Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: Standoff At Tiananmen

Due to the impending 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China, it is very timely that author Eddie Cheng has published the new book, Standoff At Tiananmen.

With details never before seen in English, Standoff at Tiananmen is a riveting narrative, telling the story of the student-led pro-democracy movement which, in 1989, took over Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, China -- until the Communist Party dictatorship struck back, using its army to clear the square.

While every history of the Chinese democracy movement is a partial history, this book has more detail about these matters than ever before in English. Tiananmen Square had world press attention, so that the largest features of the story became well known--

The Short Story

In the widely known version of events, former Chinese reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang died on April 15, 1989. The Chinese students chose to mourn him in a very public way, as a show of support for the pro-reform current of political thought. The earliest images beamed around the world may have been the flowers, wreaths, and portraits of Hu Yaobang, which were placed in the middle of Tiananmen Square to mourn his passing.

The widely known events include the April 22 funeral of Hu Yaobang; the April 26 editorial in the People's Daily condemning the students (and a huge march on April 27 that was a reply to the editorial); the May 13 - 19 hunger strike, with a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on May 15; and the period of martial law from May 20 until the bitter end on June 3 - 4, when the massacre occurred. Also well remembered is the Goddess of Democracy, a 30 foot statue which appeared similar to the Statue of Liberty. The Goddess statue was unveiled on May 30 and stood until tanks knocked it down on June 4.

Another widely known event happened afterwards, on June 5: One lone man stepped into the middle of Chang'an Avenue, to stop a line of tanks. The identity and fate of "the tank man" remains unknown, but his picture became an icon of 20th century resistance to communism.

A Closer Look

--However, it is good to have deeper and lengthier historical accounts. Now, just in time for the 20th anniversary of these events, Eddie Cheng has published Standoff at Tiananmen, and it is a valuable contribution to the literature about Tiananmen Square. For average readers, the book is engaging and readable, and for those who care about details, it adds depth to previous accounts.

It is a blow-by-blow chronology of the action, but as I mentioned, every history of the Chinese democracy movement is a partial history. There are points left out by Eddie Cheng, and those points can be gleaned from other sources.

Cheng’s book becomes a narrative of the students’ side of the story, and of the politics and decision making on their side. To account for the other side – the power struggle and decision making inside the government – is left to be the scope of others’ books, such as The Tiananmen Papers.

That choice to limit the book’s scope is fine with me – as a Generation Xer, on the side of the pro-democracy and anti-communist people, I believe that freedom is the right side of history, and I am most interested to have “our side” get its story straight.

Cheng was a Beijing University physics student beginning in 1980 and ending in 1986, when he left China. During the 1989 action, he could only watch on CNN just like the rest of the world public. But, he had remained friends with Liu Gang who was also in the physics department at Beijing University. Liu Gang had organized the “Democracy Salon” at Beijing University, a group that incubated student leaders of 1989.

A Comparison of Narratives

Before I say more about Cheng’s book, let me make a comparison between CNN coverage and another book, Tell The World by Liu Binyan.

A Chinese dissident has grumbled to me that “leading Chinese dissidents” are always creations of the news media. It’s simply whomever is getting the most attention at any given time.

If you look at CNN coverage at the tenth anniversary of June 4, they ran a human-interest retrospective that asked “Where are they now?” about June 4 student leaders. The only problem is that to watch CNN coverage, a newbie would think that only four students led the movement: Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi, Chai Ling, and Li Lu.

For those who know better, the CNN coverage is cartoon-like in its over simplification. There were dozens of notable student leaders in the overall scene, and hundreds of individual campuses that went to the square. Even if every such delegation had just one leader, it adds up to hundreds of leaders on the scene.

The late Chinese journalist Liu Binyan provides a much better view of the action in his book, Tell The World. Tell The World was a narrative account about Tiananmen Square’s movement that was published in English almost immediately after those events in 1989. Liu Binyan was a famous and investigative journalist of high integrity, who reported for the People’s Daily in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The book by Liu Binyan formed a baseline understanding of Tiananmen’s events and informed my own views for many years at the China Support Network. That group, CSN, is one that I formed immediately after June 4’s massacre for American students to support Chinese democracy. At the time, I was a 22-year-old undergraduate of Arizona State University.

As the first book in the same genre – narratives about Tiananmen Square – Tell The World provides a basis for comparison and a yardstick by which to judge Cheng’s new Standoff At Tiananmen. Of course, these two views of the action are from 1989 and 2009, respectively. We might expect the later book to include more research and to have the benefit of more hindsight.

And that is exactly what is found in Standoff At Tiananmen. In 2005, when Liu Binyan died, the China Support Network eulogized him with high praise. Liu was an exceptional figure, and heroic to the pro-democracy movement. But, Cheng has released the better book.

Cheng’s book does an excellent job of blending myriad source narratives and anecdotes into a cohesive and coherent overall narrative. It’s more nuanced than Liu’s account, and more credible than Seeds Of Fire, another book with narrative about Tiananmen Square.

To my knowledge, Cheng has produced the best “T-Square” book yet. However, I do not read Chinese – I can only compare those I have seen in English.

Internecine Politics of the Student Leaders

It seems to me that translations between English and Chinese are often inexact. For example, the name of the student association can be translated many ways. When I met Wuer Kaixi in August, 1989, he spoke about re-constituting in exile ASUBU, the Autonomous Students Union of Beijing Universities. In the book by Liu Binyan, it is called the Interim Student Association of Beijing Colleges and Universities (ISABCU). Student leader Lian Shengde calls it the Autonomous Federation of Universities Inside Beijing (AFUIB).

In Eddie Cheng’s book, it is called the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation (BSAF). Lest my readers worry, I can assure you that these are four alternate translations for one name. In each case we refer to the same group.

The group is “autonomous” because it sprang up independently of the government. With prompting from Liu Gang behind the scenes, it was announced by Wuer Kaixi on April 21. On April 23, it elected Zhou Yongjun as its first president. Riven by disagreement, the group replaced Zhou with Wuer on April 28. On April 30, it replaced Wuer with Feng Congde. On May 5, it expelled Zhou. On May 6, Feng passed the baton back to Wuer Kaixi. On May 14, Feng returned. On May 15, it expelled Wuer.

However, the organization had lost its relevance because it was not Hunger Strike Headquarters. On May 11, Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi participated as the autonomous federation passed a resolution to not have a hunger strike. However, they and Chai Ling decided that they would lead a hunger strike, but as individuals outside of their affiliation with the autonomous federation.

The hunger strike ran from May 13 – 19. Hunger Strike Headquarters became the operation run by Chai Ling as its Commander in Chief, with Li Lu as its Vice Commander.

The autonomous federation also had another challenge to its relevance, because Xiang Xiaoji and Shen Tong ran its Dialogue Delegation, which sought to negotiate with the government, as a splinter group.

In fact, as we learn from Cheng, the autonomous federation was supposed to rotate its presidency among campuses, not individuals. In another view of this matter, that is in fact what happened. Its first three presidents, Zhou, Wuer, and Feng, hailed from the University of Politics and Law, Beijing Normal University, and Beijing University, respectively.

But no one could have anticipated rotation and turnover at the breakneck pace as was happening at Tiananmen Square. On May 29, Tiananmen Square got a new commander named Yang Tao, a student from Beijing University. He lasted less than a day, but at least he gave Chai Ling a day off.

May 29 was deep into a new phase after the hunger strike – namely, martial law. At that point, residents of Beijing had been holding off the army for ten days, and on that day, art students were assembling the new Goddess of Democracy statue, which was unveiled the next day in Tiananmen Square.


As the world knows, martial law troops entered Beijing on June 3, and opened fire with live ammunition at anyone in the way and even at bystanders, killing some 3,000 civilians of Beijing on their way to retaking Tiananmen Square. A tank knocked down the Goddess of Democracy statue in the early morning hours of June 4. The government of China has still not acknowledged or admitted to its crime against humanity, and there has been no accountability, no restitution, and no peace for the victims.

Those who remain outspoken continue to be harassed, or worse, by the Chinese government. For all of China’s development in the twenty years since June 4, political reform, progress, and development has been nil. China continues to be a one party dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party – which has committed more human rights abuses in recent years, such as crackdowns against the Falun Gong health / exercise / spiritual group, and against Tibetan monks who follow the Dalai Lama.

Standoff At Tiananmen is an excellent blow-by-blow account of the matters which it covers. However, it is not the “Everything” compendium. My only quibbles with the book are the things that it does not mention.


There are people who became important to the movement in subsequent years, and it would be helpful if a book expressed where they were during 1989’s action. Yang Jianli, for one example, is a figure with great stature today, but Cheng’s book does not connect him with the action, nor indeed mention Yang at all.

The same can be said for those from outside Beijing who can trace their fame to the June 4 uprising – Lian Shengde, Tang Baiqiao, Liu Junguo. Lian traveled from Tianjin to Beijing; Tang organized in Hunan province; Liu organized in Guangdong province. Lian headed the Autonomous Federation of Universities Outside Beijing; Liu presided over the Autonomous Student’s Union of Guangzhou Universities.

Cheng’s book also says very little about the incident with paint filled eggs, thrown at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao, on May 23. In years after the June 4 uprising, the story became legend about the “Three Gentlemen” – Lu Decheng, Yu Zhijian, and Yu Dongyue, all from Hunan province – who defaced Mao’s portrait.

The omission of those stories does not detract or take anything away from Cheng’s book; it is excellent and commendable work – as far as it goes. I did say that any history of the Chinese democracy movement is partial, and the extra stories could make a book more complete, but not totally complete. While I am not a historian, I can clearly see that this is a pitfall of that profession.

A Sequel?

Such is life. On June 5, 1989, one lone man stopped a line of tanks on an avenue in Beijing, and American students started moving to form the China Support Network. That’s where I came in, and that is where I continue to work today. A sequel book that tells what happened to the democracy movement afterwards in exile would very likely include a lot of information that the CSN can report from first hand experience.

Perhaps Cheng will write that book, or perhaps I will. Because the struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law is not yet won, the story continues.

I highly recommend Mr. Cheng’s book, Standoff At Tiananmen. I also urge interested readers to stay tuned by watching the China Support Network, where we often release contemporary news and activities for democracy in China.

1 comment:

sign said...

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