China Beat Archive


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April 21, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright April 21, 2009 Philip J. Cunningham. Used by permission.


“Tiananmen,” whispers Chai Ling.

“What?” I ask, comprehending without comprehension.

“I’d like to see Tiananmen, one last time.”

We skip the turn to the train station—she and Wang Li had been talking about catching the first train out of Beijing– and instead continue east on Chang’an. As the car approaches the familiar student-controlled zone around Tiananmen Square, I try to make sense of what we are doing.

I had just delivered to the international media a candid interview with a wanted student leader who said she is going to run away, while speaking forthrightly about imminent bloodshed and the desire to overthrow the government; if she was at risk before the interview, she’s at even more risk now. What was the right thing to do?

It wasn’t just a question of abstract journalistic ethics; I suffered from the vague sense that I was the one being taken for a ride. I had no objections to being a partisan in principle, but the behavior of those I was trying to help was confusing me.

The car putters slowly in deference to the thin but irregular flow of pedestrian traffic as we cut across the largely empty north face of the square.

Chai Ling peers out the rear window, studying the scene of her rise to fame in silence. The precipitous drop in the number of protesting bodies is offset somewhat by the profusion of new tents. The bright tarps and canvas from Hong Kong made the student command zone at the monument look busy with color, if not people.

It seems crazy, taking this confused fugitive, alternately frightened, alternately fearless, to the place most likely to get her in trouble. Then again, Tiananmen was still more or less under the control of her people. Have I lost my faith in people power? Reluctantly, I told the driver to swing to the south when we get to the Great Hall.