Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China

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The young man, so tiny, so vulnerable, could be seen as a tragic figure, a symbol of the futility of empty-handed opposition to brute force. But he could also serve as a heroic model for future resistance. After all, the tank could simply have flattened the boy. The main character is Li Lu, a student from Nanjing who came to the protest movement relatively late.

The movie has the air of a political bio-pic, shot in the snazzy, exotic style of an Asian airline commercial. For atmosphere there is an intrusive sound track of loud, portentous music by Liu Sola that drones on without respite. The narration is by Li Lu himself. His development in the film is remarkable. Then he reappears in a tuxedo, arguing for democracy in fluent English at the Oxford Union, and finally we see him hard at work as an MBA and law student at Columbia University. She, too, speaks excellent English, and her development has been no less extraordinary.


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From the gaunt, sometimes hysterical, but undeniably effective student activist, she has been transformed into someone altogether more polished. While studying at Princeton, she traveled the world in search of encouragement, prizes, money, and support for her cause. She now works for a consultancy firm in Boston and is an active lobbyist for Chinese democracy.

More than any other former student leader, it is Chai Ling whom moderates and so-called reformists blame for the debacle in Beijing. There are others. Wang Dan, always the most moderate and soft-spoken among the student leaders, speaks in Beijing about the need for the exiles to return to China if they still want to play a constructive role. Then there is Wang Chaohua, who no longer believes in political activism.

Shocked by the bloodshed, for which she still holds herself partly responsible, she has retreated into American academic life. What is democracy? The protest movement of began with a petition by Chinese intellectuals for his release. He was freed briefly two years ago. The filmmakers managed to catch him before he disappeared into the Chinese gulag once more. About the Tiananmen massacre Wei observed that mistakes had been made by the students as well as the government, but that only the government should be blamed for the killings.

The differences among former student leaders are barely concealed in the movie. But the rifts that already existed in erupted into a furious row after Moving the Mountain opened very grandly earlier this year in New York, with Madonna, Richard Gere, and other stellar philanthropists in attendance.

This echoed similar accusations by reformist intellectuals in China. Since it is crucial to the Tiananmen debate, I shall return to this sequence of events later. Of the two documentaries, The Gate of Heavenly Peace is by far the better-made film. There is nothing slick about it. The filmmakers have gathered extraordinary footage, not only of spring , but of the student protests of May 4, , the founding of the PRC in , the Cultural Revolution, and much else.

The atmosphere of the Beijing Spring is conveyed beautifully in all its pathos, drama, hope, craziness, poetry, and violence.

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Both Hinton and Gordon known China very well—Hinton grew up there, the daughter of William Hinton, author of Fanshen , a well-known documentary study of revolution in a Chinese village. If Moving the Mountain is hagiography, this movie is meant to put the record straight. In fact, however, the movie does promote a cause. It is the cause of moderation and reform, personified by Zhao Ziyang, who lost his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party after the crackdown on June 4, and has been living more or less under house arrest ever since.

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The film judges the radicals, and Chai Ling in particular, harshly. This is done through deft editing and a vaguely historicist approach.

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The story as told by Hinton and Gordon goes something like this: Tiananmen Square was once the heart of the Chinese empire, the seat of imperial government. On May 4, , eight years after the empire had fallen, patriotic students protested on the square against a corrupt Chinese government, for allowing chunks of the country to be given away to foreign powers at Versailles. Science and democracy were to cure China of its decadence.

The narrator in The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives the following, entirely accurate explanation:. On the anniversary of May 4, in , Zhao Ziyang made conciliatory noises. The students debated what to do. Reformists and moderates advised them to return to their campuses and build democracy there. Some intellectuals had ties to the reformers inside the government.

Others were afraid of the consequences if the confrontation went too far. But since Zhao did not speak to the students directly, the radicals decided to push harder. After a week of debate on the square and at university campuses, a hunger strike began, and Chai Ling and her supporters took the upper hand. Craig Calhoun, an American sociologist who was teaching in Beijing at the time, has written a sympathetic but not uncritical account of the Beijing Spring. This view might strike a person who knows little about Chinese history as reasonable. Why should people not rebel against a corrupt regime which denies them their constitutional rights?

They wanted the government to promptly engage in a serious dialogue with the Beijing Students Dialogue Delegation, and they wanted the student movement to be recognized as a patriotic democratic movement. To be called that was not only dangerous, but an insult to young people with a heated sense of patriotism. Again and again parallels with May 4 and the Communist Revolution are drawn. Those such as Chai Ling, who elected to stay, are the heirs of the fanatics who drowned out the moderate voices with their cries for revolution.

Whose features would it wear? This point is driven home by a skillful use of interviews. The crucial witness for the prosecution is Chai Ling herself. The filmmakers have used a notorious interview she gave to an American reporter in his hotel room on May Snippets of this interview are scattered through the film as evidence of her thirst for blood.

Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China

It was taped on the day that protesters on the square had refused to retreat. Chai Ling was in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. She made some very damning remarks:. There is some room for ambivalence here. She had uttered sacrificial sentiments before. But her immediate problem was that she saw no way to clear the square, even though she knew that a violent crackdown was more than a possibility.

Since she refused to be interviewed for The Gate of Heavenly Peace , Chai Ling could not offer her own thoughts in hindsight. I spoke to her on the phone. Of course, she said, she would not use similar language now. But one had to understand the atmosphere in Beijing then.

Her words had reflected the sentiments of many people at the time. The protesters were scared. Talk about dying for the nation was a way to conquer their fears. Why then had she refused to be interviewed by Hinton and Gordon? She said there had been some misunderstanding. Later she called back to say she was afraid that such an interview would be selectively used against her.

None of them was in favor of the hard-liners in the government. All except Wu, who was in the US, were detained at one point or another after the massacre. All had sympathy for the students on Tiananmen Square; Liu Xiaobo even went on a hunger strike two days before the crackdown. The reformers, she explains in the film, needed social stability. The hard-liners used all manner of tricks to set Deng Xiaoping against the reformers. Student radicalism, she said, gave them the perfect tool.


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  4. For if the students proved intractable, the government would have to get tough, and the reformers would lose their authority. So the reformist intellectuals acted as increasingly desperate mediators between the students and the Communist reformers. It was an impossible part to play. For the intellectuals often ended up preaching to students who were rapidly losing control.

    Li Lu, who hardly features in The Gate of Heavenly Peace , was right in saying that the hunger strike of May 13 changed the whole picture. The student movement became a popular movement. Students, especially Beijing students, are commonly regarded as spoiled brats which they often are. But the hunger strike galvanized workers, journalists, doctors, nurses, bureaucrats, professors, merchants, and even some soldiers and policemen.

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    They demonstrated for press freedom. Workers formed an independent union. They wanted better working conditions. Peasants marched in from temporary building sites. They wanted a better deal. When the government declared martial law on May 20, defiance only increased in Beijing. And whenever students on the square talked about withdrawal, workers or new arrivals from the provinces shouted them down. To say you want us to leave makes you a traitor to the movement. Click on the cover image above to read some pages of this book!

    Students sang the old socialist song as they gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the Spring of Craig Calhoun, a sociologist who witnessed the monumental event, offers a vivid, carefully crafted analysis of the student movement, its complex leadership, its eventual suppression, and its continuing legacy. Help Centre. My Wishlist Sign In Join. Be the first to write a review. Add to Wishlist. Ships in 15 business days.

    Link Either by signing into your account or linking your membership details before your order is placed. Description Table of Contents Product Details Click on the cover image above to read some pages of this book! Preface Introduction p. All Rights Reserved.

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