5/28/09: Chai Ling's Last Will and Testament

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

A petite sun-bronzed woman wearing a stained white tennis shirt and dusty beige trousers sits next to me in the back of the taxi, grimacing as if in pain, weeping quietly to herself. Named to the police blacklist, she says she fears imminent arrest. Up front the driver sullenly surveys the streets, scanning the road for Public Security vehicles.

As the car glides down a leafy thoroughfare in the diplomatic district, Wang Li, who had been chatting quietly with the driver, turns around to make an announcement.

"Driver supports the students,” he says. “He will help us."

"How do you know?" I ask.

"I know. Where you go?" he asks, switching into English.

"Tell him, let's see… I don’t know, I just don’t know."

Chai Ling, the so-called Commander in Chief of Tiananmen Square, had come to me this morning saying she wanted to “talk,” but for the moment I couldn’t get a word out of her. I had brought along a small tape recorder and camera along as part of my hasty response to the startling and unsolicited request for an interview, but we had yet to find a safe place to talk.

A graduate student from Shandong studying psychology at Shida, she rose to sudden prominence during the world’s biggest hunger strike. This morning she had approached me in the hallway of the Beijing Hotel as I was on my way to breakfast. It was so weird seeing her there, a fugitive from the police hiding in plain sight in a government hotel lobby. I naively invited her to join Bright, Wang Li and myself for breakfast in the Western Restaurant in the old wing of the hotel. But this wasn’t a Long Island kind of problem that could be worked out in a diner over a cup of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast.

Face drawn with tension, almost morbidly silent, the famous hunger striker, who barely gave her food a second glance, explained in a low whisper that she wanted to record some kind of final statement, a sort of last will and testament. I looked at Bright, who declined to offer an opinion, though her eyes implored me not to get involved.

I got involved, mostly out of curiosity. It didn’t make for a leisurely breakfast, and it left Bright, who had just come to see me, in the lurch, for in no time I was trying to secure a taxi at the front door of the hotel. Chai Ling had so far escaped the notice of the police, but not a group of hawk-eyed journalists from Hong Kong, one of whom recognized her as the Tiananmen commander and begged to join us. There wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so Bright, who was already less than enthused about radical student politics, offered her seat to Patricia, the Hong Kong journalist, and then we were off.

Now we were on the road. Where to, nobody knew.

"Let's go northeast,” I suggest. “Take the road by Worker’s Stadium, then go to the Great Wall Hotel, you know, around there. Do a big circle around the whole embassy district, okay, we just want to drive around for a while, okay?”

What should we do now? If the fugitive pressing against me in the back seat was truly in danger of arrest, maybe we should go further out of town. In any case, we could stay on the road for a while. The taxi is not cheap, but if no place Is safe, Is it not better to keep moving?

"If policeman follow,” Wang Li says, turning around to peer at us, “I tell you, okay?"

He was speaking English again. What was it with his sudden switch? Who was he trying to impress?

"Where is camera?" he asks a moment later, and then I understand. He, a mere student at some kind of culinary school in the provinces, is trying to impress Chai Ling, the radical diva from Shida, who has already bagged a degree from Beida.

No sooner had I handed him my pocket-sized Olympus, than he started snapping away with dramatic flair, as if he were a hotshot photojournalist.

While the driver patiently snaked up and down the leafy boulevards of Sanlitun, I suggested to the conspicuously silent woman warrior sitting next to me that we talk now, in the car, but she recoiled from the idea. True, some taxis were bugged, but the odds of that were slim. True, the car was probably too noisy to make a decent recording, but what was all this about anyway? Even if the driver was later quizzed about suspicious passengers and duly filed a report on us, we would be somewhere else, sight unseen.

Despite Wang Li’s suspicious examination of cars going our way, he didn’t think we were being followed. For the last few weeks, Beijing’s secret police had been slacking off on the job, at least it seemed that way. It was enough to make one believe in rumors; either Politburo member Qiao Shi and his Public Security Bureau were sympathetic to the students or the pullback of policing was a deliberate trap.

Chai Ling, lost in a silence so deep that she seemed almost voiceless, quietly vetoed the idea of doing an interview in the car. Instead of talking, she penned a stark message on a piece of scrap paper:

This may be my last chance to talk, I entrust (Jin Peili) Philip Cunningham to tell my story to the Chinese people of the world. --Chai Ling, MAY 28, 1989 10:25 AM

Her extended silence gave me time to contemplate the import of the note. I was both moved and disturbed that someone in fear of her life wanted me to speak “to the Chinese people of the world” on her behalf.

Holding in my sweaty palm what was essentially a last will and testament made me realize how quickly the tables had turned. Was this the same defiant young rebel who had risen to prominence during the hunger strike, supported by enthusiastic crowds of a million or more? Was this leader of the Square, the strident voice of the public address system, the Joan of Arc of the movement who refused to talk to journalists?

Little of that was evident now. The intense young woman sidled up next to me in the back of the taxi was in a deep funk, vulnerable, isolated in her own heavy thoughts; the only ambition she betrayed was her quiet persistence in trying to arrange an interview.

“So, where are you going?” The taxi driver asks, shooting me an impatient look in the mirror. For all of Wang Li’s shenanigans, he has failed to impress even the driver. It was also safe to assume that the driver expected me to do the paying, in FEC of course. But if he were greedy, he wouldn’t have minded the last half an hour of going in circles. What he minds is the lack of clarity about our destination.

“I’m thinking,” I answer. “Just go north for a while.”

All I knew is that we had to get away from the omnipresent gaze of the state security apparatus. I gave the driver some seemingly firm coordinates, north, east, north, east, as I needed to keep him busy until I could up with a safe destination. It was against the rules of martial law for journalists to interview student leaders and I wasn’t even on a work visa. I’d been arrested before, for activities inappropriate for a foreigner, and didn’t relish being taken into custody again. Where could we do such an interview? I leaned forward, face in my hands, unsure of what to do next.

The temporary BBC office in the fancy hotel came to mind, but it was a day too late because yesterday was my last day working for them. And BBC’s London-centric producers were not exactly sensitive to things I cared about. For one, they struck me as nonchalant if not naïve about the degree of government surveillance that they themselves were under and the possible impact it might have on any Chinese who visited their well-watched offices. I knew better than to bring apolitical friends into such a fishbowl environment, let alone a student rebel on the police blacklist.

The American TV news outfits had similar security problems. Although I knew Eric Baculinao, a former student radical from the Philippines would be interested, NBC’s office was no place to bring a fugitive from the police; they were located in the belly of the beast, renting facilities inside the state-run CCTV television center. CBS News had chosen to set up camp way out in the west Beijing boondocks, ensconced in comfortable but remote the Shangri-La Hotel, while CNN and ABC at least had the advantage of being on this side of town. But taking Chai Ling to a news bureau full of official snoopers and electronic surveillance was risky if not stupid. We had to go somewhere unofficial, somewhere off the map. The kind of place I’d take a friend, the kind of place I’d be comfortable taking a date.

"That's it! I know a place! " I announce, giving the driver directions to an expatriate apartment complex out on Airport Road. If we got past the front gate and then past the doorman in my friend’s apartment block, we'd be okay.

The car picked up speed. After half an hour of random turns and amateur plotting on the part of the unusual collection of passengers, the driver was relieved to get some concrete instructions so he could be rid of us.

Finding an unmonitored residential location where foreigners and Chinese could mix without being carded and closely observed by guards at the door was a habitual problem in Beijing, especially vexing for stubborn believers in free cultural exchange like myself. Things were basically set up so that foreigners could socialize with other foreigners, tourists with tourists and Chinese with Chinese. Maybe we could make that work for us.

On this day our group defied easy categorization, composed as it was of two Chinese citizens; one a fugitive listed on a police most wanted list, the other a young rebel not nearly as well-known as he wanted to be, and two non-Chinese; an aggressive Hong Kong reporter and an American freelancer less than enthusiastic about playing journalist with police on our tail.

In a way I was the most obvious problem, being the only laowai made me a lightning rod for attention. Caucasians in China, whether newly arrived or resident for decades did not have the option of disappearing like a fish in the sea of the people. We were rather more akin to lighthouses, forever emitting signals that revealed our presence.

So, the best way to become less glaringly obvious was to find an enclave where there were lots of other equally distracting people, such as a suburban hotel designated for foreigners, or an expatriate residential compound.

I chose the latter. Living in gritty Beijing had given me some practical experience in seeking out comfort zones. Wanting to avoid the watchful gaze of the police rarely had anything to do with politics, it was more a question of pride; an effort to establish a sense of human dignity and to lead a half-normal social life. While I was aware that even native Chinese couples had problems of their own finding privacy, at least they could meet with relative anonymity in an apartment block or even in a gated park, whereas a mixed couple was an easy target for neighborhood snoops and zealous watchmen.

One place where I had found a semblance of normalcy on previous occasions was the Lido Hotel and its associated apartment complex, located on the northeast edge of town. Though the Lido was technically restricted to foreign passport holders, it had a large ethnic Chinese population from overseas and it was easy enough to bring Chinese friends inside to use the pool and eat in the restaurants there. Bright and Jenny both liked it; they found it less intimidating than the grander hotels. But it was still a hotel.

As the driver approached the Lido, I advised him not to enter by the hotel gate but instead to go around to the back in order to directly enter the apartment complex. The driver paused at the rear gate while the sleepy guard gave us a brief visual inspection. Waved through without incident, we all breathed a bit easier once inside the compound. I had the driver follow the meandering course of a private drive that led us past a pair of empty tennis courts adjacent to a low-rise apartment block.

Wang Li and I briefly discussed the merits of keeping the car, since taxis were a rarity except at the big hotels and a new one might be hard to find. But the driver had no interest in waiting, so I paid him and he sped off. If were to be questioned, he could always plead ignorance.

I lead the way, taking a deliberately roundabout course to make sure we weren’t being followed, detouring past some well-stocked shops, including a pharmacy and a grocery carrying pricey imported goods from Europe, Hong Kong and America. As we walked past window displays and shelves stocked with consumer items that most Chinese could only dream about, Wang Li paused to clean his smudged glasses for a better look. I could tell he liked the place already.

Adjacent to the shopping wing of the Lido was a quiet path leading to the low-rise tower where Lotus and Albert lived. Wang Li came up to me as he surveyed the premises with interest. "Almost no Chinese around," he exclaims, nodding his head in approval. Chai Ling and the Hong Kong journalist, both about the same height with hair about the same length, followed silently a few steps behind, like traditional women.

I shepherd our group past the front desk of the "foreigners-only" apartment building, hoping it won’t be necessary to answer any questions, but if it is, it will fall on me to do all the talking.

As luck has it, the doorman is not at his station so we easily slip into the dark lobby and hurry into a waiting elevator. I hear the guard returning to his post just as the elevator door closes. So far, so good. By force of habit, I check the ceiling of the elevator for the familiar protruding lens of the surveillance camera, usually wedged in the corner, but there was no sign of that.

We get out on the top floor and I run ahead to the door of Lotus and Albert’s apartment, knocking excitedly. The door opens a crack.

"Who's there?" asks Lotus, clearly not expecting company.

"It's me, the homeless traveler," I say, joking so as to not raise alarm. The chain was undone and the door opened wide.

Lotus smiles warmly. "Philip! Good to see you!" she exclaims buoyantly. "I see you brought some friends. Come in. Welcome everyone. Come in!"

She greets me with her customary bear hug. "You just missed Al, he went out to play basketball with Justin."

"Lotus," I start. "I gotta talk to you. We have an unusual situation here."

"That can wait, Philip, first things first." Lotus was possessed with the angelic patience of motherhood, the non-stop experience in dealing with unusual situations.

She gave my disheveled friends an approving look and greeted each of them warmly in Chinese. She knew the face of someone in trouble when she saw it, putting her arm around the gaunt, almost catatonic Chai Ling, as if to comfort her, before I even had a chance to make introductions.

"Come on, come on inside!” she said. “Don't be so polite! You all look so hot and tired, let me fix you something to drink."

"Lotus, this is Chai Ling, a student leader from Tiananmen…”

To Lotus the name or fame of a person mattered not a bit. But the fact that I brought along a protester from Tiananmen Square did. Lotus, still a 60’s activist at heart, and a true believer in people power, the power of ordinary, everyday people that is, had been an enthusiastic observer of the demonstrations since the students started marching.

She had us sit down in the American-style dining room while she scurried about the kitchen, putting the kettle on and preparing some snacks. Wang Li scrutinized the apartment intently. Was he judging it for security features, or just trying to sate his unquenchable curiosity about the world of luxury and privilege behind high walls, a world from which ordinary Chinese were normally barred? Unable to remain still for long, he leapt up and joined Lotus in the kitchen to get a closer look at some of the modern, imported appliances.

When Lotus tried to make some small talk in Chinese, she used a motherly tone of voice that reminded me of the way she spoke to her daughter in front of guests.

"Philip has many Chinese friends, even though he is a foreigner, a white foreigner, he likes to be with Chinese people.” She went on and on, sometimes switching to Mandarin, her accent even more heavily Cantonese-inflected than that of the junior journalist from Hong Kong.

"Lotus, come on already!" I was impatient, not only because I'd heard this description a dozen times before, but because we had more important things to worry about. "This girl, I mean this woman, is on the run,” I explain, imploring Lotus to give me her full attention. “She wants to talk about something, something serious.”

Lotus looked at me with a quizzical smile, not fully comprehending.

“Sorry, I don't know if it was a good idea to bring her here, but we are really in a bind. I hope this doesn't get you into trouble, at least I don't think we were followed."

My friend in need reads between the lines expertly. "Are you asking me if this place bugged? The apartment I don't know, probably not. But the telephone? Yes."

"I don't want to get you and Al in trouble, I mean he works for a big company, you've got your family here, this could be a bit risky."

Lotus and Al, like many of their peers from the top of the baby-boomer generation enjoyed a solid income from the corporate world but still had a lingering fondness for radical causes. And they were sincere about it.

"Look, what are friends for? I want you to relax with your friends for a minute, I will talk to Al when he gets back."

"Where can we talk?"

"Just make yourselves at home," she answered. "Boy it's noisy here, what's that outside? Construction or something?" As I pulled the small handheld tape recorder out of my bag I realize with some disappointment that we had traveled a long way only to find a noisy location. "I want to do a taped interview."

"Nia's room is quiet," Lotus volunteered. Nia, whose name was inspired by the word Tanzania, in recognition of early Chinese communist efforts at diplomatic outreach to Africa, was just getting into her teenage years.

Lotus knocked tentatively on the door of her daughter's room. "Nia? Can you come out for a minute? I'd like you to say hello to Uncle Philip and his friends."

Nia reluctantly emerged, mumbled a shy hello and ran back into her room, closing the door.

"Uncle Philip and his friends would like to talk in your room," Lotus adds, trying to coax her pretty teenager out of her private fortress. "Is that okay, honey?"

The door pops open a crack and Nia peeks out, as if in partial acquiescence to her mother’s request, but the look on her face indicated it was anything but okay. She was probably wondering why Uncle Philip and the visitors couldn’t just talk in the living room like regular grownups did.

"Nia, please come into the kitchen. I want to talk with you about something," Lotus insists. As soon as the teenager was pried from her room, we got the green light. "Okay, guys, go ahead. Sit down inside, sit down! Nia said you can borrow her room. Right, Nia?"

We awkwardly filed into the small bedroom, acutely aware we were invading the private realm of a teenage princess. There were dolls and teddy bears, a McDonald's poster, an unmade bed of pastel sheets and an armchair.

"Everything okay?" Lotus inquires.

"I guess so, um-huh."

"Just a minute!" Lotus disappears, seeking to placate Nia who is understandably confused.

After getting Nia settled in the living room to watch TV, Lotus busies herself in the kitchen. "That's a good girl,” I hear her say to her daughter before she come back to us with a tray of sliced oranges. "Sorry I don't have anything better than this.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said, taking the tray and putting it down.

“Philip?” Lotus says with a touch of admonishment. “Why don't you serve these to your friends?"

"Thanks, of course,” I pass the orange slices around, then ask Lotus if I could borrow her video camera.

"You want the Handycam? You're lucky. I just charged the batteries, they will last for two hours, is that long enough?"

"I certainly hope so," I answer with a laugh. I figured this thing, whatever it was, would be over in five, ten minutes, max. While Lotus went to get the camera, I examined the room.

With the window closed and the air conditioner off, the room was quiet enough for an interview, but with four of us in there it was already starting to get quite stuffy. I decide to open the Venetian blinds open for light, inviting in the dry heat of the sun.

Wang Li peers out the window to survey the surrounding courtyards before settling next to Patricia on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Lotus comes back in and snuggles into the armchair, fidgeting with the dials and buttons of her camera. I move some stuffed animals out of the way so that Chai Ling and I could sit down next to each other on bed facing Lotus and the camera. I confer quietly with Chai Ling in Chinese, instructing her to introduce herself and tell us about the student movement.

"Do you have enough light, Lotus?” I ask, switching to English. “How's the sound?"

For some reason Chai Ling takes my comments to Lotus as a cue to begin talking.

"The police are looking for me," Chai Ling starts, breaking her long silence. "My name is on a blacklist. If I am caught, I will get fifteen years in prison."

I got the tape recorder rolling, but Lotus was still fiddling with the camera. Meanwhile the cramped, poorly-ventilated room was starting to feel like a sauna.

"I'm sorry, just a minute please, I say, trying to cue Chai Ling to the camera. “Lotus are you ready?"

Our hostess has finally found a reasonably comfortable way to film without a tripod by scrunching up in the armchair, balancing the camera on her knees.

"Okay, Chai Ling," I say, signaling the start of the interview. "Why don't you tell us who you are and how you got involved in the student movement?"

My interview subject is slow to react, as if weighted down by her own thoughts. She looks away from the camera, staring blankly at the wall.

"No, I think it's better if you look this way." I say, pointing to the blinking red light of the camera. "Here, hold the tape recorder yourself."

The student leader takes the compact cassette recorder and holds it in front of her mouth, as if she was addressing her followers with a megaphone. I motion for her to keep it down, away from her face, to put it in her lap.

"Okay, let's start, what do you want to say?"

"I think these might be my last words, the situation is getting grim," she says, words emerging slow and methodically at first. "My name is Chai Ling, I am 23 years old. Isn't it strange, my birthday was on April 15, the same day that Hu Yaobang died?”

Geithner in Beijing--What to Read (or Perhaps Re-Read)

With press reports circulating about Timothy Geithner's plan to speak at Peking University/Beida tomorrow, this might be the perfect time to dip into China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and read Geremie Barmé's "Facing Up to Friendship" (pages 212-214), a smart look at the talk Kevin Rudd gave at the same campus on April 9, 2008. (If you don't have the book, check out the earlier and slightly shorter version of it that appeared in the April 12, 2009, edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, under the title "Rudd Rewrites the Rules of Engagement.")

For two typically smart wrap-ups of readings about Geithner's visit (what he'll be doing, how the trip is being covered, you name it), see this by Sky Canaves of the Wall Street Journal's "China Journal" blog, and this at the China Digital Times.


In Search of Old Shanghai (Buildings)

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

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

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


5/26/89: An Audience with an Audience

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

Philip J Cunningham with "Commander-in-chief" Chai Ling in front of the student command center 

By Philip J. Cunningham 

On May 26 I got another glimpse of student command central, when Chai Ling was at the height of her power. She was holding court in the broadcast tent, the ideological hothouse of student-occupied Tiananmen Square. It wasn't easy getting in. I had to pass three rings of student security to secure an "audience." 

The BBC had yet to give me any kind of ID, so I learned to talk my way into things. My only "press" pass was my wit, which worked okay because I liked to talk and could do so in Chinese. There were times when the well-known call letters BBC did not suffice to gain entry, while merely saying I was looking for a friend from Shida might do the trick. The closer I got to the student center, the higher the likelihood I’d run into someone who’d seen me before, which also helped expedite entry. I could remember most of the faces, if not names, of the hundreds I’d spoken to in the last few weeks, so overall I had a high degree of mobility on the cordoned-off, people-controlled Square. 

As a provincial student leader, self-appointed or otherwise, Wang Li expected and obtained a certain amount of access to the Beijing student command center at the Broadcast Tent. What Wang Li lacked in social cachet as an unknown provincial student from Xian, I think he started to make up for by speaking on behalf of the BBC, since he was now on the payroll and knew he could impress fellow students with his important international connections. Student security guards were vigilant about keeping ordinary Chinese away from their "leaders," but by becoming a leader, or media person, many of the petty controls could be circumvented. 

Wang Li put in a word for me with the provincial students, but they seemed terribly disorganized and no interviews or memorable conversations came out of that effort. After jointly touring the provincial student outpost near the museum, we cut west and headed towards the broadcast tent in the center of the Square. The amateur security got woollier and woollier as we pushed towards the center, so we temporarily split up when he got permission to enter a controlled area that I couldn’t enter. Wang Li rushed ahead on his own, to see if he could find a student leader willing to talk to me. In the meantime, I decided to wing it, slowly working my way past various student gatekeepers until I ran into a familiar face from the Sports Institute. 

"Hey Jin," yelled a boisterous baritone, "what are you doing here? Good to see you, come over here!" 

It was Crazy Zhang. When he got within arm's length he gave me a few friendly punches that actually hurt. He wasn't called crazy for no reason. The last time I saw him he was wearing a khaki green cap with a red headband around it. 

"Go fight someone else!" I shoved him back. 

"Better not try anything or I'll have to throw you out of here," he said with a straight face. 

The smart-aleck muscle man grabbed me by the arm and led me up the north steps of the monument's marble base past a guarded security rope. He directed me to descend the steps on the east side of the monument to a roped off area from which it was possible to enter the broadcast tent. When I got inside that zone I found Wang Li standing outside the tent. He waved me over with his usual sense of urgency. 

“I'll leave you here,” said Zhang, this time with a gentle pat on the back instead of a threatening punch. “See you later.” 

Wang Li ran over excitedly, barely avoiding a collision with the solidly built Zhang. 


"What is it?" I asked. 

"Come now!" he said excitedly, "Chai Ling, she wants to talk to you." 

"Chai Ling? Where is she?" 

"By the tent," he shouted. Since we were both already inside, the innermost perimeter, it was just a matter of turning the corner of the monument to reach the entrance of the broadcast tent. 

There she was, the queen bee in the middle of a humming hive. She was petite and pert, wearing a loose-fitting white sports shirt with sunglasses hanging on her collar. She smiled in greeting when she saw me approach, but didn't say anything. There were people on her left and people on her right and from the looks of it, they all wanted a piece of her. There were excited discussions about some pressing matter or another, but I couldn't hear very well because a noisy diesel generator was roaring a few feet away. Just as I was about to ask her a question she was called away, disappearing for a few minutes into the shadows of the truck-sized tent. 

The petite, bronze-faced leader popped in and out of the broadcast tent a half a dozen times in as many minutes while attending to the minutiae of running the tent city of Tiananmen Square. Behind a well-secured safety rope, there was yet another group of student supplicants bearing urgent requests. There was a small patch of empty ground in front of the broadcast tent where I thought I might hold a quick interview, if one didn’t mind the hundreds of onlookers just a few feet away on the other side of the rope. I could already feel the heat of open-mouthed stares building up. Who is the laowai and what is he doing on the inside? 

This was the command center, where strategic decisions were made and announcements broadcast to tens of thousands on slow days like today; a week ago it had been the center of a swirling human cyclone a million strong. No wonder the student organizers are called leaders, with crowds of that size some kind of structure is necessary. 

Deep in the throng of wannabes who did not have permission to enter the command center were three familiar white faces: Eric, Fred and Brian. Being good journalists, they didn’t take no for an answer, they wanted in. 

When the usual, “We’re BBC!” didn’t work its charm, they started pointing to me, as much as a ruse to slip in as a bid to get my attention. They were turned back, however, and there wasn't much I could do about it. To make matters worse, a student warden asked me to translate, leaving it to me to say, “It is not allowed to go inside the rope without special permission.”

Rather than say that, I just hinted to the crew that I was working on it, and went back to the leadership tent to see if I could arrange something. I stood around, baking in the heat of the sun and soaking up unwanted glances when Chai Ling finally walked over and offered me her hand. 

"Ni hao," she said, stepping forward to greet me. 

"Ni hao. You're at Shida, right?” 

“Yes, graduate student, educational psychology.” 

“Do you know the service building? You know, the Insider Guest House above the campus store. . .” 

“I know that building. You speak Chinese very well.” 

We were interrupted by a young man who whispered to Chai Ling a flurry of messages and handed her some hand-scribbled notes on onionskin paper. The exchange went on for a few minutes, then the young man withdrew back into the tent. She turned around to resume our chat, apologizing with a weak smile. She was sunburned and looked tired, I started to have my doubts about arranging an interview. 

"Maybe I can talk to you somewhere else, some other time" 

"Now is fine, but I only have a few minutes." 

"Is it okay for them, um, you see my BBC friends, over there, for them to come in here? We can set up the camera right here." 

"You can do that," she replied. Wang Li heard the word and went to get the crew. Chai Ling got called to the side with another student matter, and I helped the crew get inside the rope. 

"What's going on Phil?" Brian asked impatiently. 

I explained that one of the top student leaders agreed to talk to us. 

"Why don't we set it up over here?" I pointed to the "front gate" of the tent and Eric and Fred went to work. Held back by a human chain of interlocked arms, student guards and rope, the curious throng strained to get a glimpse of news in the making. It was a relief to have student security handling crowd control this time around.

Entry to student-controlled zones was tightly guarded at times 

Allowing a foreign news crew to enter the “VIP” zone just added to the air of intrigue. In a flash, we were the center of attention. Several Europeans with cameras tried to sneak into the command center by following on the coattails of the BBC crew, but they were all stopped by truculent student guards and turned back. Some of them started to make a scene, yelling angrily in English. Just to keep up appearances and to indulge student illusions of control, journalists had in recent days gotten into the habit of flashing any old ID cards before walking into student-controlled areas loaded with cameras and recording equipment. But that gambit didn't work this time. 

"Vie kant vee go in?" pleaded one of the Europeans. 

"Vee also are from zee press!" his companion, added. 

"Vie you let zem in?" the first man complained. "It is not fair is it?" 

Unlike our tension-fraught visit to the water strikers last week, this time BBC was on the inside and our "competition" was left dangling on the other side of the ropes. Among my colleagues, who knew very well what it was like to be excluded, I could detect not an ounce of sympathy for those left on the outside. 

Foreign newsman at Tiananmen were generally supportive of the democratic tide but not one another. By now even student media handlers like Wang Li knew the value of exclusive access, and the access game worked both ways. Some journalists had been to Tiananmen everyday, and not without justification could they feel indignant at being refused access, or having to settle for reduced access. 

After some heated deliberation, the student guards agreed to allowed a single photographer to come in, but not the two complainers with video gear. Instead, a photographer from Vogue, French edition, was respectfully escorted in and started snapping pictures. At one point he turned to me to ask some questions about Chai Ling. He said he was working on a story titled "Role model for a Generation of Women.” 

By the time BBC had set up camera, Chai Ling was back. The generation/gender role model and I did a short pre-interview chat while the French photographer did his thing. She and I talked about the relative merits of Shida and Beida. She liked both campuses, but she had joined Beida's hunger strike committee because she had more friends there. 

Eric gave the signal that the Beeb was ready to roll. I had suggested to Chai Ling that we do an informal interview, hoping we could get a few candid comments on tape without a formal set up, but Brian had different ideas. 

"Move out of the way, Phil!" he said, nudging me to the side to take a stand between the two of us. 

"What do you mean?" I said, trying to regain my footing. "I'm talking to her." 

"I do the talking, Phil!" he said, "Okay Eric, start rolling." 

I stepped back dejected but not defeated. I watched Brian talk, then gesticulate, then resort to primitive pantomime, as Chai Ling was not able or willing to converse in English. Seemingly oblivious to the language gap, he went on doing this for a few minutes, getting lots of puzzled looks but no words in response. Chai Ling looked at me, then at him and back at me again. 

Brian threw up his hands in frustration and walked away."Turn off the camera!" he instructed Eric, then turned to me. "Listen, will you? We need someone who speaks English." 

While the BBC reporter paced about impatiently, apparently looking for another interview, Chai Ling resumed talking to me with rapid-fire delivery, telling me things I hadn’t even asked about. She started to give a very emotional account of her involvement in the movement. I don't think she knew much about video recording and perhaps she did not care, because the camera was not rolling. It wasn’t even mounted on the tripod anymore. I detected pain in her expression and listened intently, trying not to be distracted by the mumbling and grumbling behind me to the right. She kept on talking and I kept on listening. 

Out of the corner of my eye I could sense the crew was busy, probably packing up, but I did not break eye contact because I wanted to hear what this intense young woman had to say. There was something dark and troubling in her countenance. 

She continued to pour her heart out. After a few minutes I realized that the film crew had definitely not just stepped back to change tapes or put in a new battery. Going, going, gone. They wrapped in a huff and disappeared without saying a word. 

Chai Ling and I shared the mutual embarrassment of having an interview fall apart even as we spoke, leading us both to shrug our shoulders and laugh. She continued talking politics, in a low voice but with great energy and emotion, telling me the student movement had come to a crucial turning point, the future was full of uncertainty. There were serious conflicts between rival student groups. The Beijing students were tired but tempered from weeks of demos and the hunger strike. It was the provincial students, relatively late arrivals, who were pushing for action. Chai Ling said there was a plot to destroy the movement and she didn't know who to trust anymore. She spoke of betrayal, of fear, and of her sense of responsibility as a leader. We were interrupted again, this time by a student messenger. Upon the receipt of some urgent communique, she turned to me and said she had to go, asking how to get in touch. 

“Bei-jing Fan-dian, 1-4-1-3,” I said, giving her my room number at the hotel. 

"I want to talk more," she said with a soft-spoken intensity. "Can I trust you?" 

I waited for her to say more, trying to understand. 

"I want to run away. . ." she said. 


"It is getting very dangerous!" 

"Yes, you should be more careful," I said. "But what did you say, run away?" 

"A Chinese person told me that the British Embassy is offering political asylum to student activists. What do you think about that?" 

"I don't know," I said. "It's possible, but not likely. Who told you that?" 

"I think it may be a trap." 

"I just don't know." 

"Can you ask about that for me?" 

I told her I didn't know anyone at the British Embassy but I said that maybe one of my "good friends" at the BBC did. Then I added my own advice. "Be careful about dealing with foreign embassies. If you go to a big embassy, it could be used against you politically. Maybe the embassy of a small, neutral country is better." If she went to the US Embassy I was afraid she would become a political pawn in US-China relations. I didn't think that the British Embassy would be any better. Worse yet, what if it was a trap? What if the asylum offer had been made by an undercover agent, a trap set by Chinese police to discredit the nationalism of the students? 
"Jin, I must go now," she said. “See you again!"

A News Story on School Collapses Tantalizes, Then Disappears

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

By David Bandurski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A partial translation of the China Economic Weekly story follows:

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

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

Numbers reveal damage to be most serious among school buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reading Roundup

1. A very cool set of reports from 1949 on what happened in Shanghai sixty years ago when the Communist Party took control (Hat tip: Shanghaiist).

2. Alec Ash continues with brief insights on critical issues. Here’s a nugget on the Chinese “brain drain.”

3. A very smart review of Zhao's memoir by Richard Rigby at East Asia Forum:

What was not generally known at the time to outside observers was Zhao’s determination, mentioned several times in the book, that he not go down in history as the General Secretary who approved unleashing the PLA against the demonstrators.

In so doing he sealed his political fate, but also ensured his name would be added to the (all too long) list of upright officials who throughout Chinese history did the right thing – to their cost, but to their own, and China’s, ultimate credit.

The fascination of the book, though, goes much further than Zhao’s account of the June 4 events.

It will be mined in great detail by many for the insights it provides into the evolution of the economic reform program, the twists and turns of internal party struggles, the paramount role of Deng Xiaoping (but even his power was not unlimited), the serious differences within the reform camp over political reform (and in Zhao’s case, the way his thinking on this issue changed, and continued to do following his removal from power), Zhao’s insightful pen-portraits of his erstwhile colleagues, and his frank admissions of various policy mistakes (in particular the mishandling of the price reform of 1988).

Most of all, the book stands out as the sole account of how things worked – and in some, but not all ways, presumably still do – at the very top of the Chinese political system, by one who was there.

(Go to East Asia Forum for more.)

4. Check out an intriguing new blog (hat tip: Victor Mair) called The China Society Pages that features translations of quirky Chinese new stories (some of which also appear at CNReviews), including recent entries like “Husband and Wife Sue His Former Mistress,” “Widowed Chicken Disconsolate over Loss of Rooster,” and “Man Stabs Father 6 Times Killing Him, Then Goes Back to Bed.” You get the idea.

5. China is trying to manage its international profile the same way it does at home: by creating media, this time aimed at foreigners. Hear the story at NPR.


5/22/89: The Hunger of Provincials

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

By Philip J. Cunningham

On the evening of May 22, BBC asked me to take one of the crews to the Square for a closer look at the protest, which was thought to be on the wane now that martial law was coming into force. We did the usual look-see, I conducted a few spot interviews and the talented camera crew captured ironic and iconic visuals. Then we took a break in front of the History Museum, parking the hotel van near the camp of the provincial students. 

The protesters around us didn't seem to mind our presence, until we decided to crack out the beverages. It was hard to enjoy the hotel-bought drinks we had kept stored in an icebox in the back of the van while in the midst of so many under-nourished, homeless students from the countryside. 

The problem of eating well in front of people who had less access to food was a familiar one, something I had experienced on the set of The Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun. We almost had a riot one day on the during a location shot on the Bund for the Spielberg film, as the cast and crew ate a hotel-catered lunch in the midst of 5000 hungry extras whose food had been duly paid for but never arrived, due to some sticky-fingered comprador or official intermediary. 

Thus it was with some reluctance that I extracted a can of iced cold soda from the icebox. Just then I noticed a young man in dusty clothes staring at me through thick black-rimmed glasses, eyeing the Coke I had in my hand. He had a wiry build and sported a flattop crew cut that made him look more a police cadet than student. But there was something extremely sympathetic about him too, he had a wide-eyed but vulnerable expression on his face, as if he wanted to talk but was afraid. I offered him a can of soda from the BBC icebox. 

"Thank you, man!" he said nervously in English. He smiled like a baby who had just gotten his bottle. He downed the bubbly drink so fast I felt sorry for him. 

"Here you go, friend." I said, tossing him another. 

"Do you know about the fighting outside the city?" He asked, face drawn with earnest tension until he burped. 

"What? Fighting? Tell me about it." 

"The troops starting beating the common people," he said, rushing into a description of the incident. 

"How do you know about this?" 

"I was there!" he said authoritatively. "Do you want to know about it? Are you a reporter?" 

"Sort of. An interpreter. A freelancer, actually. For the BBC. That's the crew," I said, pointing to the tailgate party. 

"Nice vehicle, what model is that?" he asked. 

"I don't have the slightest idea," I answered honestly. He looked me over from head to toe as if to say how could you not know what model of car you have? 

"I'm Wang Li," he said. "I'm from Xian. I give you this information." He handed me some scribbled ideographs on a crumpled sheet of paper. 

"Listen, little Wang, you can call me Jin, ‘jin’ as in gold. Jin Peili," 

Taking a closer look at his notes, I could barely make out his writing, but there was a list of some place names, times and dates. 

"Thanks for the information, but the BBC probably won't have the time to look into such a specific incident, even recorded in detail such as this." 

"But isn't this news?" 

"It may be," I said. "But TV news is, um, different. There's a lot of information that never makes it on air." He looked as disappointed as a puppy that had just returned a stick that its owner didn't want to throw anymore. 

"This might be useful for a newspaper, but TV news is, well, forget it." 

"Do you want more information?" he asked. 

"Sure, let's keep in touch," I said, not sure if I meant it or not. I had met too many unusual characters lately, and some of them were so weird I had lost confidence in the cliché that a stranger was a friend I hadn't met yet. 

"Okay, I tell you what," I said, trying not to sound too encouraging, "if you have some interesting news, you can call me at the Beijing Hotel, my room number is 1413. And how can I get in touch with you?" 

"I am always here, on Tiananmen Square, with the provincial students," he said. "Just ask for Wang Li from Xian." 

Later that evening he telephoned my room, waking me up. 

"I'm Wang Li," the husky voice says, "I met you on the Square, I have something very important to tell you." 

"What time is it now?" 

"12:15, I'm in the downstairs coffee shop waiting for you." 

"Okay, okay, I'll be right down." 

Coffee shop? At this time of night? Not in the Beijing Hotel. This place closes down early. So what does he want? Food, I could offer him, a place to stay? Well. Anticipating his request, I opened the refrigerator and stuffed all the food and drink I could squeeze into my shoulder bag.

The lobby is dark and forbidding. The red carpet is inky, almost black. There are no attendants anywhere in sight. When I pass the decorative screen that is designed to keep ghosts out of the lobby I can see some people sitting in the empty coffee lounge. Four young men, no, it's three men and a woman sitting around a low round table masked in shadow. At an adjacent table I can make out the silhouette of two young men. One of them leaps up and waves me over excitedly. It is Wang Li. 

"Jin, ni hao," Wang Li says in greeting, approaching me with outstretched hands. "This is my friend Hu, he is also a student from Xian," he says. Hu and I say hello and shake hands while Wang Li fumbles nervously in his pockets for something. "Here are our student ID cards, I want you to trust us." 

I scan the cards briefly in the dim light and give them back. I put the fruit juice and snacks on the table and take a seat. 

"Jin, there is so much I have to tell you," Wang Li erupts, as if we were old friends. 

"Have something to drink first," I insist, trying to pre-empt his request. I hand him some food and drink. He hands me a jagged piece of paper with notes scribbled on it. I can't help but notice that the coffee shop menu that lay open on the table had part of a page ripped out of it that matched the angular shape of his note like a jigsaw puzzle piece. 

Written in the coffee-stained margins next to "CHILLED LYCHEES IN SYRUP" and "YOGHURT WITH HONEY" are scribbled the words: "Liuliqiao, army troops, 70 civilians receive injury, tomorrow huge demonstration in protest." 

Wang Li and Hu gulp down the juice and ravage the snacks as if they had just ended a private hunger strike. While they eat, I look at the other table where a group of four young people are talking in low whispers next to the ornate ghost screen that blocked view from the entrance. 

"Listen, troops have arrived northeast of Beijing. There are thousands of soldiers, tanks, and I heard there are trucks full of ammunition," Wang Li says, as if trying to earn his keep. 

"How do you know?" 

"We were there," he says with a hint of pride. And then anticipating further questions, he adds, "We know a journalist needs evidence, so we want to go back and take pictures." 

"Isn't that kind of risky?" 

"No, we must do it, Jin. Can I borrow your camera?" He reads the doubt on my face. "You can keep my ID card until I return with the camera." 

"No, no, that's not necessary. I trust you," I respond, using the immortal words of someone about to be conned. Actually I didn’t trust him. If anything his offer of the ID made me a little suspicious. If he were really a student why was he flashing his ID around? No one else did that. 

"Thank you," he says, looking greatly relieved. "You are a friend." 

"Where have you been sleeping?" 

"On the Square," he answers. 

"What about tonight?" 

"No sleep. We will be out all night looking for troops." 

“You have to get some sleep some time,” I answer, playing the role of older brother. I didn’t have that kind of stamina or drive. 

I was starting to admire this guy’s dedication to the cause. 

"I'll tell you what, tomorrow you can shower and nap in my room if you want, okay?" 

Even as the words left my mouth I wasn’t sure why I made the offer, but it got me off the hook tonight. And I did feel for these ragamuffins. We shared a powerful curiosity in common; we were interested in finding out what was really going on, but we weren’t journalists, not them, not me. I couldn’t forget how I was almost reduced to sleeping on the streets during the early vigils at Tiananmen. 

"Can you give me some film, too?" he pleads, revealing sharper bargaining skills as my skepticism softened. 

"Yeah, okay. By the way," I ask, pointing to the figures in the shadows about 20 feet away, "Who are those people sitting at the table over there?" 

"They're our student leaders. That's Wang Dan, Wuerkaixi, Chai Ling and Feng Congde." 

"The student leaders?" I ask in disbelief. Isn’t this a government hotel? 

We got up to leave. I walked past the other table to get a closer look. The quiet conference in progress momentarily went silent as we walked by. On the way out, I give my camera to Wang Li, not sure if I'd see it or him again. Even so I felt a pang of guilt. Is it right for me to encourage him to go running after troops? 

And what are the student leaders doing in the Beijing Hotel in the middle of the night? Is someone protecting them, do they have a powerful benefactor in the building? It’s close to Tiananmen Square, and in a way, it's a good hideout. After all, who would expect to find them here? Like Shanghai in the ‘30s where the underground communists frequented the same bars, brothels and hotels as the anti-communist city bosses, Beijing was becoming a city of shadowy intrigue.


Better City, Better Life, Part II

By Gina Anne Russo

In my first post on the "Better City, Better Life" Expo promotion campaign, I focused on the centrality within it of visions of Shanghai as a special sort of distinctively modern and distinctively international Chinese metropolis, but here I'll emphasize the second half of the slogan, which draws attention to the quality of urban existence. Expo public advertisements don't just glorify Shanghai’s place in the modern world, they also strive to present Shanghai as a place where good behavior is on display. For example, on the subway one day I ran across a person dressed up as Haibao, and he was surrounded by people in vests that read “Make this city better, be a loveable Shanghaier.” Along with being cute and loveable, however, the most common adjective connected with expected “Expo” behavior is wenming I have been in Shanghai now for nine months, and within those nine months more and more small signs, specifically in very public places, have popped up, telling people how they should be behaving. For example, most escalators now read “stand on the right, walk on the left, use the escalators in a wenming way.” Or, “Don't spit on buses, be more wenming.”

Wenming is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say it means “civilized,” but this definition carries as many problematic connotations in Chinese as it does in English. Leo Lee, in his book Shanghai Modern, traces the development of this word in modern Chinese. The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese, who used the same characters (pronounced differently of course) in the late nineteenth century to define behavior that was specifically “modern” and “Western,” thus maintaining the same connotations as “civilized” in English. This was picked up by China at the beginning of the twentieth century with similar effect.. The Nationalist government in the 1930s emphasized wenming behavior; it was often used in publications promoting the New Life Movement put forth by Chiang Kai-shek, a movement which encouraged people to be more hygienic and well mannered in terms of clothes, food, behavior, and deportment.. If we look at textbooks affiliated with the drive to improve weisheng (hygiene or health)—another complex term, whose links to visions of urban modernity are the subject of an important recent book by Ruth Rogaski we see them using similar language: calling on readers to raise the level of China’s weisheng by being wenming in the way they use the bathroom, stand in line, and so on.

According to Lee, this word shifted in connotation after 1949 to mean “manners” rather than “Western defined behavior.” However, it seems to me that in today’s usage, the meaning still carries this kind of “civilized” meaning. The term tells people not to do things that are considered uncouth or uncivilized by the international community, and by “international community” the reference remains Europe and North America (with Japan or Singapore getting an occasional look-in as perhaps honorary members of the Western modernity club) In this sense, the Expo is connected with making the lives of Shanghai people better, (hence the “better life”) which is inextricably tied with a population that maintains “modern” and “civilized” behavior.

Other public advertisements emphasize Shanghai’s “coming of age” as it becomes a modern part of the Western world in 2010. At Hongqiao airport, for example, a large mural depicts Shanghai (represented by the Oriental Pearl Tower) as it is connected with the rest of the world. Representations from outside China include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Coliseum, and the Empire State Building. A friend from Hong Kong with whom I was traveling bitterly commented, “So I guess Africa and South America don't count?”

While this may seem a somewhat simplistic way to read these advertisements, representation of the third world are almost always absent in images of the “global community” (and you’ll look in vane in such visual representations for any sign of India, which constitutes ¼ of the global community). And a final illustration of this phenomenon brings us back to one place you see Haibao, which is on the interactive TV screens located in many Shanghai taxis. While riding in these cabs, people can watch sponsored advertisements (including ones for the new Barbie Store) or play “Expo” games, ranging from a Dance-Dance-Revolution-like one featuring a gyrating Haibao to trivia quizzes that test (and thereby try to increase?) your knowledge of the “world,” via answering questions like “What utensils are used to eat pizza?” and “What type of wine is served with fish and spaghetti?” I’ve only seen one non-Western country even mentioned in these games, and it was Japan, and it only figured in one of the many trivia games on offer in the taxis. The message that this sends is that modernity the West, and Shanghai is ready to become a major player in the modern global community. And this will happen with the Expo, the ultimate symbol of Shanghai’s crossover.

With the Expo less than a year away, Shanghai has a lot of preparation still ahead of it (the most pressing of which are the massive building planned in Pudong). But philosophically, Shanghai has been waiting for this opportunity to regain its status as the center of gravity for China’s modernity for decades. To Shanghai people, this has always been Shanghai’s legacy, and current advertisements feed this sentiment by both naming Shanghai as China’s most modern city and tying it to the Western world, creating, in a sense, a two-dimensional modern identity, both national and international. And while these messages include a certain amount of nationalistic fervor, the real star of the show is not China, but China’s most modern city, its gateway to the rest of the world. 


Should China Copy the West on Academic Integrity?

By Susan D. Blum

In recent years, articles have appeared from time to time in the Western press that deal with cases of plagiarism in China and speculated on what these incidents may reveal about how academic life and the educational system in the PRC work.  When we learned that anthropologist Susan Blum, one of the contributors to China Beyond the Headlines, a book that was co-edited by a contributor to China Beat (Timothy Weston) and in a sense was trying to do in print form some of the things that this blog now tries to do online, has been combining writing about various aspects of Chinese culture with writing about plagiarism in the U.S. (and elsewhere), we thought it would be great to get her to reflect for us on what is and is not unusual about the situation in the PRC.  Here's what Blum, the author of a new book called My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture as well as an earlier work on deception and truth in China, Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), had to say in response our invitation:

Plagiarism. Doesn’t the very word send chills down your spine? It resembles plague, after all (even though it has no genetic connection to it), and a plague must sicken us all. So the cases of plagiarism and academic misconduct, fraud, copying, and misrepresentation that are the latest ills to beset China make for great journalistic stories. China should, by some accounts, take its lead from the “West,” and especially from the United States.

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States too is consumed by worries about plagiarism and violations of academic integrity. But we have the sense that things are worse in China.

The whole topic of plagiarism depends on related ideas of originality. By a certain logic, developed in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an author should write original works (Woodmansee 1984, Rose 1993), and should be paid—in both money and “credit”—for that contribution, especially because the best authors were seen as geniuses, inspired by their Muse or by God. The unique work of each of these geniuses should be acknowledged. And paid.

Thus was born the notion of copyright, which is connected with but not identical to the admonition to give credit to our sources.

Academic writing, which is not always—to say the least—touched by genius, borrows from this sense that the author has made a unique contribution and should be gestured to. But it also has a professional scaffolding, the guild rules, if you will, that uses a person’s prior learning to demonstrate proper deference and training. We do that, as Anthony Grafton showed in his book The Footnote, in our footnotes. They give credit. They allow readers to pursue our line of thinking. And they show that we are following the rules.

These are the rules we teach our students and these are the rules we follow, at least when we do follow them.

In the United States college students fail to follow these rules sometimes; in surveys about 66% of our students admit to using uncited material. They do so for a variety of reasons: The rules are extremely subtle and difficult to master properly. The students are busy with a variety of other compelling activities and don’t want to take the time on a particular assignment. The assignment is meaningless to the student. The student has waited until the last minute and just needs to fill up pages, with anything. Some of these reasons may have to do with integrity and some with failed education.

But you can imagine a different notion of writing, a different path in history that does not regard writing as an individual possession. (Many of our students do, in this age of collaboration and Wikis.)

You could imagine a notion of writing where sharing was more important than hording.

You could imagine an academic system where people were hired and rewarded on the basis of contacts, seniority, and cooperation rather than publication and competition.

You could imagine a notion of education where quoting authority showed the proper deference of youth.

You could even imagine a place where a culture hero claimed “I transmit, I do not invent (or create).” (This saying is attributed to Kongzi, known as Confucius, in The Analects.)

Such a place would have a different set of rules about what is supposed to be found in footnotes and in papers, and writing in this place would not be seen as violating universal morality, but rather as following its own logic.

Until very recently, these have been some of the rules governing academic writing in China.

Now, of course, China has left behind its twentieth-century academic isolation and would like to make intellectual contributions to the global academic world. China is now producing more people with higher education degrees than the U.S. and India combined, according to the BBC.  China is investing heavily in tertiary education. China’s faculty are no longer rewarded simply for loyalty.

So new rules are evolving.

And like all social change, it is clear that it happens unevenly. Now that several Chinese universities are ranked in the top 100 in the world, and collaborations between Chinese and foreign scholars are common, Chinese universities have agreed to follow “international” notions of academic integrity, meaning that all work must declare its origins. (Never mind that there is great variation among nations in how this is regarded.) Deference has given way to the confident claims of invention.

As in any high-stakes system—the SAT, Wall Street, publication in prestigious fora—one finds some individuals willing to take enormous risks. Some are sociopaths, such as journalist Stephen Glass who fabricated an entire story in The New Republic. Some claim sloppiness, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin. Scientists wishing glory may also write fraudulent papers, such as three recent professors at Zhejiang University. He Haibo copied and fabricated results published or submitted to eight journals; two colleagues were implicated with him. China Daily called it the “biggest-ever academic scandal.”

Here we have a case with several possible explanations:

--Chinese people cheat.

--Some Chinese people cheat.

--Some people cheat.

--China follows imperfectly international guild rules about academic practices.

--China’s acceptance of the rules of academic citation are in flux and so far have been mastered imperfectly.

Which answer is preferable may depend on whether you want China to be similar to or different from people elsewhere, and whether you believe in an enduring Chinese essence.

I believe that in some sense the rules of academic conduct are arbitrary, but like any game, the players must follow the rules. Violations occur occasionally, both in the West and in Asia, and are rarely caught or punished. The American Historical Association recognized its powerlessness in enforcing rules against plagiarism in 2003, though it encouraged historians to follow and teach students about proper rules of conduct.

There are some traditional practices that may endure in China, such as having novices quote from authorities as part of their education, and there is a tendency to regard communication as effective based on the results it produces.

But there are also new forces at play in China, having to do with the way academics are compensated for speed of publication and uniqueness of contribution.

In this sense China is copying the economic structure of the Western academy. And in this sense the temptations for cutting corners in order to “scoop” everyone else or at least to pile on publications are just like ours.

In this sense, imitation may be the best form of flattery, but both the source and the copier would profit from a different model.

Sources Cited
Grafton, Anthony. 1997. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Rose, Mark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Woodmansee, Martha. 1984. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17: 425-48.

Susan D. Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of the recent works Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman and Littlefield 2007) and My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press 2009).