Tuesday, August 22, 2006

China Stories Pt 23: Back to CBS

More than 10,000 people took over Beijing's central square on Tuesday night in a rally for democracy. Several thousand students then marched to the Communist Party headquarters, where those in the front of the crowd tried to force their way in to see the nation's leaders.
- New York Times, April 19, 1989

A crowd defying a ban on public protests swelled to more than 100,000 Friday night in Beijing's central square to press demands for more democracy. It was by far the biggest protest in China since the end of the Maoist era more than a dozen years ago.

- New York Times, April 22, 1989

Events came in a rush, both the political events that were unfolding, as well as those on a smaller scale. For instance, I'm not sure exactly when we went back to work at CBS, but it couldn't have been long after that first protest march. I remember that at first, I was concerned about missing classes, although the program coordinator was sympathetic. In any case, it soon became irrelevant when all of the Beijing area universities went on strike.

The CBS work started, and we worked 16 or more hours a day, so I basically lived at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel. I got reacquainted with bellboys and other hotel staff. We had a generous meal per diem, so we ate very well.

At CBS I returned to my job of coordinating cars, and I was reunited with many of the drivers I'd met in February. We had 20-some cars and drivers at our disposal. We had a variety of vehicles. Mostly they were Toyota sedans, but we also had some minivans, a large bus, and a couple of big Mercedes sedans. The sedans were for the VIPs, such as Dan Rather.

The CBS crew that descended on Beijing was bigger than it had been back in February. They were already planning extensive coverage of the upcoming Gorbachev visit, but they expanded it. Dan Rather would be anchoring the CBS Evening News from Tiananmen Square. They had a number of other high-profile correspondents as well, including Bruce Morton, Susan Spencer and Bob Simon, who subsequently became a prisoner during the (first) Gulf War.

CBS imported editors, producers, correspondents and technicians from around the globe. Running the show was a dynamo of a producer named Susan Zirinsky. She was energetic, driven, tough. She was the model for Holly Hunter's character in "Broadcast News." (When I left China, her parting words to me were: "if Warren doesn't get on that plane, I'll kill you." I digress.)

Unlike during the Bush visit, this time I spent part of my time detailed to the Beijing based camera crew going out to cover events. This meant I got out of the hotel more often.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

China Stories Pt. 22: To the Square

BEIJING, Tuesday, April 18 - Several thousand students marched through the capital in pre-dawn hours today, chanting democratic slogans and singing revolutionary songs as they mourned the ousted Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang and called for a more democratic government.

The demonstration was the most significant sign of unrest in China since student demonstrations for democracy were crushed more than two years ago.
- The New York Times, April 18, 1989

Bob and I hustled back over to the plaza where students were gathering. Students were milling around, waiting for something to happen. Occasionally there were short speeches, followed by applause and shouts. Then a buzz went through the crowd and a cheer went up. This was at about 11pm.

The crowd, which I would estimate at about 1,000, started moving toward the University's main gate. I'm not clear if the group was only from Bei Da, or if there were also students from Qinghua University (which is next door). As the group made its way south past People's University, students from that university joined in.

The group was made up mostly of students, but there was a significant contingent of non-students, which also grew along the route. There were also teachers, some foreigners, and some (foreign) photographers and reporters.

The atmosphere was festive. There were songs. They sang the Internationale, which is like Socialism's theme song. They sang "We Shall Overcome." I say "they" - I didn't really know the words to the Internationale, although later one of my Chinese friends taught me. Many of the Chinese students knew the words to "We Shall Overcome" better than I did. They shouted slogans - "down with bureaucracy!" for instance, and "Li Peng step down!" Li Peng was the Premier at the time. He had been elevated to his position in the wake of Hu's dismissal. Even though he was the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, he was a conservative and a hard-liner and consequently, he was not well liked.

Along the way, I struck up a conversation with a first-year science student from Fujian province. He said he remembered the protests from 1986 and 1987, and that he was excited to be part of something like this. I saw some of my teachers, and a few of my fellow exchange students. We exchanged looks as if to say, "can you believe we're doing this?"

Map of the Route to the Square (by my recollection)

I don't know how far it is from the university district in northwest Beijing to Tiananmen Square - 10 miles, I would guess. (I would have thought that in the internet age, that would be a relatively simple thing to look up. Not for me, anyway. Prove me wrong, kids! Prove me wrong.) I had my bike, but at times the crowd moved so slowly that it made more sense to walk. It was crowded enough that I worried about running into someone.

I was familiar with the route, having done it by car, by bus and by bike before. But it seemed completely different now. Even though it was midnight, then one, two, three in the morning, the group was exuberant, energized by a unity of purpose. At the same time, the city around us was calm, silent. There were virtually no cars on the road. The streets were dark, since all but the major avenues did not have streetlights. Our group may have been full of energy, but this city had been here for centuries, and had seen dynasties and republics come and go. It seemed to sleep soundly as we marched by.

The excitement and tension gradually built during the long walk. After three or four hours, we reached Fuxingmen, the intersection with Chang'an Jie, the wide boulevard that forms the northern edge of the square. Chang'an Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, is the main east-west street in Beijing. It is Broadway and Pennsylvania Avenue combined. As we turned to head east on Chang'an Jie, the sense of anticipation was palpable.

The majority of China's senior leaders live in Zhongnanhai, a large walled compound just northwest of square, and almost directly across Chang'an Jie from the Great Hall of the People. (In fact, there was a tunnel connecting the two, so that the leadership could get back and forth underground.) Our route would take us right by Zhongnanhai's (well-guarded) main gate.

As we reached Zhongnanhai, with the square and the Tiananmen Gate coming into view just ahead of us, a tremendous roar erupted, and everyone around me began to run. It sent a chill down my spine - it still does when I think of it. I ran a little ways before clumsily hopping back on my bike.

This group - euphoric! triumphant! - poured into the vast empty darkness of the square. This group that had seemed so big and full of energy seemed to diminish and then nearly disappear into the dark center of the square. The voices which had seemed loud and strong moments before now dissipated. Tiananmen Square was the civic equivalent of a black hole.

I rode my bike into the square and parked it well back from the crowd. I remember that I locked my bike - I didn't want someone to steal my bike. Despite the idealism in the air, I regarded that as a real possibility. Who wanted to walk the ten miles back to campus?

The group reassembled in the center of the square, around the Monument to the People's Heroes. Everyone waited and watched, as some students tried to figure out how they would get the wreathe, and themselves, onto the ten-foot high base of the monument. Eventually one of the students was able to scramble up, eliciting a wave of shouts. "Hao! Hao!" they shouted. Good.

I looked behind me, at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao staring placidly down. I looked over my right shoulder at the Great Hall of the People, at the large windows that faced the square. I wondered if anyone was paying any attention. I didn't see anyone looking out, but the lights were on.

The first student up helped a second up, then a third. Everyone shouted encouragement. Other students then handed up the wreath. The students read the list of conditions which they'd read back on the campus. They reiterated the demand that the government reevaluate the career of Hu Yaobang. They called for an end to official corruption. All of this was met with continuous cascades of applause and cheers.

After awhile, it seemed that the event had run its course. Then several Beijing city buses showed up. I didn't know what was going on until one of my friends explained: they were there to take students back to the University district. (Apparently during the previous demonstrations in 1986 and 1987, this had also happened. "Okay, you've made your point. Back on the bus.") I guess someone had been paying attention after all.

Those of us who'd ridden our bicycles got back on our bikes for the ride back to campus. The group riding back was fairly quiet now. We were tired. Around us, the city was waking up - there were people out for morning jogs, and many older people doing tai chi. Then, not long into the ride back, I realized I had a flat front tire. It was still too early in the morning to get it fixed, so I just had to ride on the flat all the way home. We got back around 6:30 or 7am. I just had time to grab some breakfast and get to class on time - though that didn't concern me greatly.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

China Stories Pt 21: Mourning on campus

Note: At this point, my chronology may get a little iffy. I am trying to go chiefly by memory, though I'm occasionally doing some fact checking. Apologies in advance for any errors or omissions.

Returning to the Beijing University campus after our meeting at CBS, I started to sense that something was stirring. Posters started to appear in a small plaza near the center of campus, by the post office and the campus store. Hu Yaobang was a reformer, and was well regarded among the the "intelligentsia."* But this seemed a bit excessive.

Throughout the next day, more posters went up. Students milled about talking, wandering among the posters, reading and discussing them in hushed tones.

In the early evening, Bob and I went over to see what was happening, and ran into a couple of Chinese friends. One of them was actually one of my teachers, and I addressed him as such, which was customary, even informally. He shushed me, and asked me not to call him teacher. I think he did not want to be viewed as some kind of authority figure in the crowd. He didn't want any of the students to think he was The Man.

As we walked among the posters, our friends helped to de-code their meanings. My teacher was uncharacteristically animated as he translated the posters for us. This poster, he explained, is about a Ming dynasty century ruler, but is actually suggesting the current government is corrupt.

In typical Chinese fashion, the messages were elliptical, and were really only accessible to very well educated people - people who, let's say, had studied classical Chinese and knew Chinese history backwards and forwards. Imagine someone criticizing President Bush by quoting Shakespeare, or better yet Chaucer. Try that the next time you log on to Daily Kos or Atrios, and see how far it gets you.

One of the posters which generated a buzz in the crowd was a great deal more succinct, and so straightforward that even I could understand it. I paraphrase:

Those who should not have died already died;
Those who should die live on;
What is to be done?**

A ha. Mourning the death of a popular leader, and using the occasion to be critical of the government. The story my friend Jack had told me, not a month earlier, of the 1976 Tiananmen Incident, was still fresh in my mind.

Later in the afternoon, a student climbed up on a ledge and began to speak. He said said they were raising money for a funeral wreath, and that they planned to deliver it to Tiananmen Square. I'm not certain, but I think he also raised the demand that the government "reassess" Hu's career. At hearing this, the crowd erupted in applause and shouts.

Were they really going to do it? Were they really going to go to the square?

As evening turned to night, I was back in Shaoyuan, in my room. Around 9pm or so, as I sat studying, the quiet evening was punctuated by a distant roar coming from in the direction of the plaza by the post office. The cheers continued, and grew louder. What was happening? More speeches?

After a few minutes, there was a frantic knock at my door. It was Bob.

"They're going to the square!" he said breathlessly.

"Really? Wow." It was all I could think to say.

"Well?" Bob said. "Shall we go?"

In an instant, we rushed down the stairs into the courtyard. We grabbed our bikes and began walking over to the plaza. After a few moments, we heard another loud roar - we looked at each other, and hopped on our bikes. We didn't want to miss anything.

*By Chinese standards, any college student would qualify as "zhishifenzi," an intellectual.
**The pinyin, as best I can remember it, in case you're interested: bu gai si de dou yi si /gai si de shang wei si / zen ma ban?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

China Stories Pt 20: April 1989

I joined my classmates and a few others at the CBS News Bureau for an orientation session.

Having worked for CBS when they covered President Bush's visit earlier in the year, they were preparing to hire us again to help them cover the upcoming visit to China of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev's visit was truly historic. China and the Soviet Union had had a schism in the late 50s early 60s. In the late 60s and early 70s they had numerous skirmishes on their common border, some of which threatened to escalate into full-scale conflicts.

Gorbachev's visit represented the highest level contacts between the two Communist giants in 35 years.

As a result, CBS News planned to cover the event in depth. The were even going to have Dan Rather come over to broadcast the CBS Evening News live from Tiananmen Square. In addition, they would have numerous other correspondents working other angles on China-Soviet relations, doing in-depth reports on China's reform efforts compared to the USSR's, and the like. So there would be the figurehead of CBS News broadcasting live to the US, and multiple camera crews and correspondents in Beijing and around the country. There were producers, camera- and soundmen, videotape editors, technical personnel.

I'm not sure what the exact numbers were, but I would guess that overall, CBS brought somewhere around 100 or 150 people to China. The CBS bureau in Beijing consisted of just three people: the correspondent/bureau chief, a camera man, and a soundman. They needed a lot of help with the logistics of running this show.

Our meeting revolved around logistics - timing, pay, transportation, general areas of responsibility.

The meeting itself was not noteworthy, but for the fact that I remember that I was sitting next to the Xinhua news "ticker." It would periodically crackle to life and spew out a story. For the most part, it was typical of Xinhua to carry a lot of news that tilted towards propaganda. ("Shandong Governor vows that spring floods will have 'minor impact' on sorghum crop yields.")

But I happened to look over, and watched the machine type out the announcement of the death of Hu Yaobang.

During a lull in the conversation, I said, "hey, it just came across here - Hu Yaobang died."

Nobody had much of a reaction, which was understandable. I had a reasonably good knowledge of Chinese history and current events, and it didn't strike me as an event of great significance. I had a dim awareness that Hu had been one of the earlier members of the Chinese Communist Party, and had participated in the Long March. He had become a member of the Politburo, but he was pushed out in a power struggle. The notable reason was that the hard-line conservatives believed that, during the student demonstrations that had taken place in 1986-87, Hu had been too lenient, too indulgent of the students. Hu was known generally as an advocate of reform.

The death of Hu Yaobang and its significance would become clearer over the days and weeks ahead.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

August 2, 1990

It was 16 years ago today that Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait.

I remember the date very well, because it coincided with the date I left on my first real business trip, which was a 4-week trip to China. I'd worked for this company that did import-export* with China all through my senior year in college. After I graduated I took 2 weeks off, then I started full-time. I was just shy of my 22nd birthday.

My itinerary went like this:

- van shuttle from Philadelphia to Newark
- Northwest Airlines from Newark to Detroit
- NWA from Detroit to Seoul
- NWA from Seoul to Hong Kong
- Overnight in Hong Kong
- CAAC flight from Hong Kong to Qingdao
- 3 hour van ride to my final destination, a leather tannery in the town of Rizhao.

I could hardly design a shittier itinerary if I tried, but I was thrilled. I didn't sleep - I was too excited! I was going to China! For my job! How cool is that?

*We were in some weird businesses. We imported normal things like ceramic mugs and clothing, but we also imported hog bristle for brushes, and human hair. Yes, human hair. For wigs. We exported leather tanning chemicals. Hence, I was going to a tannery.