Sunday, April 22, 2012

Document of 1989: Chen Mingyuan's Speech at Peking University

On April 23, 1989, the day after Hu Yaobang's funeral, Professor Chen Mingyuan delivered an emotional and inspiring speech at the Triangle in Peking University. The following is an abbreviated translation from the book Children of the Dragon. For a more complete transcript, please read this version in Chinese.

 A Speech given by Prof. Chen Mingyuan at Peking University on April 23, 1989

My name is Chen Mingyuan.

If someone wants to inform on me, he can give my name to the Public Security Bureau.
[More Applause]

I know that whenever students make reasonable requests to demands, whenever people become excluded, there will always be a few who would like to betray their comrades, their friends, and even their own souls, in order to climb a few more rungs up the ladder.

I am forty-eight years old. I am not afraid.

The first thing I want to say is that I attended Hu Yaobang's funeral yesterday. Throughout the service, I was very sad indeed. Hu Yaobang spoke a great deal about education, price control, intellectuals, and reform...

At the end of the memorial service, several other comrades and I suggested that the hearse carrying Hu's body should circle Tiananmen Square, in keeping with convention. We should let Comrade Yaobang take one last look at the Monument to the People's Heroes and Tiananmen Gate. But the government refused. I was profoundly disappointed. I know that many comrades, many Chinese, were very disappointed. If Comrade Yaobang were still alive, he would feel very disappointed, too. We demand an official explanation for this unpopular decision...

I have no wish to instigate trouble, and I have no ulterior motives. But our government, and our news media, have prepared a hat for me nonetheless.

Under the present circumstances, people are terrified to stand up. Anyone who does stand up has to consider the safety of his parents, his children, and his job. Every month, he collects only a small salary. If he goes to jail, what will happen to his family? I have never stood up before so many people, but today I felt that I just could not stay silent. I have to speak out!

I want to protest strongly against official television. I have already called them and told them - through many different channels - that their reports on April 19 and April 20 were totally irresponsible. Did everyone here hear what was reported on CCTV?
["Yes, we heard!"]

Did anyone in the demonstration shout anti-government slogans?

Did CCTV say they did?

Did anyone put up anti-government posters?

CCTV said that many unidentified bystanders were there inciting the crowds. I was one of them, but I am not "unidentified," because at the beginning of this speech I told you my name. I think the one who incited the crowds was CCTV. And where is the person who wrote those broadcasts? He should stand up here!

He is the one who cannot be identified! He is the one who incited us!

I think these recent student demonstrations were totally spontaneous. Nobody was behind them.

The demonstration was spontaneous, the petition peaceful, and the mourning of Comrade Yaobang very orderly. I think the students from Peking University should feel very proud of themselves.
["Long live the students! Long live democracy! Long live freedom!" Applause]

When I pronounced the word "freedom," some people became nervous. Some would say, "Freedom is a bad word." Some would say, "We should try to avoid using that word." But I feel that freedom is the most beautiful word in the world. Why should only other people be allowed to use it? Why is it that this beautiful word is not in the vocabulary of our great motherland and our great people?

Yes, we are poor. We are backward. We are undereducated. We are living a bitter life. But we do have this ideal of freedom and democracy...

Many of us are afraid of press freedom. Whenever we talk about the freedom of the press, someone says that "something will go wrong"; they say that we shouldn't publicize our "family scandals." But I believe that truth is the soul of the media...
[Cheers and Applause]

Those who ignored the students' demands - which came from the bottom of their hearts - should ask themselves why they are afraid of students...
[Long Applause]

If you ask all our comrades, "What is the most severe problems in our reforms?" they will say, "inflation." What is the real inflation rate? The government told us it was 18%. I work every day. I do household chores. I shop and buy groceries. But I can't even afford to buy new clothes! Pork used to cost 80 cents a pound. Now it's up to 4 or 5 yuan. In Guangzhou, it has even reached 10 yuan...

When we come to the problem of education, every one of us has spoken about it until our lips have cracked. Why can't we make education a top priority on the list of government expenditures?
["Yes!" Applause]

The government has always told us that this is too difficult, that there's a shortage of funds in industry, that there's a shortage of money in agriculture. It's even very difficult to build houses for all those mayors and governors. But I think that there's one thing that should not be so difficult. That is to confiscate the illegal income from the racketeers and spend that on education!

Students, I'm very troubled these days. There are so many problems in our country today. But the issues we raised here are the most basic ones...

We are the masters of our country.
["Yes!" Long applause]

Meanwhile we have to report truthfully on those corrupt government officials, no matter how high up they may be, and punish them according to law.
["Yes! Well Said!"]

Maybe someone will say, "You students should return and study quietly. You professors should simply teach your courses." But all these problems constantly wear us down. We can't accept this. We shall never accept it!

Documents of 1989

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Document of 1989: China's Despair and China's Hope

In February, 1989, Fang Lizhi wrote this essay which was published on New York Review of Books in English and in Hong Kong newspapers in Chinese. The Chinese version was also posted as Big Posters at Peking University.

China’s Despair and China’s Hope
FEBRUARY 2, 1989
Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link

Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look at the present. The year will mark both the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (a major intellectual and political movement marked by nationalism and Western cultural influence) and the fortieth year since the founding of socialist China in 1949. These two anniversaries may serve as telling symbols of China’s hope and China’s despair.

Forty years of socialism have left people despondent. In the 1950s, the catch phrases “only socialism can save China” and “without the Communist party there could be no new China” seemed as widely accepted as physical laws. Today, a look at the “new” China makes one feel that the naive sincerity of those years has been trifled with, the people’s enthusiasm betrayed.

True, the past forty years have not been wholly devoid of change or progress. But the standard of comparison for measuring the success or failure of a society should be this: Has the distance between it and the most advanced societies of the world increased or decreased? To measure our forty socialist years by this standard, not only was the Maoist period a failure; even the last ten “years of reform” provide insufficient basis for any singing of praises.

The failure of the past forty years cannot be blamed—at least not entirely—on Chinese cultural tradition. The facts clearly show that, among other countries and regions1 that began with similar cultural backgrounds, and at starting points comparable to China’s, nearly all have now joined or are about to join the ranks of the developed.

Nor can the forty years of failure be blithely attributed to China’s overpopulation. First, we must recognize that China’s overpopulation is itself one of the “political achievements” of the Maoist years. It was Mao’s policy in the 1950s to oppose birth control as a “bourgeois Malthusian doctrine” and encourage rapid population growth. Moreover, as everyone knows, one of the greatest factors obstructing China’s economic development has been, for years, the parade of enormous “class struggle” campaigns and large-scale political persecutions. Are we to believe that any overpopulated society necessarily generates such struggles and persecutions? Such a view is plainly illogical.

Logic allows only one conclusion: that the disappointments of the past forty years must be attributed to the social system itself. That is why, in China today, pursuit of modernization has replaced faith in any ideology. Socialism of the Lenin-Stalin-Mao variety has been quite thoroughly discredited. At the same time, the May Fourth slogan “science and democracy” is once again circulating, and becoming a new source for hope among Chinese intellectuals.

The reforms of recent years, which were begun against the background of this transition in thought, have indeed changed China considerably from what it was in the Maoist period. We should regard these changes as positive. The new emphasis on economics in domestic policy and the cessation of “exporting revolution” in foreign policy are both important examples of progress. On the other hand, the suppression of “Democracy Wall” nine years ago created the foreboding sense that, when it came to political reform, the authorities were not planning to do much. This fear has been confirmed by the experience of the ensuing years. Consider these examples:

—Even while admitting that the class struggle of the Maoist years was a mistake, the authorities have announced their “Four Basic Political Principles”—i.e., maintenance of 1. the leadership of the Communist party, 2. the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3. the socialist system, and 4. Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. These four principles, in actual content, are hardly distinguishable from Mao’s own “Six Political Standards.” And the latter were the basic political principles that underlay thirty years of “class struggle.”

—Although the Chinese constitution provides for freedom of speech and other human rights, the Chinese government has, so far, failed to make its own endorsement of the UN Covenants on Human Rights. And in actual practice, even a basic right like freedom of scholarship, which has little political relevance, is commonly infringed. There have been instances, even very recently, in which lectures in the natural sciences have been banned on political grounds.

—Chinese education, which for years suffered the ravages of Mao Zedong’s anti-intellectual, anticultural political principles, has left China with a population in which the proportion of illiterates remains about what it was forty years ago. Yet today’s expenditures on education, as a proportion of China’s GNP, are exactly what they were under Mao, or about 30 to 50 percent below the norm in countries whose economic levels are similar to China’s. Ignorance serves dictatorship well. The true reason for the destruction of education is apparent enough.

—In recent years the authorities have repeatedly issued calls for “stability and unity,” especially when any signs of political unrest have appeared. Stability and unity seem to have been raised to a kind of supreme principle. But when it comes to one of the major causes of instability in Chinese society today—the continuing state of civil war with Taiwan—this supreme principle somehow ceases to apply. In their attempt to end the forty-two-year-old state of war, the Chinese leadership has so far refused, at least in theory, to accept the principle of “no military force” in relation to Taiwan.

These various problems have spawned continual conflict beneath the surface in Chinese society. The student demonstrations of 1986, which openly called for freedom and democracy in Chinese society, only brought these conflicts into the open. The authorities, in their efforts to curb the influence of the demonstrations, were obliged to fall back on the following two arguments:

1. Chinese culture lacks a tradition of democracy, and thus cannot accommodate a democratic system. The common people are not interested in democracy; they would not know how to use it if they were given it; they lack the ability to support it; etc.

2. Economic development does not necessarily require a democratic system. A dictatorial system may actually be more efficient in this regard. What best suits China is political dictatorship plus a free economy.

To present these arguments amounts, first of all, to public acknowledgement that what we now have is not democracy but dictatorship, and that slogans like “socialism is mankind’s most democratic system” are simply a kind of fraud. But if this is the case, how can Marxism still claim a place as the orthodox ideology of China?

The first of the two arguments above might be called “The Law of Conservation of Democracy.” It holds that a society’s total capacity for democracy is fixed. If there was no democracy to start with, there also will be none later. Nobody, of course, has set out to prove this law, because the counterexamples are too numerous. The argument cannot save dictatorship in China; it can only provide us with some comic diversion.

The second argument does seem to have a certain basis in fact. There do seem to be some societies that have achieved success by combining political dictatorship with a free economy. But there are examples of failures among this group of societies as well. It follows that the question cannot be decided by enumerating precedents, but must be answered for China by asking this: Can a free economy be made compatible with China’s own form of dictatorial government? A look at China in 1988 demonstrates that, on the whole, the answer to this question must be no.

First, in comparison with other societies that have tried the “political dictatorship plus free economy” formula, China differs in that its system of dictatorship is unable to accept a free economy entirely. This is because socialist dictatorship is closely bound to a system of “public ownership” (in fact official ownership), and its ideology is fundamentally antithetical to the kind of private property rights that a free economy requires. Although the severe inflation of 1988 has demonstrated quite clearly that price reform is unworkable unless it is accompanied by reform in property rights, the Chinese leadership’s response to the inflation has been a resort to “the superior strength of politics.” This is but a retreat into the old rut of “politics in command” of Maoist times.

Second, it has already been shown—repeatedly—that China’s dictatorial system lacks efficacy. One need only look at the corruption within the Communist party itself to appreciate this point. Ten years (since 1978) of “rectifying the Party work-style” has in fact produced nothing but yearly increases in “unhealthy tendencies”—i.e., corruption. What began merely as “unhealthy” misallocation of large living quarters to Party leaders now has grown into extensive profiteering called “official turnaround.” (The term refers to use of official power and connections to procure commodities or other resources at low prices in the state-run sector of the economy, then “turning around” to sell them at huge markups within the private sector.) Our minimum conclusion must be this: that there is no rational basis for a belief that this kind of dictatorship can overcome the corruption that it has itself bred; and that, based on this problem alone, we need a more effective role for public opinion and a more independent judiciary. This means, in effect, more democracy.

China’s hope, at present, lies in the fact that more and more people have broken free from blind faith in the leadership. They have come to realize that the only avenue to social progress is through adoption of a “supervisory” role for the public, which should have the right to express open criticisms of the leadership. The deputy editor of a newspaper in Guangzhou has recently stated quite clearly that the function of his newspaper is to speak not for the Communist party but for the emergent “middle class” of Guangzhou. Not long ago, in an effort to turn back a rising tide of popular commentary on their performance, the authorities sternly announced their intention to “trace the rumor that top leaders and their children hold foreign bank accounts.” The actual consequence of this effort, however, was only to cause further spread of two basic ideas: first, that citizens have the right to evaluate their leaders; and second, that holders of high public office, including Deng Xiaoping himself, do not have the right to reject this public supervision. The old idea that “superiors must not be opposed” is on the way out; democratic consciousness is moving in.

As democratic consciousness spreads, it is bound to form pressure groups that will have ever greater power to weigh against the authority of the leadership. In fact such groups have already begun to appear in embryo. Right now, in many trades and professions, and at all levels of Chinese society, we are seeing the growth of unofficial clubs, associations, discussion groups, and other informal gatherings that have begun, in various degrees, to wield influence as pressure groups. Democracy is no longer just a slogan; it has come to exert a pressure of its own. The purpose of this pressure is to oblige the authorities, gradually and through non-violent means, to accept changes toward political democracy and a free economy. Currently, the following are among the items most commonly discussed:

1. Guarantee of human rights. Most importantly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Also, release of Wei Jingsheng2 and all political prisoners.

2. Establishment of a free economic system. Gradual implementation of economic reforms that will include reforms in property rights.

3. Support for education. Abandonment of the “ignorant masses” policy; provision of the needed and entirely feasible education that would be commensurate with China’s economic level.

4. Supervision of public officeholders. Use of open glasnost-style means to root out corruption.

5. An end to China’s state of civil war; promotion of peace in the Taiwan straits. The mainland side to call for mutual renunciation of force as a means of settling differences. A transition from mutual hostility toward peaceful competition.

6. Establishment of rule by law. Opposition to rule by individuals, whether directly or in disguised form—as when Party documents or policies override the laws of the nation.

7. Revision of the constitution. Deletion of all language that relies on the principle of “class struggle” to support dictatorship. Drafting of a Chinese constitution that provides for political democracy and economic freedom.

The road to Chinese democracy has already been long and difficult, and is likely to remain difficult for many years to come. It may last a decade, a generation, or even longer. But whatever the case, there can be no denying that the trend toward democracy is set. It would be very hard to turn it completely around now. Chinese history since the May Fourth period, including the forty years since 1949, makes it clear that democracy is not bestowed from on high, but must be fought for and won. We must not expect this fact to change in the decades to come. Yet it is precisely because democracy is generated from below that—despite the many frustrations and disappointments in our present situation—I still view our future with hope.

Documents of 1989

People of 1989: Fang Lizhi (方励之)

Professor Fang Lizhi was born on February 12, 1936. In the mid-1940s when he was only 12 years old, he witnessed some student movements in his middle school and joined an underground Communist organization. In 1952, he enrolled in the Physics Department at Peking University and formally became a member of the Communist Party upon graduation. But soon he got in trouble in the "Anti-Rightists" movement and was expelled from the Party and sent to countryside to be "re-educated" through manual labor. He was only 23 then.

It was during that dark period that Fang Lizhi married Li Shuxian, a formal classmate at Peking University who had also been expelled from the Party. The couple survived living and laboring in separate countryside locations and gave birth to two sons during that time.

After the Culture Revolution, Fang Lizhi was able to return to academia and by mid-1980s he had become a professor and Vice President of the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui Province. It was there he launched a fruitful career as a pioneer researching relativistic cosmology in China. But he gained great fame by giving inspiring speeches in many universities advocating liberty, democracy, and human rights, using western examples he had observed from his frequent travels abroad. Audiotapes of his speech were widely copied and passed around in student dorm rooms. At that time, he called for young students to join the Communist Party and "reform it from within."

In December, 1986, when students at USTC were planning a demonstration protesting election rules, Professor Fang Lizhi gave a rousing speech to a student gathering during which he famously declared that "democracy could not be given from above but had to be demanded from below." But nonetheless, he tried to persuade students to limit their actions within the campus. He failed on that as students marched downtown.

A few weeks later, after a wave of student demonstrations that swept the country including cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, Fang Lizhi was once again expelled from the Party and stripped of all his positions in USTC. He was relocated to Beijing and assigned a research position at the Beijing Observatory. In 1988, Liu Gang engineered a campaign at Peking University to successfully elect Li Shuxian as a local People's Representative, partly to salute Professor Fang Lizhi. 

On May 4 that year, Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian participated as speakers the first "Democracy Salon" organized by Liu Gang at Peking University.

In January, 1989, Fang Lizhi suddenly broke his silence again by issuing an open letter to Deng Xiaoping calling for an amnesty of political prisoners including Wei Jingsheng. The letter was echoed by a few similar ones co-signed by prominent intellectuals and the like. In February, he wrote an essay titled "China's Despair and China's Hope" declaring that "the 40 year Socialist experiment in China has failed." The essay was published in New York Review of Books and Hong Kong presses but also posted as a Big Poster at Peking University. By that time, he had abandoned the idea of reforming the Party from within and advocated that "We must also take action from outside of the system. We must force the issue in any way we can."

His words drew attention everywhere. That February, Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian were invited to attend a state bangquet hosted by the visiting President George H. W. Bush but were brutally stopped near the party by a swarm of police.

As the 1989 student movement was ignited after Hu Yaobang's death, Fang Lizhi chose to stay behind the scenes so that he would not bring unwanted attention or trouble to the movement. Earlier on, he did provide private advices to a few student leaders such as Liu Gang and Wang Dan but refused invitations to make public speeches. Later, he expressed his displeasure of the aggressive tactics in the movement:
Once the hunger strike started, the movement went out of control, and I suspected that the government would use military means to end it. These students just did not understand. They grew up in the generation after the Cultural Revolution and had never seen the Party kill people on a large scale. The students loved that line in L'Intenernationale about this being the final struggle, but I told those who came to my home that this was most definitely not the final struggle. They felt that if they just carried this struggle through, they would be victorious. I didn't think so.
Nevertheless, Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian were publicly labeled as the "black hands" of the movement by the government. On May 31, several small-scale rallies organized by the government sprang up in the Beijing suburbs, in which "angry peasants" burned effigies of Fang Lizhi's likeness.

By then, Fang Lizhi already found himself followed when he left Beijing for an academic conference. Within hours after the massacre on June 3, he contacted the American Embassy through their American friend Perry Link and eventually gained protection there. Soon, government "Wanted" posters with the couple's pictures were all over the place:

They stayed in the Embassy for about a year while the China and US were engaged in a diplomatic standoff. Fang Lizhi managed to continue his scientific research there and published a paper bearing the diplomatic address. They eventually were allowed to leave China and reached US by way of UK.

Once on the US soil, Fang Lizhi immediately and openly criticized the American government's double standard on China's human rights and quickly lost confidence of the US government and faded from public view. He became a professor at University of Arizona and continued his physics research there.

Other than a few interviews, Fang Lizhi had largely avoided speaking about the 1989 student movement in detail. He was engaged in a few oversea democracy activities but stayed away from controversies and in-fights. In more recent years, he had been writing many witty and moving essays about his life and science, but seldom touched the subject of 1989.

Professor Fang Lizhi passed away in his home at Tucson, Arizona, on April 6, 2012. He was 76 and survived by his wife Li Shuxian and his eldest son. (Their second son, Fang Zhe, who had briefly accompanied them in the US Embassy, died in a traffic accident in 2007.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: Tiananmen Moon

Philip Cunningham's book Tiananmen Moon starts on May 3, 1989, the eve of a planned student demonstration at the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. Before long, we are led into a bizarre scene in which the author was accompanying famous rock star Cui Jian and Taiwanese promoter Lao Ni to Peking University at midnight to feel the pulse of next day by surveying the big posters there. The surreal mixture of clandestine, excitement and fear -- Cui Jian would not step out of the car, while the author and Lao Ni pretended to speak Japanese to hide the latter's true origin -- was conveyed with excellent story telling. From there the book leads readers deeper into the "inside stories" of the 1989 student movement.

There are already many first-person experience memoirs of the movement. Some are from student leaders which tend to concern more in how they led it than participate in it. Some are from foreign reporters who cast themselves as outside observers. Cunningham's book is unique in that he is both a no-name participant (although he was frequently bothered by unwanted attentions as a foreigner) and an avid observer; sometimes the mix of the two resulted in spats of anxiety and frustration. When he walked in the May Fourth march, peddled in the May Tenth bicycle rally, and later wandering around Tiananmen Square, he provided the most vivid ground-level experience of the movement. Then he was hired by BBC to help with their coverage of the events, he gained more access to the movement but also struggled with his presumed neutrality in that role. When tanks started to charge into the Square, however, he did momentarily abandon such pretense and join into the crowd to set up road blocks and even throw a rock at a tank.

Unlike some other books of the same nature written by western authors who witnessed the movement and inevitably became enthusiastic cheerleaders and advocates of their subject, Cunningham kept his cool throughout the book. Indeed, he was sometimes even distant and cynical in the face of the excitement and hysteria of a mass movement. He displayed great disdain and concern on the movement being controlled by a few self-claimed and faceless student leaders and the herd mentality, in the name of discipline, displayed by the protesting mass.

While he was observing and interviewing students gathering at Beijing Normal University to launch the hunger strike, he wrote:
It was sad and frustrating to meet such earnest young men and women, all apparently willing to put their lives on the line, only to hear them give pat answers, sometimes even grandiose answers, magnified by peer pressure. Did those nodding in approval realize they were urging psychologically confused, approval-hungry classmates to court death? To what end?
Such sharp observations and valuable insights were frequent in the narrative, although it is not at all clear whether they were formed at the time as the author described them or with the hindsight of history.

For those who have deeper interests in the history of the movement, this book is a must-read for its detailed description of how Chai Ling, the Commander-in-Chief of students at the time, made her famous "Last Word" videotape with the author's help. Since Chai Ling herself had been silent on the details of this highly controversial occurrence, this book, along with other recollections by the author, is the only first-hand account available. As his temporary gig with BBC dragged on to the end of May, Cunningham happened upon a brief meeting with Chai Ling at Tiananmen Square. Chai Ling was planning an escape then and asked Cunningham for help. The book includes many details surrounding this event that could provide perspectives in understanding the tape but still not yet well known, including:

  • Upon their initial meeting, Chai Ling inquired about the rumor that the British embassy was planning to offer refugee protection to student leaders.
  • Chai Ling hand-wrote a note to Cunningham authorizing him to speak on her behalf, presumably after her death or disappearance.
  • Chai Ling had planned to catch the first train out of Beijing after the taping with another student/bodyguard by the name of Wang Li but not with her then-husband and fellow student leader Feng Congde. She later changed her mind after she decided to take one last look of Tiananmen Square
  • Although Cunningham was worried about the danger this tape could bring, Chai Ling insisted on its publication (contrary to her current claim). They contacted a few western media in Beijing but only found ABC News showing interest.
  • After reuniting with Feng Congde, the couple still planned to be leave Beijing together, before the tape was to be aired by ABC News (which did not actually happen).

Feng Congde has disputed some of the facts that involved him. In her own recent autobiography, however, Chai Ling chose to ignore all such details when defending herself only on general terms. She blamed Cunningham for making the tape public without her permission.

Published in 2010, Tiananmen Moon is actually a much better organized and narrated version of what the author published with the title Reaching for the Sky previously in 1999. But it is not without its shortcomings. Since the book jumped right in the middle of the movement, it felt sudden and out-of-place. (The author was not in Beijing in that April when the movement initially broke out.) It did not mention the great demonstration on April 27 which preceded and is arguably much more important than the one on May 4 at the beginning of this book.

Tiananmen Moon is restricted to what the author saw and experienced and does not attempt to give the whole picture of the movement. (The Chai Ling videotape story is the only occasion where leadership figures appeared.) The author did try to supplement his own observations with those of several of his female friends who were Chinese students. Although one of them did join the hunger strike, they all appeared to be more of casual participants or bystanders in the larger picture. It may be difficult for readers of this book to understand why the students were protesting and so on -- this may even be intentional on the author's part, as there are no ready answers.

But overall, this is the best Tiananmen book so far in recording the street-level experiences of the movement.

Books about Tiananmen

People of 1989: Phillip J. Cunningham (金培力)

Phillip Cunningham describes himself in the year of 1989 as someone caught between China's "inside" and "outside" communities, when he lived in a dorm at Beijing Normal University designated for neither domestic or foreign students. At that time, he was officially a graduate student at University of Michigan studying modern Chinese history. Yet he was not a student at Beijing Normal or doing much research for his thesis there. Rather, he spent most of his time working, according to his biography, "extensively in China since 1983, first as a tour guide, interpreter, and cruise director on the Yangtze, and later as a teacher, media researcher, and freelance journalist."

During those six years, he had learned his way around as well as speaking fluent Chinese. (He also speaks French, Japanese, and Thai besides his native English.) His personal experience in China was not all that typical either -- he was "twice arrested for activities incompatible with being a foreigner and thus endowed with a thick security file," for "pushing boundaries and breaking little rules." In 1987, he staged a rock version of the song East is Red in a new year celebration at Beijing Normal which was censored from broadcasting.

But for those who are interested in the history of the 1989 Chinese student movement, Cunningham will be forever remembered as the American youth who happened to have taped Chai Ling's "Last Word" video speech, a historical record that has ignited much controversy as it shed lights in the inner psych of one of the most important leaders of that movement.

In the April of 1989, as the student movement broke out, Cunningham was in London working on a project filming the debut performance of rock stars Cui Jian and Liu Yuan at the Royal Albert Hall. After returning to Beijing, he quickly became a reluctant participant in the student marches of May 4 and May 10, urged on by his Chinese friends. Soon, he accepted an offer from BBC, for $100 a day, to help them cover the upcoming Sino-Soviet summit which was eventually overshadowed by the student movement. He struggled with his role as a journalist/interpreter while being a deep sympathizer of students. When students gathered at Beijing Normal University to launch the hunger strike, he was there with a BBC crew to record that moment of history.

Phillip Cunningham at Tiananmen Square in 1989

It was with a BBC crew at Tiananmen Square when Cunningham first met Chai Ling by the end of May, just as Chai Ling was privately contemplating an escape. According to Cunningham, Chai Ling inquired him about the rumor that the British Embassy in Beijing was offering refugee protection to student leaders and told him she had made plans to leave Beijing.

The next morning, a distraught Chai Ling found Cunningham at Beijing Hotel seeking help. They, along with another student and a Hong Kong reporter, drove out and made the videotape in an apartment occupied by a family of Cunningham's foreign friends. Chai Ling wrote him a note in the car authorizing him to speak in her behalf. Although still a member of BBC, Cunningham felt that the tape was too important to be handed over to a single media outlet. So they contacted several western media but only found ABC News willing to accept it. (ABC was not able to broadcast it before the massacre, however.)

Chai Ling eventually changed her mind and remained at Tiananmen Square till the end. In the evening of June 3, as troops were closing in, Cunningham found himself on the Changan Ave as both a guide and a guard for a BBC crew. They tried to film the chaotic scene as the first pair of tanks charged in. At one instant, Cunningham joined the crowd to dismantle fences to construct barricades. He even threw a rock at a tank in the heat of the moment. Moments later, he also became an eyewitness of a group of students' courageous effort to save the soldiers from a burning tank.

Cunningham and his crew eventually withdrew to the safety of his room at Beijing Hotel before the main troop's arrival. They spent the night on a distant balcony unable to disciple definitely what was transpiring in the square down below.

Cunningham spent the immediate years after 1989 working for various media at Hong Kong and Japan. He eventually returned to China a few times and found a country vastly different from that in 1989. He first published his 1989 memoir in book form as Reaching for the Sky in 1999. The same material was later republished, in a much improved version, as Tiananmen Moon in 2010. Currently, he writes a blog at Frontier International.

People of 1989