Inside the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989
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The early days
With the 25th anniversary of the events of May and June 1989 just past, and all the talk that went with it, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at an account of those momentous few weeks from the vantage point of someone who was actually there.
It is an often forgotten aspect of the ’89 demonstrations, but there is much more to what took place that spring than the bloody crackdown which sealed its fate. The student protests that gripped Beijing – and indeed the whole of China – may now be remembered more for the date on which they were ended than the various motivations out of which they grew, but in the early days at least, there really was a sense that change was on its way.
It is in the midst of these early days that Tiananmen Moon begins. A resident on the Beijing Normal University campus as the demonstrations gathered pace, Philip Cunningham was witness to the full arc of their rise, their faltering, and the eventual dénouement as the tanks rolled in. In the four weeks it took for the moon to reach its fullest, to its waning back towards the darkest night on which the crackdown took place, we are presented with a movement that brimmed with optimism and hope for a better China at the outset, but which quickly became overwhelmed by events from which ultimately, it couldn’t be extricated.
We begin on May Fourth, one of the most iconic dates in the Communist calendar, and the anniversary of a student uprising which seventy years earlier, set loose the revolutionary fervour which would shape the destiny of China for the century to come. Red flags were fluttering, banners were being unfurled, and the students were fixed in their purpose to make their feelings heard.
The anger and frustration were similar to that of 1919, but this time the target was not the foreign powers that had once brought China to her knees, but the same Communist party that rose in response to the crisis. The students wanted democracy, they wanted an end to corruption, they wanted the Party to practice what it preached when it cited the best interests of “the people” in everything it said and did. Most significantly, they wanted a retraction of the April 26th People’s Daily editorial in which Deng Xiaoping had referred to the demonstrations as “turmoil”, implying that the students were not the patriotic future of China expressing legitimate grievances, but a bunch of riotous thugs intent on overthrowing the state.
Unfortunately, there is little explanation of the background to the May 4th demonstration with which Tiananmen Moon begins, which is somewhat of an oversight, but as the narrative gathers pace, the reader is carried along with the excitement of the protests much as the author himself was at the time. The songs and chants, the banners, flags and thousands of excited marchers, reveal an optimism all the more poignant for the end it met.
As the crowds “surge southwards like a river swollen with rain,” it is, Cunningham writes, like “the China I have long imagined but never known, the China synonymous with revolution and rebellion.” He openly wonders whether a peaceful people’s uprising could be in the making. And while caught up in the moment he may have been, at that moment, with the heart of the nation in their sights and the spirit of May Fourth to guide them, it must have seemed like anything was possible.
Outsider on the inside
The author’s role in all of this is very much of the outsider on the inside. At first as result of his friendships with Chinese students on campus, and later after being hired to work as an interpreter for the BBC, Cunningham was able to gain to kind of access to the demonstrations the Western media craved. It also allows him to give an account which, while drawing freely on his thoughts and feelings of the time, is still presented within the context of a reflection on the actions and motivations of those involved.
He questions, for instance, the group mentality at work during preparations for the hunger strike, noting that such “extreme devotion coupled with intense social pressure” made it impossible for participants to refuse. Then there were the pat answers to simple questions which frustrated his journalistic endeavours: “We want open dialogue with the government”; “We want a reversal of the April twenty-sixth verdict”; “This is a spontaneous movement.”
He also questions the nature of the student leadership during the protests. The leaders he says, hadn’t been voted into office, they had “just sort of seized the initiative.” Rivalries between different campuses and between various factions would lead to squabbles when establishing the pecking order of the early marches. When it came to the hunger strike, it was, in effect, as if the hunger strikers were “pulling a coup, wresting control of the movement from the more moderate student voices” which, if they succeeded, would place the leadership of the movement in the hands of the radicals. As Cunningham writes, “in China every rebel wants to be another Mao.”
Part of the problem of the student movement, as Cunningham sees it, “was that it was run by students.” The constant jockeying for influence that took place between the moderates and more radical students, was something that would dog the movement until the very end, and which closely mirrored the struggles going on within the Communist Party itself. In an intriguing section of the book, Cunningham secures access to the student command centre located at the base of The Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square. Inside, he manages a short interview with one of the main student leaders Chai Ling, “the queen bee in the middle of a humming hive.”
This was May 26th, just over a week before the crackdown, a time when the tired and protest-hardened Beijing students were being joined by students from the provinces hungry for action. Chai Ling talks of a future full of uncertainty, of conflicts between rival groups and of not knowing who to trust anymore. She talks about dangerous times for the protests, even of her own consideration of seeking political asylum inside the British embassy in Beijing. All of which helps shed light on the internal dynamics that contributed to the democracy movement’s eventual demise.
Later, in an interview which made Cunningham’s name after the tape was smuggled out of the country and into the hands of the Western media, Chai Ling actively criticises moderates such as Liu Xiaobo and Wuerkaixi who were urging students to leave the square before disaster struck. There is no way, she says, that she can tell her fellow students that “what we are looking for is … bloodshed … Only when Tiananmen is washed in a river of blood will the whole country wake up.”
“A soul-chilling silence”
When reading Tiananmen Moon, it feels that the real tragedy is that the events of June Fourth could so easily have been avoided. At so many points along the way opportunities for compromise presented themselves, but on both sides the refusal of the hardliners to do so, meant that in the end, a government crackdown was inevitable. What is more disturbing, is that while the student masses were out there in the square, protesting under all conditions, leaders such as Chai Ling – herself only 23 years old – were realising that the only way for them to achieve some kind of perverse “victory”, would be when the tanks moved in.
The strength of Tiananmen Moon is that whilst clearly an active supporter and early participant in the student cause, the author still manages to retain some level of objectivity with regards the demonstrations and his role within them. The movement is shown not necessarily as being a cohesive group with a single concrete aim, nor were the leading figures necessarily the selfless heroes sometimes depicted. As such, a more rounded picture of the protests emerges.
China may have moved on since the events of June Fourth, but many of the grievances that led to those protests not only remain, but fester with even greater enmity. As Cunningham writes, there has been “a soul-chilling silence” from the Chinese government since ’89 which “only gets louder with each passing year.” To continue to deny the people the right to speak out against corruption, against abuses of power, against inequality and so on, whilst still refusing to accept mistakes of the past, seems wholly incompatible with fostering the harmonious society the Chinese leadership craves. Whether a further twenty-five years will pass in the same vein is yet to be seen. But as long as there are people willing to “challenge that silence”, the hope of a new road for China will remain.
Buy the Book: You can buy Tiananmen Moon on Amazon.
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