On the Eve

Watching China Watching (XIII)

In late April 1989, a group of prominent Chinese writers, public intellectuals avant la lettre and cultural figures — both from Mainland China and Taiwan — gathered at Bolinas on the Californian coast north of San Francisco to discuss the state of their state views about China’s future. They engaged in three days of dialogue and debate with prominent academics and journalists from the United States, as well as one rogue academic/ writer from Australia — the editor of the present work.

China Symposium ’89 was organized by Orville Schell, Liu Baifang and Hong Huang with the support of The New York Review of Books.

As things turned out the Symposium took place during one of the high points of the mass student protests that had erupted following the death of Hu Yaobang, former Party General Secretary, on 15 April. Political tensions had been building in China since 1988, and a number of incidents in early 1989 had alerted the Beijing authorities: rebellion was in the air. A number of invitees to the Bolinas Symposium were refused permission to leave China, while one crucial figure — an outspoken literary and political critic by the name of Liu Xiaobo — skipped the gathering and returned to Beijing from New York to be on the front lines of the unfolding demonstrations. Regardless, the discussions unfolded at a momentous moment in modern Chinese history.

The Bolinas Symposium also brought together a number of people who later collaborated on the production of The Gate of Heavenly Peace 天安門, a documentary film about the events of 1989. My work with Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon on the film — I was the main writer and senior academic adviser to that project — was the result of a meeting of minds during those bizarre and heady April days in California (although we had all known each other since the early 1980s).

China Symposium ’89 offers a moment frozen it time, and it was recorded for an unforeseen future. The recordings were transcribed under the aegis of Orville and Baifang and reviewed by academic participants. The final text was published in 1996 under the title On The Eve: China Symposium ’89 on the website of The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The thirteenth installment in Watching China Watching is the edited transcript of the special opening session of China Symposium ’89. It features a discussion of the unfolding events in Beijing and offers a glimpse into ‘real-time China-Watching’. As we have repeatedly noted, ‘China-Watching’ has never been restricted solely to outside observers; its practice is also part of the lived reality, and daily necessities, of thinking Chinese men and women.

Marlowe Hood, a journalist who had been a stringer for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing from 1985, introduces the session.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
29 January 2018

  • The formatting of the original online version of the text has been retained for the most part, although minor corrections and adjustments have been made.


Related Material:

Bolinas Lagoon, California

On The Eve
China Symposium ’89


Setting the Scene

Marlowe Hood

The leading lights of Chinese dissidence spoke grimly of imminent bloodshed as they assembled in Bolinas, California on the eve of the “China Symposium ’89”.

The date was April 26, and tens of thousands of students were massing in the streets of Beijing to march, in defiance of an explicit government ban, on Tiananmen Square. Some of the young protesters wrote their wills, certain they would not live to see the sun rise. Though troops had failed to challenge demonstrations in the previous weeks, this time the writing was on the wall. More precisely, the threat of violent repression came in the form of an editorial in that day’s People’s Daily condemning the student movement as a “planned conspiracy… to negate the leadership of the Communist Party” and “plunge the entire country into chaos.” Designed to intimidate rather than incite, the unsigned editorial was nonetheless more than bluster, for it bore the unmistakable imprimatur of Deng Xiaoping himself.

Half a world away in Bolinas, China’s gadfly journalist, Liu Binyan, reminded fellow conferees of a time-tested axiom. “Deng Xiaoping,” he said, “never eats his words.”

Students marching on Tiananmen Square, 27 April 1989

Imagine, then, the surprise, relief and even euphoria that erupted the following morning at the opening session of the Symposium upon learning that 500,000 students and supporters had occupied Tiananmen Square without incident and, equally amazing, that the government had agreed to enter negotiations with protesters. Suddenly, the scent of profound change was in the air. Even battle-scarred victims of the 1957 “Anti-Rightist Campaign” and the relentless waves of purges that followed — even they spoke of the dawning of a new era.

It was in such an atmosphere, charged with alternating currents of despair and optimism, that “China Symposium ’89” got underway. Indeed, the level of tension and excitement was so high that conference organizers postponed the first scheduled panel discussion and opened the floor to the impromptu comments following here. The statements reflect a deep uncertainty towards the potential of the moment, fluctuating sharply between hope and apprehension, between promise of reform and the fear of reprisal.

On the bright side, conferees described a society emerging from the numbing torpor of Maoism and challenging the state’s monopoly on political power. Entrepreneurs, farmers, environmentalists, industrial workers, and even China’s notoriously feeble parliamentarians were all beginning to fill the vacuum left by a receding Party organization and a bankrupt ideology. “The Chinese people have never been so full of vigor and vitality,” noted Liu Binyan.

The crescendo of protest was also proof, suggested most of the speakers, that China’s beleaguered intellectuals were finally emerging from the shadow of their political overlords. The students’ collective defiance of what all knew to be Deng Xiaoping’s personal command broke a spell. It eased the burning humiliation — sharpened by outbursts of democracy in the rest of Asia and the Soviet Union — of an intelligentsia painfully aware of its own impotence. The mainland writers, artists and academics attending “China Symposium ’89” welcomed the occupation of Tiananmen Square not only as a victory, but as a vindication. At last, they seemed to say with a sigh of relief, we too have stood up.

And yet, a terrible foreknowledge hovered over the conference, a premonition rooted in bitter experience. “When China’s leaders are holding a sword over the heads of the students, we cannot call that a stable situation,” said Liang Congjie angrily when an American Sinologist suggested that the state’s restraint evinced enlightened tolerance. Mr. Liang knew that the guardians of Communist orthodoxy were not about to abandon their posts without a fight. It is no coincidence that the older conferees — survivors of the 1957 anti-intellectual purge conceived by Mao Zedong and executed, in large measure, by Deng Xiaoping — each spoke of repression. “Please, let us not rejoice too soon,” cautioned filmmaker Wu Tianming.

The fact that only two or three participants in “China Symposium ’89” would have described themselves as “dissidents” before the June 4 Massacre added a subtle dimension of ambiguity to their comments. Aside from playwright Wu Zuguang (whose contempt for Communist leaders was as open as it was complete), poet Bei Dao (who organized China’s first open petition to free political prisoners), and scientists Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian (prevented by the Chinese government form attending), the other mainland participants were still active within China’s artistic and academic establishment. Even Liu Binyan, twice purged from the Party, and others shunted aside in 1987 along with their relatively broad-minded patron, General-Secretary Hu Yaobang, were waiting on the sidelines or in self-imposed exile for a chance to return to prominence on the next wave of reform. The massive anti-government demonstrations emboldened many to excoriate, for the first time, China’s ruling octogenarians; but they stopped short of fundamentally rejecting the political system over which these aging despots presided.

Such circumspection is rooted in varying mixtures of calculation and conviction.

Thoughtful Chinese intellectuals who struggled through countless campaigns to maintain integrity and perspective, on the one hand, while continuing to justify an ever-dwindling confidence in socialism and the Communist Party, on the other, find it painfully difficult to conclude, at the end of the day, that the whole, grand endeavor was fatally flawed from the start. Former People’s Daily editor Wang Ruoshui, attacked in the early 80’s as a heretic because of his humanist interpretations of Marx, remains a committed socialist in part, one suspects, because the thought of so many lives and so much energy lost in pursuit of a chimera is simply unbearable. For those who had already retreated behind a wall of disillusionment, the political and social upheaval of spring 1989 allowed — indeed, almost forced — them to hope, yet again, that China’s political system was not impervious to democratic reform.

Commemorative stamps issued to mark the 2540th birthday of Confucius, 28 September 1989

Other intellectuals, especially younger ones, are mindful, with only slight embarrassment, of their careers. Even Confucius, after all, blurred the distinction between self-interest and virtue, and pointed out that knowledge divorced from power — an adviser with no one to advise — was of little benefit to society. These college-educated protégés of Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang subscribed to China’s most ancient political wisdom: when tyrants rule, kept a low profile and stay vigilant for a more favorable turn of events. In 40 years of Chinese communism, Fang Lizhi was the first and only high-profile intellectual within China to declare himself a dissident and live to tell about it. Working for democratic reform within the system still seemed, to most intellectuals, a far more prudent course.

The reluctance of so many otherwise alienated intellectuals to take a stand against Communism as ideology and organization is also rooted in an apparent inability to separate strong feelings of patriotism from loyalty to the Party. The state, of course, has always insisted that devotion to Party and country are identical — any rejection of the former is, ipso facto, an act of treason. But in the Soviet Union, where the same specious logic prevailed until only recently, a dedicated, if small core of clear-minded dissidents has long held their own against a regime no less repressive than China’s. What accounts for the difference?

In a word, history. The blurred distinction between Party and nation finds its atavistic counterpart in the inseparability of empire and dynasty. China’s contemporary intelligentsia may bear little resemblance to a premodern literati which, in any case, was itself constantly in flux, but traditional patterns of authority still influence the relationship between power and knowledge. Little wonder, then that Communist leaders today try to shore up public support with appeals to nationalism, which, after all, has been their strongest basis of their legitimacy from the outset.

It is as hard to measure the inertial force of China’s heritage as it is easy to underestimate it. My own impression after living, working and traveling in China during much of the 1980’s is of a society imploding into its own past, even as it continues to modernize and expand contacts with the outside world. How strange, if this is true, that so few of China’s most prominent independent intellectuals acknowledge the powerful — and dangerous — historical currents swirling through their country during this period of profound transition. And how ironic that Deng Xiaoping and his cohorts do. For they are right in saying that China could dissolve into sustained chaos, even if they fail to understand that the Communist Party, far from being able to prevent such an outcome, is more likely to guarantee it.

Lei Feng: Chairman Mao’s Good Soldier, Cultural Revolution-era booklet

That parts of China continue to pulse with economic vitality despite apparent efforts by the central government to clamp down on precisely those sectors growing the fastest; that imported popular culture continues “bourgeois liberalization”; that the ludicrous attempt to resurrect the cult of model-hero Lei Feng finds no audience; that wealth coastal provinces refuse to pay more taxes — are these facts not proof, argue many, that the handful of old Communists steering China’s ship of state are either about to lose their grip or are secretly tolerant of many of the things they claim to abhor? Alas, no. China’s leaders mean what they say. If they are unable to curb entrepreneurship or revive socialist enthusiasm, it betrays weakness not tolerance; and if they retreat from Leninist principles, the retreat is tactical, not ideological. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping, along with colleagues even more dogmatic if slightly less powerful, are systematically exacerbating the very tensions which gave rise to the political debacle and social tremor of 1989.


China Symposium ’89

Special Opening Session
Morning, 27 April 1989


Moderator: Liang Congjie 梁從誡

Participants: Liu Binyan 劉賓雁, Ge Yang 戈揚Shao Yanxiang 邵燕祥Wu Guoguang 吳國光Ruan Ming 阮銘Ding Xueliang 丁學良Geremie Barmé, Chen Kaige 陳凱歌Wu Zuguang 吳祖光.

The discussion was conducted in Chinese.

Left to right: Ge Yang, Liu Binyan, Wang Ruoshui and Wu Guoguang, April 1989

This symposium commences at a unusual moment. Everybody here is aware of what is happening in Beijing. The student protests are a new development and perhaps a new starting point in Chinese culture and politics. All of us, especially those who are fresh from Mainland China, are very much concerned for the safety of our fellow countrymen — particularly the students in Beijing — and for the fate of this democratic movement. Last night we heard that the Chinese leaders had decided to use force to suppress the student movement. We were saddened by this, so sad that many of us did not eat or sleep well last night. But today we woke up to some very encouraging news: 200,000 students, supported by a million Beijing citizens have marched to and occupied Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government and the Party must enter into a dialogue with the students. I think this is an initial victory for the pro-democracy movement, and is the best way to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the May 4 Movement. I therefore propose that we all stand up to salute our heroic Beijing students. Let’s show our admiration for them with our applause.

In the past ten days three things have happened that have taken me totally by surprise. When Hu Yaobang died [on April 15], some friends and I discussed whether his death would inspire a large-scale student movement. Many of us were pessimistic; it was the same pessimism that has prevailed in China for the past two or three years. It seemed that Chinese students had totally lost heart, they had no illusions about the Chinese authorities, or the future of their country. These people also had a negative attitude towards protests and demonstrations. “What is the use of taking to the streets?”, they asked.

‘Liu Binyan’, by David Levine for The New York Review of Books

Although some friends did not rule out the possibility of student agitation, they never anticipated anything like this. That was the first surprise. The second has been that the authorities have shown uncharacteristic tolerance towards this student movement. We have been very concerned because we thought that the government could resort to force at any moment, making arrests or firing on the crowds. But no one has been detained so far. Of course, the Xinhuamen Incident, during which some 100 students were injured shames the Chinese government, which fabricated a story to cover up the truth. Now the students are demanding that the authorities reveal the truth instead of purposefully creating confusion. After all, it was the police who beat up the students, and not the reverse. The third unexpected thing occurred last night. Yesterday we were very heavy-hearted, believing that bloodshed was unavoidable. Students had been threatening to take to the streets on May 1 and May 4, but did so last night, earlier than planned. As we all know, Deng Xiaoping never eats his words. None of the men working around him, I’m afraid, have the courage to cross him. This is simply how things are in the Party. The students have won this time; it comes as a complete surprise. But we should remember that Deng Xiaoping means what he says. For instance, he gave orders that Wei Jingsheng should be arrested and never to be let out of prison. Wei still languishes in prison. We are very worried, and for good reason. This at least tells us that we must go deeper when we look at things in China. The widespread pessimism of people both at home and abroad originates from a one-sided view. It is only natural to be pessimistic if you look at things superficially.

Economic crisis, political crisis, the population crisis, and, above all, the crisis of belief seem to have combined to make people apathetic, eager only to better their own life, interested only in personal profit. For their part, students have frittered away their energies playing cards, dancing and drinking. Judging from these phenomena, it is hardly surprising that one arrives at a pessimistic conclusion. Personally I have always believed it is understandable for the people in the street to judge things superficially. But we influential intellectuals should look deeper. Under the surface of this social phenomenon there is a very significant fact: The Chinese people have never been more vigorous and vital. I have lived through different regimes, from the Northern Warlord period [of the 1920s] till today, but I have never seen the Chinese people so awakened, with so strong a sense of self and independence as a social being. “I am a human being, you can’t just bully me at will,” is the sense you get. Some people are itinerant entrepreneurs. This is also the natural expression of an independent of self.

After the decade of the Cultural Revolution and ten years of reform, the Chinese people have discarded Mao Zedong’s ideology. The whole system of communism and the Party’s reputation have been shaken to their very foundation. The Tiananmen Incident [of April 4, 1976] was a landmark, symbolizing the Chinese people’s will to determine their own fate. The Xidan Democracy Wall [of 1978-1979] was another sign of this awakening. We have tended to underestimate the positive effects of the Cultural Revolution.

The second landmark has been the ten years of economic reform. From the leaders’ point of view, this is a planned, systematic economic reform. But in reality, it has triggered off a wide-ranging transformation of society that goes far beyond the realm of the economy. Changes have taken place in nearly every aspect of people’s lives. The new found freedom and wealth of millions of peasants is the foundation of democracy. Even from my optimistic point of view, I didn’t anticipate that things would change in China so rapidly; nor did I realize that the Chinese Communist Party had become so fatuous, and so vulnerable.

Liang Congjie has said: “Today marks a new starting point in the history of Chinese culture and politics.” What a fitting remark! In retrospect, we can see that there has been one fundamental contradiction in the past forty years. It is a contradiction between the Communist Party and the masses of people. What happened last night in Beijing indicates that this fundamental contradiction has come to a head and the supreme authority of Deng Xiaoping can no longer be exerted.

I left Beijing on April 23 and Shanghai on April 25. Here in the United States I feel as if I were still in China. In the past two days, China has undergone a very big change. I was told that the day before yesterday they were transmitting Deng Xiaoping’s speech [of April 25] to the masses. Deng said in his speech: “The student movement is a premeditated counter-revolutionary political movement… . We must use force to put an end to it.” Deng has made up his mind. His speech is being circulated in Beijing, perhaps throughout the country. Shanghai held a meeting of over ten thousand people to listen to Deng’s speech. Qin Benli, the editor-in-chief of the World Economic Herald, was dismissed and the paper’s senior staff was reorganized.

World Economic Herald, front page, 24 April 1989

But this situation quickly changed when about 200,000 students and a million citizens took to the streets in a pro-democracy rally in Beijing. Hu Yaobang’s name has disappeared from the slogans of the students. Now they are shouting: “The People’s Liberation Army should not beat students,” and “Long live the People’s Liberation Army!” The PLA has began to negotiate with the students. So long as the students do not enter Tiananmen Square, the conflicts can be settled peacefully. The people in Beijing are confident in themselves. Self-confidence is a thing unheard of in our history. What is most extraordinary is that students dared to demonstrate even after Deng’s speech. Everyone expected the government would crush them with force, yet on the contrary, they have agreed to an open dialogue with the students and has even set up a special committee for this purpose.

We started out worried, but now we feel triumphant. At least we can say so far the people are winning. It is safe to say democratic forces are growing stronger with each passing day. But what will happen tomorrow? The day after tomorrow? Of course, no one can say for sure. In the past three years China has undergone tremendous changes. One manifestation of this change is the weakening of those ossified diehards who underestimate the strength of the people and who go against the current of reform. The present situation is very encouraging. I can see a very bright future for China, no matter what setbacks it may experience. The Chinese people have displayed an unprecedented sense of solidarity. Some people believe that the Chinese have become very money-minded and indifferent. I believe quite the opposite — the Chinese people have shown great concern for the future of the nation.

Let me start with two lines from a poem I wrote:

We too are in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square
Here not only does Tiananmen review the masses
They review Tiananmen and the rulers it represents

Shao Yanxiang (left) and Wu Zuguang

When I wrote this poem in 1982 it was little more than fantasy. But now, seven years later, the news we have at hand tells us that this fantasy has become reality. I came to this symposium hoping to meet up with old friends and to make new ones, as well as to take this opportunity to relax a little bit from politics. But our gathering is overshadowed by ominous clouds. It is very likely that the government will suppress the student movement with force, and bloodshed seems inevitable. Our young students who will suffer the most and some of them will lose their lives. But at the same time, by using force against the students, the Party will bring political destruction down on itself.

As a Party member this distresses me. First and foremost, I am concerned about the future of our people, and the future of my party. In China today there is no political force strong enough to replace the Communist Party. Therefore, no matter how you look at the matter, it is certain that the Party’s fate will affect the future of the Chinese people and the progress of the nation for a long time to come.

Party leaders have repeatedly stressed unity and stability. Whenever a student or mass movement develops it is denounced as a “riot”, or the like. In retrospect it has been the leadership that has been the true cause of social disturbances over the past thirty years. Yet they always blame the people, or students, for “disrupting unity and stability”. It is not only unjust; it’s a sheer distortion. The forces that disrupt our political stability and national unity have always come from above, not from below. Because the Communist Party lacks the necessary democratic system to guarantee the smooth transfer of power at the top there have been power struggles since 1949. To list just a few of the best known cases: the “Gao Gang-Rao Shushi Anti-Party Clique” of 1953-1954, and the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957.

In 1959, Marshal Peng Dehuai was overthrown for writing a “ten-thousand word memorial” to Mao containing criticisms and policy suggestions. But Mao took this to be a challenge to his supreme authority and destroyed Peng’s career. This was followed in the mid-1960s [the Cultural Revolution] with the dismissal of State President Liu Shaoqi, and attacks on the so-called “Peng-Lu-Luo-Yang Anti-Party Clique”. In 1971, we witnessed the collapse of the “Lin Biao Anti-Party Clique”, even though Lin’s position as the only legitimate successor to Mao had been written into the state and Party Constitution [just two years before]. In 1976, the “Jiang Qing Counter-Revolutionary Clique” was toppled. A few years later, [Mao’s successor Chairman] Hua Guofeng was removed from power. [Party General Secretary] Hu Yaobang’s forced resignation from office in early 1987 can be counted as the seventh major instance of intra-party conflict.

If we had a sound system to guarantee the smooth transformation of power such purges would not be necessary. It all boils down to one thing: The Party lacks democracy. Without democracy, power struggles within the Party are inevitable.

In turn these struggle adversely affect the political life of the whole nation. The instability and disunity of the leadership results in the instability and disunity of the society. In the process of political structural reform, the Party should also reform itself.

‘We Must Take a Firm Stand and Oppose Turmoil’, front page editorial in the People’s Daily, 26 April 1989

I feel reluctant to say anything. The students have said that the People’s Daily is talking nonsense. Since I’m still on the paper’s staff, I’m afraid I’ll be suspected of talking nonsense too.

It pains me to see my colleagues, forced to act upon Deng Xiaoping’s instructions, producing mendacious articles. The student have good reason to say that the People’s Daily is full of nonsense. The student movement excites me. I think it will go down in Chinese history as a very significant event. First of all it has broken the stalemate that has gripped the reforms since the fall of 1988. This stalemate, if not broken, most probably would have been followed by a long term of administration by an incompetent, fatuous and corrupt government, which, in the name of reform, would have moved back to the old system. But fortunately, this earth-shaking student movement has broken the dead-lock.

Consequently, even if the reforming force within the leadership can’t gain the upper hand, the reform drive in China will not be stopped. We can avoid an 18-year-long Brezhnev-style stagnation.

For some time now, pro-reform leaders favored systematic, organized reform led by the Party. They maintain a hostile attitude towards the kind of reform which spontaneously appears from below. This accounts in part for the failure of the previous student movements, which, in fact, were detrimental to economic reform. The 1987 student movement, for example, led to Hu Yaobang’s resignation. I don’t blame the students. Indeed, at the time if the student movement had developed further and Hu Yaobang hadn’t lost his power, it could have been very fruitful. But we were not as mature and experienced [as we are now]. Consequently, in the years that followed, many spontaneous movements were crushed by the conservative forces in the Party under the pretext of “reorganizing and rectifying” the forces of reform. But the current student movement suggests a new way to propel the reform forward. It is a new source of energy.

Since last summer or autumn, many concerned intellectuals wondered if reform in China still enjoys popular support, since so many people have complained about it. To some extent, there is a lack of support. Neither the people nor the leaders are accustomed to a commodity economy. The process of transforming a completely planned economy to a market-orientated economy is bound to create many problems, both economic and technical. While it is natural that the people have complaints, however, some of us mistook it to mean they had no confidence in economic reform, and that the forces driving reform forward were exhausted. Now we can see that such a judgment was too hasty, and reveals a lack of faith in the people.

Many people were very excited over the petition calling for the release of political prisoners signed by many well-known scientists. I, too, was excited and inspired. But I don’t agree with those who regard this as a sign that China’s intellectuals have awoken. At best it is the beginning. The current student movement, I should say, truly marks the awakening of a wide spectrum of China’s young intellectuals. The political maturity the movement has displayed is far beyond that of the petition campaign [of early 1989]. While we are all happy with the good news, I’m deeply concerned about the outcome of this movement. There is no doubt that the movement will leave an imprint in Chinese history, but it is still a question whether it will bring about any practical political result. The initial success of the movement is that Deng has agreed to have a dialogue with the students, but what will be the result of that dialogue? If the students demand freedom of the press, our leaders will say, “we already have freedom of the press, it is written into the Constitution.” If the students ask for an increased government spending on education they will say, “This is under review. The National Congress has discussed the matter.” Incompetent as they are, our leaders are outstanding in cooking up excuses. So we must be prepared for this movement to fail to achieve concrete results.

But what if the students make some realistic and immediate demands? Instead of ambitiously demanding freedom of the press, why not call for the disbanding of the Central Department of Propaganda, and an end to censorship? Rather than demanding freedom of speech, why not seek the abolition of university Party committees to ensure freedom of speech on campus?

But we are all too far away and it is difficult to convey such ideas to the students in Beijing. But we must have faith in their political maturity, and hope that they will favor concrete and to-the-point demands instead of vacuous slogans. I sincerely hope other social classes, instead of remaining onlookers, and instead of simply showing concern, anxiety or excitement, will participate.

This student movement can be divided into three phases: The first phase was from April 15, when Hu Yaobang passed away, up to April 22, when students organized a pro-democracy demonstration to mourn the late [former] General Secretary. The students could not be prevented from mourning the dead, so the government forbade them to enter Tiananmen Square during the official memorial service. But the students outwitted them and entered the square before the curfew went into effect, thereby circumventing it. The authorities were reluctant to disrupt the popular mourning activities.

Mourning Hu Yaobang, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Tiananmen Square, 19 April 1989

The second phase was a period of violent conflicts. According to Deng Xiaoping, once the memorial was over, mourning activities should also have stopped. But the students had not achieved their ends. They were mourning not just for the sake of the dead but for the people who are still alive, for democracy, for the country, for China’s future. So they made a series of demands. They were very indignant about the memorial speech [for Hu], since it was full of faint praise and contradictions. They were also indignant about the government, which had no interest in reform and has tried to stop the wheels of history. So the students boycotted classes, intensifying their conflict with the authorities. On April 26, the situation was touch-and-go. Deng Xiaoping had made clear his intention to crush the student movement. But what about the students? Did they give in or did they persist?

Many students wrote their wills before they went out to demonstrate, knowing that they might be killed. They participated in the demonstrations with determination, with a spirit of sacrifice, a will to fight to the bitter end against the anti-democracy elements represented by Deng Xiaoping. Yesterday, on April 27, the students won another victory of great significance. Just as Liu Binyan said: Deng never eats his words. Now Deng has promised to form a special committee to hold negotiations with the students.

Beginning today, the movement enters its third phase. It will be a period of negotiation. The development of this pro-democracy movement heralds a major change in China’s history, as did the May 4 Movement seventy years ago and the April 5 Movement of 1976. I often hear people complaining that China is moving in a circle, making no real progress, that pro-democracy slogans are empty slogans. Some people even describe the activities mourning Hu Yaobang as pitiful and foolish. But I think this is a great movement, one which points to China’s future, indicates the people’s ever growing strength and wisdom, and reveals the foolishness and weakness of dictators.

But how should we consolidate our achievement? I think we should direct our efforts to one point — political reform. It is a reform against traditional dictatorship, a dictatorship of one leader, one doctrine, one political party. This dictatorship is the fundamental cause of China’s economic and cultural backwardness. It must be done away with. One of the problems this student movement should address is the “one leader, one doctrine, one Party” problem. With this problem unsolved, there will be no political democracy to speak of. Now, the theory of “new authoritarianism” has been put forth by Wu Jiaxiang. This theory advocates one doctrine, not Mao’s, but Deng’s “theory and practice”. By one leader, it seeks to concentrating all power in one enlightened person, say, Zhao Ziyang. By one party, it means the leadership of the Communist Party. No matter how wonderful the doctrine is, no matter how enlightened the leader — even if he is willing to accept new ideas — it is no guarantee of reform. One aim of reform should be to smash political autocracy, smash it to pieces. People should enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the freedom to forming various kinds of social organizations. With these freedoms China will advance to become a pluralistic society.

I’d like to make a few points on behalf of all the Chinese students in the United States, altogether numbering almost 40,000. Although we cannot say for sure if the student movement will meet with greater setbacks or will be suppressed with brutal forces, there is one thing we can say for certain: so far by any standards the students have won a great victory.

Ding Xueliang, undated photograph

The current student protest is quite different from previous ones. The most outstanding difference is that people no longer harbor any illusions, especially illusions about there being “good men” within the top leadership. Looking back through the Chinese history, we discover a fundamental characteristic to be the rule of the elite. All policy-making for this enormous country is done by a very small group of people, the members of which sometimes work in collaboration, and sometimes try to do each other in. Such internal power struggle often leads to changes in policy. One form of government replaces another, the new government, which may make some better policies for a time, often degenerates until one day its people can no longer tolerate its incompetence, its corruption, its high-handed policies, and so they rise in rebellion against it. Then another government emerges out of a long period of chaos, and the vicious circle begins again.

Pinning hopes on a group of centralized bureaucrats will eventually lead in a direction unfavorable to reform. Events in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Europe bear this out. Unlike previous student movements this time they made a clear declaration to all social classes and the Chinese authorities: “We have no illusions at all concerning the balance of power and the political maneuvering in the top leadership. We rely on ourselves. We want to express our own ideas, and our own aspirations through our own voices.”

The students have fully realized that only by relying on an independent student organization of their own can they achieve anything. This shows civil society in China is growing in strength. How can this civil society maintain its independence from the government? The answer lies in the establishment of various independent organizations, such as independent unions for workers, students and teachers. Such politically and economically independent organizations are the essence, the core of the civil society we are talking about. Only through this process can we build up a democratic social system.

I think the victory and the organizational success of this student movement is a starting point towards this civil society. We sincerely hope that our students will consolidate their success by setting up their own independent organizations at the grassroots level. In the beginning, these independent organization may be declared counter-revolutionary by the government. But if we use the right tactics, the right methods to win publicity and people’s support, the status of the organizations may change from being counter-revolutionary to illegitimate, to semi-illegitimate, to semi-official, and finally to legitimate. What happened in Eastern European countries has proved this point.

We also hope that students can have a newspaper of their own. Even if it does not look very professional at the beginning, it will certainly enjoy a very large circulation. Such a paper would have a tremendous influence upon the society. Once the students have had their own independent newspapers, the Communist Party will become handicapped in its absolute control of the society.

Official obsequies for Hu Yaobang, 22 April 1989, Great Hall of the People, Beijing

As far as we overseas Chinese are concerned, we’ve done two things in support of the student movement. First, we issued two open letters, namely “An Open Letter to the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party”, and “An Open Letter to University Students on Mainland China”. These two letters are jointly signed by two academic organizations, the “Economic Society of American Overseas Chinese” and “Political Society of American Overseas Chinese”. We hope students will go on using this kind of rational means to deal with the authorities, and avoid direct confrontation. We have also collected donations. We are donating dollars to students at home who need money to publish independent newspapers or manage independent social organizations. Students in universities in the western part of the United States are doing the same thing.

But we are facing a big problem — we have no way to give the money to student leaders. If any of you, friends from either Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or America, have any means to help us transfer this money safely to the students in China, please let us know.

This is a little too much like a Party cell meeting in which everyone is celebrating the over-fulfilling of a quota. Pardon me if I don’t share your enthusiasm.

It seems that all of us here have forgotten two of friends who can’t be here today, namely, Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian. According to reliable sources, the Politburo has accused Li Shuxian of participating in the student movement as a “back stage” conspirator. Whether she has been termed a “counter-revolutionary” I can’t say for sure. I feel we must remember them and send them our best wishes.

‘Fang Lizhi’, by David Levine for The New York Review of Books

After all, it was Fang Lizhi who, at the end of 1986, called on the students to demonstrate if they wanted democracy. More than once he has said democracy is not a gift from the authorities, but something one must fight for. Many people also support the students but they have done this very cautiously. At that time many students answered Fang’s call and demonstrated. Early this year, Fang wrote a letter to the Party’s Central Committee and Deng Xiaoping, pleading for the release of political prisoners.

The more recent open letters — one signed by 33 intellectuals and artists, and another by 42 scientists — these petitions and to an extent the current student movement have been inspired by Fang Lizhi. He is the kind of outstanding person rare in China these days, someone who puts his neck out. It is common for others to dare do the same in China only after they see that it’s safe. While we look at things [during this Symposium] from a theoretical and historical point of view, we should also remember these individuals — their deeds, their attitudes, their sense of responsibility and their bravery.

How will the situation unfold? It’s hard to say. I only hope that Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian will not fall a prey to the government’s suppression. But I think that is a distinct possibility.

I’m neither in politics or economics; I’m only a film director. Like everyone else, I’m very excited about this morning’s news. We’ve been waiting for something like this in China for a long time. Personally, I believe this movement may be the beginning of some major changes in our history. But maybe not. I say this because China’s intellectuals are far from having awakened. This student demonstration is an act of rebellion against the government. People rebelled against the authorities because they have suffered too long and too much from inflation, from political oppression and from a lack of basic guarantees of human rights. It is a natural expression of resistance by people who can no longer tolerate oppression.

Chen Kaige in the 1980s

This rebellion bears no sign of intellectual awakening. I, myself, was a student not long ago, so I understand. Being a very emotional person, I have deep feelings towards the students. But at the same time, I want to ask how much we know about democracy. Why are all the slogans so abstract, so empty. If I were Deng Xiaoping, I might find it difficult to have a dialogue with them. Or I feel happy because all the student demands are in fact abstract and empty. The students are asking for freedom and democracy. But what exactly do they mean? I’m not a man of politics, but as far as I understand it, democracy first of all means self-cognition. In China, people can’t determine the course of history. What is history? It is a period of time, a process.

Mao often said that “massive class struggle is like a violent storm.” Since time immemorial, it has only been through this kind of large-scale, mass upheaval that economic and political structures in China have altered. The results have always been less than ideal. Our culture is rooted in the idea that only by changing the collective destiny will the individual change. In fact, it is very difficult for the individual to change or benefit through mass movements. I don’t mean to say that this student demonstration is without significance. But it is not enough. It’s not the first time that Chinese people have demonstrated spontaneously. In 1976, there was a passionate demonstration — I spent three days and nights in Tiananmen Square — but how was that energy used?

This time, Deng Xiaoping may have agreed to talk with students, but all the problems facing our people remain unresolved. So it is difficult for me to characterize what the students have done as a real victory. I can’t avoid the realization that being Chinese means have a strong collective feeling. I am Chinese. I feel a responsibility for China. I have a responsibility towards our people. I don’t deny it.

Democracy is not a useless slogan in our society. For example, “people’s democratic dictatorship” — you see, one can even combine the word “dictatorship” with “democracy”. Or “socialist democracy”. Both Mao and Deng used this term in different historical periods. But what is the result? “You lose power and I take over. Once on top, I won’t budge.” From the perspective of a thousand years of peasant revolts, the history of peasant movements is one of large scale, class struggles in which there is always a single leader.

As a film maker I can’t offer any sweeping political proposals. But what I can do is put my own house in order. I want to make myself a more responsible person, an individual who feels responsibility towards country and nation. We are a passionate people. We can cry and be moved by what we have seen in Beijing. But we need a cold and rational approach, otherwise the cycle will not be broken.

There were many incidents in China in the period before I left to come to this conference — the petitions calling for the release of political prisoners, Fang Lizhi’s invitation to President Bush’s banquet, the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, and student demonstrations sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang. I was connected with all of these events, so every day during this period I received calls from journalists. They were not, of course, from Chinese newspapers, but foreign journalists, including some from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many asked me about the petition of 33 — whether I felt that I had been deceived and now regretted signing it. I answered: “At my age, do you think I am so easily fooled?” As soon as I saw the petition I signed. Why? because I am a lover of talent. It is obvious that Wei Jingsheng was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in jail for political reasons. Ten years ago he wrote a long essay which he put up on the Democracy Wall at Xidan. Not only did he write about his ideas for China’s future, he also asked how we can prevent Deng Xiaoping from becoming a second Mao-type dictator. This is why he received such a heavy sentence.

Wu Zuguang, a disaffected gentleman, 1986. Photograph by Mi Qiu 米丘

They say he sold state secrets, but this is hard to believe. First of all, how would an ordinary worker get hold of state secrets? And if he did sell them, why wasn’t the person who gave it to him punished? The government says that Wei was too loyal to his source to tell. Hard to believe. Yan Mingfu, when he invited me to dinner recently, told me about Wei’s situation in Qincheng Prison. Because of the after defects of electric shock, Wei is afflicted for several days every month by delirium and high fevers. He can’t do anything. Moreover, it is far from clear exactly how damaging the information on the Sino-Vietnam border conflict he is accused of selling actually was to the state. And how was the information sold? I read in the Beijing Evening News that he sold it for 20 yuan. How ludicrous! Its obvious that his fate was sealed when he criticized Deng. If Deng had his wits about him, he would release Wei today and call him in for a chat. “You said I was going to become another dictator like Mao, and I didn’t. So admit that you are wrong.” But Deng won’t thing of that.

Despite all the persecution and hardship I have endured, I have continued to be optimistic. But recent events have drained away my hope and left me very pessimistic indeed. Just look at the gang that poses as our leadership! My God, what a sorry sight they are all lined up in row.

Yang Shangkun (left) and Wang Zhen, 1 October 1984, Tiananmen, Beijing

I remember watching TV with some neighbors during last year’s National People’s Congress (NPC). When the new state president [Yang Shangkun] appeared, our neighbors — just ordinary folk — exclaimed: “My God, our president is blind!” Of course he’s not really blind. Only one of his eye’s is not quite right. Both he and the vice-president [Wang Zhen] are well into their 80s. Also, they are both from the military.

Imagine, the whole world is watching and asking: “How does China come up with leaders like that?” We’ve got a bunch of old, weak, and crippled ex-soldiers running this country. Out of a population of 1.1 billion, is that the best we can do?

I heard that during the National People’s Congress last year, when the new vice president found out that 200 votes had been cast against him, he promptly and thoroughly wet his pants. Imagine, such a man is still receiving state guests. What an embarrassment! What a loss of face! We poor Chinese have been living in humiliation for so long. That’s why there’s a student movement going on today.

The situation in China is truly bad. Recently, I took a train from Beijing to Guangzhou with my family to attend a meeting. As we approached Hunan, the conductor ordered everyone to close and lock their windows because there had been so many train robberies. This sort of thing is so common now, and yet the government will mobilize more than 100 police to prevent an intellectual [Fang Lizhi] from attending a banquet dinner! So I am not afraid to say that the current leadership could easily fall. They don’t even look like leaders. There is an expression from Mencius, “Dress the monkey in a hat before looking at it.” That is what we have. With this bunch in charge, China is in peril.

Our country won’t succumb to our enemies, but to our leaders. Perhaps we, ourselves, are our own enemies. When the NPC, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) or Communist Party go into session, the leadership first warns the delegates not to make any provocative remarks. It reminds me of Cao Kun’s congress in the Northern Warlord period.

‘Wei Jingsheng’, by David Levine for The New York Review of Books

So, of course I wanted to sign the petition. Precisely because people like Wei Jingsheng are rare. Think of it: here is a young man in his late 20s who was vitally concerned about the fate of his country. He had a whole host of suggestions and theories about China’s problems. Moreover, he had such a strong sense of responsibility. When I was his age, I certainly didn’t understand as much or feel as committed. During the Anti-Japanese War, feeling a pure sense of nationalism was easy. Wei Jingsheng’s ideas compared to mine at that time are more complex, more progressive. This kind of talent not only should not be persecuted, it should be praised. It should be encouraged, not jailed. Many of the ideas he proposed ten years ago have already been implemented.

It is a pity that some of the people who signed the open letter should say they were taken in, feel scared, or feel regret. Of course, these worries and fears are understandable. Because I have been unfairly treated, sometimes to an unexpected extent, I had very complicated feelings and was very worried before I came to this Symposium. I couldn’t make up of my mind whether to come or not. Now that I’m here I still feel worried. With such a big event taking place in Beijing, how can you not feel worried over its development, its outcome. Last night I worried most, because I heard that the 38th Army had entered Beijing and that old man Deng Xiaoping had decided to resort to brutal force. There will be bloodshed. The older he becomes, the more muddle-headed he is. He has lost one opportunity after another to establish himself as a great man. Now he is going against the historical tide, and has become so decadent and fatuous that he even called in more that 100 policemen to deal with one single man. That’s why I was so worried that I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I woke up to the very encouraging news that a million demonstrators marched through Tiananmen Square. Yet, no one can predict what is going to happen next.

When I was in Beijing, I had some contact with the students from Peking University. Among them there were two who came to see me very often. They kept me informed what was going on. Their names have appeared in the newspaper. Here, again, I can’t help admiring them. I, myself no longer have the opportunity to participate in such activities. Unlike them, who are full of drive and promising, I’m advancing in years. It goes without saying that they will win the final victory. This is inevitable.



  • Chen Kaige 陳凱歌 considered making a film about the events of 1989 but returned to commercial film production in China, with mixed results
  • Ding Xueliang 丁學良 completed his doctorate at Harvard University in 1992 and is a prominent scholar of social and political change at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Ge Yang 戈揚 quit the Communist Party following 4 June and was named by the authorities as a ‘conspirator in chaos’. She died in exile in 2003
  • Liang Congjie 梁從誡 continued to enjoy the largesse of the state while pursuing moderate environmental activism. He died in 2010
  • Liu Binyan 劉賓雁 remained in exile until his death in 2005
  • Ruan Ming 阮銘, a former Cultural Revolution radical who, following a period as a pseudo-academic exile in the United States, relocated to Taiwan and took up political lobbying
  • Shao Yanxiang 邵燕祥 remained in the Communist Party and continued his creative life in Beijing
  • Wu Guoguang 吳國光 enjoyed a successful academic career and is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria, Canada
  • Wu Zuguang 吳祖光 returned to Beijing and remained an outspoken critic of Communist Party censorship and cultural repression until his death in 2003


On the Eve, Bolinas ’89

Edited by Geremie R. Barmé


— published online by the Long Bow Group, Boston, 1996


From Session I
Morning, Thursday, 27 April 1989

Availing myself of editorial privilege, I append here some of my remarks from the first formal session at ‘China Symposium ’89’ — Ed.

I would like to raise the question of “communist culture”, this is, the special culture created under communist rule. It is a matter of world-wide relevance, and much has been written on the subject, especially in Eastern Europe, touching on Soviet, Hungarian, and Polish communist culture. But Chinese intellectuals have a predilection for talking about their traditional culture and are loath to discuss the phenomenon of Chinese communist culture. Perhaps they have yet to appreciate that it exists.

Just now Ge Yang commented on China having emulated the Soviet model. Similarly, Wang Ruowang wrote after being expelled from the Communist Party two years ago that the problem confronting China is not one of traditional culture, nor a dilemma about how to “take the best from both East and West”, but a problem of Sovietization.

The fact remains that today China’s political culture is primarily Stalinist. This is a question that has not received the attention it deserves. At our forum several people have repeated a sentiment seen often in the Chinese press: political reforms have made little headway. Why? Because the Stalinist model remains in place. The nature of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, the rhetoric of the People’s Daily, and so many other things all attest to this fact. The machinery of the Proletarian Dictatorship is still intact and can be put into operation at any time. Yesterday the government refrained from unleashing this machine, but this is not proof that the students have won. Deng, being the practiced politician that he is, doesn’t want to let the students capitalize on the anniversary of May Fourth or on Gorbachev’s visit. Deng will feign tolerance until Gorbachev leaves Beijing, and will then use force to clean up the mess. He would be a patent fool to do otherwise.

In recent years, Chinese intellectuals have made little effort to study Eastern Europe with an eye to comparisons with their own situation. Instead much attention is paid to the countries that, in their eyes, represent “modern international standards” — in particular the United States and then France and Japan. To try to emulate such nations is a pipedream. China would do much better to look to the Eastern Bloc, for example the Soviet Union or Hungary, for a solution to its predicament. It would be a tremendous achievement if China could emulate Hungary; if China were now to “learn from the Soviet Union”, as it did in the 1950s, it might indeed have a “radiant future”.

Equally, it is futile for China to attempt to revive “traditional culture”, as if its communist history had never occurred. Communist culture is a fact of life, whether you like it or not. But there is a new interpretation of things in China. Recently, at a meeting held for some Hungarian delegation, Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang said that China cannot emulate the democratization process that is proceeding in the Soviet Union, because this would not be in keeping with China’s “national characteristics” [guoqing 國情]. Isn’t that marvelous! According to the People’s Daily, Li Peng made a similarly absurd remark just a few days ago. But just what are China’s “national characteristics”? A central feature of Chinese reality is its domination by a Soviet-style machine. If the Eastern European style of reform doesn’t suit China, what ever will? But then the Chinese are only interested in discussing “democracy” with Americans or Frenchmen. They don’t want to have a dialogue with Poles or Hungarians. They don’t even know what’s going on in those countries. The head of Solidarity recently said he would not run for the presidency of the country. What a luxury! Who in China — which head of which union —- could be so magnanimous? Why doesn’t China care to learn from them?

State of the Nation 2: the party-state, by Pan Xiaotao, Hong Kong, 2011

[At this point the moderator, Liang Congjie, interjected: “Don’t forget that the students named their organization ‘Solidarity Students’ Union’. This shows at least some Eastern European influence!”]

But to return to the topic of today’s panel, “What is worth retaining from traditional or Maoist culture?” It is interesting that this issue is so often posed as a question. The implication seems to be that someone — or some social class or group, perhaps — can actually decide what China should retain or discard. But is this possible? Mao Zedong appears to have tried and failed. Can any of the present political incumbents, or even the intellectuals, do any better? I feel we should question the way this topic itself is conceived.

I would like to conclude with what I think is a revealing little anecdote. It’s a story that touches on something which we in the West have drummed into us from youth: the relationship between means and ends.

My wife [Linda Jaivin], who is in Beijing, tells me that a friend of ours observed an incident that occurred among the serried ranks of students marching toward Tiananmen Square. They were in neat columns, having organized themselves according to school, department and class. Their very organization exhibited “communist culture” — the same patterns initially used by Red Guards in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution. They even chorused the same slogans and sang the same theme song — “The Internationale”. They carried posters with a uniform message. Their stated goal was “democracy”, but they hardly appeared to be an army marching for democracy. Behind this force trailed a scruffy crowd of long-haired arty types and others from art and film schools. This slovenly bunch didn’t march in line, nor did they sing the prescribed songs or chant the proper slogans. Embarrassed by this unseemly eyesore, the student leaders angrily demanded that the mob of stragglers either conform or not march at all.

It’s food for thought, isn’t it?

Editor’s Postscript:

  • At the time of the Symposium I had only recently completed a doctoral dissertation — supervised by Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) and W.J.F. Jenner — and I was about to take up a Postdoctoral Fellowship under the aegis of Lo Hui-min and Igor de Rackewiltz at The Australian National University. The events of April-May 1989 had a considerable impact on my academic trajectory, and led to near fifteen-year side career working with the film makers of the Long Bow Group in Boston.