This is a gripping story told with page-turning brio by an American who had ringside seats for the gathering student protests in May 1989 that ended in the early hours of June 4 with the massacre of hundreds of protesters by security forces in the streets and alleys off Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Philip J. Cunningham, fluent in Chinese, was a student in Beijing at the time, marched with the protesters and worked as a freelance assistant to the BBC. His fast paced chronicle of the prodemocracy student movement features encounters with student leaders and thoughtful assessments of what he observed during the gathering storm.
Drafted in the wake of the crackdown, batted back and forth between film and book projects throughout the 1990s, it is amazing that it took so long to publish this splendid firsthand account that anyone interested in modern China should read. Cunningham evokes powerfully the smells, sounds and shifting mood on the streets, making the reader feel like one is there alongside him as he tries to figure out what is going on, where the protests are heading and how the peaceful movement morphs into bloodshed.
It all starts with the students incensed by communist party corruption and abuses of power. Market reforms, growing disparities, stifling of free speech, the lack of accountability and transparency, and the desire for democracy also inspired the dissidence, but rage against systemic corruption, still a huge grievance, trumped all other affronts.
This memoir serves as a moving tribute to all those young Chinese who risked so much to better their world. Now Tiananmen has become “a synonym for cruelty, from a talismanic word to a search engine taboo, from a monument dedicated to remembering past glory to a memory draining blank hole in the heart of Beijing.” He adds, “The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come.”
Cunningham is especially withering in his criticism of the media, as “coverage went from one cliche to another, from panda to ping-pong to dissidents and dictatorship, and then back to pandas again.”
The BBC and its correspondents come off badly in this account, shown to be oblivious, culturally blinkered, overwrought and prone to confusing entertainment and the news. Cunningham confesses, “I should not have been surprised that a powerful producer wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, even if this desire for lunch in a nice hotel came at the expense of the story.”
Unlike the NHK, the BBC refused to record interviews in Chinese, missing many opportunities to convey how Chinese viewed what was going on. Amazingly, at the height of the demonstrations the BBC turned down an interview with Chai Ling, the rebel “commander in chief,” just because she could not speak English. He sums up this “linguistic imperialism” writing, “Better to have an irrelevant quote in English than a pertinent quote in Chinese.”
One of the funniest vignettes in this otherwise somber tale involves John Simpson, a senior correspondent for the BBC. While practicing his lines before the shot, illuminated in an otherwise dark Tiananmen Square, he inadvertently drew the attention of the crowds, looking “like a madman on a soapbox” engaged in a “bizarre pantomime,” sparking peals of laughter. The corpulent Simpson with his trademark shock of white hair was subsequently mistaken for Mikhail Gorbachev who was visiting Beijing during the demonstrations.
Cunningham doesn’t mince his words about the media beast and his own role in feeding it. He took the needed cash but is withering about “professional war reporters and ambulance chasers, here today, gone tomorrow, ever in search of shock and spectacle to sell to the home audience.”
Wanting to be a bridge he felt more like a muddied welcome mat, working at considerable risk, and selling his skills and contacts, for the sake of unappreciative journalists reframing the story for the cartoonish dictates of TV.
Some of the best moments in this superb book draw on his interviews with Chai Ling, catching this prominent student leader at various moments in ways that help readers see her as an individual overwhelmed by the events she was setting in motion.
Interestingly she was quite critical of Liu Xiaobo, the recent Nobel Prize-winner, because he was too moderate in urging students to end the demonstrations before it was too late.
Chai Ling admitted, “What we are looking for is, it’s bloodshed. In the end, the government will use the butcher’s knife against the people. Only when Tiananmen Square is washed in a river of blood will the whole country wake up.”
Cunningham thinks aloud about “dark forces” and their role in orchestrating the events and draws our attention to the complex political struggles between various factions.
In finally publishing this animated chronicle, he challenges two decades of organized forgetting and revisionism concerning what happened and what was at stake in 1989.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.