Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book Review: From the Square to QinCheng

Li Jinjin's personal memoir, From the Square to QinCheng, published in Chinese language by Mirror Books, 2011, consists two separate parts: The first is a brief autobiography of the author and two recollection essays of the author's experience participating in the 1989 Chinese student movement. The second part narrates the author's life, feelings, as well as reckonings during his detention in various jails after his arrest. The "QinCheng" in the title refers to the most notorious prison in China, in which the author had been a resident briefly.

In 1989, on April 18, just days after Hu Yaobang's passing, Li Jinjin stepped up at the stairs outside of the Great Hall of People and led a day-long sit-in which finally forced three People's Representatives to come out and publicly receive students' petition. Then, in the final weeks of the movement, he helped founding the  Workers Autonomous Federation and became one of its core leaders. He had recorded these experiences in two articles "The First Organized Sit-in in the Square" and "Remembering the First Workers' Independent Organization," respectively. These essays had previously been published in newspapers and other books before. They were also sources for my book Standoff at Tiananmen. Now republished in this book together with the author's autobiography, they lead to a deeper appreciation and perspective for the stories.

The book's subtitle, The Study of Law of a Law Ph.D. Student in Prison, indicates that the book's main content is centered on the author's experience in prison after the movement. Before his college years, Li Jinjin had served first in the army for 6 years and then as a policeman. In 1989, he had already earned his Masters degree in law and was pursuing his Ph.D. degree. With such a background and statue but being put in jail and forced to observe everything from the perspective of a prisoner was quite a unique opportunity. It is therefore remarkable that Li Jinjin never complained or involved in self-pity but spent all his time carefully observing and reflecting. He also helped his cellmates analysing their cases and fought with diginity for more humane conditions and treatments of prisoners.

One particular interesting aspect is that, although the author was a Ph.D. student, he was not jailed together with his fellow student or intellectual prisoners. Rather, because of his involvement with the workers union, he was treated as a worker and therefore imprisoned with other "odinary criminals," a distinction the government had been careful of in its handling of punishments. Therefore, his recollection of the prison experience sheds an entirely different light from those of other student leaders. His "study of law" is also more of actual legal merits, not swayed by the differences and confrontations in political opinions at the time.

From the Square to Qincheng is not a massive book and is very easy to read. (Unfortunately it is only available in Chinese.) The book provides several snapshots of the 1989 student movement and the inside operations of chinese prisons at the time. It's most valuable in its calm and matter-of-fact narrative, which greatly enhances its credibility. Perhaps because of the author's intentional carefulness, the content is confined strictly within his own experiences without much mentioning of other student leaders or participants. This somewhat limits its scope as a historical reference for the movement itself.

People of 1989: Li Jinjin (李进进)

On April 18, 1989, three days after the death of Hu Yaobang, Li Jinjin found himself sitting on the stairs of the Great Hall of People at Tiananmen Square among younger students trying to petition their government. He was excited but not quite ready to act himself.

At the time, Li Jinjin was a graduate student of law at Peking University. Unlike most of his classmates there, he had already acquired quite a bit of experiences outside of campus.

Born in 1955, he grew up in the midst of the Cultural Revolution when the education system was disfunctional at the best. When he was only 15, he joined the People's Liberation Army (with his age altered by a recruiting officer). Six years later, he was discharged and became a policeman at his hometown Wuhan city. That was the time when the national college entrance exam was reinstated and he became one of the hundreds of thousands youngsters fighting for a precious spot in higher education. In 1978, he became an undergraduate student of law near his hometown at the age of 23.

He then became a graduate student in Peking University in 1982 and graduated with a masters degree in 1985. After a couple of years of teaching, he returned to Peking University in 1987 to pursue a Ph.D. in law. During his second stinct there, he became active and campaigned to become the chairman of the school's Graduate Student Association in 1988. But he soon got into trouble by publicly voicing dissents and organizing controversial seminars. In early 1989, he was replaced in a reelection meeting that he himself was not aware of.

Having been cautioned to stay out of trouble, Li Jinjin had decided to focus on his academics in that spring of 1989. But when he observed the faltering sit-in at Great Hall of People, he nonetheless stepped up and took a leadership role. He led the latter stage of the day-long sit-in and achieved success: publicly and peacefully submitting students' Seven Point Petition to three People's Representatives. He left the scene immediately afterwards. But the crowd did not disperse and marched to the site of the government instead. It later led to quasi-violent confrontations with police at Xinhuamen.

That could have become the single odd apperance for him in the movement as he immediately disappeared. In early May, he even left Beijing to get back to his family in Wuhan due to their concerns of his involvement. It was not until May 18, when the hunger strike had greatly escalated the confrontation in the streets and a crackdown was immenient, that he got himself involved again. But this time, he took a different route.

On May 18, 1989, Li Jinjin was back on the streets of Beijing, delivering improptu speeches. That night, he happened upon a couple of workers who were trying to organize workers. He volunteered his service and immediately became the de-facto legal counsel of the budding Workers Autonomous Federation. Along with Han Dongfang and Zhou Yongjun, etc., he helped to launch the organization and drafted many of its documents and public statements.

When several members of the federation were detained on May 31 as a precursor of the coming crackdown, Li Jinjin and Han Dongfang led a group of workers and students in another day-long sit-in at Beijing police headquarters. They eventually won the release of their detained members.

Quite amazingly, Li Jinjin then left Tiananmen Square on June 2 and returned to Peking University for his Ph.D. qualification exam. In the morning of June 3, he successfully passed the exam and was spending the rest of day preparing documents to formally register the federation when news of massacre altered all his planning. He tried to return to the Square that night but didn't get past Muxudi, scene of the bloodiest battle that night.

After the massacre, Li Jinjin left Beijing and returned to his home in Wuhan, where he was arrested on June 10, 1989. He was released without a formal indictment on April 24, 1991. He travelled to US in 1993 and earned his US law degrees. He is now practicing law in the state of New York and active in the oversea Chinese democracy movement.

In June, 2011, Li Jinjin published his memoir, documenting his experience in 1989 and the subsequent prison life in China.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Shen Tong Joins Occupy Wall Street

The Wall Street Journal reports that former Chinese student leader Shen Tong has joined the Occupy Wall Street movement at New York City:

Now, Mr. Shen, 43 years old and a successful businessman, can be found in the Financial District's Zuccotti Park, where he has become a sort of father figure for Occupy Wall Street.
Nearly every day, he holds planning meetings with the protesters in an unremarkable Broadway office. His responsibilities range widely—from mundane tasks like hunting down paperwork for the unwieldy group to lending advice to younger, self-styled revolutionaries.
"It's a lot of wise old man comments," said protester Max Bean, 29.
Mr. Shen didn't plan to devote all his time to Occupy Wall Street. On Oct. 17, he simply ventured 10 blocks from his home to Zuccotti Park and was intrigued to meet some protesters who knew of his efforts in China. "I was curious about the movement," he said. "Pretty soon, I realized it was not going away. But no good deed goes unpunished."
Mr. Shen soon found himself working a full day for Occupy Wall Street, seven days a week.
 The paper also quotes Shen Tong commenting: "Last time we wanted a different China, we got shot at. America can still afford to do this nicely."

During the 1989 student movement in China, dozens of 40-something intellectuals had also stayed in Tiananmen Square doing the same thing for much younger student leaders like Shen Tong himself.