Here you can read excerpts from my Beijing Diary from 1989, which was published again 25 years later with the original diary along with my analysis of what had happened in the meantime, and what the activists of 1989 actually achieved with their massive challenge to the Communist Party of China.
Steve Schein did a wonderful job with the translation. However, the book hasn’t been published in English. More on the Danish version here
In this book I use my Beijing Diary from 1989 as a starting point and trace developments from that time to how the situation in China is today. This is not a history book, of which many have been written in the meantime, some of them even by me. Here I have woven new material into my original diary in order to give perspective. The result is my personal account and assessment of the 25 years that followed in the wake of the uprising in Beijing. In the beginning of each chapter the year in which it was written is stated.
25 years have passed since the massive demonstrations that took place in Beijing, staged by young, enthusiastic Chinese demanding a greater say in decision-making and an end to corruption. For seven turbulent and emotional weeks I witnessed what went on, describing events daily for the Danish TV news, as well as in my far more personal and incisive account, Beijing Diary. I often think about what happened then – about the people I met, the audacious students and the support they received from Beijing’s citizens, about my Chinese journalist colleagues’ brief taste of freedom of expression, the sense of fellowship, and the colossal energy that drove the insurrection.
Of course all those who participated and put their lives or freedom on the line – or lost a son or a daughter, a brother or sister, friends, fellow students or pupils – remember what happened far better than I, and with far deeper pain.
Millions of people demonstrated in the streets of Beijing from the end of April 1989 through the beginning of June. This included students, intellectuals, office workers and laborers, and it was gripping to witness their peaceful protests. They were like lively seas of humanity that initially bristled with self-confidence and strength.
The mood alternated constantly between delight and despair, and the air was thick with rumor. Sometimes the atmosphere was tense, sometimes intense, but never was it threatening. Not a single window was smashed or a flower trampled on the boulevards’ median strip. The uprising was sustained from within, the youth were passionate about their appeals, and their determination and impetus grew with each successful escalation.
Beijing residents contributed to the swelling of the demands and demonstrations to a size never before seen in modern Chinese history – or at any other point in China’s history, for that matter. Popular support was massive. City dwellers were frustrated over having to run the daily gauntlet of inflation and corruption at a time when life’s opportunities were obviously growing, and the students’ demands articulated people’s frustration and gave it direction. Both the students and Beijing’s residents wanted to be able to influence their own lives.
Sometimes the demonstrators’ demands were diffuse and developed focus along the way. It all began at Beijing University, Beida, where the students wanted to publish a school magazine and establish a student union, both of which would function independently of China’s autocratic Communist Party. This was strictly forbidden (and still is), yet bureaucrats and workers soon adopted the students’ demands as well.
The uprising was comprised primarily of people living in Beijing. These were mostly Han Chinese, the ethnic group that makes up 92% of China’s population of 1.3 billion people.
China’s leaders responded with overwhelming brutality, crushing demonstrations in China’s big cities under the treads of military tanks. In so doing, the Communist Party squandered the final remains of the people’s trust and the revolution failed to materialize. But was it all in vain? Has the insurrection been conveniently forgotten, or have some of its demands been heard?
In the intervening years I followed developments in China closely and reported on them frequently in the Danish media. However, as the 25th anniversary of the upheaval approached, I felt a growing need to follow up on my earlier account and bring it up to date. What, for example, had become of some of the original key figures? Did they remain true to their goals? Have they contributed to a better China?
When I first returned to Beijing, two years after the uprising, I was greeted by disillusionment. The inquisitiveness, optimism and drive of the 1980s had been extinguished. There were still traces of the tanks’ destruction and blackened flagstones on Tiananmen Square where the tent camp was burnt down. There were bullet holes in the walls of apartment buildings and tank tracks imprinted in the asphalt.
Friends and associates said, “Forget it, Mette. It’s all in the past now.” They had suffered a terrible beating, politically, and instead had thrown themselves almost fanatically into pursuing the new opportunities for making money – so drop all that nonsense about politics! The same was true of university students who had demonstrated together.
In that sense the rulers were successful in their massive effort to “let bygones be bygones” as far as this and many other tragic events in China’s history was concerned.
4th of June is still remembered and commemorated after 25 years, but only due to the many Chinese who lost loved ones, as well as the outside world that looked on in horror and continues to condemn the rulers’ brutal reaction.
Now the flagstones on Tiananmen Square have been replaced and the dug-up asphalt resurfaced, along with the pockmarked building facades. The visible traces of the People’s Liberation Army’s disgraceful attack on its people are long gone. The powers that be have officially consigned it all to oblivion, but naturally there are many who remember and are still grieving. They do so silently, however, for expressing their sentiments aloud is punishable by law.
The 1989 uprising left its mark on present-day China nevertheless. Like a ricocheting pinball, events from that time have elicited new approaches and initiatives from the authorities.
The official denial is of course significant in itself. However, it’s also interesting to see how Deng Xiaoping and his successors have done everything in their power to satisfy the material needs of the Chinese by providing tremendous economic freedom and growth.
China’s leaders checked out how things were going in the Soviet Union and concluded that political freedom without economic development was a dead end. Therefore they dropped any notion of giving the people a say in politics and instead concentrated on boosting the economy. The theory was that a well-fed, materially satisfied populace would never consider rebellion.
Understandably, a considerable majority of Chinese are eminently satisfied with their country’s economic development. They’ve never had it so good. Even though compared with the West they are kept in a straitjacket when it comes to politics and freedom of speech, their situation is better now than it was 25, 50 or 100 years ago.
While doubtlessly much could be improved in China, another consequence of the uprising in 1989 has been that China’s leaders have become more attentive to certain aspects of the people’s trials and tribulations, even though they are loath to admit it. This is not least of all because the internet has given the masses ample opportunity to air their frustrations. At the same time, all Chinese know how far they can go and are masters of self-censorship.
Critics of the system still have a hard time in China, and here it is obvious that not everyone is equal before the law; while the needy still suffer, their conditions are much improved. And opportunities for everyone have grown.
In this book I use my Beijing Diary from 1989 as a starting point and trace developments from that time to how the situation in China is today. This is not a history book, of which many have been written in the meantime, some of them even by me. Here I have woven new material into my original diary in order to give perspective. The result is my personal account and assessment of the 25 years that followed in the wake of the uprising in Beijing.
Mette Holm, May 2014
The first time I returned to Beijing, exactly two years after I flew home to Denmark at the end of May 1989, the leaves on the trees along the route from the airport were once again showing the first tentative signs of spring. The avenue was as I remembered it, with nonchalant bicyclists, horse carts, flocks of sheep and goats grazing among the trees, and grandparents out for a walk with their one grandchild.
Two years ago the scene had been dramatically different. I remember vividly the thousands of people crowding around military vehicles, trying to block their way into town. For some reason I particularly remember the townspeople having brought along buckets-full of tea for the soldiers.
Further along the route sumptuous new buildings testified to economic progress. Here well-dressed people were cycling determinedly – on their way to work, and also toward a better life of the kind made possible by the present state of political paralysis.
There was a single guard on duty in front of the Monument to the Heroes of the People on Tiananmen Square, where two years previously the student leaders had set up headquarters, held meetings, and from where they led their rebellion. What a difference! The ardent waves of demonstrators then, compared to the utter sterility of the Square now.
Only the patching-together of the railing around the Monument and the spotless, virginal flagstones replacing those destroyed by tank treads and fire bore witness to the uprising two years ago and the destruction that followed.
Out by Jianguomenwai, the eastern extension of The Avenue of Eternal Peace, apartment blocks were still scarred by bullet holes. A short distance from the downtown area occasional traces of tank tracks remained in the asphalt. But everyday life had once again taken over, and now, in 1991, I was quite alone in my sentimental reliving of events two years ago. My friends said I was living in the past, that I really ought to move on …
No Chinese were allowed to grieve or even digest what had happened then. But the citizens of Beijing settled accounts with the past in their own fashion. They didn’t set foot on the Square and went out of their way to explain that the Chinese who came there were exclusively tourists from out of town. “Peasants!”
Standing there with noses pressed against maps of the capital’s attractions, they did look like country bumpkins, and still do, those hundreds of Chinese around the new flagpole at the north end of the Square, at approximately the same spot where the demonstrators erected their ill-fated Statue of Liberty precisely two years before.
The new flagpole is 30 meters high. The authorities unveiled it on the First of May 1991, as a symbol of “the unity of the masses”. Every evening at sundown, soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets goosestep across the avenue accompanied by heavy-handed plainclothes guards, take down the flag and fold it with precision. Then they march back as the Chinese tourists stand there, gaping. At dawn the flag is raised again.
The intoxicating atmosphere from those stirring spring days in 1989 had vanished by 1991, along with the general optimism and drive that prevailed during the late-80s. Once more people went around with eyes downcast, shoulders hunched, their lives focused on making money – the one freedom provided by China’s growing economy.
I spoke to an old friend and colleague in Beijing, a foreign correspondent trained at China’s best educational institutions. After the five days of press freedom in May 1989 prior to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, he swore not to work as a journalist until there was real freedom of the press in China. He had yet to begin pursuing his profession. Instead he was making good money buying and selling all kinds of stuff at auctions.
We hadn’t had the chance to communicate in the meantime. He told me he’d been sent out to the countryside for a year to learn from the farmers. It had actually been okay, he said. Folks were decent and there wasn’t much work to do, but it had been a waste of time; and a waste of life, if you ask me.
While the rulers uttered not a word about the immediate past, they put great emphasis on political morale, and those who were not sent to the countryside spent a good deal of their time poring over edifying political texts.
Long deceased revolutionary heroes had been dusted off and once more given a prominent place in everyday life. One of them was Lei Feng, the self-sacrificing soldier who was so good that he died of his goodness in 1962 (though there are those, like myself, who doubt he ever existed). Once again this legendary figure was gazing out over The People from enormous billboards on strategic street corners, from posters on notice boards, and even from a traffic island in the middle of the street.
The only thing that was new about this latest propaganda offensive was that people couldn’t care less. They did as they were told; they dared not do otherwise. But it was without a sense of duty or respect, and was completely devoid of any faith in their leaders.
Practically the same mistrust was being shown to many of the uprising’s leaders – in any case those who had fled China. They were gone, and thereby also gone from the hearts of the Chinese. What they did abroad was up to them.
The atmosphere in Beijing during this dark period can best be described as civil indifference. People laughed resignedly at Lei Feng and the authorities’ simplistic efforts to instill revolutionary fervor. Although a 50-100% rise in the price of rice, grains and oil was seriously depleting household economies, this merely drew wry comments like, “We must work hard and make great sacrifices, just like Lei Feng.”
Lei Feng is China’s preeminent model soldier. He was good to a fault, allegedly the most self-sacrificing person the world has ever known. It is also doubtful that Lei Feng actually existed. Nevertheless he is officially the paragon of all Chinese, and is said to have lived from 1940 to 1962.
Lei Feng was orphaned as a young child, but the Communist Party became his mother and the People’s Revolutionary Army, his father. He was so grateful to his new parents that he was supposed to have said, “My only ambition is to be a stainless steel screw in the great machinery of the revolution.”
Every schoolchild knows Lei Feng – Mao’s stainless steel screw – whom the rulers regularly take out of mothballs when they feel the populace has become too self-centered. He was praised – and in all probability invented – by Mao Zedong (or his propaganda machine). All subsequent leaders have paid homage to Lei Feng as the unselfish model Chinese who places the nation’s and his fellow man’s needs higher than his own.
Lei Feng’s image can be found on postage stamps, all kinds of merchandise, and in movies. The 5th of March is Lei Feng Day, and has been celebrated since 1963. A village in Mao Zedong’s native province of Hunan is named after him. Naturally he has his own museum, as well as an imposing public grave site in Anhui Province.
The Chinese populace needed to be re-educated again in the wake of the 1989 uprising, and once more Lei Feng was called up for active duty. In 1990 The People’s Daily wrote that Lei Feng was also very popular abroad, where people read about his life and deeds with great enthusiasm, and that he was even included in the curriculum at West Point Military Academy in the United States. According to the newspaper, Americans, too, appreciated that “Lei Feng was warm as spring to his friends, but cold as winter to his enemies”.
I brought a new comic-strip narrative about Lei Feng as late as in 2013. It was of course the same devotional tale as always. One sees the poor, unfortunate boy’s equally unfortunate parents work themselves to death in the service of heartless landowners, and then how orphaned, little Lei lives by the grace and charity of others. But he also suffers gross injustice at the hands of bandits and capitalists … right up until the great day comes in 1949 and Mao Zedong liberates and delivers all Chinese from feudalism and civil war.
Little Lei Feng is elated. He helps in the fields, goes to school and learns to write “Mao Zhuxi, wan sui” (Long Live Chairman Mao), as well as other useful things. He becomes a pioneer in the Communist Party and wears a red bandanna around his neck. He scours his classroom and the desks while his classmates are out playing, etc., etc.
Then he joins the People’s Revolutionary Army, where he shares his modest rations with his fellow soldiers under even the most difficult of circumstances. In those days soldiers were poorly equipped with clothes, so Lei Feng is unable to polish his comrades’ army-colored canvas shoes. Instead he darns their socks and cleans their rifles while they’re asleep.
Lei Feng died – unmarried and supposedly chaste – at the age of 22, struck down by a telephone pole that one of his soldier comrades backed into with a military vehicle.
One wonders why the rulers haven’t introduced a more up-to-date prototype, considering the vast majority of Chinese find Lei Feng and his hero status ridiculous. Nevertheless, in 2013 all of three Chinese feature films were made about the ultimate Chinese hero: Young Lei Feng, Lei Feng’s Smile, and Lei Feng 1959. So few tickets were sold that Party officials around the country were forced to coerce their co-workers into seeing, if not all three, then at least one of the movies.
But an exception to the public’s general lack of adoration of Lei Feng can be found in the person of Zhang Yidong, from Anhui Province. Zhang spends all his time raising funds for, and raising awareness of, society’s less fortunate. The media has dubbed him “the welfare celebrity” and compares him to Lei Feng. Zhang Yidong is such an avid fan of Lei Feng that he has undergone plastic surgery in order to resemble his hero. The series of operations was performed free of charge at a hospital in the city of Hefei. It entailed several microsurgical procedures as well as the injection of Restylane, a potion that is supposed to rejuvenate the skin.
Zhang Yidong hopes his new face will “exhort even more people to learn from Lei Feng”, and has expressed his desire to be “the best-looking public benefactor”. This makes it tempting to describe him as vain – a character trait certainly at odds with the traditional image of Lei Feng.
Original Foreword 1989
China’s historical self-sufficiency has always fascinated me, as has the country’s long history, its size and practically unfathomable human resources.
China has pulled itself out of the most extreme poverty in the course of forty years – mostly on its own, and without major compromises. It’s as if the Chinese defy all forms of reason, accomplishing feats otherwise considered impossible.
I cannot imagine any other land deciding to build a 6,000-kilometer-long wall to protect itself against enemies – and influences – from without. Nor can I imagine another people resolving to march over 10,000 kilometers through unmarked, practically impassible territory in a single year – without food and under attack from the enemy.
At least 80,000 people perished during The Long March, and a far higher number during the erection of The Great Wall. These losses indicate another concept of human nature than that found in the West, but the exploits nevertheless testify to a form of exceptional determination and self-confidence.
It was feats like these – ones that to me seemed virtually contrary to nature – that originally aroused my curiosity.
Since then I have made three visits to China. I studied ten months at Beijing Foreign Language Institute in 1981-82 and used some of the time to look around the country. In 1988 I was on a month-long journalistic assignment that took me to various places in China, and this year (1989) I was in Beijing during most of the student rebellion.
Already on my first stay I realized that the more I got to know China and the Chinese, the less I understood – in the sense that, for each little detail I acquainted myself with, large new blank spots appeared on my mental map of China.
And thus it remains: I can’t get enough of China, for I believe I will never fill in all the blanks.
This is why I always swore never to write a book about China. That I am doing so anyway is because the students’ uprising in Beijing made an indelible impression on me.
Though I reported on the uprising for Danish TV news, the abbreviated TV-news format didn’t provide nearly enough room to describe all my impressions and feelings as those days in Beijing unfolded.
The students moved me with their brash, youthful confidence and defiance. They were exhilarated as the days went by without the authorities intervening. They were exhilarated by the massive support that was gradually generated among the public at large. And they were exhilarated by the attention they received by the foreign press that was in Beijing in large numbers on other business, amongst them a state visit by the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev.
Although the insurrection spread to large areas of China, in this book I deal only with events as I experienced them in Beijing, since it is there I was staying at the time.
The book came into being very quickly, shortly after I returned home to Denmark, which had the clear advantage of the experiences still being fresh in my mind, easily recalled, and ready to put down on paper. At the same time, its rapid genesis can mean I may have overseen details in the often-elusive development of events. If I have, I’m sorry.
I left Beijing on the 29th of May. The massacre in Beijing took place on sidestreets on the night of June 4th. After May 29th. I base my book on information from foreign news bureaus, newspaper clippings and the news clips Danish National Television’s Current Affairs division receives several times a day from abroad, thanks to the cooperation of European TV channels.
In addition, since returning home I have spoken at length with friends and colleagues in both Denmark and China.
Many of my Chinese sources appear without surnames, or else under pseudonyms, to avoid the risk of repercussions for having spoken with me. Only if they have knowingly participated in a Danish current-events TV program do I use their true identity.
The Beijing massacre of June 4th is far from exceptional in China’s history. Students and intellectuals have rebelled throughout the 20th century – and paid a bloody price.
In his book, Destination Chungking, Belgian-Chinese author Han Suyin describes how young students joined together to form a revolutionary party that fought against corruption and repression in Beijing in the late-1920s. Just like the student movement of 1989, the movement in the 20s emerged at Beijing University. One evening back then, its members were holding a meeting in a temple garden …
Soldiers burst in at the gate … They rushed in upon the defenseless boys. The press with its damning evidence was in their hands … A few … made their escape. Those who were arrested were made to kneel in the courtyard and were beheaded on the spot. Firewood was piled in the huge incense burner. The heads and bodies were collected and systematically burned to ashes. Of those rash children, all under twenty, who paid the price of their radical allegiance, not a trace was left. It was not until years later that their fate was known.
Han Suyin, Destination Chungking, Jonathan Cape, London, 1943
It was a battlefield … a lesson in brute power … Perhaps it was shock, or maybe it was because of the carnage. I was weeping for the people of Peking. I cannot see how they are ever likely to trust their leaders again
Michael Fathers, journalist, The Independent
It’s a little past midnight on June 4, 1989. The students at Tiananmen Square hold each other by the hand and embrace one another as they sit close around the Monument to the People’s Heroes. They’re terrified, and their voices crack as they sing The Internationale, which they have done so many times during the past seven weeks.
One of the students describes that frightful night as follows:
There were many who refused to leave Tiananmen Square, but the tanks knocked down the Statue of Liberty and wrecked most of the tents. At 5:40 am the majority of people began retreating from the gun barrels of the tanks and armored personnel carriers.
I saw the faces of the soldiers, distorted by madness, as they celebrated their victory by firing away at the Monument to the People’s Heroes with their machine guns.
Townspeople and workers from Beijing bid us farewell with tears in their eyes. The workers shook our hand, and said, ‘Forgive us, we could not protect you from the army, but you are the true victors.’
The workers and we cried together. The townspeople took off their shoes and gave them to the students who were barefoot. When we reached Qianmen (in the south end of the Square) we heard heavy rifle fire behind us. The students who wanted to stay at Tiananmen Square were slaughtered.
‘Blood shall be paid with blood; down with the fascists!’ we shouted, and marched on.
When we reached Liubukou (a bit west of Tiananmen Square), one of Beijing’s residents pointed at a pool of blood. ‘This is the blood of a 13-year-old!’ he screamed. ‘It hasn’t even dried yet!’
The massacre at Liubukou took place at 6 am.
We were on our way across the road to keep pace with the foremost students, when nine tanks came zooming toward us from Xinhuamen, their exhaust enveloping the street. Then they opened fire.
Two people next to me still had their eyes open, but my clothes were completely spattered with their blood. I tried to support them, but they were already dead. I saw another person, a university doctor, but half his face way blow away by a bullet. Eleven people right around me were killed.
The bodies of many townspeople and students lay on the other side of the road, crushed by the tanks. We had to find another spot to cross over. We saw a girl crying uncontrollably. The sight of the tanks made her crazy.
We continued retreating toward the south. A worker brought us a student. ‘Here’s a student from Sichuan. He’s gone mad. He saw the tanks bulldoze his fellow students.’
When we finally got across the road, we saw bullet holes everywhere – also row after row, all the way up a four-story building. The residents were gathering up the bullets.
Then we made our way home along the blood-spattered Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Down with fascism!
Re-establish the democratic republic!
Eternal life to the people!
Justice will prevail!
This is the narrative of an anonymous student from Beijing University, describing how he and his fellow students left Tiananmen Square shortly before 6 o’clock on the morning of June 4th, three weeks after the Square had become home to thousands of students who were demanding democratic change in China.
The account was printed on fliers the following day, and was later translated and reproduced in foreign newspapers.
One of the leaders of the action at Tiananmen Square, 23-year-old Chai Ling, recorded her account on tape, after which it was smuggled to Hong Kong:
The symbol of the democracy movement, the Statue of Liberty, was toppled by a column of tanks. We went out into the streets, hand-in-hand. There were more than 10,000 helmet-clad soldiers sitting in the southern end of the Square. The students shouted ‘Dogs! Fascists!’ at them.
On the western side, hundreds of soldiers had gathered. Students and townspeople ground their teeth, and yelled ‘Fascists, dogs, beasts!’ she relates.
The workers’ leaders – 20 or 30 of them – have all disappeared. I heard that 300 students were killed on the Square. I don’t know the exact figure.
When we pulled back from the Square, we were chased by a tank. The students who couldn’t get out of the way were run over. The tank drove right over the feet and heads of ten students. There wasn’t a single corpse in one piece.
We walked en masse past the spot where the first clash took place the day before. Junk and charred remains of burnt-out trucks and busses bore witness to all the tumult, but there were no bodies.
We found out the fascists threw the corpses onto busses and carrier bicycles and drove them away after they had mowed people down. Some were still breathing, but they were suffocated beneath the dead, says Chai Ling on the tape recording.
We walked westward. Along the way we saw a mother crying. Her child had been killed. Bodies were lying in the streets.
We were deeply distressed when we got out to the university. We survived, but those who stayed on the Square are never coming back. They were very, very young.
Chai Ling’s account is forty minutes long. There are occasional pauses where she cries or simply stops to compose herself.
Michael Fathers, Asian correspondent for the British newspaper, The Independent, was walking around the streets of Beijing when the military began its attack on the students.
He describes the tanks driving slowly toward Tiananmen Square from all directions, and how they fire at random – up in the air, straight into the crowd, everywhere – without stopping.
At midnight, he is walking along the southern end of the Square, checking out the students’ barricades, when two armored personnel carriers come roaring in from a side street and smash their way straight through the barriers.
3,000 soldiers come running into the Square behind the vehicles and take up positions. The crowd sets one of the vehicles on fire.
Fathers continues walking – away from the bursts of machine-gun fire and tracer bullets. His colleague from The Independent, Andrew Higgins, reports how the soldiers on Qianmen are met with a barrage of bricks before they open fire.
At 1:30 am Fathers seeks cover in a side street together with fifty Chinese as the military makes a big push toward the Square with tanks, followed by armored personnel vehicles and scores of trucks, then supply vehicles and Black Marias.
He decides to follow them to Tiananmen Square.
The Avenue of Eternal Peace is deserted now. The air resounds with machine-gun salvos and the explosion of two burning houses. A military truck and two jeeps are driving down the street in front of him.
Slightly west of the Square, at Xinhuamen, the main entrance to Zhongnanhai (Party- and government headquarters), he looks back over his shoulder and sees “a squad of army goons, waving pistols, electric cattle prods and batons … running towards me. They jumped me, screamed at me, pointed a pistol at my head, beat me about the legs with their batons and dragged me across to New China Gate,” writes Michael Fathers. “Several soldiers broke ranks and ran to me, punching me, kicking me with karate leaps in the back, thighs and chest. There was pure hatred in their eyes.
“They pushed me down into a kneeling position and had another go at me, whacking me across the back with their rods and kicking, always kicking, until I fell over. They pulled off my spectacles and crushed them into the ground. They screamed at me. Then they took me behind a stone lion guarding the gate. Their first thought was that I was an American. One man who spoke some English realized I wasn’t. They put two guards beside me.
“If this is the People’s Army, God spare China. They behaved like the Red Guards, with a systematic and frenzied brutality. They were the very institution that was once called out to protect China from the Red Guard excesses. Now they are killing civilians,” writes Fathers.
“The smooth face of the Chinese Communist establishment appeared two hours later, dressed in cream flannels and a pastel T-shirt” – the very image of what foreign countries have come to believe is the new China, a confidence-inspiring and trustworthy China.
“’You have committed an unfriendly act,’” the Chinese says to Fathers, who feels this Party mouthpiece is exaggerating a bit.
“’You fell over, didn’t you? That’s why you have that bruise on your arm,’” he says to Fathers, who also has “boot imprints and spots of blood on [his] shirt from being hit by a baton.
“My right knee was swollen, my hips were aching, my trousers were ripped. He confiscated my notebook and gave me a receipt and a written pass to get beyond the army lines into a side street,” Fathers reports.
Military trucks rumble past him in a steady stream during the two hours he is detained behind the lion that guards Xinhuamen. People are forced up against the entrance to The Forbidden City at the Square’s northern end.
At the same time, his colleague, Andrew Higgins, is crawling in the mud at the foot of Mao Zedong’s portrait, bullets whizzing over his head. At first, according to Higgins, the young soldiers are frightened by the huge number of people. Then they pull themselves together and obey the order to fire.
A young man crawls down into an armored personnel vehicle and sets it on fire. The soldiers inside are heaved out and beaten. Students intercede and save the soldiers from the enraged crowd.
Michael Fathers ends his article of June 5th in The Independent thusly:
“It was a battlefield. It was a lesson in brute power. I blubbered when I got back to my hotel near midday. I couldn’t stop. Perhaps it was shock, or maybe it was because of the carnage. I was weeping for the people of Peking. I cannot see how they are ever likely to trust their leaders again.”
The Great Narrative
First we must recognize that this is a shocking, counterrevolutionary insurrection. Therefore, we must realize that in our capital a handful of atrocious troublemakers actually does exist (quotation from original Beijing Diary).
The way China’s leaders handled the situation in terms of the media was a catastrophe as well. They used propaganda so simple-minded that it awoke deep resentment in anyone who’d had anything at all to do with the uprising.
The government and the Party’s explanations, evasions and other attempts to defend their actions to the people fell flat. Even though it was far from all Chinese, millions of them had personally experienced the rebellion, either in brief moments, through relatives or fellow students, or by active day-by-day participation. They knew what had taken place and disseminated their message far and wide. Trust in the leaders shriveled up and died.
The media debacle was clearly a painful lesson for the rulers. They thought they could get away with anything, including hoodwinking the populace. Their revolutionary propaganda had been effective leading up to the revolution in 1949, and continued to be for the next 30 – 40 years.
During the new China’s 65-year history, museums have primarily served to disseminate propaganda. In the early 1980s I traveled around the country and visited a number of them, all of which exhibited the shoes, sandals, field canteen and shovel of the popular prime minister, Zhou Enlai. So many pairs of shoes were on display that there was no way he could have worn them all out himself – not even on the Long March in the 1930s. It helps to remember that until 1992, very few Chinese were allowed to travel freely in their homeland, so the chance of them ever seeing how many sets of Zhou Enlai’s field gear were on display was minimal.
Communist cadres and others who had a greater opportunity to travel within China – and might visit the revolutionary and historical museums – were likely complicit in spreading the propaganda and were infused with the belief that the revolution was an ongoing affair. Ergo, propaganda trumped enlightenment.
There were photostats where people who had fallen from grace had been clumsily retouched out of the picture. There were numerous variants of falsified history and falsified statistics, all of which combined to give a misleading picture of the truth.
In the dimly lit exhibition rooms of Beijing’s Military Museum there was – and likely still is – a large photostat of the mushroom cloud from China’s first atomic bomb test in 1966, as well as many other devices of destruction that have allegedly contributed to safeguarding China.
Lighting and exhibition conditions in the Forbidden City as well as the rest of the country’s thousands of cultural and historical museums was wretched, and nothing was done to make the exhibits attractive. The same was the case with all the museums in the peripheral regions that displayed China’s version of history and the splendid relationship between the Han Chinese and the ethnic minorities – along with Zhou Enlai’s field equipment.
In the years after the Cultural Revolution brutally abolished “The Four Olds” – old culture, old habits, old thought and old customs – merely thinking about culture could be fatal.
A museum visit was meant to be an educational indoctrination, not the enjoyable, informative family excursion we are used to in the West, with special exhibits and experiences for kids, a nice café and gift shop, etc.
But now China is back with a vengeance! While museums have of course retained their primary functions of education and propaganda, they now must also provide a good experience that presents impressions and forms a world view. Preposterously gorgeous museums have been erected throughout the country that persist in steering a narrative that is as untrue as ever, but has been made much more sophisticated, palatable and convincing.
Take, for example, the new historical museum in Hohot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, a so-called autonomous region of China. Here one can learn about the space exploration center in Alxa, situated in a several-thousand-square-kilometer area in remote western Inner Mongolia. It was here in the 1950s, as the Chinese in all seriousness explain, that patriotic Mongolian nomads voluntarily – even delightedly – gave up their grasslands and means of subsistence to make way for the fatherland’s vision of a future in outer space.
These and other tear-jerking accounts of absolute patriotic self-sacrifice by once proud and self-sufficient minorities have become an important feature of the great, new tall tale the Chinese authorities are in the process of disseminating from an incredibly large number of new, grandiose and costly museums in the outer regions.
Tedious, dimly lit exhibition halls with simple-minded propaganda are a thing of the past. Today one is treated to massive one-way communication, delivered via multiple monophonic interactive media that include exhibitions, IT, books, DVD, music and folktales. Within the past few years I have visited a number of these new museums, including super museums in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, on the Tibetan Plateau and in Lhasa. With one voice they describe “simple” and “colorful” minorities who couldn’t wait to be “Sinofied” and longed for development.
A feature of the new museum in Hohot is a two-story-high dinosaur. As I recall, approximately a third of the skeleton was actually found in the Gobi desert, while the rest has been beautifully reconstructed. It is an impressive sight. A modest signboard on the way out of the room explained how it was that right here – in CHINA – these land-based reptiles stood up on their hind legs 65 million years ago and developed into humans. Yes, right here in CHINA, which of course has only comprised an aggregate country since 260 B.C., and to which Inner Mongolia first became attached through marriage and land sales during the Qing Dynasty that lasted from 1644 to 1911. 65 million years ago these dinosaurs had never heard of China.
If you ask me, it’s quite a stretch to claim that the first dinosaurs to stand on two legs 65 million years ago – and then develop into humans – did so in China, and at the same time ignore all the scientific evidence that says the first human beings came from Africa.
I have seen a photograph hanging on the wall of the new historical museum in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in substitution for a piece of woven blue material that was allegedly a couple of thousand years old and had been “sent for repairs”. The scrap of cloth – which wasn’t even on display – is being used as “proof” that Kashgar, which was an important trading post on the Silk Road and lies in western Xinjiang has always been part of China.
The Chinese characters that are supposed to validate the material’s territorial origin are traditional – that is, they are far more recent than those used by the Chinese at the time the cloth was supposedly woven. The characters say something like, “Five Stars radiate Eastward to the Middle Kingdom, Zhong Guo (China)”. The signboard explains that this sparse text is proof that the area on the other side of the Taklamakan Desert voluntarily submitted to Chinese rule a couple of thousand years ago.
The museum guide was an Uighur. Although he was in total disagreement, he had no choice but to present the official explanation of what was almost certainly a much newer piece of cloth. He just nodded in resignation when I said there was no way it could be that old, nor was it proof of anything whatsoever.
Exceptional – and authentic – Uighur scriptures from the 11th century are classified as “Chinese” as a matter of course. Even China’s neighbor, Vietnam, was described as being Chinese and part of China all the way up to the arrival of the French in 1854. The examples of falsified Chinese history are endless.
None of these fables are really designed with us foreigners in mind. They are part of the spiffy, new 2.0 version of Chinese history on which the country’s rulers have staked a huge amount. Every year, millions of Chinese schoolchildren tour these formidable museums, where they are served an appetizing, extraordinarily chauvinistic and nationalistic Han Chinese view of history – in sound, pictures and exhibits, as well as on the internet, in books, podcasts, chat rooms and pop songs. Obviously, the Chinese propaganda mill has been infused with new energy and dynamics – and considerable budget.
The Independent Worker
Should the workers and farmers link up with the students, we still have China’s three million soldiers to maintain law and order.
Deng Xiaoping, April 27, 1989
Han Dongfang, an electrician at the Fengtai Railway’s freight transportation division in Beijing, was co-founder of Beijing’s Independent Federation of Workers, or Gongzilian, which was the new China’s first independent labor union. He was 26 years old and it gave his life meaning the first time he met the student demonstrators at The Gate of Heavenly Peace:
I think it was the 15th or 16th of April, 1989 – one of the very first days with big demonstrations, says Han Dongfang, 25 years later in his office in Hong Kong. Though now in exile, it is from this office that he still works persistently to improve the conditions of Chinese workers.
I guess it was my wife at the time. She was a curious person. We were on a bus, heading home from Xidan to Dongdan along Chang An Dajie, The Boulevard of Eternal Peace. People were talking about the students in the square. The bus passed by Tiananmen, and I saw this group of people far away, on the square. My wife said, let’s get out and, take a look. And I said, no, I want to go home, so she said, please, just half an hour … explains Han Dongfang.
And I never left! I listened to these students! They were so knowledgeable. I admired them so much! They were quoting famous Europeans that I never heard about – on democracy, freedom, human dignity, and all these things that we had never had … It was so eye opening! Politically, it made me understand all my youth, my childhood, everything, experiences and fairness and all this, my time in the army. Everything fell into perspective. Somehow the students, these unknown students, linked all my experience together: Their speeches, how they quoted these books and defined democracy, human dignity, human rights, all these things – all my life’s experiences linked up and made sense! Han Dongfang seems completely amazed by the fact that he feels the same today, half a life and many dramatic experiences and exploits later.
After that, things happened in rapid succession. Dongfang points out time and again that it was more a case of luck than brains. He threw himself into the debate with fiery enthusiasm. I was in no way well-read and I had no one to quote, so I related everything they said to my own workplace. We had none of these wonderful things at work. The boss alone decided our salary and bonus – just one manager, all by himself. So every three months or so, in order to gain a pay raise, you had to bring him a gift from afar, Guangzhou or something, in order to please him. I never bothered to do that and was always the last to get a pay raise. At that time corruption was mostly about a bottle of booze or the like – not anything like today. My only sense of democracy was the contradictions with the petty corruption and self-absorbed superiors. Every word the students said made sense in relation to work, and stubborn as I am, I am still totally absorbed with the state of China’s workplaces. And in the meantime I have gained much greater understanding. Han Dongfang breaks out laughing.
The half hour he and his wife had planned to spend observing the demonstrators turned into many weeks, around the clock. Even though Han Dongfang flatly denies he became the leader of anything or anyone, he took part in mobilizing 250,000 workers in Beijing for the formation of Gongzilian, Beijing’s Independent Federation of Workers.
We were equals. In a situation like that, it’s convenient to call some outspoken people leaders, but the only difference is that we dared to speak. We dared to stand up in front of the cameras – that did make a difference. But it was the only difference. I didn’t have millions of workers behind me; I was one of them. I showed my ID-card, my work card. I knew the Public Security Bureau people were all over the place, but showed my real identity to the crowd. That was my decision. That’s why everywhere I spoke, I said this is who I am, I am responsible for what I say. I’m not accusing others of hiding their identity, but this was my way of doing things.
And that way of doing things was what led Han Dongfang, on May 28, 1989, to be elected one of the five leaders of Gongzilian, which in those ardent days brought 250,000 workers together in the new China’s first independent labor union. The organization’s tentative charter was adopted at the same time. Among other things, it stated that Gongzilian would work completely in the open and in accordance with China’s laws and constitution.
I waved my ID-card and said, what we are doing here is absolutely legal! It’s our constitutional right. We wouldn’t and couldn’t end up in prison, and please join us. Do it! And if one day, we will have to go to prison after all, then I will walk into prison myself to take the full responsibility, and I am not going to run away!
It was really only to show my confidence in what we were doing – and to gain the vote. A kind of strategy. Han Dongfang again laughs aloud. But later, when I saw my picture on TV and in the newspapers, I thought, shit, I have become a wanted person. I was nervous, frightened. What to do? All right, so run away? Sooner or later they would catch me. He laughs again. So it was much, much better to keep my promise …
But we are getting ahead of the story. Han Dongfang talks about the uprising. I have no problems with street uprisings, but I soon understood that even though there were many protesters every day, half of the faces were new each day. They were curious or excited, but then their courage deserted them. Nothing wrong with that – just an observation. The authorities declared Gongzilian a counterrevolutionary organization on June 2nd.
On the evening of June 3rd, Han Dongfang was still at Tiananmen Square, in his tent on the northwest corner of the square. I slept! You remember how exhausted we all were? We hardly got any sleep. And towards what turned out to be the end, the air was hysterically thick with rumors. Every night people screamed that the army was coming. I said, I don’t believe it. They may come in with batons and tear gas, and we might get hit on the head, break arms or legs, get some bruises and get sent to detention centers, like we saw with Solidarnosc’s protests in Poland.
But that evening, people were saying, tonight it’s real! And I said, forget it. I was in the army for 3 years. Soldiers will never shoot the People! Not one single soldier. And in order to calm people down, I said, I’m going to sleep. And don’t wake me up until the tanks are right outside the tent!
So Han Dongfang was sleeping when the tanks actually came. I really did fall asleep in the tent. Till someone woke me up and said the shooting had started, and I said, what?!? I didn’t believe it, but then I heard … ba-ba-ba-ba … Has to be rubber bullets. I went outside and looked at the sky: Wow! Once again he laughs. Rubber bullets wouldn’t make that rose color in the sky! It was live bullets. Then his voice falls to almost a whisper. This is it. I remember people asked me, is this real bullets? What do we do now? I went back into the tent and sat down. People kept coming inside and asked me, what should we do? I said I don’t know. I went out – and back into to the tent. Some of the others – demonstrators, daily volunteers – they were much calmer, burning name lists, documents. I had no idea what to do. He laughs again.
Let’s just wait for the tanks and see what happens, I said. Then I just laid back and tried to go back to sleep … Someone came rushing up, shouting Han Dongfang’s name. I got up and said, here I am; who are you? Young guys, 18-19-20 years old. They said, we’re here to take you out of the Square. I said, who are you? And they said, don’t ask. We’re on a mission. Han Dongfang refused. He wasn’t going to run away from the bloodshed that seemed inevitable. I have to stay here, he replied.
The youths said he must not die now because someone had to lead the struggle afterwards, and that he – Han Dongfang – was China’s Lech Walesa. Han Dongfang is both whispering and laughing as he continues: On the one hand I was really proud to be considered to be the future Lech Walesa of China, but on the other hand my life was no more valuable than everyone else’s. I would be a traitor to leave the Square at that moment. So they left. A few minutes later they returned and said, no, the decision is made, you’re coming with us. They were tough guys, very strong and they just dragged me out of the tent. As soon as we got out of the tent, a very short, muscular guy – I remember him clearly – said, let’s walk around him in case a bullet hits him. So they just walked me out through the Square toward the east, to Wangfujing … Han Dongfang holds a long pause, then quietly adds: I was settled in someone’s house …
Then, after yet another long pause: Two days later I was able to get on my bike and leave Beijing. I had this totally unrealistic plan to spend a year or two traveling around the country, because I know most of the country from working on the railways. Only now I’d be riding my bike. I’d travel around and tell people what had happened in Beijing and at the same time gain better understanding of the farmers’ and the workers’ daily lives. That was my plan! Han Dongfang is amazed by his own naiveté.
The Chinese love watermelons and consider them a kind of civil right. There have been flare-ups over poor watermelon harvests, shoddy distribution and too-high prices, and trucks loaded with juicy watermelons have been robbed.
It was watermelon season; the farmers slept in their fields to protect the ripe watermelon from thieves. So I slept with the farmers in their tents. Because I needed a place to sleep, of course, but also because I wanted to talk to them. I wasn’t the least bit afraid.
No, Han Dongfang was not afraid – not until he saw his image on TV and discovered he was very high on the list of wanted counterrevolutionaries responsible for the uprising in Beijing and other larger cities in China. Then he was really fearful.
He and his wife cycled over to some of her relatives. She stayed there. Han went in to Beijing.
I believe it was on the 14th of June. I’d seen my picture on TV. I returned to Beijing on the 19th, I think. And then I gave myself up … thereby chalking up yet another new experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to criticize or disqualify street riots, but in my experience it’s not necessarily the correct path. It was captivating, passionate, compassionate; one instant we were running together, millions of people, toward a common goal. And all of a sudden, silence … And when you look back over your shoulder … Han Dongfang has a habit of laughing at all the situations that have been most difficult … Oh, shit! You’re on your own. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just that you never had enough time to create an organization.
He turned himself in. At least I kept my word and my dignity. If I had fled, sooner or later they would have caught me, and I would be in prison anyway – and have swallowed my promise in the process. It was a balancing act; I chose to keep my promise, and that’s why I turned myself in. And was sent to prison – three in all. First Han Dongfang was detained at Pao Ju, an old Qing Dynasty cannon factory in the center of Beijing that first appeared on a map of the city in 1750 and over a hundred years ago was converted to a prison. Pao Ju is still under the jurisdiction of the security forces, but apparently is no longer a prison. Han Dongfang was kept at Pao Ju in solitary confinement until March 1990. After that, he was transferred to a prison from the late 1800s called Banbuqiao, and was formally charged with “carrying out counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement”. He was also incarcerated in Beijing’s best-known prison, Qincheng.
Han Dongfang, who attained the status of model soldier after only three month in the People’s Liberation Army, had spent some of his three years of service as a member of the armed police stationed around prisons. So when he went to prison himself, he knew some of the guards from his soldier days that had later become prison guards, and his status as model soldier from ten years previously meant that many others in the prison system knew who he was and respected him.
I was guarded by several of my former colleagues, says Han Dongfang, with resounding laughter. In their own weird way, they protected me, and I was never beaten in prison. All the others were beaten; that’s how it is when you go to prison. You get beaten up. And you have to bow. They take your dignity and your pride. But I believe the guards respected me because every time I went to a new place, they took me to their office and said (he laughs again), listen, we heard good things about you. We know who you are, and we respect you because you were a top model soldier. We don’t know what you’ve done, good or bad, but we will help you if you help us. Don’t screw up, and we won’t beat you!
But all of them had superiors. Han Dongfang learned how to tackle them as well. I became sort of a professional prisoner. I respected that they had a job to do. And guards and investigators were different. I didn’t take it personally, or at least I tried not to.
It was rough. I don’t believe people can be strong in prison. Any moment during my two years in prison, I could have been broken completely. Any time. You have to stick to it. It wears you thin. His voice falls to a whisper again. You tell yourself to hold on. I remember the first ten days or two weeks; they only wanted me to admit that I gave myself up! You walked into the Public Security Bureau because you knew you were wrong! And I said, NO! That wasn’t the reason. I turned myself in because I had encouraged people to join us, because it was all thoroughly legal. I promised people to turn myself in if things went wrong. And you don’t want people to lie to you, right?
The officers in charge of his interrogation wanted a filmed confession, just as they received from hundreds of others we saw on Chinese TV. Battered souls, most of them men with swollen faces who were under enormous pressure and ready to confess to anything. The authorities wanted Han Dongfang’s confession on a silver platter in order to serve it to all the others who believed in his cause. Many of his fellow prisoners gave in. Han Dongfang doesn’t blame them.
I said I wouldn’t lie to save my life. Of course that wasn’t true, but that’s what it was about. Now his voice is practically inaudible. It was terribly hard to hold on. They only let me sleep an hour, perhaps two – altogether! 10 minutes, 20 minutes, you only just fall asleep. And then back in for more interrogation! There were two other people in the cell; I don’t know if they reported whether I slept or what. I was never allowed to sleep. His voice fades even more. Ooh, if only I could sleep a little. If only I say what they want to hear, I will get a full night’s sleep! That’s what I need… But then I held on for one more minute, and another minute, and another minute; especially in the early morning, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock, you have the bright light in your face, it is hot, and there’s no aircon. Han Dongfang chuckles. And behind the spotlight in front of you, right there on the left, you see the small red light, and you know the camera is rolling and they’re just waiting for you to give in.
I was totally blinded by the spotlight and couldn’t see my interrogators sitting behind it. You’re stuck there in a corner. It was awful; they just sit there and want to crush you. I was lucky. Every night they gave up before I did. It was a question of only seconds. Every night was like that.
Han Dongfang thinks he probably would have given up if they had beat him. Physical insult is different. I survived prison, I survived the Square, the big emotional crowds. I wasn’t going to test other peoples’ bravery by creating more prisoners. It would only generate more fear. And fear doesn’t help a social movement.
One day a high-ranking prison functionary came to Han Dongfang’s cell, and said, Han Dongfang, we all respect you. You’re tough. But you have to learn to cooperate, otherwise, we can’t do our job. I hope in this section you will learn!
He took me to this cell. I counted 24 men in a 14-square-meter cell. I was curious when the door slammed behind me. And my new cellmates said, we all have TB and some have hepatitis A. Some had both and they placed all these people with infectious diseases together. And I thought, wow, this is it. This is how I’ll learn to cooperate … I had begun to think that even if they kept me for 20 years, I’d try to stay strong. I didn’t think China would continue to be the same for 20 years. I would last longer than those leaders. I just had to stay healthy. So that’s where they identified my weakness. Han Dongfang laughs again. They threatened my life. I didn’t give in and they kept me there with the tuberculosis prisoners for nine months. Fortunately, I didn’t catch hepatitis A. If you get both, you die. Again, that laugh.
But he did contract tuberculosis. In the beginning of 1991, 27 years old, Han Dongfang was dying. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t really move. I weighed about 90 pounds, and my fellow prisoners had to help me with everything; going to the toilet, eating, drinking – everything. He was hospitalized in the police hospital several times. Finally the prosecutor looked in on him and had him moved to a real hospital. He was discharged in May 1991 and sent home. In December he was called before the prosecutor, who informed him there would be no legal proceedings. We know you are guilty, but now we’re releasing you. The reason was “his great willingness to cooperate, and good behavior”.
They asked whether I wanted to appeal. I still recall the prosecutor’s gaping expression when I said, yes, I was going to appeal. My arrest was illegal. I did none of what you accuse me of. So therefore, I appeal. The prosecutor sent Han Dongfang home to think it over and asked him to come back in a week.
He returned on the third day with a written appeal in which he rejected all charges, demanded unconditional release, compensation – and an apology. They sent me all over the building, up and down. They’d never received such an appeal and had no idea how to handle it. There was nowhere for me to hand it in. Finally someone said, just leave it there. I asked for a receipt, but they refused. I was ill and had to leave.
Han Dongfang’s case had gained notice internationally. The labor movement in the United States, as well as Human Rights Watch and Asia Watch, collected donations so he could come to the US for treatment. He was there for 11 months, where he had half of his right lung removed, among other things.
When he returned to China in 1993, he managed to spend a single night on the bridge between China and Hong Kong before being exiled – back over the border to Hong Kong, which in 1993 was still a British crown colony. I stayed there. When they wouldn’t let me return to China, I would have to wait until China came to Hong Kong in 1997. On July 1, 1997, Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China after 156 years under the British Crown.
I grew up with the understanding that China’s Communist Party was the reason for my being. My mother taught me that without the communist revolution in 1949, there’d be no me. And I was deeply loyal to the Party; even when the Party rejected me, I was a die-hard communist. He laughs his contagious, deep laugh.
My parents were farmers in Shanxi – you know, all the way out there by the coalmines. They had no education. My father was illiterate. My mother was able to read a bit because during World War II the Japanese occupation never reached as far as her village; it remained under communist control. They had this program to teach women to read and join the movement. One of the best things the Communist Party did was to liberate women from China’s tradition, and therefore my mother learned to read and write. Now, with privatization and get-rich-fast, women have experienced a big setback and are left behind, but that’s a different story …
Han Dongfang’s aunt was married to a prominent party official in Beijing. She brought her mother with her to the capital as tradition commanded. So the aunt’s sister moved as well, in order to take care of their mother, the aunt’s children, and her own children, Dongfang and little Hong.
Dongfang Hong are the first three words of the song, “The East is Red”, and Han Dongfang laughs at the thought that, together, his and his little sister’s names pay homage to the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. Our parents didn’t give us our names. Our uncle, a high-ranking Communist did. I liked mine, “East”. But my sister changed hers – Hong, or “Red” – when she was quite small. She’s called Dongmei now, a flower that blossoms in the winter snow.
Dongfang and Hong, who changed her name to Dongmei, spent their first years in Beijing, where their mother kept house for their aunt. The Cultural Revolution – Mao’s dramatic confrontation with what he considered revisionist forces in the Communist Party – began in 1966, and Dongfang’s uncle and aunt were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
Dongfang’s mother had no choice but to return home to her village with her two children. She was divorced from her husband, who hadn’t wanted to move to Beijing at the time and gave her an ultimatum: Stay in the village or we get a divorce. Dongfang’s mother chose Beijing and the task of helping out in her sister’s house for her children’s sake, since growing up in the capital would give them much better opportunities for the future. So she decided to leave her husband and life in the country.
But the little family did not have hukous – the house-registration or identification that binds you to your birthplace or other place of residence – which meant they were not registered in the village in Shanxi and therefore were not entitled to food, even though the mother worked side by side in the farm collective’s field with the other villagers. The mother, whose name was Sandou, was highly respected in the village, both before and after the Cultural Revolution, and it was thanks to her good reputation and dutiful nature that they received anything at all to eat.
Sandou and her two children survived off what neighbors, the family and the father – who was living in his village ten kilometers away with an unwell mother to look after – had to spare of their meager rations. So Dongfang, his mother and his sister received very little to eat during the five years they lived in the country.
I was an outsider in the village, Han Dongfang explains. I had no privileges, but you don’t know about these things as a child. We played a Cultural Revolution game, and I was always the bad prisoner – the capitalist, revisionist running dog to be persecuted and condemned at public meetings. I remember they had a rope made of grass, and they tied a rock around my neck, like the grown-ups did for real. It was just for fun, they said, but it was dramatic. I remember clearly.
His mother was out in the fields all day and hadn’t the time to take care of her children. As a result, Dongfang began school much too early. I was four or five. I remember carrying my sister on my back; I brought her with me to school. I had no idea what we were learning. I was much too young.
Sandou was unable to provide for her children and finally went back to Beijing with Dongfang in order to change the family’s hukous to the village so they would be eligible to receive food. An acquaintance at the local government office in Beijing said that under no circumstances should she give up her right to live in Beijing, and that they would help her find a job. Thus, after five years in the country, the little family returned to the capital.
My mother got a job in construction, mixing sand, cleaning and other extremely hard work. We stayed in Beijing, and once again I became an outsider; a country bumpkin who didn’t speak the local dialect, Mandarin. My mother insisted that I learn, but I was stubborn and refused, even when she invited a schoolmate of mine and the parents for dinner. Han Dongfang laughs, as I have discovered he does when he finds something sad. Not because he is embarrassed as is often the case in China, but because it touches him deeply.
The mother’s hard work, both in the countryside and Beijing, meant her children were left to themselves most of the time. Han Dongfang liked reading and writing, and learned it quickly. But the other subjects didn’t interest him and he never did his homework. I ended up being pretty good in class, but I never was good at examinations. I failed everything miserably, except Chinese.
Han Dongfang’s mother was understandably angry that he didn’t make use of his chance to improve his mind and future, but she left home every morning at 6:30 and did not return until around eight o’clock in the evening. She walked an hour and a half each way to save bus fare and then made dinner when she came home.
China’s beloved Prime Minister Zhou Enlai died in January 1976. After a modest official memorial ceremony, the Gang of Four – still in control towards the end of the Cultural Revolution – forbade all manifestations of grief. No black armbands, no wreaths of flowers, no memorial services and no dissemination of pictures of Zhou’s likeness. However, on Qingming, April 5th, the traditional day for Chinese to honor their dead – which was forbidden in China at the time – a spontaneous memorial service sprung up at The Gate of Heavenly Peace. It took place around The Monument of the People’s Martyrs, where the uprising of 1989 also had its start with an illegal memorial ceremony for another esteemed politician, the deposed Party boss, Hu Yaobang.
Somewhere close to two million people from all levels of society came to Tiananmen Square and laid wreaths, poems, flowers and handwritten tablets around the improvised memorial for Zhou. Han Dongfang, who was 12 at the time, walked with some companions the few kilometers from his home in Dongdan to the Square to see what was going on. He was enthused and copied poems of praise for Zhou into his dairy. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but there were many others copying the poems, so I did, too. He was deeply moved by the atmosphere – and went home to eat.
By the next day the authorities had removed everything, which made people angry. More than 100,000 were packed into the Square and it led to dramatic confrontations with the police. It is not known how many were killed, probably somewhere between 150 and 200 people, along with several hundred being imprisoned. And Deng Xiaoping, who was regarded as being close to Zhou, fell once more into political disfavor, although this, too, he survived and overcame a few years later.
Han Dongfang was not present at the time of the clashes, but he was exposed to the persecution all the way down on the level of the classroom, where his teacher demanded to have handed over all diaries into which students had copied poems of homage to Zhou Enlai. Someone who’d also been at the Square reported on me and said I had copied poems. And I just said, I didn’t. That was it.
This was Han Dongfang’s first experience of political resistance. A good ten years later, on the evening of New Year’s Day (the Western New Year, January 1st), he saw 200-300 demonstrators unfurl banners at Tiananmen Square. A friend of mine who worked next door at the Beijing Daily was visiting, and she said there was a demonstration at the Square. We went to watch; my sister Dongmei came along. And we saw them with banners supporting Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up, ‘Gaige Kaifang’, and the Communist Party. In front of the Public Security Bureau the police were trying to push away the foreign press. Han Dongfang laughs: At that time it wasn’t about whatyou said, but about that in no way were you allowed to demonstrate. Exactly like post-1989. You can’t say it, we (the leaders) can.
Han Dongfang crawled up in a tree to get a better view. Then several hundred police poured out of the parliament building, the People’s Great Hall. He illustrates with running movements what followed: Wa, wa, wa, gua, gua, gua … like this. There was a violent clash. The police battered the students while holding their feet; they were thrown into the waiting Black Marias. It was really brutal and violent. And it was the first time I saw anything like this, saw the police giving people severe beatings. In 1976 I was so young and was back in bed by the time violence broke out.
Even though he knew it was hopeless, he took the universities’ entrance exam, seeking admission to the most distinguished ones. 280 points were needed to get in; Han Dongfang managed merely half that many. Only in the Chinese language did he manage to get 85 points, which was the best score in the entire neighborhood. But he accumulated just 55 points in all the other subjects combined – a really poor result.
If only you’d worked harder, my teacher said … So I decided to go into the army – the main reason being that I could realize my dream of becoming a general or model solider, like Lei Feng (a Chinese model soldier who serves as the ultimate example of selfless devotion, but most likely never existed). And so I did. After three months I became a model solider among the new recruits, the only one out of a thousand! And I got a small division of 10 people under my command.
I was never promoted any further. It was all just make-believe. Soon after, we had a campaign with a grand meeting, supposed to uncover corruption; a high-ranking officer from headquarters came and told us to be brave and uncover our superior officers’ wrongdoings to correct their morale. The officer told me to take down my recruits’ complaints and pass them on to the grand meeting. I was enthusiastic. A good friend advised me to only mention a small complaint and claim that everyone was happy and everything terrific.
Han Dongfang refused to listen to that kind of talk and hid until the meeting began. And since he was the one in charge of the 1st division, it was he who had to speak first. He conscientiously repeated all the charges. The officers stood in a row facing us, their faces growing longer and longer. The eight division leaders after me said exactly as my friend had suggested. Afterwards Han Dongfang was summoned to the lieutenant’s office.
He waved a piece of paper in front of me: This is your application form for pre-membership of the Communist Party of China, which we’d planned for you to sign next week. He tore the paper in two. Forget it! he said. As long as I’m here it will never happen! Now get out of my office!
So Han Dongfang did not rise further in the ranks during his remaining two-and-three-quarter years in the army. But I continued to work hard as a soldier. And my friends asked me, why are you still so serious about this, now that you screwed up? I said, I’m not working for them, I’m working for the Party, the Nation, the People. This is what I have been told, and I believe in it. And although these people were blocking my way, I still obeyed orders and did my best. Later, this stubborn integrity was to benefit Han Dongfang while in prison.
But before that, when he had finished his military service, Han Dongfang accepted the second of the three job offers the state was obliged to give discharged soldiers.
I had always wanted to travel all over China! And in 1978-79, people working on the trains went to Guangzhou and Shenzhen where the firstfree markets opened could buy blue jeans and lots of stuff that wasn’t available in Beijing. I liked being of help and wanted to help people get their jeans, so I chose that job, says Han Dongfang.
When he mentions this, I remember how everyone wore work pants back in 1981-82, and people looked longingly at the few Westerners in Beijing who, like myself, naturally wore jeans most of the time. In those days it never occurred to me how modern jeans were in China.
The job as railway electrician in the 1980s gave Han Dongfang plenty of opportunities to travel all over China, which has an extensive rail network. It was a cargo train with fresh foodstuffs that needed a set temperature; meat below zero, fresh fruit five degrees or above. So I’ve visited everywhere you have railways in China. Unlike passenger trains, where you travel on one line, on the cargo train you travel wherever they need. We traveled all over the country, from Harbin to Hainan or from Guangzhou to Ulumuqi (Han uses the Chinese name for the Uighur city, Urumqi), Shanghai to Chongqing and Xian. It was an amazing job.
And as an electrician I was the one with the least work. You set the temperature, and otherwise it was only if there was a problem with the cooling system, you’d fix it. Most of the time I read books or looked out the window, enjoying the changing landscape, while following the route on a map. I loved it! Han Dongfang laughs, this time about the pleasant memories.
In winter you’d go from minus 25-30 degrees Celsius in Harbin, to Guangzhou where you’d be bitten by mosquitos and eat fresh fruit. Five lovely years … Carefree years, too, one is tempted to add.
After being exiled in 1993, Han Dongfang began a new life in Hong Kong where a person could buy whatever he wanted so long as he had the money. He received a Hong Kong residence permit and passport and moved to the remote island of Lamma with his wife and their two – then three – sons. And he waited for Hong Kong to become Chinese once again so he would be able to reside in China.
He is still in Hong Kong – a divorce, a new marriage, and another son and a daughter richer. She is the pearl, he says of his five-year-old daughter, displaying his most radiant smile. We guesstimate there are a maximum one hundred mainland Chinese of his generation who, like himself, have five children.
After his own experiences with starting school too early, Han Dongfang felt it his duty that his own children not begin school before they were ready. And he’s proud that his two eldest are now attending university.
He is quite obviously happy about his family in Hong Kong. Both his parents are dead – his mother back in 1988, before the uprising in Beijing. In addition, perhaps it’s good she never had to experience her son’s years in prison, though she might have been proud of his highly developed sense of justice. Han Dongfang’s father died a few years after his mother.
While involvement ended abruptly for the vast majority of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square on the night of June 4, 1989, for Han Dongfang it turned out to be just the beginning of what so far has been half a life of intense effort on the behalf of China’s laborers.
One could argue that in China we were unlucky. But we initiated something much bigger. I would say that the success of dismantling the communist regimes in Eastern Europe later that year, tearing down the Wall and so on, was partly due to Eastern European leaders watching the horrible crackdown in Beijing. Because … don’t forget that, yes, we lost in China. But if you look at the larger perspective – 500 years, the historical way – our failure helped ending the Cold War.
Han Dongfang was proud of being compared to Lech Walesa, but he also realized that China was not Poland and Solidarnosc could not be applied to China. He visited Poland and the Czech Republic in 1995 and had a difficult time seeing how experiences there could be used back home. Partly because the Chinese rulers did not see the slightest problem in imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people for as long as they liked, and partly because every move to organize that bypassed the Communist Party was wiped out.
The workers in China were so weak after the crackdown. Society was soaked in fear. We had nothing to raise our spirits. I am telling you, the 1990s in China were the darkest after 1949. Including even the Cultural Revolution, the crackdown in 1989 created a different kind of fear: the Communist regime feared the people, and the people feared the Party. It was like a mad dog, frightened of people. Han Dongfang illustrates with his hands: a mad dog on one side, a person on the other. You dare not turn your back and run away, because then the dog will bite; the dog doesn’t dare turn its back for fear of the beating.
During his visit to Poland and the Czech Republic, Han Dongfang came to the conclusion that, in the end and in spite of atrocities along the way, the labor movement in both countries had succeeded. In the Czech Republic the new, free labor movement had even taken over all the Communist Party official labor movement’s property and its structure – buildings and everything. I met with the labor movement in both countries and realized there was no shortcut to independent unions in China. There was no way I could transfer their experience to our future movement in China. He laughs. I am certainly no opponent of revolution. I envy Solidarnosc and admire their people. 10 years underground, they printed pamphlets, they organized and people suffered dearly.
It wasn’t easy. How could a single individual know this was not the path forward for China? And at the same time, the workers in China’s vast state-owned factories were suffering. In the wake of the lifting of the ban on traveling around freely in China in 1992, the first generation of migrant workers – a couple of hundred million souls – set out on one of the largest migrations in history from countryside to city, looking for work. Their conditions were horrific and they had no rights. The newspapers reported regularly on factories that had burnt down, killing several hundred workers who were locked inside either the production halls or the dormitories. There were even cases of workers being chained to the machines. And since the state still owned the great majority of workplaces in China, it was the state that was responsible for the violations and injustices. I badly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Solidarnosc, but it wasn’t the way forward for China, says Han Dongfang.
It’s not that China doesn’t have trade unions; they are assembled under China’s All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), with 134 million members – and 900,000 employees. The problem is that the ACFTU is subordinate to the Communist Party, and as long as all industry remained state-owned, it served the employers’ (read: the state’s) interests, not the workers’. As privatization expanded in the 1990s, however, the interests of the state – and especially those of the workers – began changing. But the ACFTU has completely failed to keep up with the times. It is still a clammy bureaucratic organization with handpicked employees who have never set foot on a factory floor and don’t care about its members.
In 1994 Han Dongfang founded the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) in Hong Kong, an independent organization that collected and published information about workers, workplaces, conflicts and abuses on the mainland. Naturally, it was useful to amass all the information China’s authorities were doing everything they could to suppress, and especially not have collected. The suspicion that all dissatisfied and frustrated Chinese might assemble themselves in a single, mighty chorus can still make the Chinese leaders tremble with the fear of chaos. The media, which was always state-controlled, remains muzzled.
There were dramatic actions carried out by workers all over China – and still are. Some years there are over 100,000 episodes, directed against employers who don’t worry about safety or a minimum wage, do not pay overtime, do not pay at all, fire people without compensation, and much else that one has trouble even imagining. Like torturing workers.
Han Dongfang issued his bulletins about Chinese workers on a steady basis, but their reach was limited. He had concluded long ago that conflict was not the way forward, but how does one cooperate with someone who accuses you of counterrevolutionary activities, loathes you like the plague, and exiles you into the bargain?
I had to find a model founded not on confrontation, but on cooperation, and figured that a way forward would be collective bargaining at the individual workplace with democratically elected representatives on the part of the workers. That would make the two sides less fearful of one another. But the time wasn’t ripe, because most workplaces were still state owned.
So he continued to think and to publish the bulletins, which he realized was insufficient. In 1997, a few months before China re-took Hong Kong, Han Dongfang got together with the US-backed Radio Free Asia to make a shortwave radio program for mainland listeners about workers conditions in China.
The program was a huge success, with several million listeners. Here, in 2014, it is still broadcasting three times a week. Listeners call or write to Han Dongfang with their problems; he returns their calls and records the conversations, which are then broadcast. Since many people have the same problems, some conversations are divided up and broadcast in installments over several weeks, like a kind of serial taken from real life.
The radio program was like developing wings! I could hover over China and hear – and convey – the workers’ voices and their massive problems; appalling, heart-breaking and dramatic accounts. About people who had lost a hand, a leg, a spouse, a farm, a son or a daughter. About wholly inhuman treatment and no compensation of any kind.
There were conversations with people who had become incurably ill from their work and suffered from silicosis or paralysis, and employers who simply denied ever having seen the worker in question because no written contracts were made.
Your first inclination is to kill the guy! says Han Dongfang (who is a Christian). I talked to a man who very calmly told me: I’m in a wheelchair. I know how to make a bomb. I worked in a mine and was responsible for blowing things up. I know where to get hold of explosives. I have my wheelchair. The government refuses to help me. I’ll blow it all up! And there I am, in my small radio studio, in complete conflict, with my sensibility on one side and sense of justice on the other.
I am an activist! After a few years I almost went mad, listening to all this tragedy. I could do nothing but try to calm them down, comfort them and convey to a broader audience.
Once again a new pathway opened as the result of a kind of pressure Han Dongfang found intolerable. We decided to take some of the cases to court. We focused on workplace safety, such as in the coalmines, and compensation for incapacity to work, pain and suffering. That changed the rules dramatically.
Initially, we didn’t believe we stood a chance. But we actually won cases from day one. It just goes to show that sometimes, when things are at their most depressing and we only see the negative, the desperate situation – dictatorship, injustice, no rule of law or human rights – then when you take action, new initiatives open new possibilities.
However, an even bigger surprise was in store: There was support from within the system. Lawyers who took these cases that were hardly worth the effort and without prestige risked both their license to practice and their freedom. And the judges who dealt with the cases could merely have done as so many of their colleagues and rejected them so they were never tried in court.
We saw that after routinely brushing aside every case against the system, the courts changed course. Now the courts began showing the people trust – and vice versa. In the beginning the workers didn’t trust the courts and didn’t dare to go to court. This changed, and now we might describe the situation as normal, says Han Dongfang. At least in cases that don’t criticize the government or the Communist Party.
I’m not saying that this was all due to the radio program. But the timing was perfect!
Han Dongfang is also proud of the fact that in the course of time he has received phone calls from many government officials who rather hesitantly admit to being regular listeners. We’ve been told you are a subversive hooligan, but you sound more like a firefighter than a troublemaker. Even I, a government official, feel the burden of your listeners. I would agree with them to explode a bomb. But you always tell these people not to do it. And still, you are labeled an enemy of the government and not allowed to return to China. I am confused!
So Han Dongfang knows the rulers also listen to his program, which has been on the air since 1997. And because of this, they have gradually grown confident he is not trying to unseat them, but solely wants to create decent conditions for China’s more than 600 million workers – exactly as he was trying to do 25 years ago.
No doubt state security listens to my programs and writes reports. They probably read something like: He wants to change the country, yes, but he’s not a troublemaker; he wants to improve China. So there is a kind of trust, and the radio has contributed to this idea, where they understand that I am not a revolutionary.
A while back I had a conversation with a man who was dying from silicosis in the third stage. He was one of the guys who wanted to blow the whole thing up to create better conditions for his fellow workers. We talked for two hours. He cried. I talked him out of it. The other day my colleagues told me he committed suicide (Chinese) New Year’s Eve. Han Dongfang laughs. You see? It’s my life. All these tragedies … They don’t just go in one ear and out the other. They stay here! He pokes himself hard in the chest, just above his heart. I’m lucky because I refuse to go mad. I try to find a solution instead.
After having collected several million yuan to conduct thousands of cases, the CLB was forced to admit it couldn’t keep up and was unable to prosecute every single injustice against Chinese workers. The answer was not to be found in the judicial system.
We had to find a way to prevent violations in the workplace being settled in court. And once again the answer was collective bargaining. Each individual workplace had to be able to negotiate its way to fixing its own situation, and the workers’ representatives had to be elected by the workers at the workplace in question – not appointed by (and from among) ACFTU bureaucrats, or by the employer.
Actually, it was something of a breakthrough in 2000. The general understanding had always been that workers needed freedom of association before they could organize their own, independent unions. Of course this is correct, but when we look at the reality of China, it’s simply impossible. The Communist Party is so fearful of granting the people freedom of organization and assembly that it is counterproductive to even talk about it.
So we have to ease the fear and reluctance and try to find other paths. But it is strange that the Communist Party claims to be a workers’ party while at the same time being so afraid of the workers that you won’t let them speak up and think on their own behalf.
On the other hand, the Party is no longer the sole instigator of the injustices now that most businesses are privately operated, whether they be Chinese or foreign, private or state-owned. Because today even state-owned companies are run by a commercial management that is no longer 100% identical with the Communist Party. Even though relations are often very close, they are still formally separate. It’s about the relationship between employer and employee, not the party-state and the citizens. It’s about a decent or at least a minimum salary and decent labor conditions. It’s about legal issues, not affairs of state, says Han Dongfang.
The law requires employers to provide a safe working environment, where the workers won’t burn to death, breathe poison, get sick and die prematurely. So we circumnavigate the right of association and all the independent union slogans. In that way we can even make life easier for the Communist Party by creating stability in the labor market. We don’t mind that. So our point is that local collective bargaining is all about sensible economics. And thus China’s workers’ movement is about economics, not politics.
It took five years or more to moderate the Communist Party’s apprehension. For Han Dongfang and the CLB, the conclusion was obvious. But for the international labor- and human rights movement it was sacrilege to separate the rights of wage earners in China from universal human rights issues and the right to organize freely.
I mean, you’re from Europe. Imagine telling the local union guys that their union was non-political! Han Dongfang breaks out laughing. Anyone who claimed that, would get kicked out immediately. So I guess it’s outrageous that someone like myself, a so-called labor leader in China, states that the workers’ movement is non-political – in a country well-nigh the worlds’ worst violator of rights and biggest supplier of cheap labor.
But even a dictatorship government that uses armed force to deal with millions of people demonstrating in the streets wouldn’t dare use armed force to put out fires like peoples’ daily economic struggle for work, income, safety and child’s education. You can’t shoot them all or throw them all into prison. Even if people call me crazy and say I trust a dictatorship. I don’t. But I know human weakness. And China’s leaders are only so strong.
Therefore the CLB chose to circumvent the Communist Party’s worst fear and offer a solution, namely collective bargaining. While the CLB believed this was a good idea, they didn’t know much about how to proceed.
So in 2005 the China Labour Bulletin began doing a lot of research and tried to engage some of the multinational investors in China, in order to get them to introduce local collective bargaining agreements – instead of all this talk about corporate social responsibility, about flying some inspector in every so often to check on things, just like you check an animal farm to see if the animals are treated decently, because the animals are not able to protect themselves … I know I’m being extreme, but sometimes you need to provoke a bit. If the animals aren’t able to care for themselves, they definitely need our help and sympathy.
But workers happen to be as human as anyone. We don’t need sympathy. We need decent conditions. This is why we need companies to engage in collective bargaining. And if the workers bargain a stupid deal for themselves, it’s their fault, and they have to do better next time round. But the companies and the government must accept the bargaining process. It’s a win-win-win situation, says Han Dongfang.
The workers get decent conditions, production at the workplace runs smoothly, and the rulers get the social stability they desire, which is also the prerequisite for China’s continued existence. If it succeeds, many of the strikes that take place in China today will simply fail to occur.
When I went to prison, I wasn’t at all prepared for it. And the lesson was that you need to find the main point and ignore everything else. That’s it. And how should I reach these millions of workers? I have to find a formula. You say I talk like Deng Xiaoping, but he’s right when he says you need to find some stepping stones to cross the river – a solution to the immediate problem, and then solve the rest later.
Han Dongfang compares the process with how illness was dealt with in the Middle Ages. One could not cure every patient singly, but one could do research and work like mad to find the formula of a medicine that could cure them all. In fact, he considers the CLB’s research of local work contracts as laboratory work. Which approach and techniques are best suited? Which rules? Laws? Han Dongfang is – and considers himself – a laborer, but there are also academics with diverse backgrounds among his 15 co-workers.
We have to tread lightly. Because when China’s lawmakers had to make a law on assembly, they created one that doesn’t allow assembly. So soon, when they have to legislate on strikes, we want them to allow strikes, not prohibit them. The same goes for legislation on collective bargaining. It has to be a law that encompasses the opportunities, not the limitations.
This is not so easy, because China trails an enormous past in its wake – both the digestible and the indigestible. And one of the hardest to swallow is “collective”. Everyone over a certain age regards the peasant collectives of the 1950s and 60s with horror. The mere word ‘collective’ frightens both ordinary people and the powerful leaders. We’ve held seminars on alleviating the fear of just this one word; we’ve lobbied, I’ve spoken endlessly on the radio, and now we have the social media to explain that ‘collective’ doesn’t mean collective suppression. It could be collective benefit.
The years 2005 to 2010 were used to make this notion tolerable for the parties involved. In 2010 there was a dramatic strike at Honda Automotive Components Manufacturing in Foshan, in Guangdong Province. For unknown reasons local authorities did not immediately send in the police against the strikers. In this way a bit of trust was created that brought about a negotiated resolution of the strike with the assistance of local attorneys who were already collaborating with the CLB – something that was completely exceptional at the time. The 1,800 workers, mostly young migrant laborers from the western provinces, received a 25% wage increase, to 1,900 yuan per month (approx. $250 at the time). The strike further inspired two Honda factories in the region to take matters in their own hands and negotiate better pay.
The Honda strike and its smart solution was widely reported in the Chinese media.
The following year, in 2011, there was a big strike at the also partly Japanese-owned Citizen watch factory in Guangdong. Here, too, there was no police violence. The conflict was resolved from within – without external negotiators. The factory leadership agreed to negotiate with representatives chosen by the workers themselves. Each side recognized the other’s mandate to negotiate and they arbitrated their way to a solution everyone was satisfied with. The workers received more than they had dared hope for and therefore decided to work extra hard to make up for production time lost during the strike.
The Japanese owners were astounded, and to show their appreciation invited all Citizen’s 1,000 workers to a banquet at a fashionable hotel. This case, too, was mentioned far and wide throughout the media – the social media, the official media, TV, newspapers, magazines, and even the ACFTU’s own newspaper.
It became the case, the milestone proof for collective bargaining. It turned a nasty strike into this win-win-win solution. The workers won their compensation; the employers won stable labor turnover, and the government won face in not having to send in the police and gain a bad image. And later we had several similar cases, says Han Dongfang, who now looks like a cat that has just been given a bowl of cream …
Unfortunately, one must be careful not to expect too much, and the majority of democratically elected shop stewards at workplaces with successfully negotiated agreements were fired after half a year or so. Even at Citizen, which had such a happy ending. But employers don’t like the workers’ representatives, so they find an excuse to fire them. We have to find a way to protect them. Otherwise no one will represent his or her colleagues.
Han Dongfang makes a graphic comparison: We have a saying in Chinese about bears collecting corncobs. It picks one up and tucks it under the arm; picks another and tucks it under the arm, and the first one drops to the ground. So when it has collected all the corncobs in the field it still has only one. The rest are all over the place. Everything’s lost!
We workers want it to be regulated. So now CLB has drafted a code and posted it on the Internet and many labor NGOs, workers’ leaders and factory representatives have signed it. And further to our spreading it on the social media, the official media have also reported on it. Thus it has become common knowledge that the workers are willing to have regulations on collective bargaining, and that both parties should respect these regulations.
The intention is to establish a system that respects – and is respected by – both parties, and can serve as the basis for later legislation.
How do we prevent the employers’ sacking of democratically elected workers’ representatives? Sort of back to square one! Collective bargaining. It’s a way of nurturing trade unions from the grassroots level and up, instead of top-down. We must make sure the workers’ elected representatives are admitted into ACFTU, the only legal organization.
But how does the ACFTU feel about this? Han Dongfang laughs heartily. That’s the point! The ACFTU really doesn’t like collective bargaining. We never pulled any punches. We told the government and the workers that eventually collective bargaining will lead to peaceful union reform, another aspect of the win-win-win equation. Unfortunately, ACFTU doesn’t agree; the 900,000 paid staff don’t agree. Their foremost interest is their own employment, not workers’ conditions in the workplaces.
The Party and the government have nothing against the ACFTU becoming a true workers’ organization, that’s only natural. But the union hates it because it wants nothing to do with workers at the factory level. The whole idea is that the locally elected representatives become part of ACFTU. This will create this massive bottom layer of actual workers’ union leaders in the ACFTU – which will make a major part of the union’s present staff redundant. It’s no longer the Party that fears losing control of the workers, but the state-controlled union itself.
In the fall of 2013 China’s president and party boss, Xi Jinping, arranged a meeting with the ACFTU’s top leadership at Zhongnanhai, the government headquarters in Beijing. Among many other things, Xi stated that the labor movement had the crucial task of ensuring the workers’ chances of realizing their dreams at the workplace and in daily life.
All of this is with the aim of realizing Xi Jinping’s own vision for China, The Chinese Dream. It is a dream of national rejuvenation, improving the people’s standard of living, prosperity, constructing a better society and strengthening the military.
Xi Jinping’s essential point at the meeting was to emphasize the ACFTU’s duty of making sure the working class received its proper share of China’s growing economic success. Xi’s orders to the ACFTU were astonishing. A milestone. Then, the following week, the organization expressed its own interpretation of Xi’s speech on its website.
The ACFTU wrote: 1) We will continue to ensure the labor movement’s loyalty to the Party and further ensure that the workers remain loyal to the Party; 2) We will work even harder at the workplaces to create more model workers and ensure that they contribute to The Chinese Dream; 3) Should individual workers encounter serious difficulties, we will try to help them economically. If we cannot, we will make sure they understand why.
None of these points had the slightest to do with Xi Jinping’s speech.
Han Dongfang veritably splutters with rage. There’s no way the ACFTU is able to achieve the target Xi Jinping outlined. And they don’t know how to actually say so; instead they shield themselves behind all sorts of old-school political nonsense. They know perfectly well that Xi Jinping won’t visit every three months to see if they do as they’re told, so they buy some time and continue business as usual.
The CLB quickly published an article describing what Xi Jinping actually demanded, and how the ACFTU reacted. The Party is in urgent need of making sure the workers are happy; or happier; they must receive their share of the fruit of their efforts – rather than organizing strikes day in and day out. In that respect the workers and the Party are on the same page now. ACFTU can’t deliver, and acts despicably selfishly. ACFTU is living dangerously!
While the CLB and its collaborators on the mainland have enjoyed excellent working conditions since 2009, with very little chicanery from the authorities, the article about Xi Jinping and the ACFTU created an enormous fuss. The organizations on the mainland were told to close down temporarily, study a variety of political reading matter and possibly restructure their work – all as a direct result of Han Dongfang’s article.
I told them to do as they were told. It was close to the New Year holiday anyway. We could do some thinking and strategic planning. I actually think ACFTU was taking revenge by alerting the police to our partners.
The China Labour Bulletin has grown big and strong in its twenty years of existence. An important thing to remember is that it is a worker’s organization, not a charity. Also, that the CLB is in the singular situation of its presence not being allowed where it does its work, and that it may not admit its intrinsic members for what they are.
The organization is still illegal in China, and Han Dongfang and two of his 16 co-workers are still prohibited entry to the mainland. The others travel back and forth and meet with their working partners, which include small NGOs that help migrant workers, modest information- and advice centers, and legal aid- and attorneys’ offices. It is a mixed bag with the same goal as the CLB, namely the strengthening of the Chinese worker’s conditions.
Efforts are principally concentrated in Guangdong Province, on the other side of the border with Hong Kong, which houses China’s greatest concentration of factories in and around Deng Xiaoping’s first industrialization zones. The rest of the country stays informed via the official media, Han Dongfang’s radio program, and in recent years (and in a big way) through social media.
Initially the organizations were mutually suspicious; they were afraid to collaborate and feared the authorities’ chicanery that automatically followed. Nevertheless, conditions for cooperation have steadily improved as the authorities have realized the CLB is not a troublemaker, but in fact is making an important contribution to stabilizing the labor market.
The CLB holds workshops in China and at its office in Hong Kong. Occasionally participants are denied travel permission, but usually they are allowed.
This was the case with nine Chinese workers who had organized strikes in China at the end of 2013. Han Dongfang was to be the featured speaker at the Building and Woodworkers’ International’s congress in Thailand, and he asked for permission to bring some colleagues along.
I believe it is hugely important that they travel abroad and meet foreign union people, see and hear what goes on outside China. You can’t read this in a book. Here they spent several days with colleagues from many other countries. Seeing a Swedish carpenter being elected president! Someone like themselves!
Han Dongfang believes the meeting with the international labor movement was a revelation for his nine colleagues, just as it was for him when he met the well-articulated demonstrators in Beijing 25 years earlier.
It was the first time ever that the international workers’ movement saw Chinese workers as equals, not victims. It was an amazing experience for me as well. When I made the keynote speech, I said, it’s these guys speaking, these nine guys from China. I speak on their behalf because I’m the one who speaks English.
Han Dongfang made a point of getting his audience to understand that China’s several-hundred-million workers should not merely be considered as victims deserving pity; that, on the contrary, they are very much capable of demanding their rights and fighting for their cause. And when you realize this, you have several-hundred-million potential new union members in a country, which has driven standards lower and lower for two consecutive decades. They are well organized and bargaining for decent conditions, social security. When you understand that we, the Chinese workers, are the driving force behind this development, then there’s hope.
My speech at that congress was my best ever! The applause was much bigger in Geneva in 1993, when they saw me as a victim of the brutal suppression in 1989 – some kind of moral icon. And all these official union guys, the ILO (International Labor Organization) people, in a standing ovation for several minutes to humiliate China’s official representatives. But this speech was much more touching because these nine strike leaders introduced the voices from China to the entire world’s labor movement. This created hope, and people from the rest of the world saw the new face of the Chinese worker – and the international labor movement’s common potential.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the 25 years since Han Dongfang passionately threw himself into the struggle for better conditions for China’s workers. It may have come to him as a revelation, but he has never lost sight of his goal.
While he flatly refuses to take the credit, there is no doubt Han Dongfang and his three handfuls of co-workers on the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong have done more for Chinese laborers than anyone or anything else in the last 25 years.
The Party-state has gone from imprisoning him as a counterrevolutionary – a crime that has since been stricken from China’s penal code – to gradually supporting his ideas. The secret here is that Han Dongfang totally refrains from challenging the Communist Party’s absolute authority. For this, the time is not yet ripe.
But the fact is, the government and Han Dongfang are in very discreet contact where, together we explore the possibilities of institutionalizing collective bargaining as the key to a stable labor market, including how to quietly convert the ACFTU into a functioning union that actually represents the workers. The secret meetings take place in Hong Kong, since Han Dongfang is still not welcome in his fatherland.
Han Dongfang is devoting ten more years to the cause. Here at CLB we’ll have finished our laboratory work in two or three, perhaps five years. Democratically elected workers’ representatives will be doing collective bargaining at factory level; the workers must organize, and the shop stewards must be protected from being sacked. This process will grow inside the ACFTU from the bottom up. Best-case scenario, it will create stronger and stronger social democratic values and language, which will rub off on the surrounding society. He is well aware that this is enormously ambitious. Nevertheless, he has already made much more progress than anyone – himself included – had ever imagined. The work never ends …
But give me 10 years. Then I think my job will be done. In 10 years I’ll leave the labor movement. At that time Han Dongfang will be 60 years of age.
He has made a huge effort on behalf of China – which still won’t have him home.
“Home” is both Beijing and his village in Shanxi. Mostly it’s the village, where he spent five years of his childhood. Here one finds many beautiful old buildings still in use. My children have been there. They brought me pictures from there 10 years ago. And without naming a date, Han Dongfang knows that, just as the authorities have gradually adopted his ideas, in the end they will also allow him to come home.
Some years ago Han Dongfang told me about the night in 1993 when he slept on the bridge between China and Hong Kong. That was the last time I set foot in China. And I haven’t tried since. China loses face when matters are brought to a head, and this is counterproductive to my goal of promoting China’s workers’ movement.
I don’t have any plans, but I long for it more and more. In China, you know we say, Luò Yè, Gui Gen, (落叶归根) a falling leaf returns to the roots. The older you get, the more you long in your heart to return to where you came from. And I feel stronger about that, but it is not on my agenda.
Neither Han Dongfang nor I remember if we ever met during the tumultuous weeks of the Beijing uprising in 1989. But I can clearly recall the first time I met him in Hong Kong in 1993, just after he had been banished from China. He was grave, gaunt, unhappy and unsure of the future. He had just spent that night on the bridge and didn’t look at all like a man of action, able to challenge – not to mention collaborate with – China’s leadership.
They had been unable to break his will nonetheless. His eyes were glowing. The only thing was, he didn’t know how to proceed. He held a press conference at “my” club, the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), and spoke of his desperation over having been exiled and his impotence in relation to those in power. He was uncertain how he could continue working with the Chinese labor movement.
We have met a number of times over the years, especially in Hong Kong where I have followed his and the CLB’s efforts – sitting in their studio, for example, and listening to radio conversations with workers on the mainland. After a few years he had grown self-confident and physically strong, as he must also have been during the weeks he was a labor activist in Beijing.
Han Dongfang has a highly unusual kind of magnetism – mild and friendly, captivating and authoritative, all at once. He laughs a lot. As opposed to many of his compatriots, he looks you straight in the eye when he speaks. And is just so damn sure of himself. He’s incredibly determined and does not give up.
In 2009 he was in Denmark to receive the PL Foundation’s human rights award in the sum of 100,000 kroner (approx. $18,000) for “having for years made an enormous effort on behalf of human rights in the People’s Republic of China”. The foundation’s creator, Poul Lauritzen, was active in the Danish resistance movement against Nazi occupation in WWII.
In preparation for this book, Han Dongfang and I spent some days together in Hong Kong in February 2014. It began with a lovely meal at the FCC, of which I am still a member, where we made preparations for the several-day-long conversation found in this book.
And in the autumn of 2014 Han Dongfang spent a few days here in Denmark on a speaking tour of northern Europe. Once again I was impressed by the focus and energy he devotes to his cause.
Love – with Chinese characteristics
Chai Ling is in charge of organizing the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and has done a terrific job. She has been responsible for ambulances having free access during the hunger strike. She has also been responsible for information and statements spreading like wildfire from the Square throughout the city (quote from my original Beijing Diary)
Chai Ling was under five feet tall and just 23 years old when she was in command of demonstrators and the students’ vigilance committee during the insurrection. She was an exponent of the times. In a way, China in the 1980s was the women’s decade.
China’s women thrived in the second half of the 1980s. They wrote books, their problems were put on the state agenda, they had political representation. It was a new wave of progress that ended abruptly when the student uprising was crushed.
Unlike the development that has taken place in most of China, conditions for women and their participation in politics has regressed since the suppression of the revolt. On top of which, after a few years the state did away with the life-long support of Chinese families. The resulting societal disintegration and impotence has meant increased violence against women, growing prostitution and human trafficking. And as more and more Chinese men have grown rich, they have begun keeping concubines, just as they did before the revolution in 1949.
In 1995 China hosted the United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing and sponsored the Beijing Platform that obliges countries to safeguard women’s rights and increase their representation in politics to at least 30% of their country’s parliament. In China’s case this included the Communist Party’s top leadership and the country’s government. But today, in spite of these lofty goals, only 22% of the members of the National People’s Congress and the Communist Party are women, and they do not necessarily represent women’s interests. As a rule they are merely famous, very rich, or relatives of prominent Party members. At least now, however, it is a topic that can be spoken about.
In 2012 one of the rich, female members of parliament in all seriousness introduced a bill that would banish women from the workplace and keep them at home. It created a hefty debate in cyberspace about when women would be allowed to vote for women whom they could trust to represent their interests.
As of now, the only level of administration in which women can elect a female representative is in the villages, where they can elect one – and only one – woman to the local leadership. This option does not exist in towns and cities, at factories, public offices or universities, for example.
One need not be a revolutionary romantic to understand that the decade of the 1950s was the best time ever for women in China’s history. They were the first to benefit from Mao’s revolution in 1949. It was then that Mao Zedong magnanimously declared that women hold up half the sky. The new China’s first law was the Women’s Law, which for the first time in history gave a woman the right to choose her own spouse.
The law changed women’s conditions dramatically. They came out of their homes and took jobs. Citizens were allowed to pursue their own love life. Local opera troupes put on performances where young people met and fell in love.
Other political campaigns followed, like the Cultural Revolution, which totally stifled the needs of the individual. Nevertheless, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms created space for women to spread their wings. That is, until reforms were brought to an abrupt halt in the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 uprising, making prospects for the future look suddenly grim.
The new forms of media and the attendant culture of debate have created fissures so that women’s rights – and men’s, too, for that matter – are now discussed on the internet. And in the big cities one finds examples of experimental theater and other activities that tamper with society’s prevalent roles.
There are women on TV – beautiful women who recite the news and things like that. As to influential appointments, however, so far only six women have been members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and none have ever served in the Party’s most powerful body, the Politburo’s Standing Committee. Two women have been party secretaries on a provincial level, four have been governor, and three have been deputy prime minister prior to Liu Yangdong, who in 2013 was appointed second deputy prime minister (out of four) in Li Keqiang’s administration. On the other hand, there are plenty of women on China’s neighborhood committees, which administrate residential areas on the local level and make sure that residents behave according to the rules.
Chinese women are generally less well educated than men. This is in large part due to custom, which demands the son stay in the home and care for his parents in their old age, while the daughter is married off and must help support her parents-in-law. Out in the provinces it is considered a waste of money to have an educated daughter as she will leave end up some other family’s property by way of marriage.
On top of this, there is a deep-seated prejudice that men are superior to women, who are regarded as di su zhi (第 蘇 只) – of “low quality” – especially in the countryside. When women do manage to participate in politics, they are often relegated to dealing with “women’s affairs”, like children, health, education or culture.
China has gradually seen the emergence of gender-role research as well as women’s rights activists, yet both are often met with resistance. Nevertheless, while progress has been almost unfathomably slow, the confrontation with China’s deep-seated patriarchal culture has been growing. In fact, there is a saying – yin sheng, yang shuai (阴盛阳衰) – which means, “Women’s strength is growing, men’s is declining.” Still, there is a long way to the top. China ranks in the middle of the 2013 World Economic Forum index regarding gender distinction, while Iceland is ranked first and Denmark is 8th. The UK is 18th on the list and the US is 23rd.
All of China’s women and men, young and old, deserve that society comes to grips with the truly big questions, such as why 50 million Chinese women are left alone in the countryside with the children and old folks while the men get jobs in the cities. What does this mean for the country as a whole? And why do women in the cities remain unmarried despite China’s large surplus of eligible men (the ratio is 100:118), the result of 35 years of restrictive population policies? Today unmarried women over the age of 30 are considered spinsters – they are sheng nü (剩女), “left-over”.
There is no internet debate about rural women’s conditions, only about urban women, and in the meantime the gulf between countryside and city, rich and poor, is growing fast. An important key to bridging this gulf can be found in gender roles, yet this is being overlooked.
An enormous transformation in the perception of love relationships occurred when the private ownership law was introduced in 2007, allowing people to buy and own their own homes. One unintended consequence has been that young men who are not rich enough to purchase their own living quarters are unable to find a girlfriend. Thus, even the love between men and women has become market-regulated. The family has gone from being managed by the Revolution to being driven by materialism.
In China, love – like socialism – has acquired its own uniquely Chinese characteristics.
May 23, 1989
– It is not a return to Maoism. Nevertheless, Mao Zedong is a national icon – the unifying figure that China is lacking right now, during the greatest crisis in the country’s modern history.
Danish TV News – May 23, 1989
It’s my job to go to the airport and send the editing equipment home. All 250 kilos of it, along with 60 tapes containing sequences to be used in a Danish national television current affairs program. I have been anticipating this day with apprehension, since sending recorded material out of the country during the current state of emergency is forbidden.
As it turns out, there isn’t much state of emergency to detect at the airport. A single armed soldier is standing guard at the entrance to the runway. This, apparently, is not unusual.
Sending off the equipment and tapes takes place quite painlessly. No one bothers to look inside the box of tapes. The people in charge here don’t care about the tapes leaving China. They may even be pleased. In any case, they never even ask what is recorded on them.
This, too, can be a way of expressing feelings about the state of emergency, about the authorities and the students.
I prepare myself for another night’s vigil in our suite at the Beijing Hotel, which has come to resemble an exclusive version of the student’s camp at Tiananmen Square.
The four Finnish journalists live here now, the Swedes and I are spending the night, and people drop by to chat and enjoy our terrific view of the Square. In particular, I exchange all kinds of information with my friends from the British news bureau, Reuters. There is a prodigious amount of gadding about.
Among other things, cramped working conditions lead me to discover that the reports I telephone back home have the best sound quality when I use the phone in one of the bathrooms of our Beijing Hotel suite.
The guards stationed at the elevators on each floor have completely given up trying to figure out who actually lives here. And while the telephone switchboard lady began by insisting on handling all our phone conversations abroad, she has since given up, due to the fact that we are making calls all the time. Now we’re put through automatically so we can dial direct, and the switchboard lady doesn’t have to keep herself awake night after night, processing our endless telephone dispatches.
The students at Tiananmen Square are exceedingly satisfied with having thrown the country into a crisis. There they sit for the eleventh day – a giant embarrassment and irritation for the Chinese leadership. And the leaders keep silent, both in the Great Hall of the People and over in Zhongnanhai, in the Forbidden City, where they have their official residences.
I imagine the underground passageways between the parliament building and the party- and government headquarters being frequented more than they have in a long time, with government officials and even Li Peng, Zhao Ziyang and other prominent individuals running back and forth with grave expressions on their faces.
Now the students are demanding that Parliament – the National People’s Congress – convene in an emergency meeting to deal with their demands of a say in decision-making, freedom of expression and the democratization of society.
Wan Li, chairman of the National People’s Congress, has interrupted his visit to the United States. Apparently he believes the same as Zhao Ziyang as he expresses his full support for the “young Chinese’ patriotic enthusiasm”. Now he is on his way home to promote these beliefs in the current power struggle.
Nobody knows who is actually in control at the moment. When I ask the students on the Square, their answer is a contented shake of the head.
Beijing is slowly returning to its usual rhythm. People go to work. Most busses have returned to their routes. Once more there are officers controlling Beijing’s chaotic traffic and the old men are again giving their songbirds a breath of fresh air in the parks.
The student leaders have not lost their grip on their well-disciplined organization. All they have done is listen to the authorities’ criticism of their having taken complete control of the downtown area.
The hunger-striking students at Tiananmen Square have begun eating again. Some go home to their universities for a rest, but there are constant new arrivals from the provinces, keeping the students’ protest as extensive as ever.
The out-of-towners generally stay a few nights. Many have traveled for days by train to get here and for some it is their first visit to the capital. So they are damn well not going back home right away.
The Square is pretty filthy by now, but spirits are high. The students have figured out how to adapt themselves as well as possible. They have hung up posters here and there, of former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and many others whom they respect. There are potted plants and soft carpets. Some even have camp beds. And above all, these “common students” radiate an enormous joie de vivre and magnanimity.
They have reason to be happy. Ordinary people are donating money to the revolt. In the shops around the Square they are able to buy goods for half-price. Some places they needn’t pay at all. Folks give them all the support they can. The bicycle taxis drive professors and female students for free (I had no idea the Chinese could be so chivalrous), and water sellers stop by with fresh drinking water – also without charge.
The garbage collectors still come every day with brooms, disinfectant and 40 rubbish carts. They have removed almost 150 tons of refuse since the students moved in ten days ago. Most important of all, they empty the provisional toilets that have been set up behind thick, faded sheets of canvas along the eastern and western sides of the Square.
The toilets stink in the heat, but at least they’re there.
It’s a quiet and peaceful day on Tiananmen Square, until suddenly three young men hurl ink on the meter-high portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs above the entrance to the Forbidden City – right where Mao proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China almost 40 years ago.
The students are deeply shocked. They immediately “arrest” the culprits and hand them over to the police. The portrait is covered up. No one can bear to see Mao Zedong hanging there with blobs of ink on his face.
Shortly thereafter a terrific dust storm sweeps through Beijing. The students’ banners are flayed by the wind and their tents strain to become airborne. Dust invades everything as the sun’s rays are reduced to a dark and gloomy glare above the Square. Then peals of thunder erupt and rain lashes down over the students – and the entire city.
The students’ own investigation reveals that it was provocateurs who desecrated the portrait of the hero of the Revolution and father of the country.
For any rational person it is obvious that the ink-throwing incident and the heavy weather have nothing to do with each other. But nothing is as it used to be in Beijing, and I can’t help thinking The Great Helmsman is keeping an eye on things from his perch above the Forbidden City or from his mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square.
The students are not Maoists. Nevertheless, Mao Zedong is the founder of the new China and the symbol of an entire nation, especially now, when China is without an “emperor” – that is, without a unifying figure and paternal monarch. This is why they won’t tolerate the vandalizing of Mao’s portrait.
The students are loyal to the Communist Party, socialism and the Motherland. They are deeply patriotic and insist their demands are for the good of all of China, not just themselves.
Later in the day, one million people are once again assembled after work to show their support for the students. Once again calls ring out for Li Pengto stand down, and when night falls there is once again light in the windows of the Great Hall of the Pepole, as around town busses are hauled out once again to block the major intersections.
The rain has cleansed the air, but the Square has become completely covered in mud, like a rained-out rock festival – and giving off the same odor. The difference is that no one here is drunk or stoned.
Now, with the hunger strike called off, the crew of nurses no longer works around the clock and the sound of ambulance sirens is much more infrequent. The loudspeaker system has fallen silent, but the Square is so awash with rumors that it has become simply impossible to keep track of them.
The students are curious to hear what I know, but what can I tell them? I spend a lot of time this evening denying rumors. Among other things, I have to disappoint one student by telling him that, no, 30 countries have not broken diplomatic ties with China because of the state of emergency in Beijing.
Now the portrait of Mao has disappeared completely. People who don’t know what has happened are standing around as though rooted to the spot. They turn to ask the person next to them what’s going on. Everyone is thoroughly shaken.
Around 10 pm I am standing on the overcrowded bridge to the Forbidden City, looking at the strangely empty spot over its entrance and trying to assimilate everything happening around me. Then everyone, with all their questions, falls silent.
A huge new portrait of Mao Zedong appears, swaying above the crowd, borne by a truck with an extended ladder. Tens of thousands of people watch in total silence. None of us makes a sound as two men at the top of the ladder maneuver the picture into place.
To me, the portrait appears different from the one that used to hang there. The background is white. It used to be a grayish blue. It occurs to me that there may be a whole stock of Mao portraits in the basement, precisely in anticipation of acts of vandalism – and perhaps future maintenance.
The breathless atmosphere focuses my diffusion of thoughts. I have butterflies in my stomach as the picture is nudged first one way, then the other – always hanging a bit crooked – until finally Mao is in position. The silence on the Square is deafening.
The two men on the ladder turn to face the vast crowd and flash the V-sign, the students’ victory sign. There’s an explosion of applause that seems to rock the entire city. A few seconds later everyone is singing the Chinese National Anthem.
Just imagine! To be right here, right now. Being able to witness – practically participate in – such an intensely moving event, with history being made all around me. This has to be as good as it gets.
The Chinese are one, great mass. They can experience things together in a way I have never seen anywhere else. It is simply spellbinding.
What I am experiencing is not politics or ideology or the enforcement of decrees. It’s respect for one another and for China. And it is respect for the national symbol, Mao Zedong, no matter what missteps he may have made in building the new China. I don’t know if this kind of cognizance is to be found elsewhere.
The crowd reflects on what has taken place, then returns to what by now has become everyday life. They chant that Li Peng must go. The long column of small motorcycles resumes its parading up and down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, lights on and horns beeping non-stop. These are self-employed Beijing citizens, yet no one should be in any doubt that they support the students’ demands for greater individual freedom.
Nobody seems to have particularly noticed the military’s four-day state of emergency. While it’s fair to say that nothing in Beijing is as it was before, it is not the use of military force that dominates the scene. Of course the threat is ever-present, but no one is still taking it seriously.
And on the outskirts of the city, the military’s vehicles turn around and begin leaving town, as do a considerable number of troops.
Ji de pì – The Decade of the Chicken Fart
“The seeds of change have been sown.” Thus ended my original Beijing Diary. One could hardly call it a brash prediction …
In the preceding pages I have described many of the changes as they imposed themselves in the course of my re-reading this diary. But what has actually been done during the past 25 years for the people who demanded so much of those who rule this composite, disparate entity that calls itself China? What have they gotten out of it?
Most Chinese have experienced great material gains. They have more money to spend, many more things to spend it on, and can travel almost anywhere they want. The well behaved even get passports and are allowed to travel abroad on holiday. The Chinese have become enthusiastic users of the internet in a way and to a degree as never before, and perceive it as freedom of expression.
A middle class of 500 million people has emerged that is demanding more of life, with a greater chance of having their demands realized than ever before in China’s history.
However, trust in the rulers has never been restored. The powers that be have never seriously stuck their finger in the ground or actually asked what the people themselves really want. Like true, paternalistic old-school Confucian emperors, they believe it is precisely themselves – in all their wisdom and goodness – who are the best ones to understand and accommodate the needs of their landsmen.
The Communist Party has successfully re-invented itself time and again, yet it has been unable to re-invent its crucial role as moral compass for the people at a time when old concepts have been discarded or become meaningless, and new ones – with the exception of material wealth – have not taken their place.
Among other things, the resulting puzzlement in daily life has led to a growing religiosity among the Han Chinese who increasingly subscribe to legal and illegal religious faiths, Christian churches, Buddhism or Taoism, in their search for meaning and direction.
The crisis of confidence appears to be simply growing and growing. For years academics warned that China’s hefty economic development would be costly for the environment, but the leaders turned a deaf ear (or in any case chose to ignore the warnings and criticism, and imprison the most prominent critics) while the average citizen remained none the wiser.
Consequently there are hundreds of large Chinese cities today where simply breathing the air can be extremely dangerous. Beijing’s tap water was already dangerous to drink when I lived there in the early 1980s. At the time, we were told that, while it was true the water was toxic, it wouldn’t matter if we only drank it for a year or two. But what about an entire lifetime?
A 2012 survey taken in sixteen of China’s most populous cities revealed that hardly anyone under the age of 25 trusted the bureaucracy at all and the greatest worry of almost 82% was whether their food was safe to eat. After food safety came national security (50%), road safety (36%), and the environment (20%).
Young urban parents are horror-struck by the thought of letting their children grow up in a fog of pollution. Chinese everywhere hoard breast-milk substitutes. Hong Kong has rationed its breast-milk substitute so that mainland Chinese can only purchase two cans at a time. Australia and Great Britain have also introduced milk-substitute quotas for mainland Chinese. The very few who are able, give birth abroad in hopes that their newborn will get a better start in life if their first months are spent in a healthier environment. A mask designed to filter out the worst particle pollution allows only 5% air in, which makes it impossible for infants – and others, for that matter – to breathe.
In March 2014 the government decided to “blanket- screen” 170 million kindergarten- and school children for synthetic anti-virus medicine after it was revealed that kindergartens and schools were giving the children a pill every day so they wouldn’t get sick, but the pill caused stomach problems and other ailments. Since kindergartens are paid according to the amount of time a child is present, there is no money if the child is lying ill at home.
The series of foodstuffs scandals in China seems to be endless – and growing. One has to take into account, however, that all Chinese are eating much more – and four times better, nutritionally – than they were thirty years ago. It is also striking how the vast majority of young people are taller than their parents, their average height having risen dramatically in the course of just one generation.
As one contented Chinese farmer phrased it: “We used to eat pig feed, now we eat the pig.”
Not surprisingly, the greatly improved nutrition situation has brought with it an increase in the number of people who are overweight or obese and suffer from cardiovascular disease. Still, the overall picture is encouraging – except for the number and size of food scandals that is growing in pace with the Chinese’ average height. Here are a few examples:
With the help of carcinogenic chemicals, pork is disguised as beef, and rat, mink and fox are disguised as lamb. “Gutter oil” – used and discarded oil from restaurants that floats on top in waste pipes and sewers – is sucked up and sold as new cooking oil after undergoing a toxic chemical cleaning process and being given additives to eliminate the rancid smell. Among other things, the gutter oil contains carcinogens and poisonous mold.
In the case of pork, the meat is artificially tenderized with steroids. In the course of a couple of weeks while I was in Shanghai in 2013, almost 20,000 dead pigs were discovered floating in a tributary of the Huangpu River, which runs through the city and into the sea. After a few days the authorities declared drinking water was not affected in the slightest and pork was healthier to eat than ever before, which of course no one believed. People were much more concerned about knowing why dead pigs were floating in the river and what the authorities were going to do about it.
In 2010 China’s National Foodstuffs Security Regulating Body dealt with 130,000 cases of poisoned foodstuffs. The foodstuffs curse has had wider-spread consequences as well. In 2011 over 11,000 Germans fell ill to stomach flu after eating strawberries imported from China. There were Danes in 2009 who were left with no sense of taste for shorter or longer periods of time after eating Chinese fake pine nuts. And in 2006 over 100 people died in Panama from Chinese cough syrup that contained the deadly chemical, diethylene glycol.
It is not as if there aren’t enough rules and laws. The problem is enforcing them. In the wake of the scandals focus has been widened from hygiene to include production methods, additives, and the pollution of land and water. The reason the scandals never seem to end is that quality- and health safeguards are emasculated by bribes and corruption. A number of whistleblowers have been punished, disappeared, or died under mysterious circumstances, which does not encourage contending with or solving the problems.
In 2013, in an attempt to appease the anger over poisoned and dangerous foodstuffs, top officials proclaimed that the right of Party members, public servants and others to access specially certified, toxin-free, healthy food, tea, liquor, etc., had come to an end. Now – or whenever their bulging pantries of non-toxic foodstuffs were empty – they would have to live off the same food as the masses. While this is probably the biggest step so far in strengthening China’s food safety, it has been far from sufficient.
The Chinese have had enough of their leaders’ lies, manipulation and concealment of the truth, but still have no real means of making them accountable. An obvious step in the right direction would be to set up a people’s consumer organization along the lines of the Danish Consumer Council, but initiatives like this are not an option in today’s China, whose citizens are still in danger of being punished for sounding the alarm. Even though the Communist Party’s introverted top circles are discussing the possibility of allowing criticism and a certain amount of consumer influence, they are still far from daring to trust China’s growing middle class enough to allow it to take action itself.
Lively and dramatic debates take place on the internet, which swirls with rumors and damnations, but reliable information and confidence-inspiring institutions to look after consumer interests are lacking. Instead the cycle of scandal continues. First a shocking revelation, then the rage and outcry, falling sales and fear, and finally some kind of action by the government. Over and over again.
It has been said of other countries that democracy is propelled forward by a growing middle class with increasing demands for a better life, but there is nothing to indicate this is happening in China. Perhaps because to a certain degree the rulers have been providing greater prosperity in a raw and incoherent form, and because they refuse to give up even a little bit of power to the people.
January 2014 became an exceptional month in China. Pollution was so heavy in the north that reduced visibility forced airports and motorways to close. Foreign tourists stayed away, and even the beloved New Year’s fireworks were totally forbidden.
The explanation for all this can be found on the internet in the term, ji de pì, or “chicken fart”. Although China has declared itself an atheist state, there is a widespread perception that the rulers do have a god, namely the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which in Chinese translates as ji de pì, and when spoken with a slightly different intonation means “chicken fart”.
Ji de pì is a favorite term of the microbloggers. It is repeated with hashtags millions of times on the net whenever China’s leaders value the GDP higher than fighting unemployment or the state of people’s health. The term is used when Chinese citizens question the authorities’ economic statistics or point out the growing occurrence of cancer in children. It is also used when trying to draw attention to the fact that the increased expected lifespan since 1949 from 35 to 75 years – one of China’s otherwise greatest achievements, made possible by the absence of famine and war, better nutrition and healthcare, and an enormous decrease in infant mortality – has been falling. What is more important? Chicken farts or the survival of the Chinese?
China’s leaders apparently believe the key to their remaining in power forever is furious economic growth that can anesthetize the people’s craving for influence. Even the state-run newspaper The Global Times has written that those wielding power on all levels are obsessed with the GDP.
When, for example, the industrial city of Qingdao bragged of more than 10% economic growth in 2013, a local resident blogged, “We want blue sky, not chicken farts.” Another posted a photo of the city’s polluted skyline with the text, “The decade of the chicken fart.”
After a half year in power, president and party boss Xi Jinping tweeted about “green” GDP and “gross national happiness” (a term invented in Bhutan), but there is no evidence of this happening. Instead the president chose to stroll defiantly through Beijing’s thick, toxic smog without wearing a mask in order to show the pollution wasn’t really that dangerous. But unfortunately, it is.
A resident of Shanghai followed up on weibo: “When folks are unable to benefit from the world’s second largest GDP, the GDP isn’t much better than a chicken fart!”
The elite, who also needs to to breathe the air, continue to float on top. They know more, are better educated, have better access to information and send their children to select universities abroad. They travel far and wide outside China, where they are exposed to democracy and an independent media in places like Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. They make a mental note of what they see, yet are not necessarily enthused by societies that allow anyone at all to express criticism and make demands. The majority of those destined to become China’s future generations of leaders fail to fall into a swoon over the wonders of democracy. They do not immediately race home to introduce transparency, multiple political parties, and the tripartition of power. Most of them imagine chaos would ensue, on top of which they have an inherent mistrust of the average Chinese’s powers of judgment.
On the whole, China’s middle class is still a long way from having access to proper, trustworthy information, even though the internet has made some inroads. It retains a strong faith in authority, except there is no authority to trust when it comes to commonplace concerns. Now and then the authorities whip up a strident nationalism and patriotism in order to justify their existence. This is a unifying factor for the vast majority of Han Chinese, no matter how deep the everyday dividing lines.
One also sees disjointed, convoluted government campaigns on foreign policy and attitudes that lack overriding guidelines and are designed to fuel aggressive nationalism and – not least – support for the government and the Party. Examples of this are China’s unresolved, dramatic history with Japan (as well as other Asian neighbors), the claiming of islands in the South China Sea, and the invention of contradictions to e.g. American icons such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Apple, and Walmart. Yet many Chinese are still easily swayed, thanks not least of all to the fact that a large portion of their recent past has been suppressed, kept secret, or grossly manipulated.
In this way the rulers hope to make the masses forget about chicken farts and all the rest – at least for the time being.