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.

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