Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Excerpt: Dialogue with Yan Mingfu

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 8, describing the dramatic failure in a dialogue between student leaders and government officials.

In that same morning Yan Mingfu learned that a decision had already been made to move the welcoming ceremony for Mr. Gorbachev out of Tiananmen Square. He was stunned. The summit was not only a diplomatic milestone for China, it had also attracted a huge crowd of international media. It would be worse than a slap in the face for the government. Visibly angry, he was nonetheless still clinging to hope. Encouraged by the previous meeting, he thought he might still have time. But he had to act even more boldly and quickly.

Yan Mingfu found Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, and Wang Chaohua still in the compound of his United Front Department. He gathered them in a small conference room. Calmly but officially, Yan Mingfu told them that the government was now ready for a formal dialogue. Students were free to select their own representatives. Yan Mingfu, and several other minister-level officials would represent the government side.

The students could not believe what they were hearing. It was a major concession to the demands of the students, something Yan Mingfu was not ready to do even the night before. Essentially, he was holding this dialogue completely on the students' terms: not only had he recognized them as legitimate student leaders, he also framed them as an equal party. Only a week earlier, the State Council Spokesman Yuan Mu had sworn to the world that this would never happen. In a state of shock, Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi murmured that the representation on the government side might not be high enough. They would prefer either General Secretary Zhao Ziyang or Premier Li Peng. Yan Mingfu would have none of that. He cut them off and vigorously defended his own rank. Wisely, the students did not insist.

But they did have another request. The dialogue had to be broadcast live. Because of censorship rules, very few events were broadcast live in China. Everything, from government proceedings to the popular gala for Chinese New Year, was taped and edited before it could be shown to a general audience. The student leaders had no choice however. Rumors of contact with Yan Mingfu had been circulating in Tiananmen Square. The hunger strikers were worried that they might be sold out behind their backs. Without a live broadcast, they told Yan Mingfu, they might never be able to keep the confidence of their own people.

It was Yan Mingfu's turn to be reasonable. He was open to the idea but not sure if it would be technically feasible. Most equipment had been allocated to the summit. They might not be able to set up a live broadcast in time. He proposed an alternative that the dialogue would be videotaped. As soon as each tape was completed, it would be sealed and transported to CCTV under students' monitoring. So, even though it was not live, it would be a faithful delayed feed to be shown in its entirety. In the mean time, students could also make audio tapes on their own and send them to Tiananmen Square for replaying.

While the student leaders were still pondering the idea, Yan Mingfu dropped the bomb: the Gorbachev welcoming ceremony might not be held at Tiananmen Square whether if they withdrew from it or not. That sealed the deal.

The very possibility that the government might call their bluff on such a grand scale weighted heavily on Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, and Wang Chaohua. They had never intended to interfere with the nation's diplomatic work and never thought that it could even be possible. Not only would they bear the responsibility of embarrassing the nation, they would also lose the biggest bargaining chip in their hand. Without it, how could all this come to an end?

Wang Chaohua volunteered to find some prominent intellectuals to help persuade students to leave. Yan Mingfu was ready to help. He dispatched an office vehicle for Wang Chaohua to use. Another van was sent out shortly after to the University of Political Science and Law. Its mission was to fetch the Dialogue Delegation.

Wang Chaohua was familiar with the intellectual circle in the capital from her family background. She was particularly fond of Dai Qing, a famous journalist at the intellectual-oriented newspaper Guangming Daily. Ten years younger than Yan Mingfu, Dai Qing was also a child prodigy. After her father was martyred in the early years of revolution, Dai Qing was raised by Ye Jianying, one of the ten marshals of the People's Liberation Army who was instrumental in the coup that deposed the "Gang of Four." Yet Dai Qing had acquired a strong sense of independence. Taking advantage of the protection from her background, she published many daring essays echoing the views of dissidents such as Fang Lizhi. She also made a name for herself with a staunch, Quixotic opposition to the plan of building the Three Gorges Dam on environmental grounds. Wang Chaohua had known Dai Qing since her childhood. The two also worked on the same floor when Wang Chaohua interned at Guangming Daily.

On the night when the hunger strike decision was made, Wang Chaohua had visited Dai Qing and did nothing but cry in her tiny living room. She was hoping Dai Qing, with her name recognition, could provide needed guidance to the much younger students.

But Dai Qing had her own agenda in mind. This had been a couple of very good weeks for journalists. With Zhao Ziyang's blessing, the decades-old censorship policy melted away over night. With much personal nagging, Dai Qing had managed to get Hu Qili's approval for Guangming Daily to publish a full page of opinions by prominent but controversial intellectuals, an opportunity that was unthinkable just weeks earlier. She was busy assembling them into a symposium. Her invitees included many big names, such as Yan Jiaqi, a political scientist who had written a book on the history of the Cultural Revolution, and Bao Zunxin, who had spearheaded a series of enlightening books introducing ideas from the west. A month earlier, a similar but unauthorized symposium with many of the same attendees had convened to commemorate Hu Yaobang's death. The proceedings were published in the Shanghai-based World Economic Herald and resulted in its shutdown. Now, Dai Qing had the approval from a Politburo standing committee member to do the very same thing.

Wang Chaohua arrived at Guangming Daily just as Dai Qing was greeting her distinguished guests in a conference room. Dai Qing was in an exhilarated mood. She could see the paper, carrying the words of these people, causing a storm in its readership. She was not, however, prepared to see Wang Chaohua.

With one look at Wang Chaohua's tired and sad face, Dai Qing knew why she was here. Although sympathetic, Dai Qing was not about to have her little symposium hijacked by the student movement. Nonetheless, she invited Wang Chaohua into the room and introduced her as a student leader from the Square. But before Wang Chaohua could say anything or even shed a tear, Dai Qing laid out the purpose and importance of their symposium. With great excitement, she announced the deal she had struck with Hu Qili. A full page on Guangming Daily! Her enthusiasm was shared. To her audience, this was a tremendous breakthrough.

One by one, the intellectuals in their fifties and sixties read through their prepared speeches. There was little discussion or interruption. Wang Chaohua felt excruciating pain with the slow and dull pace of their lofty words with no substance. But she had to bite her tongue. She was raised with the greatest respect and deference for learned scholars. Hours were ticking away.

Finally, all of them finished what they had planned to say. As a courtesy, they asked Wang Chaohua for a few words. That was when she choked up. Tears streamed down her cheeks before she could utter a single word. In a rambling, bumbling voice, she told the meeting that the situation at Tiananmen Square was not the glorious and historical event the intellectuals had been fantasizing in their talks. Rather, it was extremely dire. As she went on, she was getting more and more upset because she knew her words were incoherent. She felt panic because she was failing to express what she needed to say. But through her teary eyes, she sensed that many in the room were also crying. As she begged the intellectuals that they must go to the Square and persuade students to withdraw, everyone echoed, "Yes, we have to go. We can't just sit and watch."

As Wang Chaohua was regaining her composure, the intellectuals set out to do what they did best. In a matter of minutes, they came up with a draft statement. Addressing the students in a parental manner, it expressed that the authors were "very understanding, very sad, and very worried" after hearing the news of the hunger strike. Since democracy could not be achieved in one day, and for the sake of long-term interests of China's reform and the Sino-Soviet summit, it appealed to students "to carry on the spirit of rationality and temporarily withdraw from Tiananmen Square."

It was not clear what the term "temporarily" meant. But it would not matter anyway, as the statement changed its tone right after that and spelled out its own demands of the government. It asked top leaders to make a public speech praising the student movement as patriotic and democratic and promise not to punish student leaders after the dust settled. It also demanded that the government recognize the autonomous organizations and pledge never to use force against students engaged in hunger strikes or sit-ins. If the government could not fulfill these demands, the statement said, its authors pledged to "fight to the end along with the students."

Perhaps the ending statement was just an empty slogan thrown in to appease students or to satisfy the authors' own egos. But it appeared that these intellectuals were ready to join the movement, thereby negating the appeal for students to withdraw. Their demands actually went beyond of those of the students, who had already consolidated theirs into two core items: "Not Turmoil, Equal Dialogue."

Wang Chaohua knew something was not right with this statement. But with her state of mind she could not quite put her finger on the flaw. It started to dawn on her that her hopes with these intellectuals might have been misplaced. They were hopelessly out of touch with reality. Reluctantly, she expressed her worry that a statement like this would not be able to persuade students to withdraw. Her voice was weak. She knew that she was not convincing anyone. Yan Jiaqi was already frustrated with the statement as it was. He smashed his palm on the table and declared that they were barking up the wrong tree. It was the government, not the students, he shouted angrily, that they should appeal to.

Wang Chaohua held a last bit of hope. Maybe she could get these intellectuals in a room with the hunger strike leaders. If they could persuade Chai Ling privately, the mission could become more hopeful. Dai Qing called the United Front Department, a natural place for such a meeting. She only heard a frantic voice on the other end claiming that nothing was available. After a few more phone calls, Dai Qing secured a small place for the meeting. Wang Chaohua took off in her designated car toward the United Front Department. She thought she would find Chai Ling there at the dialogue with Yan Mingfu.

But she was not prepared for what she would encounter.

It was finally the time for the Dialogue Delegation to shine. They were founded for this very purpose and had been preparing for several weeks. They had assigned designated speakers, each with a supporting team, to address specific issues. They had practiced and rehearsed. They felt confident and even comfortable to sit across a table with government officials to voice their issues reasonably and rationally.

In order for that to happen, though, Xiang Xiaoji and Shen Tong understood that they had to control the crowd on their own side, especially the hunger strikers. Yet they did not have much leverage. It was the hunger strike that had finally brought Yan Mingfu to the table. It would be impossible to exclude the hunger strikers, who distrusted the Dialogue Delegation, at this point.

The hunger strikers, on the other hand, had their own ideas. The prospect of a national broadcast, even with tape delay, had gotten them excited. What a great opportunity to get their voices heard! Chai Ling hurriedly collected banners from Tiananmen Square, including the one saying "Mom, I am Hungry" and rushed to the United Front Department. She placed them in the conference room as a backdrop on the students' side. She also brought a tape of her reading the Hunger Strike Manifesto. If they got to play the tape during the session, it would be broadcast nationwide and recorded permanently in history.

The large conference room on the second-floor was now set up like a diplomatic meeting with a long oval table. Yan Mingfu was not at the head of the table this time. Rather, he sat in the middle on the government side, flanked by the State Education Commissioner Li Tieying and ten other minister-level officials. Across the table, Shen Tong sat down directly facing Yan Mingfu. Xiang Xiaoji sat opposite Li Tieying. They were flanked by the assigned speakers from the Dialogue Delegation. Xiang Xiaoji had made sure that the arrangement demonstrated the equality of the two sides in the dialogue.

Wang Juntao was sitting in another room in the same compound. He and other young intellectuals were not invited to this formal dialogue. Perhaps in Yan Mingfu's mind, they had already served his purpose.

In the conference room, the formal, diplomatic atmosphere was broken by a group of hunger strikers standing right behind the Dialogue Delegation. They wore signatory headbands and solemn expressions. Xiang Xiaoji had made a compromise to allow a limited number of them in the room, presumably only to listen in. Many tape recorders were scattered about on the conference table. They were already running. In one corner of the room was a video camera with a CCTV logo. Shen Tong made sure that he saw a little red light blinking on the camera as he opened the meeting.

Initially, the dialogue was cordial and gracious. Speakers from the Dialogue Delegation presented their prepared cases. Yan Mingfu and Li Tieying listened intently and answered most questions with sincerity. But pretty soon Xiang Xiaoji and Shen Tong were flooded with little paper notes passed in from the hunger strikers behind them, who were getting impatient and wanted to raise their own concerns instead. It did not take long for the session to deviate from a focused theme. Both sides at the table tried to be patient but the discussion was getting more and more scattered.

Soon the hunger strikers were dissatisfied with simply passing the notes. Someone spoke up and suggested that the meeting hear them directly. Wuer Kaixi volunteered that he had a letter from a hunger striker with him. Without asking for permission, Cheng Zhen, a female student from Beijing Normal University and one of the initiators of the hunger strike, read the letter aloud.

Chai Ling had been quiet as usual. But she was upset about Wuer Kaixi's unilateral move. The letter was moving but lacked substance. She thought that Wuer Kaixi had wasted a golden opportunity. As the session moved on, Chai Ling could not wait any longer. Jumping on an opening, she asked Yan Mingfu pointedly: "What do you really think of the student movement?" Being put on the spot, Yan Mingfu struggled with being honest but not crossing the party line: "Personally, I would very much like to say that you are patriotic. But I can't say that."

Some more heated arguments erupted. A finger finally pressed down the play button on a tape recorder. All of sudden, Chai Ling's emotional voice, reading the Hunger Strike Manifesto, filled up the room:
We would like to ask all upright citizens of this country, ask every worker, peasant, soldier, resident, intellectual, celebrity, official, police, and those who made up the labels for us, place your hand over your heart and ask your conscience: what crimes had we commit? Did we cause turmoil? We boycott classes. We march and protest. We go on hunger strike. We give our lives. For what? But our emotions have been repeatedly played by others. We suffer through hunger to pursue the truth but only get beaten by soldiers and police. Our representatives knelt down to appeal for democracy but were ignored. Our requests for an equal dialogue are being delayed again and again. Our student leaders are facing grave danger.
As if another button had also been pushed, the rowdy room fell silent. For ten mesmerizing minutes, nobody made any sound or move. Everyone in the room, including Yan Mingfu himself, was in tears. At the table, Xiang Xiaoji and Shen Tong held hands.
We do not want to die. We want to live nicely because we are at the most beautiful age of our lifetime. We do not want to die. We want to study hard because our motherland is still so poor and we can't just die like this and leave her behind. Death is definitely not our desire. But if the death of one or a few could make the lives of many better, make the motherland rich and prosper, then we have no right to live shamelessly.
As soon as the recording was finished, a voice came from the hunger strikers: "The only thing we ask for is that the government stop calling us instigators of turmoil."

It had been more than an hour into the dialogue session. Students at Tiananmen Square were becoming restless. They had been told of the compromise that they would hear the proceedings with an hour delay. But there was no sign of any broadcast.

Feng Congde had completed a new broadcasting station in the Square with their own loudspeakers rigged up on flag poles. With others at the dialogue session, he became the de facto leader there. Anxious, he dispatched runner after runner to the United Front Department for updates. None of them had come back.

Another hour passed. It was now seven o'clock, time for the regular evening news broadcast on CCTV. There was no mention of the dialogue in the news. That was the last straw. Spontaneously, all hunger strikers in the Square gathered up and marched toward the United Front Department, which was only two to three miles away. They chanted "Stop the dialogue," "Direct Broadcast!" along the way.

Wang Chaohua arrived at the United Front Department and immediately found her car blocked by the raging hunger strikers on the street. She ran inside and saw Xiang Xiaoji stepping out of the conference room. They were separated by a throng of hunger strikers, some of whom were runners dispatched by Feng Congde. More and more of them were pouring in. It was at the verge of a disaster. Xiang Xiaoji was doing everything he could to dissuade the crowd from storming the conference room. He was obviously fighting a losing battle. In desperation, he proposed to have Wang Chaohua, who he had known as a mature and rational leader, into the room as a representative for everyone outside. The crowd did not really know or trust Wang Chaohua either. They demanded to have two of their own to accompany her.

Xiang Xiaoji was not aware that Wang Chaohua was already in a daze herself. After an exhausting day, she could no longer comprehend what was going on. In a rush, the three of them burst through the door and startled everyone inside. Without missing a beat, Wang Chaohua declared, "Stop the dialogue! There is no Broadcast!" We students must stay together as a whole, she explained, the dialogue could not go on without the approval of the hunger strikers.

It was the second time the room fell into a dead silence. Shen Tong lost his cool. He stood up, slammed his palm on the table, and pointed his finger directly to Yan Mingfu's face: "Why aren't you broadcasting this? You knew full well that we can't continue if there is no broadcast!"

Yan Mingfu's face turned ashy pale. He appeared to be genuinely puzzled. Surveying the ministers on his side, he got no answers. After a painful while, he muttered: "If we can't continue, then we can't."

He stood up and slowly walked out of the room.

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