Saturday, 8 June 2013

Essential History Lesson

Chang'an Avenue today -- completely different from what it looked like in 1989
Four days after our June 4 candlelight vigil in Victoria Park was temporarily snuffed out by a torrential downpour, YTSL and I went to see the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton.

I've heard and read about this three-hour film and had wanted to see it and when we read it was playing at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, we immediately bought tickets.

While it was a long documentary, I was too riveted to wonder when it would end (unlike the guy sitting next to me who kept checking the time on his phone). It is probably the most comprehensive compilation of the chronological events that led to the night of June 3/morning of June 4, and all the politics and historical context around those six weeks in Tiananmen Square.

The film interviews some of the prominent players as well as a spectrum of others: student leaders Wang Dan, Feng Congde and Wu'er Kaixi, and excerpts of an interview Chai Ling did with American journalist Philip Cunningham; then professor Liu Xiaobo and his friend and Taiwanese pop star Hou Dejian; writer Dai Qing; some workers who were caught in the protest, as well as former government officials.

Their recollections of those days together with lots of footage gave an extensive picture of what was going on. But even better was the historical context, starting from the May 4 Movement in 1919, and how students since then have played a role in trying to instill nationalism, reforms and democracy. It also shows how those same demands were repeated in 1976 and again in 1989.

Tiananmen Square is more a public park than public space
It also showed how China was ruled when Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 and how he was described as the poet, while his subordinates were the ones who had to actually run the country. Dai Qing admitted how she was so indoctrinated and worshiped Mao, but when he incited the Cultural Revolution she was disillusioned.

Meanwhile two former government officials, no one senior, but they gave interesting insights. One was working in the administration in 1989 and she herself was shocked when Premier Li Peng refused to come out during Hu Yaobang's official funeral to meet with some students who had presented a petition on their knees.

The other felt he might have a better chance at changing the country by working from the inside, but in the end we don't know if he was successful if at all. It seems he felt this would be a more effective way of trying to implement reforms than sticking one's neck out from the outside.

Then the documentary moves forward in recounting in chronological order how things unfolded. It started with the passing of former General Secretary Hu Yaobang. As one person recalled, when a man dies, people only start to remember the good things about this person and the students and workers not only displayed their public grief, but also used his death as a talking point about what is wrong about the country, from inflation and corruption, to mass lay-offs and no ability to vote.

The convergence on the square grew and led to greater discussions on how China should change and the students began drawing up a list of demands. But their requests were completely ignored; the authorities refused to even make contact with such idealistic students, even though they themselves had similar views when joining the Communist Party.

Outspoken people at Tiananmen were noticed and began to be seen as leaders. Wang Dan seems to be the most idealistic at the time, while Wu'er Kaixi was the charismatic one, waving flags on convoys. However Chai Ling seems to be a mercurial character, captured on video saying one thing one day, and then saying something completely opposite the next day.

Nevertheless, the movement grew so much that the student leaders now realized what it was like to run a mini state, trying to maintain the momentum of enthusiasm, trying to avoid factionalism and even coups, as well as mundane but urgent issues of sanitation on the square.

The documentary shows the army was called into the square several times and each time up until June 3, they were halted by ordinary people and workers, who denounced them as not being protectors of the people, and how dare they harm the students. Eventually they had to give up and turn back, but not without the good will of the people who fed the soldiers food and drink.

Finally the government made a half-hearted attempt to reach out to the students, but they felt they were not treated equally at the table; another time a few of the student leaders were granted an audience with Premier Peng, and Wu'er showed up in pyjamas demanding their requests be fulfilled.

But then things became more and more complex, as the government refused to give in and the student leaders were divided on what to do next. Some students started a hunger strike hoping it would make their call more urgent, but again the authorities didn't seem to listen, or perhaps they were divided. Unexpectedly, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang paid the students a visit in the early hours with a young Wen Jiabao trailing behind him.

Zhao tried to tell the students he had failed them and had come too late to save them. They didn't understand his foreboding message and felt that as a member of the establishment, he didn't seem genuine. But that would be the last time Zhao would be seen in public as he was ousted from his position and put under house arrest until his death in 2005.

In his memoirs, Zhao recounted how he tried to advocate a moderate line, that the government should talk to the students and resolve the situation peacefully. However the hardliners that included Peng managed to persuade Deng Xiaoping that chaos would erupt if the government did not take back the square with force.

Eerily Chai alludes to this too in her interview with journalist Cunningham. At one point she says, "What we are actually hoping for is bloodshed" and "Only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes."

And that's what happened on the evening of June 3 -- though technically not on the square. People died trying to prevent the tanks and soldiers from entering Tiananmen. Everyone was shocked the army used live ammunition -- one worker recalled seeing his colleagues die -- shot in the head and chest.

Thankfully Liu Xiaobo and Hou Dejian managed to persuade the army to allow the students time to evacuate the square and Liu should be credited with saving thousands of lives. At the time he, Hou and two others were on a hunger strike, trying to keep the movement alive. But when they heard about people being shot dead in the streets, they worried about the students' safety.

Hou says outright that he never saw any student crushed by tanks, nor did he see any of them shot in the square.

It was sad seeing Liu talk -- he completely immersed himself in the students' cause 24 years ago and went to jail for 22 months. And now he is languishing in jail again -- this time an 11-year sentence for wanting to push for the same reforms and democracy in China with Charter 08.

Another young woman who was a professor at the time, told of her hopes and concerns for the students as she visited them every day at the square. She even recalled having a rifle pointed at her that deadly night and how she managed to find her 12 students.

But the film also interviews Ding Zilin, who lost her 17-year-old son Jiang Jielian on June 3, and how she lost all faith in the government. She then quietly started finding other mothers who had lost their child that night and together they have founded Tiananmen Mothers. They are pushing for the government to apologize for the deaths but have yet to hear anything.

Hong Kong played a belated role, raising some HK$14 million for the cause, shipping over tents and supplies... but what happened to the rest of the money?

The documentary is essential viewing for everyone to have a better understanding of China, its people and how 1989 was a watershed moment in modern Chinese history. It may not be publicly discussed, but it has affected an entire generation of people one way or another.

One unemployed man in his 40s paid the price for speaking out days after the massacre. He gave a passionate rant to a foreign reporter and for that he was sentenced for his counter-revolutionary stance with a 10-year jail sentence.

And so today no one talks about what happened in 1989 and indeed it has been completely scrubbed out of the history books. Very few people under 30 in China knows the truth.

But history will continue to repeat itself until the government changes its ways...

1 comment:

  1. Have you seen this?

    I tried Googling for more up to date information re Liang Xiaoyan (who I found one of the most impressive of the interviewees) but was unable to come up with anything really concrete/helpful.