ride they have invited me to partake in, is for what? For fun? Or a mix of business and pleasure, saying goodbye while just taking care of some last-minute logistics.
I have trouble putting together the young woman who confessed and cried her heart out earlier today, face contorted and full of pain, with the breezy young woman in the van.

What's going on? Why is Feng Congde so confident that nothing will happen to them? Was he reckless or did he know something that his wife did not when she made her mad dash for the train station? What happened at the train station, anyway? There were so many things I wanted to ask, but given the gentle cooing sounds behind me it didn’t seem like the right time.

Chai Ling was no stranger to the Beijing Hotel, she had been there twice today. A few days before, I had seen her meeting there at midnight in a darkened coffee shop with Wang Dan and Wuerkaixi. Yet on the square, one had to pass through all kinds of security ropes just to get in her vicinity.

The student leaders seemed unnecessarily stringent in their security, but an illegal movement of that size required vigilance. So why was it that, in the most-heavily monitored hotel in town, the student rebels seemed so at home, if not outright welcome? I knew from talking to the floor attendants that many ordinary workers supported the students, but ordinary workers also knew not to get in the way of police.

Beijing Hotel workers had marched under banners indicating their work affiliation and a gigantic ten-story banner proclaiming solidarity with the striking students had been draped from the top of the hotel during the height of the protest. The multi-storied banner, partially draped in front of my room, each character the size of a person, read:


With a banner like that, suspended from the 17th floor, running all the way down to the seventh floor, right past my window as it turned out, one could imagine why the students might be attracted to that particular building, but why was the banner permitted in the first place? Was there some kind of connection between the security staff of the Beijing Hotel and the student movement?

If there was support, it was hidden and erratic. Even now, the van took precautions in ferrying us across town. Not only had the driver made some unnecessary turns on the way, but he took to circling Haidian District like an airplane, awaiting official permission to land.

When I ask about this the bodyguard explains that the driver is killing time, waiting for the cover of darkness before slipping onto campus. But Beida is a gated community. Would the guards let this vehicle, the student command on wheels, pass through the gated checkpoint? It was no secret Beida harbored activists, wouldn’t the secret police be looking for student radicals on campus, or were they such Keystone cops that it never occurred to them to look in obvious places?

As Yang shrewdly observes, the driver will not attempt to enter Beida until darkness falls. When he at last pulls up to the front gate on the south side of campus and greets the guards, I worry how they might react to my presence, --did the presence of a foreigner make the entourage look less innocent, or more? One guard presses his face up to the window, mentally registering my presence with eye contact, but it ends with that. We are then waved in. Once inside the huge walled campus, the driver again adopts a defensive posture, crawling in long slow circle around the lake and tree-dotted grounds while Chai Ling and her friends heatedly discuss if they should get out of the van, and, if so, where.

The tentativeness of the travelers upon arriving at Beida reminds me of my midnight visit to Beida with Cui Jian on the eve of May 4. Sitting inside a vehicle creates a certain perception, perhaps illusory, of security. One feels safer inside than outside. For me, sitting in the back of a car reminded of the security of childhood when everything important was decided by your parents sitting up front. For an American like me, being in a car had deep associations going back to childhood. But what comfort did the hum of a vehicle give Chai Ling and Feng Congde, for whom riding in a car was still a novelty?

The tree-shrouded campus is quiet and dark. We make a clockwise sweep, tooling past Shao Yuan, the foreign dorm, then the library and then back down a dirt road leading to the Chinese student dorm adjacent to the hot spot of Sanjiaodi.

The van draws up to the stairwell of the dorm and the driver tells everyone to get out. As soon as we have all clambered out, he hits the pedal and speeds away. We are whisked into the unlit hallway by waiting escorts. We mount a dark, dank stairwell, then turn down an empty corridor. A door is opened, revealing a plain room lit by a bare bulb, a room packed full of people.

Once we are inside, the door is closed and Chai Ling is greeted with hugs and pats on the back by her comrades, like a war hero just in from the battlefield. A few of her supporters eye me curiously, with stares neither friendly nor unfriendly, because I arrived with her group, but the attention is clearly focused on her.

We are led up another flight of stairs and into another room. Again the door was closed quietly but firmly behind us. Chai Ling is no stranger to the makeshift student headquarters, and quickly assumes the role of host rather than guest. Sensing my bewilderment if not discomfort, she leads me by the arm into an adjacent dorm room, where the furniture has been rearranged to serve as an office. She is a known entity on her home turf, just being seen with her makes my presence more acceptable, just as being with me made it easier for her to navigate the Lido Hotel earlier in the day.

We squeeze into a dorm room that had been converted into a primitive communications office. There are three bunk beds and a desk in the middle of the floor, from the ceiling dangles the usual no frills light bulb. In the corner there is a rack of metallic washing basins, hot water mugs, toothbrushes, and thermos bottles. What made this room different from nearly every other dorm room in China was the addition of a communications devise both rare and highly useful: a telephone.

Seeing the phone made me think of my friends. Was Bright still waiting for me back in my room? What about Lotus? And where did Wang Li run off to after Chai Ling changed her mind about taking the train south?

"Can I make a phone call?" I ask.
"You may," one of the students answers, "But be careful about what you say, the phone is bugged."
As often is the case in China, convenient communication comes at a price.
"I want to call the Beijing Hotel."
"Go ahead."

I dial my room number, wondering what cryptic words I should use for a phone call bugged on both ends, but no such luck for the eavesdroppers tonight. No answer.

Chai Ling is preoccupied, instantly immersed in student dealings, though she manages to flash a friendly little smile my way every once in a while. For the second time today we sit on the same bed, she on one end, me on the other. At one point she breaks from her group to come over and offer me a drink of water, perhaps trying to return the hospitality of the morning. But basically she is too busy to chat, let alone field my questions.

I lean back against the wall, sipping hot water, trying to take it all in. One by one her friends and followers pop in to talk with her, sometimes waiting on line to do so. It’s like a campus version of the broadcast tent.

Some of the talk is semi-confidential, judging from excited whispers, cupped hands and hushed tones. I overhear talk about going somewhere by airplane. I hear talk about the military. Just at a moment where the conversation takes an interesting turn, with military overtones, my appointed companion Yang, the young bodyguard, takes a seat next to me and, almost deliberately it seems, begins to distract me with a different sort of conversation.

"What sports do you like?"
"What are your hobbies?"
"Do you like music?"

When I tell him that I like to play guitar, he gets up and retrieves a cheap folk guitar that had been abandoned on the other bed. He presses me to play something, anything. I refuse several times but can’t bring myself to say I’d rather be eavesdropping than singing, so at last I yield to his request.

I finger a few chords, tune the strings a bit, and strum some more. The reverberations of the guitar comfort me and without even a glimmer of conscious thought, my hand starts to finger chords to “Tiananmen Moon.” I strum lightly and sing quietly to myself, in a whisper really, because I don’t like to perform. The song sounded so innocent, so anachronistic now.

"Midnight moon of Tiananmen,
When will I see you again?
Looking for you everywhere,
Going in circles around the Square."


The Boston Long Bow Group, Chai Ling and “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”: Geremie R. Barmé responds to "China Beat"

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

CB: What exactly is the lawsuit about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB: How can people learn more about this situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As well as the following risible claim:

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

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

The Tiananmen Protestors, Then and Now

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

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

By Jonathan Unger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Forgotten Meaning of Tiananmen

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

by Philip J Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jokes from Post-Reform China

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

Translated and Glossed by Guo Qitao



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

--Anonymous, circa late 1999-2000

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

The Rookie Cop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Anonymous, circa 2005-06


Reflecting on Tiananmen, 20 Years Later

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

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

There are always two points I make about 1989:

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

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


It's Just History: Patriotic Education in the PRC

By Julia Lovell

It’s now a year since Chinese nationalism had its last big public outing. On April 19, 2008, twelve days after pro-Tibet protesters in Paris tried to grab the Olympic flame from a wheelchair-bound Chinese paralympian, patriotic civilians began mobilising protests around the French embassy in Beijing, and outside Carrefours in at least four different Chinese cities. “Protect Our Tibet! Bless Our Olympics! Boycott Carrefour!” declared banners at demonstrations on the northeast coast. “Say No to French Imperialists!”

As popular outrage grew about perceived anti-Chinese bias in Western reporting on the riots in Tibet and opposition to the torch relay, more than ten members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China are said to have received death threats. “People who fart through the mouth will get shit stuffed down their faces by me!”, “Foreign reporters out of China!” two postings on a popular news site owned by the People’s Daily pronounced. “These bastards make me want to throw up,” ran another. “Throw them in the Taiwan Strait to fill it up. They’re like flies – disgusting.”

Although the content of the rage wasn’t new, its distribution had a certain novelty. As it travelled through the opposed ranks of the pro-Tibet and pro-China lobbies in France, England, the U.S. and Australia, the torch relay turned Chinese nationalism into a headline story in these countries’ media. Those without firsthand experience of or interest in China now encountered (either physically or on primetime news slots) files of red-flag wavers occasionally prepared to kick and punch advocates of Tibetan independence. Things looked particularly ugly in clashes between Chinese and pro-Tibetan demonstrators at Duke University in the U.S., where one Chinese student who suggested dialogue between the two sides received death threats from compatriots. It was not a good PR moment for the PRC. For a while – until the Sichuan earthquake revived global sympathy for China – dyspeptic chauvinism jostled to become the international face of this imminent superpower.

Various explanations have been put forward for the surge in anti-Western nationalism since 1989. One is straightforwardly cyclical: as economic confidence grew, the reasoning goes, early post-Mao China’s love affair with the West was bound to founder at some point. Another is hormonal: the “angry youth” (fenqing) who dominate contemporary Chinese nationalism, some argue, need something to get mad at – they’ll grow out of it. Twenty years ago, today’s fenqing would have been protesting against rats in their dorms and lack of democracy; go back another twenty years, and they would have been Red Guards.

But the most convincing gloss on today’s patriotic distemper presents it as a substantially state-engineered phenomenon, rooted in one of the Communist Party’s most successful post-Mao political crusades: Patriotic Education. Searching for a new state religion around which the country could rally after the bloodshed of 1989, the Party skilfully reinvented itself through the 1990s as defender of the national interest against Western attempts to contain a rising China. To dislodge the worship of the West that had helped foment much of the unrest leading up to 1989, successive Patriotic Education campaigns waged in textbooks, newspapers, films and monuments drew concerted attention to China’s “century of humiliation” (c. 1840-1949) inflicted by foreign imperialism, always beginning with the Opium Wars, always passing slickly over the CCP’s own acts of violence (most notably the manmade famine of the early 1960s; the Cultural Revolution; the 1989 crackdown).

Post-1989 China has bristled with new or improved tourist destinations commemorating the horrors of foreign aggression (the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre; the rebranding of the Yuanmingyuan as national wound; the redevelopment of an Opium War heritage trail around Guangzhou and Nanjing). Two or three years ago, the government even moved to replace the soporific lectures in Marxism-Leninism compulsory across undergraduate courses with classes in post-1840 Chinese history, ensuring that China’s brightest and best emerged from their university careers with a correct understanding of the past, and its relationship to the present. The textbook used for this course at Beijing University helpfully summarises the ongoing uses of the “century of humiliation” for China’s Communist establishment:
“The story of China’s modern history [from the Opium War to the present day] is the history of the courageous, agonising struggle by generation upon generation of the good-hearted masses for national survival and to accomplish the great revival of the Chinese race…It is the history of an extremely weak, impoverished and old China gradually growing, thanks to the socialist revolution…into a prosperous, flourishing and vital new socialist China…What are the aims of studying our modern history? To gain deep insights into how the invasion of foreign capitalism and imperialism combined with Chinese feudal authority to bring terrible suffering to the Chinese nation and people…and how history and the people came to choose the Chinese Communist Party.”[i]
With its regimen of flag-raising, anthem-singing, film-watching, textbook-reading, museum-visiting and so on, post-1989 Patriotic Education has offered a full-body workout for China’s growing generations of potential nationalists. “Our schooling taught us that China’s misery was imposed by Western countries,” observed one 23-year-old in 2006. “We were all strongly nationalist…We were bound to become fenqing.” The campaign seems at times to have been successful beyond the government’s wildest dreams, its messages spilling subversively beyond the limits defined by the CCP. Two days after the French protests erupted last year, the Chinese authorities swiftly moved to dampen their ardour. “It’s good your hearts are patriotic,” one group of fledgling anti-Tibetan-independence demonstrators were told by Public Security, “but you can’t compromise social order and traffic flow.”

I wanted to try and take the temperature of Patriotic Education: to see whether it really was manufacturing furious chauvinists. So I decided to have a look at a couple of its prime tourist destinations in south and east China: first, Guangdong’s Sea Battle Museum (Haizhan bowuguan), recounting British gunboats’ 1841 destruction of the crucial forts that guarded the riverway up to Guangzhou; and second, Nanjing’s Museum of the Nanjing Treaty (Nanjing tiaoyue shiliao chenlieguan), which reconstructs the site on which the closing negotiations of the Opium War took place. Both are offspring of the post-1989 nation-building project, opened or refurbished between 1990 and 1999; both commemorate key engagements in the Opium War – the conflict which remains, in PRC public history, the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism and the inauguration of the “century of humiliation” that ends, inevitably, with Communist triumph in 1949.

The Sea Battle Museum is a great barnacle of a building, rising out of the stretch of Guangdong coastline stormed by the British in early 1841. Buses and taxis have to park in a seafront car-park about a kilometer away, leaving tourists to approach on foot down a narrow road and through a large, open square of scrubby parkland. Maybe the theory was to give visitors a slow lead-in during which to reflect soberly on the tragedies of the past; but on the day that I was there, the houses along the way were festooned irreverently with washing lines of multicoloured underwear. Across some eight exhibition rooms, the museum’s interior tells a simple, unhappy tale familiar to most veterans of PRC high-school history classes: of “a conspiracy of the British bourgeoisie” to enslave China through opium and violence, fervently and unanimously opposed by the masses.

“The British colonialists directed their aggression at China, attempting to open the door of China by the contemptible means of armed invasion and opium smuggling…It was an invasive war launched by the British to protect their illegal opium trade and colonial expansion. Facing the invaders with hard ships and sharp weapons, the Chinese people were not afraid but bravely resisted…the sublime national integrity and great patriotic spirit of the Chinese people displayed during the anti-aggression struggle showed a national spirit that would never disappear. And it has been encouraging the Chinese people one generation after another to make a sustained effort for the prosperity of the nation...With their blood and lives they upheld the national dignity.”
In addition to composing instructive captions, the museum’s curators have indulged in some three-dimensional artists’ impressions of the struggle. One’s attention is grabbed particularly by a lurid waxworks of the fight for one of the forts, in which an unarmed Chinese man has wrestled to the ground an armed and apparently moribund British soldier, and is about to dash his brains out with a rock. In the style of First and Second World War memorials in Europe, the walls of the last room are given over to displaying the names of the fallen in the various Opium War battles.

I wondered what its other visitors were making of it. (I was there on a slow weekday, but a smiling young museum attendant told me the museum got around 300,000 visitors a year, many of them bussed-in schoolchildren.) Two-thirds of the way round, I entered a large semi-circular auditorium filled with a mock-up of the main naval battle – complete with flashing lights (to simulate cannon-fire) and booming voiceover (to emphasize the lessons of history). Perhaps to make the story more stirring, the sound editor seemed to have added a touch of reverb to the narration, meaning that I lost words here and there, even if the general message was clear enough.

As the display ended and the gathered listeners trudged out, I turned to the man next to me and asked for a couple of points of clarification: “What was that again? The bit about tragic decline strengthening the Chinese people’s determination to rebuild…what?” He gazed vaguely back at me, as if awakening from a deep dream. Rather unfairly, I decided to test him further on a basic historical detail thoroughly expounded upon by the museum: “So if the Qing had all these forts and guns, how come the British won?” He paused to think, then muttered something about the gunpowder. “The gunpowder?” “Yes, it was…stronger.” “Stronger, how?” “Stronger…more effective.” Just behind me, I heard a man commenting to his wife, “so that was patriotic education.” At a pause in their conversation, I asked them what it meant to them; they looked curiously at me. “It’s just…patriotic education,” the man replied, moving towards the exit.

Outside, daytrippers seemed to be having even greater difficulty getting upset about events of almost 170 years past. The museum gives onto a sandy shore, lapped at by a soupy green sea. Although no-one looked too keen on swimming, the mood that humid spring day was about enjoying a few hours at the seaside, not solemn contemplation of the national tragedy, as tourists laid out snacks and drinks, threw balls around and kicked shuttlecocks in the shadow of the forts that failed to protect China from British ships. The largest and most accessible of the fortifications was Weiyuan Paotai (the Fort That Overawes To a Great Distance) just to the right of the beach: a long, fortified seawall regularly punctuated by large cannon, several of which were being straddled (without a conscious whisper of suggestiveness) by young women in tight shorts who were having their photographs taken.

I tried asking a young man who was standing apart, watching his male friends scramble over the guns, what he felt visiting the place: “I…er…don’t know. I haven’t thought.” I tried goading him a little: “I’m British, you know.” “Really? I hear Britain’s very advanced.” I gave him an extra gloss on the concept: “British as in ‘The Anti-British Invasion Museum’ [another site of Opium War-period patriotic education in Guangzhou, sadly shut for refurbishment when I was passing by]. Wouldn’t you like me to apologise?” “Oh, that. That’s just history.”

I headed up to a couple of the other forts, nestling amid the wooded cliffs that rise up over the sea. “It’s awfully far,” I was discouraged five minutes into my ascent by a young man in combat gear whom I met taking a rest on the steps. “I wouldn’t bother.” When I panted to the top after only another brisk 10 minutes’ walk, I struggled to reconstruct the battle scene in my mind’s eye – but the garish rows of orange-roofed condominiums that dominated the landscape were a distraction. Slightly less out of breath on my way down, I asked the young man in combats what he thought of the place: was he here for the patriotic education? “I can get that over there if I want.” He nodded in the direction of the museum. “I come up here for the peace.” He seemed a nice young man, and looked at me only a little bit pointedly.

I made my way back to a taxi. Given how commercially-minded so much of China is, I was surprised by the lack of shopping opportunities around the place. Any decent heritage destination in Britain these days is awash with tie-in tat: postcards, key-rings, paperweights, bookmarks etc. I browsed the handful of stalls near the car-park, hoping to find a rubber model of a British imperialist impaled on the righteous souvenir pencil of the people, at the very least. I discovered nothing more patriotic than strings of plastic-looking local shells. The only battle-themed money-spinner was a row of three toy cannons by the seafront; about ten metres out to sea, four or five small, harmless toy animals were suspended in a perpendicular net opposite – ten yuan for four potshots. Business looked slow, so a man and woman lounging by looked very excited as I approached; they were less excited when I told them I just wanted to ask a couple of questions. What do they think of the place? “So-so. It passes the time.” A couple of late-middle-aged ladies sitting nearby stopped chatting to take a great interest in me. Where am I from, they wanted to know. Britain, I answered hopefully. “You have such beautiful skin!” they told me (I don’t). “How old are you? Do you have children?” I gave them both these pieces of information. “So young!” (I’m not.) As I got back into the taxi, I inflicted my final leading question on my taxi driver, asking his opinion of the museum. He was outraged: “Three yuan for a bread roll! They rip you off at these tourist spots. It would be no more than one and a half, maximum two elsewhere.”

A few days later I visited the Museum of the Nanjing Treaty, part of a 2,100-square-metre complex of pavilion-like buildings spread across the grounds of the temple in which China’s first “unequal treaty” was signed on 29 August 1842. The site itself was reconstructed in time for the 150th anniversary of the war in 1990; in 1997, to mark the Handover of Hong Kong, some 6,000,000 yuan in public subscriptions were collected to pay for the forging of a massive “Bell of Warning,” which now stood at the entrance of the complex: “to peal long and loud, lest we forget the national humiliation [a term that crops up about six times through a relatively small exhibition space] of the past century.”

As with the Sea Battle Museum, the three-story museum’s account of the Opium War speaks the pure, clear dialect of national grievance: “In June 1840, Great Britain (the vanguard of those Western colonisers who wanted to expand to the East) extended its aggressors’ claws from India and Singapore and outrageously launched a war against the Chinese…In 1842, British troops invaded up to Nanjing, forcing the Qing government to negotiate an agreement at this ancient temple. On August 29, the first unequal treaty in China’s modern history was signed…The Qing Government was compelled to cede Hong Kong Island to the British and pay them 2.1 million ounces of silver. From then on, China was progressively carved up and reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society.” After two floors of vicious imperialism, however, a happy ending: the third and final story recounts the euphoric return of Hong Kong to the motherland, illustrated by photographs of the masses (students, primary school children, generals, pop stars) pledging to “wash away national humiliation”. There is also a tasteful exhibit of a large commemorative vase gleefully emblazoned with a photograph of the wife and daughters of the last Governor, Chris Patten, weeping into their hands as they watch the handover.

So far, so furious; but the message still seemed to be failing to have much of an impact on its visitors. Admittedly, I was harassed a little as I walked around. First, there was the mother of a six-year-old having a calligraphy lesson next door to the museum who, while she was washing out his brushes in an outside sink, smilingly told me she was still very angry about the Opium War; a few minutes later she pursued me into the museum dragging her son along to have him say hello to me in English. Then there was the slightly unnerving man in the museum itself who followed me around as I wrote down inscriptions, occasionally asking questions like “How many floors does the museum have?” and who was very insistent that I write down his email address so that we could continue chatting about nothing very much on the internet. The museum attendants were too busy washing clothes or their lunch bowls to respond to my questions about their views. In the end, I ambled back out again, to look at the Bell of Warning at the front.

The ground floor of the building that housed it was yet another missed souvenir opportunity: a small shop selling random, unpatriotic odds-and-ends. The manager (or its only member of sales personnel, at least) was having a cup of tea with a friend; he invited me to sit down and chat while I waited for a sudden rainstorm to pass. I asked them which parts of China’s modern history they felt most needed commemorating: they suggested the Opium War and May Fourth. I wondered aloud if there were any parts of Chinese history after 1949, for example, that also needed public remembrance: “Too many, too many. It’s too painful.” As the shopkeeper looked away, I searched among the bric-a-brac for something to buy. The best thing I could find was a bronze coin that claimed to be from the Opium War period; doubtless fake but I took it anyway, as girlie playing cards seemed just about the only other choice on offer.

Despite its apparent contribution to nurturing nationalism, China’s patriotic education, I suppose, is not all that different from the government’s other ideological campaigns: a little like white noise, with its audiences tuning out whenever they can. In autumn 2007, I sat in on some of the new compulsory Modern History classes at Beijing University (I was particularly impressed by one lecturer who succeeded in speaking about May Fourth for two hours without making a single mention of any foreign influences except Communism). Soon, the only way in which I could keep myself awake was by sitting at the back and keeping a count on all the students who had obviously fallen asleep (some of them in the front rows).

The safest conclusion to draw is that there is still no such thing as public opinion in China today. For all the success of young Chinese nationalists in periodically grandstanding Western media coverage, almost every Chinese urbanite I have spoken to is embarrassed by them, refusing to admit they represent the mainstream. As I think back over the time I have spent in China over the past decade, the public expressions of anti-Western feeling that began in the second half of the 1990s strike me as anomalies; the country is at present more open to (and dependent on) global forces than at any other time in its long history of engagement with the world beyond its borders. Few Chinese people seem to waste much time gnashing their teeth over Western aggression when they are left alone by Patriotic Education. When I’ve asked Beijing taxi-drivers (an overworked, underpaid labour-force more than entitled to a generalized sense of grievance against the world) what they think of Britain, they’ve responded with sighs of admiration (about how modern and developed Britain is, relative to China) rather than vitriolic expectorations. When I’ve asked them about the Opium War, they’ve answered that what’s past is past; they’re too busy thinking about managing in the present (and anyway, who listens to anything the government says?).

And significant numbers of China’s angriest cyber-nationalists – denouncers of China’s “victimization” at the hands of the West and Japan – rank among the most enthusiastic exploiters of the wealth and opportunities generated by the opening up of post-Mao China to the outside world. A joke circulating in 1999 reported that demonstrators outside the US embassy in Beijing were lobbing into the compound stones wrapped in visa applications. Interviews I have attempted to conduct with committed patriots have often been derailed by their earnest requests for advice about studying or getting published in the West. In one transcript, my interlocutor’s impassioned speech on his readiness to send his army to the British Museum to recover the treasures looted from the Summer Palace is interrupted when he enthusiastically accepts a complimentary cup of Christmas coffee from a Starbucks waitress. Pragmatism, not patriotism, is the religion of the contemporary PRC. When I asked a Beijing novelist a few weeks back what he made of the protests last year, he advised me not to believe anything anyone says in China; they’re only in it for the money or publicity. A little later, in a separate conversation, someone else advised me not to believe anything he says either.

Julia Lovell is a lecturer in Chinese history at London University, and her next book will be a new translation of the complete fiction of Lu Xun, to be published by Penguin Classics later this year. 

[i] Zhongguo jin xiandaishi gangyao (An outline of China’s modern history) (Beijing: Gaodeng jiaoyu chubanshe, 2007), 1-2.