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Exile from Tiananmen Square
We will never know how many people were killed during that sticky night of June 3 and the early hours of June 4, 1989. A stink of burning vehicles, gunfire, and stale sweat hung heavily on Tiananmen Square; thousands of tired bodies huddled in fear around the Monument to the People’s Heroes, with its carved images of earlier rebels: the Taiping, the Boxers, the Communists of course, and also the student demonstrators of May 4, 1919, who saw “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” as the twin solutions to China’s political problems. The huge, rosy face of Chairman Mao stared from the wall of the Forbidden City across three or four dead bodies lying where his outsize shoes would have been had his portrait stretched that far. Tracer bullets and flaming cars lit up the sky in bursts of pale orange. Loudspeakers barked orders to leave the square immediately, or else. Spotlights were switched off and then on again. And over the din of machine-gun fire, breaking glass, stamping army boots, screaming people, wailing sirens, and rumbling APCs, young voices, hoarse from exhaustion, sang the “Internationale,” followed by the patriotic hit song of the year, “Descendants of the Dragon”:
In the ancient East there is a dragon;
China is its name.
In the ancient East there lives a people,
The dragon’s heirs every one.
Under the claws of this mighty dragon I grew up
And its descendant I have become.
Like it or not—
Once and forever, a descendant of the dragon . . .
The words, which reduced the remaining students to tears, expressed pride in “Chineseness” as well as a sense of oppression that goes with it. The singer and composer of the song was Hou Dejian, a Taiwanese rock star who had moved to China from Taiwan in 1983, his way of coming “home,” of feeling fully Chinese. But the oppression soon got to him. So he became a kind of rock-and-roll mentor of the Tiananmen Movement, his last great hope for a patriotic resolution to China’s problems. When the shooting began, some students elected to die rather than retreat, but Hou talked them out of such pointless self-sacrifice, and negotiated with the army so the students could leave the Square alive. Afterward, he was forced to go back to Taiwan, where, disgusted with Chinese politics, he turned his attention to Chinese folk religions instead.
By 5 a.m. on June 4, the massacre in Beijing was more or less over, though some people were still shot in the head or chest by snipers from the 27th Army, which had last seen action during the Sino-Vietnamese war, more than ten years earlier. By daybreak the last students had retreated from the square in a single file. The Tiananmen demonstrations for free speech, independent student and workers’ unions, and the recognition of the student demonstrators as “patriots” had ended in failure. The government had offered no concessions. Five days after the killings, the paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, praised the army for crushing the plot of “a rebellious clique” bent on establishing “a bour- geois republic entirely dependent on the West.”
Compared to the famines caused by Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962 (more than 30 million dead) or the regular purges of “rightists,” “revisionists,” and other “counterrevolutionary elements” during the 1950s and 1960s, the death toll in Beijing was modest. The figured offered by the Chinese government, as well as some foreign journalists, is around three hundred. Other estimates range from twenty-seven hundred to many more. But never before had the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publicly aimed its guns at unarmed Chinese citizens with the intention of murdering them, and not just in the capital but in more than three hundred cities all over China. Most of the victims—on the night itself and in the following months—shot in the neck with single bullets, for which their families were duly billed, were not students but ordinary citizens. The PLA had done to its own people what Soviet tanks had done decades before in Budapest and Prague.
Since the recent publication of The Tiananmen Papers, we probably know a little bit more about what went on behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, the government quarters next to the Forbidden City. There, the Communist leaders fought among themselves in an atmosphere of intrigue and panic as scattered student protests grew into a movement in early May. “Reformists,” led by Party general-secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated a peaceful solution, by negotiating with the students, but “hard-liners,” led by Premier Li Peng, opposed any kind of compromise. In the end, the hard-liners, backed by a group of Party elders, some of them barely literate, prevailed. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader, made his decision. Zhao would have to step down. No concessions to the counterrevolutionaries. And on May 20, martial law was imposed on Beijing.
Fissures running through the student movement were as deep as those that split the government. Some student leaders wanted to declare victory in May and retreat from the Square. Others—prompted by new batches of students freshly arrived from the provinces, and egged on by radicalized Beijing intellectuals thirsting for action—favored a tougher line: hunger strikes, no retreat, no compromise with government officials no matter who they were. Tactical quarrels and mutual denunciations went on until the night of the killings. And they continue to this day, inside the government, but also among the dissidents and former student leaders living in exile.
Since none of this can be openly discussed in China, the fallout of Tiananmen rains down in peculiar ways. The internal party documents published as The Tiananmen Papers, were probably compiled and smuggled out of China by people in the reformist camp, as a way to discredit Li Peng and his fellow hard-liners. And Chinese in exile still tear one another apart over the failures of 1989. Should the students have retreated before the tanks came in? Should they have given the government “face,” and thus helped Zhao Ziyang retain his position? Did they have a choice? Is slow reform, beginning inside the Communist Party itself, the only way forward? Or will it take a revolution to break the Party’s monopoly on power? These are all fascinating questions that are too often buried in a poisonous brew of hostile gossip and recrimination.
My own interest in these quarrels was not as a historian of Tiananmen. I wanted to know more about the rebels themselves and the nature of their dissent. The politics of the students, intellectuals, workers, journalists, and others who became involved in the rebellion were too confused, contradictory, and murky to invite easy conclusions. And what they say ten years after the fact about 1989 should not be taken at face value. What we have are interpretations, a Rashomon story. The interpretations, as always with such tales, tell us more about the people who offer them than about the story itself. To complicate things, the interpretations change over time, according to circumstances. As my first step into the world of Chinese rebellions, the Rashomon of Tiananmen seemed an obvious place to start.
Most of the prominent student leaders of Tiananmen Square are now living abroad, in the United States, France, and elsewhere. They have joined older dissidents from previous mutinies in one of the largest political diasporas in history, comparable to that of the French Huguenots in the seventeenth century, Russians after 1919, Germans after 1933, or Hungarians and Czechs in the 1950s and 1960s.
Wang Dan, bookish, bespectacled, the most reflective figure among his peers, led the Autonomous Federation of Students in 1989. He arrived in America in 1998, after several years in jail, to study history at Harvard. Chai Ling, the so-called chief commander on the Square, is the CEO of a computer software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Or at least she was when I last saw her in 1999. Feng Congde, Chai Ling’s ex-husband, lived in Paris and was rumored to have gone through various religious phases: Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism. Li Lu, Chai’s “deputy” on the Square, manages a hedge fund in Manhattan. Wang Chaohua, one of the oldest and more politically astute Federation of Students leaders in 1989, was studying Chinese literature at UCLA. Zhang Boli, founder, on the eve of the massacre, of the so-called Democracy University on the Square, was studying to be a Protestant minister in California. Wu’er Kaixi, the student leader with rock-star charisma, was a radio-talk-show host in Taiwan.
Chai Ling was seen on television all over the world every day for almost a month: a small, frail girl in a grubby white T-shirt and baggy jeans, admonishing, entertaining, and hectoring the crowds through a megaphone that seemed to hide her whole face. Her image—the megaphone in jeans—was as emblematic of that year of revolutions as the short film clip of the young man trying to defy a tank on Chang’an Avenue. She was on the cover of magazines. Her statements were distributed on audiotapes. There were Chai Ling T-shirts on sale in Hong Kong. Only twenty-three years old at the time, Chai, then a graduate student of psychology at Beijing Normal University, seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Feng Congde was the political one. She followed her husband. That, at any rate, is how she remembers it. But Chai displayed a remarkable capacity for making men follow her. It was one of the main reasons other student leaders set her up as a figure to rally around on the Square. Her oddly affecting physical presence—the ready smile, the quick tears, the appealing eyes—and her gift for oratory held together a disparate, fractious movement, especially when morale was flagging.
Chai’s speech on May 12 moved hundreds of people to go on a hunger strike when the government ignored the students’ demands for a public “dialogue,” and she galvanized the support of many thousands of others. “We, the children,” she said, her reedy voice breaking with emotion, “are ready to die. We, the children, are ready to use our lives to pursue the truth. We, the children, are willing to sacrifice ourselves.” Who could resist such innocence, such purity? Chai’s tearful rhetoric of blood sacrifice owed something to universal student romanticism, exploited by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, but there were echoes too of an older Chinese tradition shaped less by romance than by force of circumstance: It was not rare for critics of the emperor to sacrifice their lives as the ultimate price for telling the truth. Days after the crackdown, while Chai was on the run, a tape of her recalling the last hours on the Square was smuggled out of China. The students, she said, sang “Descendants of the Dragon” with tears in their eyes. And then: “We embraced each other and held hands, for we knew that the end had come. It was time to die for the nation.”
This message was broadcast in Hong Kong. But she had made another statement a week before, not meant for public consumption. It was recorded in a Beijing hotel room by an American reporter named Philip Cunningham. The interview became the centerpiece of a 1995 documentary film about Tiananmen, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. In it, Chai is sitting on a bed, small, thin, and jittery with nervous exhaustion. Government troops have moved into Beijing. Factions within the student movement are quarreling about tactics, aims, pecking orders, and money. Chai is sobbing as she speaks: “My students keep asking me, ‘What should we do next? What can we accomplish?’ I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly? Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?”
I first met Chai in 1996, when we were both visiting Taiwan for the first free presidential elections in Chinese history. I was there to write a magazine article. She was a political celebrity making the rounds of talk shows and official dinners. It was hard to imagine the Chai I met in Taipei being the same person as that hysterical, sobbing girl in the Beijing hotel room in 1989. Her small body had thickened, her narrow eyes had widened, and she was dressed smartly in the style of an American businesswoman: white skirt, maroon blazer, gold buttons. Divorced from her Chinese husband, she now spoke softly in almost flawless American sentences. Only her sweet, dimpled smile reminded me of earlier images I had seen.