Saturday, November 28, 2020

People of 1989: Lao Mu (老木)

 Liu Weiguo entered Peking University in 1979 as a freshman, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. He was active on campus, serving as student body President in the department as well as the Vice Chairman of the May Fourth Literature Society in the university. Following the cultural trend at the time, he started to compose poems with the penname "Lao Mu," or "Old Wood." That name quickly became so well-known that his real name almost became irrelevant.

Lao Mu as a college student.

By 1985, he had graduated from college and was working in the Beijing City Party University. That year, he collected many poems in the underground youth movement and published it as a book named New Poem Wave Collection.

Although a rudimentary production, the unofficial publication managed to sell more than 30,000 copies within a year. It made him famous and also brought him trouble. In 1986, during the "Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism" movement, the book and Lao Mu were denounced. He had to leave his work but managed to become an editor for an art journal. 

In February, 1989, Lao Mu helped Chen Jun and Bei Dao to launch the "33 Writers Open Letter" signature gathering, which helped to start a political movement.

Lao Mu did not join the student protest later that year right away. After students started hunger striking, he was among the intellectuals to support as well as to dissuade the students. On May 23, 1989, when the intellectuals formally joined the movement in the name of "Capital Joint Conference," Lao Mu was one of its significant participants. He was appointed to head the propaganda department and worked to consolidate and expand the broadcasting and public relations in the Square.

Lao Mu (center) with Wang Dan (left) and Liu Suli (right) at Tiananmen Square on May 24, 1989.

After the massacre, Lao Mu escaped to France and joined the oversea democracy movement there. However, he dropped out the scene after a few short years and lost contact. He was occasionally spotted in the streets of Paris as an homeless vagrant, suffering from mental and other illness. It wasn't until June, 2016, when he was finally found and brought back to China for treatment by his family members and formal college classmates.

Lao Mu died of cancer at home on November 26, 2020. He was 57.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

People of 1989: Li Peng (李鹏)

Premier Li Peng was undoubtedly the No. 1 target during the entire 1989 Chinese student movement.

Li Peng was born in 1928. He was an offspring of an earlier Communist Party underground and martyr. He spent his earlier life working in the technical field of electrical engineering and did not reach prominence until 1980, when he was named as the minister for electrical industry.

The 1980s saw Li Peng steadily rise in the ranks of the top echelon of Chinese leadership, serving the posts of Vice Premier, Commissioner of Education, Politburo Member, Politburo Standing Committee Member. When Premier Zhao Ziyang succeeded the disgraced Hu Yaobang into the post of General Secretary, Li Peng became the Premier.

Li Peng continued to maintain a low public profile, dodged by unfounded rumors of his heritage and favoritism. While as Education Commissioner as well as Vice Premier, he instituted a series of policy that limited university students from going abroad. This certainly did not gain him any favors from the younger generation. Also in the 1980s, he was consistently portrayed as an enemy of reform for his willingness to reign in the economy from runaway inflation.

As the 1989 movement started, students took aim straight to Li Peng. Whether it was when they staged protests in front of Xinhuamen or an kneeling appeal at Hu Yaobang funeral, the loudest chant was always "Li Peng, Come Out!" But Li Peng made no attempt in publicly acknowledging or responding to the demands. He was content to let Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping handle the movement on the front line.

When the situation escalated and then deteriorated, Li Peng finally stepped up with a surprising meeting with the hunger striking student leaders.

But it was later when he announced the imposition of martial law that his image was forever burned into history.

He quickly became the public enemy No 1 among the protesters, who often chanted "We will Come Every Day, Until Li Peng Goes Away" (“李鹏不下台,我们天天来”)

After the massacre, Li Peng also earned the reputation of "Butcher of Beijing" in international media. He later delivered an official indictment on the now overthrown Zhao Ziyang. But perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, he did not succeed him as General Secretary but remained as Premier.

Li Peng later did reign in the economy with the help of an oppressive political atmosphere in the aftermath of 1989, which paved the way for a new round of reform and openness in the 1990s. He was also instrumental in the building of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Li Peng stepped down from Premiership in 1998 and retired from public life in 2003. He spent his later years writing memoirs. He died on July 22, 2019 in Beijing. He was 90.

People of 1989

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

People of 1989: Zhang Jian (张健)

In 1989, Zhang Jian was a freshman at Beijing Sports College, barely 18. He had of course participated in the early protests and demonstrations along with his fellow classmates.
Zhang Jian, in 1989.
Later, he joined the team of student marshals at Tiananmen Square. Perhaps largely due to his strong body and athleticism, he was often chosen to serve as body guard for the inner student leadership.

Phillip Cunningham knew him quite well from their frequent encounters during that time. Cunningham remembers Zhang Jian as an always lively and spirited, he likes to call him "Crazy Zhang". Zhang Jian, on the other hand, loves to show off a military hat in his possession. He tells anyone who would listen that it was from a soldier who had surrendered to students.       

Zhang Jian (left) with his hat, along with Cunningham in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (photo from Cunningham.)
When some of the student leaders started to disappear from the Square as massacre was approaching, Zhang Jian was appointed to be the "Commander in Chief of Student Marshals" by Chai Ling. He would later tell his tales of that horrible night: trying to stop the advancing army near Qianmen; led student marshals to rescue soldiers (from being beaten to death) escaping from a burning armed vehicle; and finally, coming face to face with an army officer, who prompt shot him.

He was rescued and sent to a hospital nearby, where he had surgery and hid for 90 days. One piece of shrapnel in his leg did not come out until a surgery in Paris in 2008.

Zhang Jian left China in 2001 and has lived as an exile in Paris ever since. He worked for a living while spending much of his time with oversea Chinese dissident activities.

Zhang Jian at one of his jobs in Paris.
On April 15, 2019, Zhang Jian suddenly lost fainted during a flight back to Paris from Tailand. The plane made an emergency landing but he died in a hospital in Munich, Germany.

He was 48.

People of 1989                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Monday, December 17, 2018

People of 1989: Yuan Mu (袁木)

In the 1980s, the title of a government spokesperson was still a new curiosity. As such, Yuan Mu was a virtual unknown at the beginning of 1989 but he eventually came to personify the role of Spokesman for the State Council (国务院发言人) throughout the student movement that year.

After the mass demonstration of April 27, 1989, the government adopted a limited conciliatory approach toward dialog with students. It was Yuan Mu who hosted the first such session on April 29, which was broadcast live. Yuan Mu promised more dialogues in the future but emphasized that government would never talk to "illegal student organizations." Students, however, quickly questioned the representativeness of the invited attendees and some even walked out in protest of Yuan Mu's condescending tone.

Yuan Mu (front center) meets with students on April 29, 1989.
On May 3, the eve of a planed student demonstration, Yuan Mu held a press conference to reject Beijing Students Autonomous Federation's demands.

Yuan Mu (far right) at press conference on May 3, 1989.
Later in May, Yuan Mu seemed to be sidelined somewhat as other government officials, such as Zhao Ziyang, Hu Qili, and Yan Mingfu, took more significant roles in various dialogues. Along with Li Peng, Yuan Mu had become one of most hated target of the movement by then.

After the massacre, Yuan Mu re-emerged and continued his role of the chief government spokesman. He held a press conference on June 6 to "reveal the truth of a counter-revolutionary rebellion" and announced the first government statistics on casualties.

But it was ten days later, when he was interviewed by Tom Brokaw of NBC News that he gained worldwide infamy. Yuan Mu repeated the government line that no death had occurred during the clearance of Tiananmen Square. Since the "clearance period" was left undefined, his assertion was summarily condemned. He also became the personification of Chinese government's lies. (In his memoir China Hands, The US Ambassador James Lilley recalled an incident that, when Yuan Mu's daughter came to the consulate to apply for a student visa to US, she was openly ridiculed.)

Yuan Mu graduated faded out of public view after 1989 and retired in 2000. He died on December 13, 2018 in Beijing. He was 90.

People of 1989

Saturday, December 1, 2018

People of 1989: George H. W. Bush

George H. W. Bush became the 41st President of the United States on January 20, 1989. He had been the Vice President under President Ronald Reagan for eight years already. In his previous political endeavors, he had also served, among other positions, as the Ambassador to the United Nations and Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Thus, he was well regarded as a top expert in foreign affairs.

But he seemed to be most proud of his experience as the Chief of U. S. Liaison Office in Beijing during 1974-1975, the precursor of embassy in China. He and his wife enjoyed riding bicycles in the streets and hutongs of that city, gaining first-hand intimate feelings of that mysterious country before her opening to the rest of the world.

After his inauguration, Bush quickly planned a trip to Japan, China, and South Korea (using the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito as an opportunity) as his first official working trip as President. This was the very first "pivot to China" attempt by the US government. On February 25, 1989, barely a month into his presidency, Bush arrived in Beijing.

On the second day of his triumphant return, however, there was trouble. Bush was to host a banquet at the Great Wall Hotel and he had invited many dignitaries in Beijing, including some famous dissidents. Professor Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian were invited but was blocked by authority from attending on the street outside of the hotel. The couple held a press briefing later that night at the Shangri-La Hotel instead. It was the first signal that government's tolerance of dissident activity was reaching its end. The Bush administration had only muted response to that incident.

The sudden eruption of student movement later that year caught Bush by surprise, when his attention was focused in the East Europe. The US government stayed in a low profile during the entire period.

After the massacre, while shocked, President Bush quickly decided that his first priority should be to "preserve the relationship" between America and China. Just as the US government was denouncing the brutality, Bush was already seeking private channels to convey his true intention to Beijing. On June 20, while the ripples of the massacre were still apparent, he wrote a secret letter to his "old friend" Deng Xiaoping, delivered through the Chinese ambassador Han Xu (韩叙). Deng Xiaoping quickly responded, and with it started a secret diplomacy between the two great nations. Shortly after, White House envoys, former President Richard Nixon, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and others visited Beijing either in secret or officially, maintaining a viable communication channel.

At the same time, Bush was facing tremendous pressure from the American public and Congress to impose tough sanctions on China. The newly formed Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars in America launched a successful and sustained lobbying campaign, which was supported by most Congress members, led by the Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. They managed to pass a series of legislation aimed to punish China and protect Chinese students in America.

Bush had to use almost all of his political capital to contain and limit the "damage." On November 21, he vetoed a sanction bill. On November 30, he vetoed an "emergency Chinese protection bill" but implemented its content with an executive order. On December 19, he was already lifting some sanctions previously imposed. Then on May 24, 1990, he extended China's "Most Favored Nation" (MFN) status. The MFN status for China would continue to be an annual political battle afterwards, but never seriously threatened again. (In 1992, Bill Clinton strongly attacked Bush on this issue, vowing to be tough to Beijing. But after his election, Clinton also continued to extend the status and eventually made it permanent.)

Bush also experienced difficulty in securing the release of Fang Lizhi, who had taken refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing after the massacre. He viewed the issue as a huge headache. After a year of negotiations, Fang Lizhi was finally allowed to leave China. When Fang Lizhi almost immediately criticized US government's "double standard" on human rights issues regarding China, Bush and his team were deeply offended.

During his four years in office, President Bush oversaw "a world transformed," with fundamental changes occurring in China, East Europe, and Soviet Union. He also won a complete military victory in the first Gulf War. However, his triumph in foreign affairs was no match to a domestic economical recession and was defeated for reelection.

Bush died on November 30, 2018. He was 94.

People of 1989

Friday, August 11, 2017

This Day in 1989: June 28, 1989, Thatcher Meets with Chinese Students in UK

In the morning of June 28, 1989, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with five Chinese student representatives in her office at No. 10 Downing Street. At that time, there were about 3,500 Chinese students and scholars in UK and some 205 of them were facing expiration of their visa and would have to return to China soon.

The Chinese student representatives expressed gratitude to UK government for her strong condemnation of the Tiananmen Massacre. They hoped the UK government would also suspend all high-level visits between the two countries and also provide protection to the Chinese nationals in UK.

Thatcher promised that her government would "look sympathetically at any applications to stay in the United Kingdoms from those who did not wish to return to China for the present," and provide assistance in the areas of employment permission and health insurance to those with financial difficulties. However, she discouraged Chinese students from seeking long-term political asylum and said that "they should see their future in terms of returning to China to help build a better society there."

The UK government recently released a set of Home Office documents about Hong Kong and British citzenship and it included those for the preparation as well as summary of this meeting.

Days of 1989

Pictures of 1989: May 24, 1989, Hong Kong Dignitaries Sign Petition Support Beijing Movement

Pictures of 1989