Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review of My Book: "Not a Hagiography"

Jeremiah Jenne is an American graduate student currently teaching and doing research in China. He also writes for his wonderful Jottings from the Granite Studio blog which focuses on Chinese history.

Jeremiah reviews my book, Standoff at Tiananmen, on his blog (I had to look up for the word "hagiography"):

Part personal memoir, part history, Eddie Cheng’s Standoff at Τiananmen is a straightforward chronological retelling of the events which led up the 1989 student demonstrations and crackdown in Τiananmen Square.

Eddie Cheng was a student at Peking University in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the first half of the book reads like a personal memoir of those turbulent and exciting times. It is here the book makes its greatest contribution: While the stories of 1989 have been oft told, the critical events of the early 1980s, which gave shape to the ideas and actions of the students in the square, are too often shunted off as a mere prologue or a quick bit of expository background before getting to the truly dramatic images from the “Beijing Spring.”

Cheng’s book clearly chronicles the student agitation at Bei Da and other universities in the early 1980s. Student demands in the handbills posted in Peking University’s famous “Triangle,” or the speeches by Fαng Lizhi and others seem brazen by 2010 standards. Cheng even spares a moment for the absurd, including a story of how then Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin responded to student hecklers by reciting a part of the Gettysburg Address in English “to show his knowledge of Western democracy.”

While clearly and openly sympathetic to the student movements of the era, Cheng does not spare the students (or their leaders); this is not a hagiography. Students of the 1980s demonstrated a complex mélange of motivations: individual expression, economic security, as well as a desire for political change. The students in Cheng’s book often appear much more excited by the chance to study abroad as they do about reforming society back home.

(One priceless image is that of the student demonstrators in 1989, sitting in the square under the warm May sun, studying their TOEFL and GRE books to pass the time.)

Nevertheless, to dismiss demands for greater political openness as a naive rabble led astray by “bourgeois liberalization” or to set up opposition to Party policies as a zero-sum competition between stability and chaos is also to miss the point.

The Chinese government today overreacts to even the slightest challenge to its authority, cheered on by Party lackeys at home and by their apologists abroad. The Party, having in 1989 suffered a breakdown of order and the most direct challenge yet to its very legitimacy, realized the problem of intellectual openness. Their response was chilling in its brilliance. After 1989, the Party retreated from so many areas of society, giving the illusion of a lighter touch even as it vigorously rooted out any hint of a challenge or dissent. The urban middle class found comfort in a Faustian bargain that guaranteed them the material markers of success in exchange for their acquiescence.

It’s wise to remember that the greatest trick the Devil ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist.

Like many of his generation, Eddie Cheng left China in the early 1980s to study in the US and so the second half of his book, and his narrative of the events of 1989, relies on the memories of the student leaders who participated directly in the demonstrations.

This is problematic, because as most know, much has been made of the self-serving behavior on the part of those leaders both in the square and in the years since. When Cheng switches from his own memories to those of others, the book loses a great deal of its analytical heft, though to be fair Cheng does not shrink from describing the foibles and infighting among the different groups of students. In particular, Cheng portrays Chαi Ling and Wυ’er Κaixi – to put it kindly – as having a keen sense of the moment.

(In fact there are times in the book where – and let’s keep in mind the relative ages of the actors here – the bickering and bantering read a bit like “Real World: Τiananmen” with less tequila and more tanks, but I digress.)

What Cheng’s book lacks in critical analysis of student motivations, he makes up for in telling details (people cheating on hunger strikes, the yearning to go abroad, the sexual frustration of the young) that remind the reader that the simplistic formulations of good/evil as seen on CNN masked a much more complicated situation. On the government side, Cheng’s book also highlights the attempts by CCP official Yang Mingfu who attempted to act as something of an honest broker and defuse the situation. Yang’s role gives a more nuanced view of official accommodation beyond “Ζhao Ζiyang in the square crying into his megaphone.”

Standoff at Τiananmen is a good book for the non-specialist who wants a blow-by-blow account of the events of 1989 or for students of recent Chinese history seeking more insight into the nature of student activism in the early 1980s.

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