After Tiananmen

In an interview with Dan Southerland on June 4, China scholar Perry Link—an expert on China’s language, culture, and popular literature—remembers the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, analyzes the student-led protest movement, and discusses the changes that have occurred in China over the last 20 years.

dan-link-305.jpg Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Perry Link in RFA's Washington DC office on June 4, 2009

Q:  Let me start, Professor Link, by asking what you think the significance of Tiananmen was.  Twenty years have gone by since June 3-4, when there was a massacre in Beijing, and suddenly it’s as though many Chinese have different aspirations now. You’ve studied the popular culture in China. Maybe there are more subtle thoughts that people have?

A: I think the consequences of the crackdown have been considerable in ways that the players themselves aren’t really that aware of. By that I mean, the lack of any ability to talk in public about values—be they political values or religious values or what we call ideological values—is not there. People talk about these things all the time in private, but you can’t talk about it in public. You can’t put it in the press. You can’t form an organization around it. And this leads to what Chinese intellectuals, starting about 15 years ago, started to call a sixiang zhenkong, a “thought vaccum.” Because other than the public values of money-making, and a fairly narrow version of nationalism, you can’t have public values.

Now, this is especially important, I argue, in Chinese culture or other Confucian cultures, because the bedrock of Confucian cultures assumes that shared public ethical values are exactly what makes society work. This is what brings about harmony, this is what Confucius taught:  If everyone plays his or her proper social role, social harmony comes about naturally. So there’s this deep thirst, I think, in the culture to have precisely what now the Communist Party is denying people can have. 

So in my perception over the last 20 years, there has been of course a big economic boom, and material advantages have appeared, and so on. But in the realm of values, which you might call Chinese spiritual life, there is a very severe distortion, because these public values aren’t there. And people want them to be there. That’s why, by the way, we see these gropings toward public values, the revivals of religions—Taoism, Buddhism, and the new boom in Christianity, and the new experimentation with qi gong, which turns out in one of its versions, Falun Gong, to threaten the polity, and then the government cracks down. But all of these are signs you can see that there’s an emptiness inside that people would like to have filled.

I study literature and art, too, and one of the things in popular fiction in the last six or eight years is the appearance of heroes who are not heroes because they are strong or they are wise or they are especially skilled at something.  They’re heroes because they’re good people. I’m thinking of the character Ru Yan for example, in Hu Fayun’s novel To look at her from a “success” point of view, she’s an ordinary person, almost mediocre. But she’s good-hearted, she means well, she puts principles into her daily life. And therefore she doesn’t get along in society, she keeps running into problems.

Now, she and characters like that are very, very popular. Why would they be so popular is an important question. I think it’s because so many readers long for that kind of person and that kind of value. And what they see in that context are these sort of devil-take-the-hindmost, raw competition and fraud and deception, fake goods and stuff. And it’s a mistake to think that all Chinese values have gone down the drain. People still want there to be honesty and sincerity and acting on principal in these characters. There are several other examples that show quite clearly that there’s that thirst for moral values.

Q: That appears to have come out in the voluntarism after the Sichuan earthquake. But that also involved some protests by parents of the children who were killed in their school rooms.

A: Right. That good-heartedness, that willingness to do something for another person from just an empathy point of view, or a charitable point of view, is a good example of what I mean.

Q: But there’s also a contradictory trend, which is the nationalism that the Communist Party has been able to use since Tiananmen to create anti-foreigner sentiment, or anti-American sentiment in particular, when it’s useful. How successful have they been in manipulating that, and is it dangerous for them to push that very far?

A: I’m glad you used the word “use”—“use” nationalism—because it was there before. In fact, I feel that the Tiananmen movement, in a sense, can be viewed as nationalist to a certain degree. That is, there were complaints about corruption and special privilege and the iron framework of the socialist work-unit system that was perceived as holding China back. And a lot of those young people were out there pursuing democracy and raising new banners because China was not going well, because China wasn’t what they wanted it to be. So in that sense, there was already nationalism there.

But I also like your word “manipulate” for what has happened since the early 90s. And I think here Deng Xiaoping pretty clearly made a conscious decision that Jiang Zemin and the later leaders that followed would stimulate nationalism, especially among the young, and use it as a way to identify the country with the Party.

And the Party’s prestige was very, very low after the massacre. Not only for holding China back in these ways, but because they did a massacre. The People’s Liberation Army fired on the people. So Deng Xiaoping wanted to bring patriotism back to the Party, and I think that worked. That worked extraordinarily well, especially among young Chinese. So even by 1999, when the Belgrade embassy incident happened and Chinese students went to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, throwing tomatoes and rocks and stuff, within those 10 years, you could see that identification of the Party with the nation, in terms of patriotism: aiguo, airen. They became the same thing. And in students who come from China today, they just automatically equate loyalty to the Party and loyalty to the country.

Q: You mentioned today in a congressional hearing that the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement was more of a “revulsion against state socialism” than an attraction to Western ideas. Wasn’t there some element at that time of attraction to Western ideas?

A:  Oh yes, there was certainly attraction. What I meant by that comment was to say that the depth and the breadth of the Tiananmen movement can only be explained, in my mind, by issues that came out of Chinese socialism, starting with Mao and then going through the early Deng years. Because it was such a big movement. There were dozens of cities that had thousands, tens of thousands, of people on the street. These were not elite students who knew something about Lord Acton and his famous phrase about “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These were not people who had strong associations with what the Statue of Liberty meant, and so on.

The elite students in Beijing who led the movement and who were on the television screens around the world did have these ideas and were strongly attracted to them. But as a whole, as a huge nationwide movement, I don’t think that you can say that because the Statue of Liberty appeared in Tiananmen Square, people came out in the streets in Kunming, and farmers and workers and others were that turned on. I think it came out of complaints about their own lives and their own society. And even with the students who were enamored with the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Statue of Liberty and so on, I think it’s fair to say that they were in love with these ideas but didn’t have a really sophisticated grasp of them.

Let me give an example—in  late 2008, when Chinese intellectuals came out with their Charter 08. Charter 08 is a very sophisticated, complete document that shows a deep understanding, not only of Western democracy but of tides that have come from South Africa and from Taiwan and so on. And so there’s a huge difference in the sophistication of the grasp of democracy that is reflected in Charter 08 and anything that the students in ’89 had. They just didn’t have that kind of grasp. And that’s not to denigrate it at all. They were very sincere in pursuing these ideas.

Q: My feeling about the students was that they really did not have a very strong grasp of constitutional democracy or some of the institutional aspects of democracy. And in fact, they were recreating on Tiananmen Square a little bit of the same elite structure where you have leadership, and almost like a Politburo, with bodyguards. I almost got knocked down one time trying to get to Chai Ling, and I was very upset, because here they are talking about democracy and they were pushing a newsman to the ground.

A: I agree with that, although I get irritated with people who criticize the students as being no better than the government or, even worse, blaming the students for the confrontation that led to the massacre. People have made that kind of critique, and I don’t think you can change the fact that the machine guns and the tanks were all on one side.

Q: And the students for the most part did not engage in violence.

Answer: No, no.

Q: And it’s ironic that they have tried to portray this as a turmoil and a counterrevolutionary rebellion. They didn’t directly call for the overthrow of the Communist Party, although when I saw signs saying “Deng Xiaoping Should Step Down” or “Li Peng Should Step Down,” I thought ‘The regime is not going to tolerate this.’

A: Right. They were very subtle about their feelings about whether this was going to be simply reform of laws and the system or a fundamental turning-over or revision of the system. One of the interesting ambiguities that I noticed was that they sang the National Anthem, which on the surface no one of course can fault them for. It’s the National Anthem. But what’s the first line of the National Anthem?  “Rise up, those of you who would not be slaves. The most dangerous moment for the Chinese nation is at hand.”  And they sang these over and over, knowing that they couldn’t be faulted for it, but also allowing themselves to express things that—if it weren’t for the National Anthem—would sound very revolutionary. This is not just revising flaws in the system.

Exactly where to pin down their thoughts along that spectrum—of course, that’s hard to do. It would  certainly vary from case to case. But I do think it’s too simple to say they were merely asking for the communist system to be improved. They had some more fundamental change than that in mind.

Q: Do you think  the Western media at this time idealized the students, perhaps? I have a feeling from my own coverage that I think we felt to a certain extent they were identifying with values that we hold, and principles that we hold.

A: It’s hard not to idealize them in one sense, and that’s that they were so loveable up there with their banners and their ideals. They were young people trying to make their country better. So I don’t blame the Western media, if that’s what we mean by idealizing. In fact, I don’t blame the Western media anyway. But I do think it’s true that they didn’t have—I said this earlier—as sophisticated an understanding of democracy, in the sense for example of separation of powers; a majority wins the vote, yes, but the minority has its rights. That kind of separation. Or the executive and legislative and judicial splits in a democratic government like ours. These kinds of subtle things. Or even an independent judiciary, I don’t think they quite understood.

So if—and I don’t know if the Western press did that—the people viewing things through the Western press got the idea that these are sophisticated students of Western democracy and stuff, yes, that would be an over-idealization.

Q: What did you actually see, yourself, of the attack? You mentioned the burned-out buses and so forth. How much did you see?

A: I went out with family and friends the night before to dinner. And when we came back, the driver for our office showed me a knife that he had kept under the seat of his car. And I said, “Xiao Wang, what are you doing with that knife?” And he said, “Something’s going to happen tonight”—he could sense it coming—“and  I want to help.” And he did, he used his car to help ferry students and so on.

Q: What was the knife about?

Answer: The knife was to defend himself if he needed to. He wasn’t going to use it, he didn’t use it. It was his defense. He didn’t know what was going to happen. He sensed that the attack was going to come, and he knew that a car would be useful, so he was going to go down to the Square and try to be useful. But he didn’t know what would happen. Later, I learned from him that he did ferry students that were either frightened or wounded to get them away.

At the time, I was there as the director of the Beijing office of the Committee on Scholarly Communication between the National Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Q: Let’s turn to the matter of the Communist Party appearing to have succeeded in almost erasing the memory of Tiananmen from people’s minds—particularly young people who were toddlers at that time. It’s sort of the conventional wisdom that that’s happening. On the other hand, another conventional wisdom is that the Communist Party cannot keep up with the Internet. You’ve got so many bloggers, and some news about this is going to come through. And then there is simply self-censorship: people who don’t want to take the chance of getting into sensitive subjects such as history.  I’m sure that the real situation is much more complicated.

A: The younger generation, who were either very young at the time or were not yet born at the time have grown up in a context where it’s not mentioned in school, it’s not in the textbooks, it’s not in the media. If anybody’s going to inform these people, it’s the older generation who certainly does remember. The generation who lived through the events—whether as witnesses or just hearing about it—do remember. But again, you’re right to say that self-censorship is the key. If I’m a parent, and I know this is a radioactive topic, do I want to risk my child’s safety by explaining everything and having them maybe mention it at school or something like that?

And then I think there’s the natural human reaction that painful things, especially if they’re dangerous, you just don’t that easily talk about. I mean, you can read about this in Primo Levi’s book about surviving the Holocaust. People who came out of the Holocaust did not come out saying, ‘Never again!’ and forming organizations. A few did, but most people wanted a time to just stay normal. They find a space in which to stay normal, so I think that’s at play as well. So there’s this generational split where I think the middle and older generation do know about it and do remember, and the younger ones don’t know about it so much.

Q: And it’s been reduced to an “incident” now. It’s like the Tibetan uprising in March of last year. It was huge, it was all over the original Tibetan area, it was in more than eighty counties. It involved masses of people. Most of it was peaceful. It’s been reduced bythe Party propaganda apparatus to the san yao si shijian, “the March 14 incident.” And then they run tapes of the violence that happened in Lhasa, and that’s the whole thing. And after Tiananmen, they ran tape constantly of the soldiers who were killed. And there were soldiers who were killed. I’m guessing maybe 15?

A: Yeah, something like that.

Q: I see signs of insecurity in this leadership, even though in the past 20 years since Tiananmen they’ve been praised for surviving the current economic crisis better than others. There are authoritarian regimes that admire China for its combination of economic success with political repression. You’d think they would be pretty pleased with themselves. Why do we see these signs of edginess and insecurity, a kind of ultranationalism, which doesn’t necessarily tell you that they’re highly confident?

A: Well, the short answer is because it is an authoritarian system, where even if you’re the top leader, if ‘mistakes’ can get tagged on you, you are vulnerable to your rivals for criticism and maybe pulling off your pedestal. This is why the incident, the Tiananmen massacre, has not been so-called ping fan, re-evaluated. Because if you re-evaluate it, you have to ascribe the blame to somebody. And then the question of who gets the blame really means who loses very significant amounts of political power, and maybe a place in history. So nobody wants to take the blame.

And one reason they’re nervous, I think, is that all of them at the top know that if any one of them grabbed a hold of this and blamed it on somebody else and could get away with it, that this would induce a big power struggle. You can see that ever since the Tiananmen massacre, the Party has been very careful to give the appearance, on the surface anyway, of tight unanimity at the top. Because what happened involved a split at the top. Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili and others were wanting to talk to the students, and Li Peng, Li Xiannian, Chen Xitong, and the others were not, and they went to Deng, and Deng decided for this group, not for that group. This was very clearly a split. And a split could arise over the question of whether we ping fan it or not.

Q: There were very strong rumors at the time—and there was some physical evidence, the way these huge army groups were maneuvering—that there were some splits within the army. The 38th Army commander refused to lead his troops against civilians and used the traditional Chinese way of ‘going to a hospital,’ claiming he was sick. He was later demoted or thrown out of the army and thrown into prison. That guy had a lot of courage. I wonder if there were others. Do you think at the time there was a clash between units? Was there anything in The Tiananmen Papers about that?

A: No, no. I believed those rumors were likely true until The Tiananmen Papers came out. That cleared that up. That whole military organization was well prepared on the outskirts of the city. The soldiers were indoctrinated that this was a counterrevolutionary rebellion. And all of the hopes of the citizens, including us foreigners who were in the city at the time—flower power, or reasoning with them, or that there was a split, or maybe they wouldn’t fire on their own people—that was all wishful thinking.

Q: But you know, I felt very sorry for some of those soldiers, because they looked like young guys. They were speaking in all kinds of accents that showed they were far from Beijing. They couldn’t understand why the Beijing people were so angry. And you had  to feel sorry for them. And I think that some of the killing that was done was done so indiscriminately—shooting into buildings on the way into Tiananmen—I  think they were panicking, they were fearful. They didn’t know what they were doing in some cases. It was kind of sad. To a certain extent, they too were victims.

Answer: And the interesting question to me is, if the massacre does get overturned, re-evaluated, and if those soldiers have a chance to speak, what will they say?  You know about the one, Zhang Shijun, in 1992, the soldier who said he felt guilty and had nightmares about this?

Q: I know that we interviewed one soldier some years ago, and we’ve interviewed another one recently—I think it was a sergeant. They felt very badly, they felt that terrible things happened. They felt it had to be brought to light. And one guy who we spoke with is now under house arrest for something. I mean, he’s been disciplined.

Why has the government become so frightened of Falun Gong? They keep hammering these poor guys. They’ve really treated Falun Gong very badly. We know that they’ve tortured people.

A: Because  Falun Gong had an organization that they didn’t know about, and that was very, very large before they did know about it. I think that really scared the crap out of them.

Q: And there were some pretty high-ranking military and security officers and government officials who were members.

A: I can remember in the early 90s when qi gong became very stylish. And there were various kinds of qi gong, and at that point the government was encouraging qi gong, because it was a national thing. It was “our thing.” Fang Lizhi had a wonderful quip about how to stop qi gong.  He said, “I could stop qi gong overnight. How do you do that? Put out the rumor that it was invented in Italy.” Because then it loses its nationalist panache. But the government liked it at first.

Q:  I have to ask you how you feel still being on a blacklist in China. Does it hurt you that you love that country, you are married to a Chinese, it’s your second home in a way, and yet you’ve been demonized?  Two things: How does it feel, and do you think you can keep your hand on the pulse when you’re not allowed into the country?

Answer: Let me give you the second part first. Yes, I can, thanks to the Internet and to the coming and going of friends, I don’t feel so cut off that I can’t do my normal work. I can certainly do my literary reading and carry on teaching. And even these political matters—you know, with e-mail and Skype and stuff and being married to somebody who was a Tiananmen activist—I get all kinds of information. So in a sense I feel quite plugged in. So I don’t feel regretful about that.

But on how I feel, I feel ambivalent. You know, I do love the country. I would love to be able to go to Beijing and walk into the alleys and eat you tiao and speak in the local accent and stuff. And I miss that, and I hope that I get to do that before I die one way or another. But in another sense, I don’t feel badly about it. And I almost feel good about it. I wouldn’t have said that even five years ago. But to me, I almost feel that the Communist Party is giving me a badge without meaning to.

Q: So you’re sort of saying there’s something almost liberating about this.

A: I do feel that. I’ve felt that for several years now, that I don’t have to worry about the threat that hangs over the heads of other scholars, that you will be punished by removal of a visa. Because it’s already happened to me. There’s a wonderful Chinese cheng yu that expresses this, si zhu bu pa kai shui tang.  That’s the way I feel, in terms of this being a liberating feeling.

Q: This can be translated as “A dead pig doesn’t fear boiling water.” Is that right?

A: Right.

Question: But do you think—and this is really so large it’s unfair to wrap up with this—do you think there could be a democratic China? Many young people seem to be saying in interviews that this isn’t realistic for China, that we can’t afford it, we’re too big a country. One thing that kind of annoys me is when I hear elite Chinese saying, “The farmers aren’t ready. They’re very illiterate.” Well, are they really illiterate? We have people on our call-in shows, farmers, who sound very intelligent to me.

A: Oh, yeah. Another thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that people who come out of China to visit me in this country cheer me up rather than depress me. That is, I talk with you and other people that are in the overseas sympathizers group, if we put it that way, and I get in kind of a foul mood. I think that things are bad, that everything’s going wrong. But when I talk with people from China, they cheer me up, because they know that things are moving there. The bloggers are doing great things. Ordinary people have an idea of their rights now. They’re far less depressed. The activists in China are less depressed than the activists overseas.

Q: That’s very interesting. But you’re not predicting a democratic China any time soon?

A: Let me go out on a limb. I will predict a democratic China. “Soon” is the question. How long it will take, I don’t know. But it does seem to me that the undercurrent here is flowing in the opposite direction of where the Communist Party’s authoritarians are trying to …

Q: Well, you have to expand that a little bit. “Undercurrent”?

A: “Undercurrent” meaning the masses, the people at the bottom who are evolving in one or another direction, are evolving in the direction of more openness, more fairness, more rights awareness.

Q: And this is expressed through these rights lawyers, who are getting hammered in some cases.

A: My impressions here are largely second-hand, from Chinese observers whom I trust. Liu Binyan was the main one, until he died. But then these weiquan people—lawyers, journalists, bloggers. I go to conferences in this country. I just was in April, at a conference of Chinese bloggers, who are not politically dissident and do not label themselves that way. But they certainly are moving, and pushing each other and  China in a direction  of more freedom from the Party’s control. In that sense, they really are dissidents, and they’re very effective ones. But they just don’t want that label, because they don’t want the baggage that comes with it.

Q: What’s your impression of the young Chinese who are very ultranationalist, who go to the universities where you’ve worked?  Do you get frustrated sometimes by the nationalism?

A: Yeah, in fact back in the last year or so the score on which I feel the worst, the most pessimistic, is how bright young people, well-educated young people, are so narrow and selfish, I guess is the way I have to put it, that they’ll play this game of  joining the Party and mouthing the Party line and criticizing the West—even though at one level they love the West, at this level they criticize it—mostly just from a careerist point of view. They’re just trying to climb the ladder.

This might be unfair to them, but I almost feel it has to do with the One Child Policy. This is a generation of youngsters who have been fawned on by two parents and four grandparents, and they are sent to the best schools in China, and they get all these privileges, and they come out very narcissistic. That’s why they’re joining the Party these days. That’s how I view it.

Q: These are going to turn out to be the next leadership group.

A: Yeah, but here’s where I feel a faith in the multiple levels of people. These young ones that come out to go to school in Berkeley and follow the Party line assiduously and so on, still they are at Berkeley and they are learning about the outer world.  And at one level, I would challenge them to say, "I really want to go back to an authoritarian system and live in one my whole life," as long as they feel they’re on top of it.  If something happens where they’re not in the catbird seat, then I can see them jumping ship right away, because I don’t see them joining the Party out of political ideals or social ideals or loyalty to the Party in any deep sense.

Q: Why don’t they look at the Taiwan model? It seems to me that Taiwan has been amazing in how it’s changed since 1987 or so.

A: Well, some do. Zhao Ziyang when he was in captivity in later years was very explicit in his admiration for Chiang Ching-kuo and that transition. I don’t know if young people do that, though.

Q: I’m not sure they know much about it, because the last time I looked at Chinese  television about a protest in Taiwan, it was shown as a very insignificant thing, and they quoted Taiwan people who were pro-Beijing.  Even if you had thousands of people in the streets in Taiwan, they would not report it fairly.

A: Especially when Chen Shui-bian was in power, there was a constant railing against Chen Shui-bian on CCTV, and there was no way to get another side.  And of course he made his own mistakes.


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