Tuesday, May 26, 2009



“Tiananmen’s anniversary unimportant to China’s youth,” laments the Los Angeles Times. “Tiananmen now seems distant to China’s students," opines the New York Times.

With the approach of the twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989, there have been a spate of news stories comparing young people in China today with the students who protested at Tiananmen, and the comparison is usually not a flattering one. Apathy has replaced activism. Propaganda has replaced knowledge. Today’s youth are characterized as the “stupid generation,” or at best, “hip but clueless.”

I think such comparisons are unfair.

First of all, twenty years is a long time. Why should young people today be compared to aunts and uncles who were on the march when they hadn’t even learned yet to walk?

The students in 1989 in their day were no different in this respect. They did not spend a huge amount of time pondering why they were or weren’t like the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

If anything, it was precisely because they had little or no first-hand contact with the horror of Mao’s social experiment gone awry that they could in good faith and unremitting optimism write provocative wall posters and take to the streets, naively hoping for positive results.

It seems student activism, to really get off the ground, and to have any integrity at all, requires forgetting the past, --or at least not being beholden to it-- as much as invoking it.

Referencing the past as a guide to one’s actions, especially in a place where the past weighs as heavily as it does in China, is intimidating to the point of despair.

The conditions under which the 1989 generation came of age are not repeatable, nor desirable. China is in many important respects a better country today, much more liberal in terms of lifestyle and individual choice, though politics remains hemmed in as before.

China is also incontestably more prosperous, more open and open to much more information, though media controls remain. One glaring gap in an otherwise improving picture, is that Tiananmen remains a taboo in China today.

It is fully understandable that older observers might get periodically nostalgic about the euphoric burst of people power that erupted on the streets of Beijing during the Sino-Soviet summit twenty years ago. For anyone who was there, or felt a part of it from media immersion; it will always be a part of them.

It was a time in which ordinary people found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. But students were reacting to a unique environment, not inventing it.

There was a perfect storm of campus restiveness, Western media readiness (thanks largely to the expected pomp and circumstance of the Gorbachev visit) and a win-or-die Politburo impasse; all of which conspired to allow something small, narrow, and local to snowball into something large, broad and universal, over many weeks involving millions of people.

No wonder those of us who were there were swept away by the cyclone-like force of it. But one can’t help but notice how quickly the West’s willingness to identify with the cause of Chinese protests waned, when, in subsequent years, the crowd turned its angry gaze first to the US, and later, Japan.

Demonstrations subsequent to Tiananmen tend to be dismissed as phony demonstrations, reeking of government interference. But there was ample evidence in 1989 that one faction or other of the government was ever trying to play the crowd, infiltrate and direct the course of the protests as well.

The hyper-nationalistic students I interviewed after the anti-American and anti-Japanese demonstrations in 1999 and 2005 were not that different from the impulsive, idealistic and overly excitable students I marched shoulder to shoulder with in 1989.

The forward rush of feet, the billowing red flags, the hypnotic cadences of slogan and song chanted over and again in concert with the reckless enthusiasm of youth were in evidence in each instance, though there were differences in quality and scope.

The Tiananmen demos were rigorous but peaceful, politically daring, but welcomed in open arms by ordinary citizens. The 1989 protests endured for weeks and laid claim to revolutionary iconography in the central plaza of the Central Kingdom’s capital, making for unforgettable symbolic spectacle. It gave one the feeling of being in the center of the world.

But that was then, this is now. Different conditions call for different strategies and different solutions. Some of today’s battles may be fought out entirely on the internet or in courts or in civil society forums. Other little insurrections will, tragically, fail to get the attention they deserve until things take a violent turn, and then we’ll hear about them.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of unrest going on in every part of China, but if it doesn’t happen in a convenient place under the nose of the media, it may as well be deemed a non-event. China’s Public Security Bureau routinely releases shocking statistics that suggest China hardly goes a day without dozens of demonstrations or “mass incidents” erupting somewhere or else in the provinces, to the tune of thousands of little insurrections a month.

Demonstrating in a country as obsessed with stability as China is not a surefire course of action and is often counter-productive, but it continues to happen to an alarming degree. It’s not desirable politically, but today’s China is built on the back of innumerable mass incidents, the revolution culminating in the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic being the biggest one of all.

So is it not just a bit smug to say Chinese today are apathetic, that they are victims of propaganda and know nothing of the spirit of Tiananmen? The spirit of ’89 is alive and well every time someone, somewhere peacefully asserts a basic right or speaks out on a trying issue or pleads for a little more justice.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009


(from the Bangkok Post, May 18, 2009)

Zhao spotlights all of the culprits


The release of Zhao Ziyang's memoirs may not settle, once and for all, the degree of culpability, if any, that 1989 Beijing student activists bear for the tragic outcome of an otherwise uplifting and peaceful movement.

But the former secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party's last words on the topic serve as a powerful reminder that the lion's share of blame for the brutal and completely unnecessary military crackdown in June 1989 falls on Li Peng and a handful of party hardliners who, as Mr Zhao tells it - and as observers have long surmised - gunned for unnecessary violent intervention.

This revelation serves to balance the public discussion about Tiananmen, a debate long hampered by the paucity of verifiable information from the government side and rather too much information from the student side. The student side of the equation, rich in its tabloid complexity, faults, foibles and all, is well documented, thanks in part to the unblinking glare of the media, and the general accessibility of key personalities, most of whom escaped to the United States.

To a lesser extent, the street-level story of what happened in Beijing in the spring of 1989 can be understood in general terms; multitudinous facets of it have been captured in texts, photos, music, memoir, drama and video footage, with enough over-lapping documentation and corroborative detail to map out a basic chronology, even though interpretations differ and divisive views are not entirely settled.

The iconic image of a man standing in front of a tank has exactly that sort of built-in redundancy; it was filmed simultaneously by several photographers and cameramen - one angle on it was taken from my room at the Beijing Hotel - but who the man is, or what meaning can be drawn from the sight of him venting his anger in front of a tank slowly withdrawing from Tiananmen Square remains open to debate.

But if our knowledge of what went on in the streets and behind the closed doors of student strategy sessions is incomplete, it is meticulously documented in comparison to what we know of the government's position. This uneven access has led to a media tendency to put undue emphasis on student agency, both in terms of heroics and assigning guilt.

Given the timid but intransigent stance of China's information guardians who are so far unwilling to pin blame anywhere near the late, great Deng Xiaoping, a variety of intellectual contortions and political postures need be put into play to avoid facing the truth. The most effective obfuscations serve to divert attention elsewhere, but the one that is most distressing to me as a witness and participant is "blame it on the students".

The students were indeed imperfect, and in unwitting ways mimicked the best and worst tendencies of their communist elders. But they did not carry out the bloody crackdown, rather certain units of the PLA did. As for the units of the PLA that refused to join the crackdown, they should be considered people's heroes on a par with the man in front of the tank.

I marched with the students and know most of the student leaders. During the 1989 uprising, I interviewed Chai Ling, the so-called student commander-in-chief, on several occasions. The May 28, 1989 interview seemed of great portent; was she going to run away or stay around until blood started to flow? In a tearful outpouring of words recorded to low-quality videotape, she explored both possibilities and has been both applauded and roundly criticised for this and other provocative statements ever since. I interviewed her again on June 2, 1989 after which she returned to Tiananmen Square where she and hundreds of other fellow students made a last stand followed by a peaceful, PLA-negotiated exit on the dawn of June 4, 1989.

Only then did Chai Ling run away, and to this day the details of her escape from China remain sketchy, though secret diplomatic assistance was the likely route.

By making available to the media, with Chai Ling's express permission in writing, the May 28, 1989 interview, I inadvertently contributed to a media process that put far too much focus on a vivid personality with very little actual power, though she was the titular leader of the students at the time and thus in the mind's eye in charge of tens of thousands of followers.

The charged rhetoric she has subsequently been vilified for was not unique to her; one could hear it in the whispers and shouts of marchers; one could see ink-brush portents of it in poems scribbled on university walls that spoke of "blood flowing down Chang'an Boulevard" a full month before the massacre.

Talk of bodily, if not bloody sacrifice, along with the melodramatic last wills and testaments of the sort that Chai Ling handed me on May 28 were part and parcel of a mass hunger strike, an uncannily effective crowd precipitant that caused the square to swell with well-wishers beyond expectation.

Yet despite crowds a million strong and an abundance of over-the-top rhetoric, the hunger strike ended quietly without a single casualty.

For 20 years the official voice of China, and to a surprising extent, many of its foreign interlocutors, has found it expedient to sweep the basic facts of the crackdown under the carpet, by quibbling about details, cooking up various arguments about the overarching need for stability, or by giving it the silent treatment, in counterpoint to readily available lurid descriptions of what rascals and opportunists the student activists were.

To blame it on the students, as many young people in China do today, is to fall for a propaganda line, to take one's eye off the ball.

The so-called student leaders of 1989, crowd facilitators at best, not unlike the enthusiastic student volunteers who helped manage crowds at the Olympics last year, were at once hailed as abstract heroes in a way they were decidedly undeserving of, and then later cast as villains, in a way they were also decidedly undeserving of.

As best I could judge, from studying the crowd every day for a month on the square, is that the ever-shifting crowd largely organised and ordered itself, at once subject to the vagaries of mass psychology and the kinetics of crowd dynamics, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Countless individuals poured into Beijing's most central plaza to create a vivid living tableau with their passion and dedication to peaceful change; they became part of a whole beyond individual control yet coherent and compelling.

While the possibility that there were indeed "black hands" cannot be dismissed, whether it be communist party factions trying to play the student movement to their own political advantage, or the question of clandestine support lent to protesters by foreign embassies, or even the tango between Western media and the protesters, the revelation of influences and interactions is not the same as culpability.

The only real crime was demanding a military solution and then turning the guns on unarmed civilians.

The value of releasing Mr Zhao's belated memoir, which goes for the jugular by singling out a hard-line clique within the CCP, on this, the 20th anniversary of an unnecessary tragedy, is to get the public eye back on the culpability of those most culpable.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Twenty years ago Beijing students launched a hunger strike which changed the course of Chinese history. For more photos and narrative, please see TIANANMEN MOON.
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pakistan is not a failed state

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez were kind enough to host me this morning on their show, Democracy Now!: Manan Ahmed on the Politics of US “Hysteria” over Pakistan

The excellent UAE National gave me space to develop my argument about the Pakistani "failed state": Legends of the Fail Manan Ahmed examines the decades-old tradition of experts predicting that Pakistan is sure to collapse any day now. Read more on this article...

Monday, May 4, 2009


Photos and narrative about the May 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square will be updated daily. Please see TIANANMEN MOON. --Phil

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Friday, May 1, 2009


As part of a twenty year retrospective, I have posted a narrative describing the mood in Beijing on the eve of the May 4, 1989 march to Tiananmen Square. Please see TIANANMEN MOON for the full post and additional photos. --Phil Cunningham Read more on this article...