Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Excerpt: Liu Xiaobo in 1989

Amid much anticipation, jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China."

Liu Xiaobo, then a professor at the Beijing Normal University, was an active participant in the 1989 student movement, especially at the latter stage. He made his first appearance in the book Standoff at Tiananmen in the critical meeting of May 27, 1989, in which he unsuccessfully tried to promote student leader Wuer Kaixi as a spokesperson of the movement, which infuriated other leaders such as Chai ling and Feng Congde.

On June 2, 1989, Liu Xiaobo took an initiative of his own and led the so-called Four Gentlemen hunger strike:

Few people noticed that the roar of the "Flying Tigers" had disappeared for several days. It was not until May 30 when the government announced that a dozen leaders of that motorcycle gang had been arrested for "inciting violence and public disturbance." There was hardly any reaction. Most people still regarded the gang as punks.

The Workers Autonomous Federation sprang to action when they learned that some of their leaders were seen being dragged into vehicles and hauled away. They asked students for help. Students and workers marched together to the office building of the Ministry of Public Security. After a day of sit-in, they successfully forced the release of the abducted workers. Still, nobody bothered to inquire about the "Flying Tigers."

Just like Liu Gang before him, Wang Juntao was now seeing his influence dissipating. His grand vision of a George Washington style leadership crashed and burned with the failure of withdrawing from Tiananmen Square. The Capital Joint Conference had moved to the university campus area and had rapidly become a mere shell of its previous self. Most prominent intellectuals had disappeared. They left the capital for the provinces or went into hiding. Wang Juntao shared the pessimistic sentiment. He told Chen Ziming that it should be time for them to plan for the aftermath as bloodshed was now inevitable.

Wang Juntao instructed personnel at their Institute to produce fake identification papers for leaders of the movement. He arranged safe houses in the outskirts of the city and concocted a rough plan of evacuation in stages. He even went so far as to pull out Liu Gang and Zhang Lun, two of the non-students from his Institute who were involved the deepest, and send them out into the suburbs. Chen Ziming was not as convinced of the imminent danger. He believed that the movement had reached such a scale that the possibility of an outright crackdown had diminished.

International Children's Day arrived on June 1. Students occupying Tiananmen Square tried their hands at being good big brothers and sisters. They cleaned up the place and prepared small gifts for young visitors who came with their parents for the newest tourist attraction in town: the Goddess of Democracy. But the day did not start well. Li Lu was awoken by the disturbing news that Feng Congde and Chai Ling had been kidnapped. He rushed over and found the couple tied up and gagged in a tent. Li Lu assessed the situation and realized that it was not a government operation but the action of a renegade group within their own ranks. It was yet another coup attempt to overthrow their leadership. Calmly, Li Lu summoned student marshals and resolved the conflict. However, the escalation of their infighting had clearly reached an alarming level.


Professor Liu Xiaobo was very upset. After the brief excitement at the Capital Joint Conference, he was seeing his fellow intellectuals reverting back to their usual ways. They were running away in droves at the first sign of danger. Some went into hiding. Others were helplessly resigned to the fact that they had no control of the situation dominated by radical students at Tiananmen Square. Nobody, in his mind, was taking any responsibility. It was a deep-rooted tradition of Chinese intellectuals, a community that had been rightfully regarded as pathetic and hopeless by numerous generations.

As someone who had returned to Beijing in the face of the April 26 People's Daily editorial, Liu Xiaobo believed that it was time to take a stand. He realized that he had to commit himself to the movement personally before he could hope to have any real influence. To achieve that, he had to make a grand gesture of his own: a hunger strike.

Wang Juntao did not agree with the idea at first but was convinced by Liu Xiaobo's reasoning. To avoid escalating hoopla this time, they decided to launch it as a relay of symbolic strikes only, conducted by teams of prominent intellectuals. When one team finished their strike, another continued on. In this manner, they could parade famous names and faces in Tiananmen Square to sustain the occupation to that precious date of June 20.

The trouble was that there were no longer many prominent intellectuals left within their ranks. Liu Xiaobo was only able to recruit Zhou Dou, a middle-aged scholar who had been active behind the scenes, and Gao Xin, a young school newspaper editor in Liu Xiaobo's Beijing Normal University. Neither of them had any name recognition. But they eventually got the prominent name they needed in the form of a rock star Hou Dejian.

Hou Dejian made his fame with his folksy little songs in the college campuses of Taiwan during the 1970's. In 1978, when the United States abandoned Taiwan for a formal relationship with mainland China, the young Hou Dejian wrote Children of the Dragon to express the sorrow and determination of his people. Despite its origin, the song became an overnight sensation when it was introduced on the mainland two years later. The phrase "children of dragon" became a synonym for the Chinese identity.

But Hou Dejian did not see much future in Taiwan for himself. In an act considered traitorous on his home island, he permanently settled in Beijing and cultivated his fame with a much larger audience. Little did he know that his little personal adventure would lead him right into a standoff at Tiananmen Square. Hou Dejian had just come back from a concert in Hong Kong to rally support for students in Beijing. He had already committed to another concert. Therefore, he could only fast for forty eight hours while his comrades pledged a seventy-two hour hunger strike.

In the late afternoon of June 2, the four of them, referred to as the Four Gentlemen, walked into Tiananmen Square. They read a manifesto of their own, with a stab at the Chinese intellectual community:
We start our hunger strike. We protest. We call upon people. We repent. We are not looking for death, we are looking for the true life. Under the irrational militant violence by the Li Peng regime, Chinese intellectuals must end their all-words-but-no-action tradition of osteomalacia. We must protest the military rule with our actions. We must give birth to a brand new political culture with our own actions.
The lengthy manifesto went on to criticize the government and "radical students" for escalating the crisis with their irrationality. It proudly claimed that they, the new hunger strikers, would "not allow hatred to poison our wisdom, for we have no enemies."

Nobody paid any attention to the manifesto. Thousands and thousands of people rushed into Tiananmen Square with only one thing on their minds: Hou Dejian. People in Beijing found a new reason to come: "Go see the Goddess first and then the 'monkey [Hou]'!" Yet even the Goddess of Democracy could not compete with the power of a live rock star. Sitting on the pedestal of the Monument to People's Heroes, Hou Dejian, a shy and skinny figure, was forced to sing his songs repeatedly. Again and again, he led the entire Square in renditions of Children of Dragon. When he had to take a break, Liu Xiaobo tried to make his speeches. While hatred did not poison his wisdom, the "Square fever" did. Facing thousands of cheering fans, the rational thoughts contained in the well-written manifesto were blown away. He praised the students with extreme enthusiasm and vowed to carry on their struggle to the very end. He did not get to say much anyway, as the impatient audience broke out into loud chants. "Hou Dejian," "Hou Dejian!"

Just like that, the Four Gentlemen's hunger strike evolved into a freaky circus show.

Only a day later, in that fateful morning of June 3, 1989, Liu Xiaobo and his Four Gentlemen helped persuade protesting students into a peaceful withdraw as the tanks closed in on them during the massacre.

After the massacre, Liu Xiaobo was arrested. He was initially fingered by the government as the "black hand" behind the movement, a charge later dropped for lack of evidence. After being jailed for a year, he was eventually released without a formal sentence.