7. March 26, 2023
1991 part 1, I love the Gate of Heavenly Peace
In the fall of 1991 in Beijing, my first Chinese language teacher not only gave me a Chinese name, but she taught me and all of my classmates a Chinese song I’ve never forgotten, “Wo Ai Beijing, Tiananmen.”
During the COVID lockdown, when doing a phone interview with a Taiwanese composer for our film, Wei-San Hsu, who had been introduced by our first editor, Taiwan born filmmaker, Pete Lee, she asked me how good my Chinese was. Knowing Wei-San had a sense of humor, I perversely broke into song to demonstrate my Chinese (that song I learned in 1991). I really gave Wei-San a fright apparently, and made her question whether or not I was a spy for China!
It’s a children’s song that was written by two teenage Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, one a student, and the other an apprentice in Shanghai’s Sixth Glass Factory. It became routine to sing this song in elementary school in China in the 1960s and 70s after “The Internationale” and “The East is Red.” In my elementary school language classes in New York, (where the option was French or Spanish), I’d studied French since kindergarten, but we did not learn “The Internationale.” We learned “La Marseillaise” (which I remember by heart). Though I had just graduated high school, I had to become like a child again in China in terms of my initiation into a new language and culture.
I had a philosophical curiosity about how language shapes thought and reality when I imagined that learning Chinese would give me the most different and challenging new perspective possible on the world. I also thought that learning to think in Chinese would allow me to better understand and repair the relationship ruptures and losses that I had already experienced in my own family, but did not have words for.
Little did I know, or even come to realize until years later, that in studying Chinese, I would learn what patriarchy is and why feminism matters. The character 女 (woman) supplies the radical for two hundred or more combinations of characters that make up words in Chinese. It is one of the most versatile character radicals, and the one that provides the basis for words describing good and evil. Elder sister (姉) is woman (女) + market (市). Younger sister (妹) is woman + immature (未) . Marry (嫁) is woman + house (家) (house is a pig under a roof). Housewife (婦) is woman + broom (帚).
Widow (孀) is woman + frost (霜). Surname (姓) is woman + birth (生). Good (好 ) is woman + child (子)· Wicked (奸) is woman + offend (干). Jealous (妒) is woman + door (戶). Fascinating (媚) is woman + eyebrow (眉). The character for male (男) is a combination of field (田) and strength (力). If a woman comes between two men (嬲), she is "dallying with" them. While we’re at it, Tiananmen, (天安門) is heaven + peace + gate, aka the Gate of Heavenly Peace where Peace (安) is woman + roof. It might have actually been exactly what I needed to learn all along.
As part of a history class I took in Beijing that semester, we were assigned individuals living in the city to interview and write a paper about. The man I interviewed was a landscape planner in 1991 who had been “sent down” to the countryside to labor on a farm during the Cultural Revolution between 1966-76, where he witnessed atrocities, and felt like he’d “lost ten years of his life.” Despite having never experienced anything like what he described, I could relate to the feeling of losing time because someone else’s life and agenda was taking priority over yours. He told me that the way he survived that period of time when his life was far from under his own control was to separate his love for his country and the people of China from their government.
This man’s painful retelling of his personal experiences of life under Mao swiftly disabused me of any fanciful, romanticized notion I may have had about communism, and communal or family life in China as an antidote to what I had experienced of the hyper individualistic, consumer and ego driven culture of New York City in the 1980s in which both my parents partook after divorcing when I was nine. What became fascinating to witness on returning to Beijing through to the 2010s as I did, working on a Chinese director’s film and my own, was how much change people around my age growing up in China, like director Jia Zhangke, had to process through film and art, with their country’s rapid transition from Mao’s brutal communism to the world’s dog-eat-dog capitalism, especially after the events of the 1989 massacre and the imposition of stricter ideological controls.
Three major events coalesced in 1991 with the end of the Cold War in ways that would change the world: 1) the aftermath of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square; 2) the US-led victory over the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in early 1991; and 3) the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were highly significant events in and of themselves and in how they were interpreted in vastly different ways by the P.R.C.’s Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin, the R.O.C.’s President Lee Deng-hui on Taiwan, and U.S. President George H.W. Bush— with reverberations to this day.
The P.R.C. in 1991
After forcing a tragic end to the popular uprisings of 1989 all over China, Deng Xiaoping made rebuilding the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) his most pressing priority. Tens of thousands of party members and ordinary civilians who had supported or participated in the 1989 protests were purged or jailed while the history of the event was scrubbed from the record along with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and ensuing famine. The universities, and the courts came under greater control and supervision. New riot squads were created to handle protests so that the prestige of the military was not undermined by using it to quell civilian uprisings. Deng said his “biggest mistake” was failing to prescribe a political education earlier in order to anchor the disruptions of capitalism’s market economy. To ensure that no such pro-democracy or anti-CCP protests would ever happen again, Deng Xiaoping opened a vast new political front.
“Two letters written by Jiang Zemin to the education minister and his deputy in March 1991 had huge impact on the need for greater patriotic education in China,” Richard McGregor writes in “Asia’s Reckoning.” They called for a new master narrative of Chinese history which “emphasized China’s bullying and humiliation by foreigners from the mid-19th century on.” This was so transformative that it is worth repeating that the choice to focus on China’s bullying and humiliation by foreigners from the mid-19th century on was in fact a strategic choice made at the top of CCP leadership, executed and enforced through all levels of education, to take the blame off of the CCP for its own mistakes and focus Chinese people’s anger outward on foreigners. No matter how wealthy and powerful China would become in the ensuing decades, (far more wealthy and powerful than any may have imagined in 1989), the Chinese leadership would always claim victim status. (This is so important to understand I’m going to return to it again from another angle in the future.)
By contrast, Chairman Mao (1949-76) had positioned China and the CCP as glorious proletarian victors over internal foes and foreign imperialists. (Never mind that Mao was born into a wealthy peasant family with a big house and decent class status, a fact that neither Nixon nor Kissinger got right when they met and showered him with praise in 1972). In Mao’s account, driven by Marxist class struggle, China’s primary enemies were ideological, led by the United States and the Nationalist, KMT party under Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan.
But in 1991, to increase patriotism for the party, Jiang Zemin led the charge to reposition China as a victim rather than a victor. In the new ideological narrative, China’s primary enemies were the West, this time including Japan (which Mao had left out) because it bore responsibility for invading China and causing death and destruction. The campaign injected patriotic history into everything everywhere all at once: official documents, school textbooks, kindergartens, university entrance exams and popular culture. I guess they even reached eighteen year old me.
我愛北京天安門，I love Beijing, Tiananmen,
天安門上太陽昇；The sun rises above Tiananmen.
偉大領袖毛主席，The great leader Chairman Mao,
指引我們向前進。Leads all of us forward.
By 1994, when I was back in Beijing studying Chinese for the summer on a Princeton University program where I became friends with Kristie Lu Stout, now an anchor on CNN in Hong Kong, the patriotic education campaign was going full throttle and the party’s ambitions had become more grand and explicit. The CCP now aimed at developing a patriotic United Front to the broadest extent possible and the campaign asserted that nothing less than the survival of the CCP and through it modern China was at stake. As Richard McGregor writes that Jiang Zemin later put it, “Chinese people could now be divided into two camps: patriots and scum.”
I don’t think Kristie or I were particularly aware of the implications of any of the United Front’s campaign in 1994. Everyone in Beijing seemed friendly enough to us, including those who may have been spying on us. We were mostly studying or hanging out with other Chinese language students, buying “baozi” (包子) steamed buns with bean or sugar fillings on the street between classes for lunch. If we did well on our exams, we would pile into a “mianbao che” (面包车), a white minivan in the shape of a bread loaf, and go dancing at the one or two clubs in the whole city that were at Western hotels. I don’t know why Swedish pop music was the rage in Beijing then, probably innocent and light enough (like The Carpenters who were popular), but I remember Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants,” and “The Sign” playing every time.
Nevertheless, this new ideological campaign was happening. According to U.S. scholar, Rush Doshi, in his recent book “The Long Game,” analyzing Chinese Communist Party leaders’ speeches, policy documents and memoirs: “The Tiananmen Square protests reminded Beijing of the American ideological threat; the swift Gulf War victory reminded it of the American military threat; and loss of the shared Soviet adversary reminded it of the American geopolitical threat…In short order, the United States quickly replaced the Soviet Union as China’s primary security concern, that in turn led to a new grand strategy, and a thirty-year struggle to displace American power was born.”
The U.S. in 1991
American ideological threat? American military threat? American geopolitical threat? I don’t think so, CCP leaders. American leaders thought they were on top of the world at the end of the Cold War and they were laying down their arms, and bending over backwards to please China’s leaders despite no longer having a strategic reason in the existence of the Soviet Union to be so friendly. But that’s the problem with a patriotic, ideological education like the one Jiang Zemin spearheaded, it creates victimhood when it’s time to move forward into healthy self-esteem. It creates mistrust and division when trust, mutuality, cooperation and equality are needed and desired. It creates enemies where there are none.
In my last post, I described the difference between what it feels like to live and work in China or America versus Taiwan. In China and America, it is harder to get the truth about politics and international relations from people, except behind closed doors. In Taiwan, the truth and transparency are not only present, but welcomed and encouraged. This is in no small part because in Taiwan, the truth is a national security level concern. It is a defense against China’s United Front, its disinformation and misinformation campaigns, its nonstop grey zone and political warfare.
When early on in the process of making this documentary about Taiwan, I was able to interview William A. Stanton, I was just beginning to understand this. The relief I felt in hearing him speak the truth was a revelation. Now Chair Professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Stanton had been a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 1987-90 and was a career diplomat through 2012.
I learned from him that it was only 17 days after the Tiananmen massacre when President George H.W. Bush sent a secret letter to Deng Xiaoping and not much later dispatched a secret envoy to meet with Deng to show the goodwill of the United States. While the U.S. imposed some Tiananmen sanctions because of the massacre, by 1991 most were either eased or eliminated. It was clear that even the most liberal Western democracies were eager to get beyond Tiananmen and get back to business as usual with the PRC. When President Bush had a choice to support the people of China or the leaders of the CCP, he chose the latter.
In the Spring of 1991, William Stanton had delivered an informal talk at the Hoover Institution at Stanford about the People's Republic of China, which he found among his papers. What surprised him in re-reading the talk he had given over thirty years ago is how the views he held then have only been reinforced over time. Reflecting on the Tiananmen Square massacre, he wrote:
“For many of us working in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing … the brutal ruthlessness of China’s leaders came as no surprise. Many of us had, in fact, anticipated a violent outcome, not necessarily because we were especially perceptive about what was going on in the minds of China’s aging Communist leaders, but because our daily experience in China had predisposed us to expect the worst. We were not ... so easily deluded by the mistaken conceptions of China which have molded public opinion in the West and … have also continued to shape the thinking of American policymakers …
I increasingly perceived a dissonance between the professed nature of our relations with China, the supposed direction of Chinese society, and the abstract iteration of our policy, and the actual experience of living in China and dealing with the Chinese government on a daily basis. The dissonance was strongest when I listened to the effusive comments on China and Sino-U.S. relations by visiting Americans, whether they be politicians, academics, or tourists, and heard the overly upbeat assessments of China’s future and our relations with the country that we generally offered visitors.
We were always acting as if the Chinese were friends, if not allies, but the Chinese certainly did not treat us in the same manner. Whether the issue was PRC missile sales to the Middle East, efforts to begin a dialogue on human rights, or simply reciprocal treatment of PRC and U.S. diplomats, I saw an enormous gap between what the Chinese expected from us and what they were themselves willing to deliver.”
To be continued…
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