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No. 2 May 1996
[Past issues of the Quarterly become available online approximately 12 months after their
appearance in print.
In October 1995, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a three-hour documentary film on the student protest movement of 1989 and the 4 June Beijing massacre, premiered at the New York Film Festival. The film's participation in that festival led to an official Chinese Government protest, the tenor of which was that foreign film-makers were not in a position to make a film on this particularly sensitive subject of contemporary Chinese politics.
The organisers of the New York Festival, a festival that has often been embroiled in controversy, rejected China's demand that Gate be withdrawn. Thereupon the Chinese film bureaucracy attempted to prevent Shanghai Triad, the latest film by the prominent Mainland film director Zhang Yimou, which was scheduled to open the 1995 festival, from being screened. When this, too, failed, Zhang himself was banned from travelling to New York.
Gate had been at the centre of controversy since the details of its contents were revealed both in The New York Times and the Hong Kong/Taiwan press in April last year. At first, however, the furore was limited to the dissident Chinese community in the United States and Europe, and to the international Chinese media.
Before the film was screened at New York - and work on the final print was only finished hours before the debut - it had been attacked by the two extremes of Chinese political debate: the authorities in Beijing, and the radical "democratic" dissidents overseas. Ironically, the protests both by the Chinese authorities and their overseas opponents mirrored some six years of political controversy concerning the events in Beijing in 1989.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace traces the history of the 1989 protest movement, the largest spontaneous mass protest against Communist Party rule since the founding of the Chinese People's Republic in 1949. At the height of the protests in May 1989, more than a million people filled the centre of Beijing supporting the demands of university students for greater democracy, press freedom and a purge of widespread official corruption. Similar protests developed in dozens of cities throughout China and for many people presaged a revolutionary change in the political life of that nation.
While weaving into its narration the pre-history of those events and commenting on the "deep structure" of the political habits and attitudes that have come to inform public life in China over the past century, Gate follows the development of the protests of 1989 and in so doing attempts to reflect the drama, humour, absurdity, heroism and tragedies of those six weeks in Beijing from April to June 1989. The film shows how moderate opinion both in the Government and among the protesters (including students, workers and intellectuals) was gradually cowed and then silenced by extremism and emotionalism. It was an extremism that repeatedly expressed itself in terms of "plots" and "conspiracies" and the kind of political scare tactics that had developed under Maoism from the 1940s onward. The end-result of this political process was not the defeat of extremism but, rather, the purge of moderation.
In essence, the film tries to question the belief that there is only one correct path for China to follow, either economically or politically. It presents a range of perspectives in order to capture the nuances of a debate which has preoccupied many Chinese before, during, and after the 1989 movement: after a century of suffering the baneful results of revolutionary bloodletting and destruction, are there not alternative ways of creating a better society?
After the violent military suppression of the protest movement in Beijing on 3-4 June 1989, liberal and moderate figures in the Government were ousted, public debate in China was closed down and independent activity throughout the society was stalled for some years. All of this has had a devastating effect on China and an incalculable impact on the rest of the world, in particular in view of the strengthening of narrow nationalism and the limiting of options for political growth in the short term. This is not only true of the situation within the Chinese polity, it also holds true within the ranks of the protesters.
Over the years, moderate opponents to the Chinese political status quo have generally been silenced or at least overwhelmed by the media-hungry (and media-inflated) radicals who rose to prominence in Tiananmen Square and enjoyed international acclaim since fleeing China. While many moderates in China have resurfaced to struggle for gradual change and reform within the Chinese system, overseas their supporters have often chosen to remain silent for fear of being publicly reviled or attacked for "aiding and abetting the cause of the enemy" (i.e., the Chinese Government). Over the years, few media outlets, whether Western or Chinese, were particularly interested in their story. For it was one that contradicted the exaggerated claims concerning the protests that have been made by the "media-dissidents" since 1989.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace was the result of a long-term documentary project headed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, a husband and wife team of film-makers who run an independent film company, the Long Bow Group, in Boston. Gordon and Hinton have been making films about China since the early 1980s - their work includes the award winning trilogy One Village in China - and over the years have developed a considerable film and sound archive. While working on Gate they added extensively to the archive, assembling rare film, video and amateur video material from diverse sources both within and outside China. This archive was then indexed and collated by computer for easy access. With the help of various academic and dissident contacts over the years they were also able to interview a number of leading participants in the events of 1989, some of whom still live in China.
The controversy among Chinese dissidents surrounding The Gate of Heavenly Peace was sparked by revelations in April 1995 of an interview with Chai Ling, the woman student leader who had risen to prominence during the protests and a person who for many in the overseas Chinese and Western media became a symbol of the last weeks of the student movement. A graduate student, the petite Chai was a fiery, emotive demagogue who voiced the opinions of the most radical and uncompromising faction among the protesters. Chai repeatedly ignored or refused requests from the directors of Gate to be interviewed for the film. But Gordon and Hinton were able to use an interview Chai had given at the end of May, only days before the massacre. It was the use of this material that so infuriated Chai's supporters in 1995.
It was only days before the Government ordered the People's Liberation Army to crush the protests and Chai Ling, having gone against an agreement she had made with moderate leaders of the movement to call an end to the protests on 30 May, approached young American journalist in Beijing, Philip Cunningham, so that she could put her views on the record. the interview was recorded with a video camera, but the full text and significance of Chai's remarks had not, until the making of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, been reported in detail before. Here was one of the symbols of the mass Chinese protests, the "Goddess of Democracy" as she was called buy some, denouncing all those who supported moderation and conciliation within the ranks of the protesters as "traitors", "spies", and "plotters". She saw herself surrounded by turncoats and describes her trails in the familiar language of Communist Party politics.
The interviews contained unsettling revelations of her thinking: Chai Ling: "My fellow 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 actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people. 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?
"And what is truly sad is that some students, and famous well-connected people, are working hard to help the government, to prevent it from taking such measures. For the sake of their selfish interests and their private dealings they are trying to cause our movement to disintegrate and get us out of the Square before the Government becomes so desperate that it takes action...
"That's why I feel so sad, because I can't say all this to my fellow students. I can't tell them straight out that we must use blood and our lives to wake up the people. Of course, they will be willing. But they are still so young..."[cries]
Interviewer: "Are you going to stay in the square yourself?"
Chai Ling: "No".
Chai Ling: "Because my situation is different. My name is on the Government's blacklist. I'm not going to be destroyed by this Government. I want to live. Anyway, that's how I feel about it. I don't know if people will say I'm selfish. I believe that people have to continue the work I have started. A democracy movement can't succeed with only one person. I hope you don't report what I've just said for the time being okay?" [Chai did, however, give Cunningham permission to use the interview material as he saw fit.]
A Hong Kong-based journalist acknowledged that when Chai spoke of Tiananmen Square being "awash with blood" she could hardly have been aware of the extreme Government violence that awaited the protesters on 3-4 June. She may have thought, it was argued, that the authorities would use rubber bullets and batons to quell the demonstrations. Many who have read or heard Chai's chilling comments particularly those in the Chinese world, have wondered "what type of environment could have produced a value system that nurtures values of the kind expressed by Chai Ling?".
Of course, the Chinese Government was responsible for the bloodletting of 4 June. However, student leaders like Chai Ling and Li Lu - a close ally of Chai's during the movement who became the darling of the U.S. media after 4 June - had consistently rejected efforts to get the students to withdraw from the square even as disaster loomed ever closer. Should they also be seen as responsible parties in the continued escalation of the conflict between the protesters and the authorities and, therefore, also partially responsible for the tragic denouement of 4 June?
In an interview with the Hong Kong media, Ding Xueliang, a political commentator from the mainland, remarked on how extremism had won out among the students towards the end of the protest movement, forcing moderate student activists (whose numbers included Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi and Wang Chaohua) to the sidelines. Ding observed that those who felt that remaining in the square had some purpose had stayed, while others had concluded that staying was pointless and had drifted away. These extremist protesters who remained in turn supported even more extreme demagogues to lead them. He also noted the impact of the collapse of moral values and self-restraint in post-Mao China as well as the Communist-style rhetoric common amongst the students during the movement.
In April 1995, an article by Chai Ling appeared in Beijing Spring, the main Chinese dissident publication based in New York, attacking the not-yet-released film. Chai wrote in the style typical of what Kremlinologists used to call "esoteric communication", that is , coded Party rhetoric produced for public consumption but only fully understood by the politically initiated. She wrote:
...Certain individuals have for the sake of the gaining approval of the [Chinese] authorities racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them. And there is another person with a pro-Communist history [i.e., Carma Hinton] who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to reveal something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white. First, last year, there was Dai Qing [who also features in Gate and who is a controversial independent critic of both the Chinese Government and the dissidents] clamoring for Chai Ling to be "given a stiff sentence", "guilty of disrupting traffic [in Beijing during the protest]"; now, today, Chai Ling has become a person with extremely selfish motives who "will let others shed blood while she saves her own skin".
The thrust of Chai's article was aimed against Carma Hinton and the film. Hinton is known to have grown up in China and to be the daughter of William Hinton, a man famous for his long-term support of the Chinese revolution and the author of the famous book Fanshen. On the strength of this association Chai labelled Hinton a pro-Communist (although in China she never joined any Communist Party youth organisation or the Chinese Communist Party and, since travelling to the U.S. in the early 1970s, has maintained an independent stance on China). It was an intriguing point since virtually all of the famous exiled dissidents have had a far more intimate "pro-Communist" history than Hinton. Most of them grew up as members of the Communist Party's Young Pioneers, Youth League or even joined the Communist Party itself. Chai Ling, for example, was named one of the Communist Youth League's top 100 students in 1982, at the age of 16. Hinton was also accused of being a calculating capitalist who indulged in journalistic sensationalism so as to "hawk" the documentary Gate.
Chai's article and the numerous other attacks on Gate and Hinton published in the Chinese media from April 1989 by the extremist Chinese dissident exiles institute a veritable mini-mountain of material. A theme of this literature of denunciation - a genre that has a venerable pedigree in all socialist societies - was the paranoiac speculation about "international plots" being hatched by insidious elements within both China and the United States hell bent on discrediting Chinese dissidents - one author even claimed that Patrick Tyler (The New York Times Beijing correspondent) and The New York Times, which also reported the controversy surrounding Chai Ling's 1989 interview - were part of a conspiracy to discredit the dissident exiles and help China's Communist reformers. The team at Long Bow were also told that in private there was talk among dissident intellectuals and students in the United States that our work was being funded by the People's Liberation Army itself as part of a larger army plot to exonerate Zhao Ziyang, the Party leader ousted after 4 June, at the expense of the Chinese democracy movement.
In 1996, Chai Ling, like her cohort Li Lu, still remains a favourite of the media. She still has supporters who have lobbied for her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As recently as March 1996, on the eve of the historic democratic presidential elections in Taiwan, Chai was there to "learn". "I'm like a sponge, trying to absorb as much as I can", she said.
Gate has been reviled by both sides of the Chinese political divide. Now, subject to the "feeding frenzy" of the U.S. media which helped create the mythical status of people like Chai Ling and Li Lu in the first place, the film has achieved a notoriety that has to an extent blinded people to its true intent.
Whereas the nature of the debate was not surprising, for the film Gate does raise serious questions about the democratic pedigree and practices of some student activists, what is interesting is that the attacks on it were made in a language and style that was highly reminiscent of the ideological Newspeak of Mainland Chinese politics. This was the language of totalitarianism. Its deployment, for readers versed in Cultural Revolution and contemporary Chinese official jargon, held a certain nostalgic charm. But it also revealed aspects of the more vocal Chinese "democratic dissident" community in the West that is not generally discussed in non-Chinese language works, nor appreciated by Western commentators or scholars.
The most enthusiastic reception the film has received to date is from Central Europeans and Russians. At both the New York and Berlin Film Festivals people from the former Socialist Bloc most readily identified with the events depicted in Gate. Journalists - including Adam Michnik, a leading Polish political activist and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza - commented that they "knew" the characters in the film from their own experiences and that Gate was not merely about a particular set of events in the late 1980s' Beijing, but rather touched on the typical elements and tragedy of street agitation and mass movements in other socialist countries over the years. This enthusiastic response has meant that the film may well find its most appreciative and understanding audience when it is screened in the other Europe.
In Berlin, however, a city torn by a history of ideological conflict, Gate enjoyed a far more controversial welcome. Originally, in 1995, the head of the Berlin International Film Festival - one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world - had said that Gate was the type of film that comes along once every 10 to 20 years. He wanted to make it a central part of the 1996 festival. But, following the New York controversy he became wary of offending the Chinese authorities and claiming that he found the music of the final film inappropriate, thereupon decided to reject Gate for the February 1996 festival. The film was still screened in Berlin, but it was at the Film Forum and not in the main festival. Similar concerns had led the Sundance Film Festival, the supposed bastion of independent American film-making to drop Gate as well.
Ironically, it was the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the festival that has the most to lose by screening Gate - in terms of official Chinese protests, harassment, future problems and the supply of films - that was enthusiastic about showing the film, and did so on 31 March this year.
While the controversy about the three-hour film continues to develop during 1996, a shorter version is being edited for airing on the American Public Broadcasting Service and will eventually make its way to other television networks internationally. Those who find that this short version or even the fuller three-hour version unsatisfying in explaining the events of 1989 will soon be able to gain access to a larger archival body of material. In coordination with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Long Bow is building a web-site on the internet, the hope being that its unique archive of historical material on modern China will be available to the public, as well as students and academics, in cyberspace.
Maintainer: Dr T.Matthew Ciolek (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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