Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Excerpt: Chai Ling's "Last Word" Interview

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 11, describing Chai Ling's videotaped interview on May 28, 1989. Her message in the videotape became a very controversial topic years after the event.

The Sunday of May 28 was designated as a day of global demonstration. In major cities all over the world Chinese students and nationals marched to support their compatriots at home. But it was a relatively dismal day in Beijing itself. Students here demonstrated on bicycles. In order to reach more residents, they spread their routes away from the city center. It ended up as a far cry from the atmosphere they had gotten used to in the previous weeks. Most alarmingly, there was an obvious drop in support by residents, who now appeared indifferent to the endless marches. The flow of residents coming to Tiananmen Square with food and cash donations had also declined. More students were still arriving from the provinces, however, making up for those who were leaving.

Chai Ling was feeling more depressed than ever. Having demolished the withdrawal plan, she was now haunted by the movement's uncertain future. As she looked around, she actually saw a much improved place. Large quantities of brand new tents had arrived from Hong Kong. Students were busy setting them up and arranging them into neat color-coded sections. By design, these bright red, blue, yellow tents made up ten divisions with specific functions. The new tent city gave an illusion of order and strength. Chai Ling was impressed. Li Lu, her trusted lieutenant, had been hard at work.

Chai Ling had always had a high regard for Li Lu's resourcefulness and leadership skills. She believed that he was the strong leader this movement required. Li Lu's staunch opposition to the withdrawal plan reinforced her opinion. In contrast, she had seen her own weakness.

It was now the eighth day of martial law. Rumors continued to circulate. On this particular morning, there was a "credible report" which said that a group of assassins had infiltrated the Square, ready to take out all the leaders at minutes' notice. The debacle on withdrawal also had a deep psychological impact. Several people came by to offer their resignations that morning. Bai Meng, who had polished Chai Ling's Hunger Striker Manifesto, quit in frustration. Zhang Boli informed Chai Ling that he had to take a leave as well. He wanted to write a book about the movement. Author Zheng Yi and his wife were also packing. They too had become disillusioned. Citing that they had run out of spare clothing, the couple decided that it was time for them to head back home to the remote Shaanxi Province.

So, in a matter of hours, the Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square dwindled. It was now just Li Lu, Feng Congde, and Chai Ling with a small group of volunteers who were looking for directions. Chai Ling made up her mind. It was time for her to walk away as well. Before taking off, however, Chai Ling thought she had to take care of a couple of things first. She would like to leave a few words so that her thoughts would not disappear when she did. She also wanted to see her husband one more time and maybe persuade him to go with her.

Alone, Chai Ling crossed Chang'an Avenue to the Beijing Hotel. She found Philip Cunningham, an American graduate student who was studying Chinese history at Beijing Normal University. As events in Beijing escalated, many foreign students had either volunteered or been recruited into freelance reporting work for news agencies. Philip Cunningham was no exception. He was working for BBC News, through which he had gotten to know Chai Ling.

Philip Cunningham immediately sensed that the "flustered, frightened, and crying" visitor was facing some kind of threat and was ready to flee. He was asked for help in recording a few "last words" before she could run away. On the way out of the hotel, they met up with a female reporter from Hong Kong by the name of Liang Shuying, who invited herself to the occasion.

They got into a taxi and drove aimlessly for a while before Philip Cunningham decided to head to an apartment of a friend of his. In the car, Chai Ling wrote a note authorizing Philip Cunningham to speak on her behalf, presumably after her arrest or death. The young American was both shocked and frightened by her seriousness. In a tiny bedroom, he had Chai Ling sit down on a bed facing a video camera while holding a tape recorder in her hands. Chai Ling started talking right away.

She began calmly but depressingly: "I think these are going to be my last words, as the situation is getting more and more cruel. I am Chai Ling. I am twenty-three year old." She recalled the moment when she joined the movement at Hu Yaobang's funeral on April 22. When the three students knelt down for their petition on the stairs of the Great Hall of People, she saw the tears of students in the Square. She saw her husband Feng Congde biting his finger to write words with his blood on a handkerchief. She remembered the launch of hunger strike, the dialogue with Yan Mingfu, and Li Lu's proposal of self-immolation. She sprinkled her retelling of the movement with many negative observations of other student leaders who had opposed the hunger strike and continued trying to compromise with the government. She was distraught. Her voice was hoarse, pausing, and sometimes incomprehensible. Eventually, she broke down and started to sob uncontrollably. She could not face the fact that her beloved movement was disintegrating and losing its purity. As the government side started to unite and toughen up, she cried out desperately, students were moving in the opposite direction. Without giving specifics, she claimed that there were traitors, embezzlers, and special agents working for the government among the student leadership.

Philip Cunningham felt that he had to interject. He asked gently, "When was the darkest moment of the movement?" Chai Ling was ready with an answer: the darkest days had yet to come. She pointed her fingers at "all the people" who had advised students to withdraw and unequivocally declared that Tiananmen Square was the last and only ground for the students to hold. They just could not retreat.

Chai Ling appeared to be particularly upset with people trying to seize power from her. She explained that she had to cling to the post of the commander-in-chief because she needed this power to fight against the forces of withdrawal. The other leaders, including Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, the Capital Joint Conference, and all the other self-proclaimed organizations, she accused, were working to undermine her. Especially Liu Xiaobo and Wuer Kaixi, whom she singled out by name and with anger. All they cared about was seeking leadership position even though Wuer Kaixi had already caused great harm to the movement at least twice. The older intellectuals, on the other hand, only cared about making themselves look good.

Then, as if a pendulum were swinging back, Chai Ling recalled the early days of the hunger strike with fondness and deep longing. That was the best period of the movement when everyone was united as one and the movement was pure. The residents were supportive because the students had wakened their sense of sympathy. The movement reached its glorious peak, she said, when Beijing residents laid down their bodies to stop martial law troops from entering the city. But the happy thought did not last for more than a couple of minutes as the uncertain future crept into her mind immediately. With that, she spoke the words that would forever associate with her in controversy:
The students always ask me. What should we do next? What could we achieve? I feel deeply sad in my heart. I can not tell them that what we are really waiting for is bloodshed. It's when the government reaches the end of its cruelty and uses butcher knives on its own citizens. I think, when and only when blood is flowing like a river in Tiananmen Square, all the people in China could then see clearly and finally unite. But how could I tell students such things?!

Taken at face value, these words carried a sense of conspiracy of their own: that she was willing to steer the movement into bloodshed for the intention of waking up the populace while keeping that goal only to herself. But at the moment, Chai Ling was more worried about other people's conspiracies. She became more and more emotional and incoherent. She talked about her husband, about their original plan to go abroad, about her parents, and about the debt she owed to her family.

Philip Cunningham cut in again. He asked Chai Ling to describe her own plans for going forward. Chai Ling spoke more words that would come back to haunt her later:
For the next step, I think I myself will try to survive. The students at Tiananmen Square, however, will have to stay and persist to the very end, waiting for the government's last resort in washing the Square clean with blood. But I also believe that the next revolution will be right around the corner after that. When that happens, I will stand up again. For as long as I am alive, my goal will be to overthrow this inhuman government and build a new government for people's freedom. Let the Chinese people stand up at last. Let a real people's republic be born.
Carefully, Liang Shuying inquired about the plan to withdraw on May 30. In no uncertain terms, Chai Ling said that that proposal had caused tremendous damage to the movement. She regretted that she had not opposed it from the beginning. Once again, she labeled the plan as a conspiracy. If they did withdraw, China as a country would go backwards.

"Will you continue to stay in Tiananmen Square yourself?" Liang Shuying poked on pointedly.

"No, I won't."


"Because I am not the same as everybody else. I am a person who is already marked as 'Most Wanted.' I will not be content to be murdered by such a government. I want to live. That's what I am thinking right now. I don't know if people will think that I am selfish. But I believe that the work I am doing now needs someone to carry on. Because such a democracy movement needs more than one person. Could you not disclose these words, please?"

The last question seemed to indicate that Chai Ling had finally realized that her words were not appropriate for public consumption. With her "last words" taped, all Chai Ling had to do was to say farewell with her husband before she took off.

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