Shen Tong was at home in central Beijing, just footsteps from the stretch of Changan Avenue that would see the heaviest casualties, when the shooting began on the night of June 3, 1989. For a moment, like many others, he assumed that the soldiers spraying gunfire were using rubber bullets. Then came the intolerable recognition. “People who had been hit fell to the ground and lay still. ‘Those people are dead,’ I thought to myself. ‘The bullets are real.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was as if this were all happening in a dream.”
Shen Tong’s impulsive response was to reason with the soldiers, one of whom seemed barely 18 and disoriented. “ ‘You are on Changan Avenue. Do you know the history of Changan Avenue? . . . You are the People’s Liberation Army and you’re shooting your own people.’ ” An uncle interrupted his final effort at dialogue and dragged Shen Tong away. Then a shot rang out from the officer’s pistol that seconds before had pointed at him. Shen Tong looked back to see the girl who had stood beside him lying on the ground, a bloody hole where her face had been.
Within days, Shen Tong was in the United States, his escape route necessarily undisclosed. He began classes at Brandeis University in a daze. “I was free, but I longed for home almost like a sickness.” Writing “Almost a Revolution,” with the help of Washington Post reporter Marianne Yen, provided one means of expiating his grief and also of bearing witness to those left behind, the countless students, workers and ordinary citizens who had similarly risked their lives only to face months of fear and the threat of reprisals.
Shen Tong’s gripping account of the tense but exhilarating 56 days that preceded the democracy movement’s bloody suppression takes us behind the scenes of angry protesters and gaunt hunger strikes captured by Western television cameras. The story is one of heroism but also of discord and disarray.
As head of the Dialogue Delegation attempting to wrest concessions from Communist Party leaders, Shen Tong was central to the struggle that would determine China’s fate. He was at the same time a college junior, not yet 21, uncertain of his own judgment, unable to achieve a consensus with a shifting cast of student leaders, and under constant pressure from his parents to leave for the safety of study abroad.
The tragic denouement of China’s democracy spring has produced numerous eyewitness reports but none as yet by a key student leader. “Almost a Revolution” is compelling not just because of Shen Tong’s inside knowledge of the movement and its discontents but also because of its autobiographical candor.
Liu Binyan’s “China’s Crisis, China’s Hope: Essays from an Intellectual in Exile,” translated with characteristic grace and skill by Howard Goldblatt, probes the roots rather than the unfolding of the 1989 democracy movement. Forty years ago, Liu participated enthusiastically in the student movement that led to the founding of the People’s Republic. He eagerly joined the Communist Party but refused to abandon his spirit of independent inquiry. Such failure to conform to officially established modes of thought was anathema to the revolution’s leaders who, once in power, replaced the glowing ideals of a promised “new democracy” with the repressive practices of a “democratic dictatorship.”
Branded an enemy of the people and expelled from the party in 1957, Liu was sent to the countryside to reform himself through physical labor. Two decades of persecution followed, but when political verdicts were reversed and intellectuals rehabilitated in 1978, Liu was made a special correspondent for the official mouthpiece, People’s Daily.
His bold investigative reporting revealed abuses of power, inspiring readers long accustomed to a press that concealed the arrogance, corruption and mismanagement of their leaders. In 1987, Liu again was dismissed from the Communist Party, and a year later, he arrived in the United States, the door to his homeland closed as tightly to him as to those like Shen Tong who fled in the wake of the Tian An Men suppression.
The publication of his essays, originally delivered as lectures at Harvard University in 1988-89, prompts a reexamination for the post-Mao decade. During the same years that scholars, businessmen and tourists from the West were applauding China’s discovery of the capitalist road, economic and social problems spread with alarming speed. Inflation, corruption, unemployment, bureaucratic profiteering, the destruction of the natural environment, the pressure of an insupportable population and the disappearance of any shared moral values had all become apparent by 1983, he asserts, and pervasive by 1985. This created a “puzzlement, pessimism and indignation felt by people all over China . . . a phenomenon very much worth examining, for it is unprecedented in recent Chinese history--never have I seen this sort of despair.”
Out of such despair, Liu Binyan argued presciently in 1988, would appear the seeds of hope. His description of the discontent that finally triggered democracy demonstrations in more than 80 cities in 1983 resonates poignantly in the midst of the post-Tian An Men repression. “They believe they are powerless to improve the state of affairs or to exert any influence; they are helpless, their hands are tied. The natural consequence of this state of helplessness is that great numbers of people have sunk into despondence. But it can also be a call to action for other people to reform the system.”
“The life expectancy of this government cannot be long,” he asserts in “Deng’s Pyrrhic Victory,” one of two essays written after the Tian An Men tragedy. “Party Central has found out that in nearly all its subordinate organs, party cadres are covering up for activists in the democracy movement. As the leaders’ impotence has become manifest, they find fewer and fewer people to trust, and they are resorting to increasingly fascist methods.”
To expose Americans’ persistent and willful ignorance of the Chinese Communist Party’s fascist methods is Steven W. Mosher’s purpose in “China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality.” For him as for Liu Binyan, the Tian An Men tragedy confirms widespread “disaffection from the Communist system that Mao had midwived.” Otherwise, this ambitious and perhaps intentionally abrasive survey of American attitudes toward China shares little common ground with the books described above. In fact, Mosher’s insightful catalogue of errors seems as much the product of personal pique as of scholarly acumen.
The reason is not difficult to fathom. “China Misperceived” presents Mosher’s answer to the academic and journalistic community that spurned him. Criticized in 1979 by the Chinese government for professional misconduct during a year of anthropological field work, he then was investigated by Stanford University and ultimately denied a Ph.D. degree. The insult has not been forgotten.
Mosher contends that from the time of the Nixon visit in 1972 and throughout the 1980s, scholars and journalists, businessmen and tourists were gulled by the Communist Party’s stagecraft into a “charitable reading” of the Beijing regime. Having recognized the true face of Chinese Communism himself long before 1989, he cannot conceal his derision at those who discovered only after the democracy movement’s suppression that party leaders were capable of cruelty and terror.
American reporters flocked to Beijing, he explains, and then, “from the sanctuary of their hotels,” described events in the streets as a blood bath and a slaughter “without on-the-scene confirmation.” This “sudden eagerness to believe the worst of Beijing” shows that “the American media had switched sides; or rather, it had discovered there was another side.” Mosher’s contempt for such naivete is searing. The destruction of the “ ‘fantasy world’ that had been home to a large and flourishing population of China-watchers before the massacre” is long overdue, he writes.
Mosher has contributed importantly to an understanding of the pendulum swings in “America’s intense and long-running emotional involvement with China.” However, his book is less successful in illuminating what he broadly terms Chinese reality. The “revolt of the Red Guards,” to take one example, is dispensed with in two pages of generalizations about the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
Mosher asserts at the outset that “the observer who recognizes and declares his viewpoint up front is likely to produce a more unbiased account than someone whose own position goes unstated.” However, it is the substantiation of his own guiding belief in the malevolence of communism, not the clarification of historical inaccuracies, that seems Mosher’s abiding goal. Thus while he usefully unveils “the scholarly pettifoggery to which the absence of reliable data about China drove even widely respected Sinologists,” one cannot but think that he may someday want to glance in his own mirror.