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May 16, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright May 16, 2009 Philip J. Cunningham. Used by permission.


The term “democracy” was gaining a certain purchase on the popular imagination, though it was not without its slippery side. Given the predictable confusion about what the students were really up to, given the abstraction and ambiguity inherent in political term minzhu, particularly within the confines of a communist society which fancied itself to be democratic in a roundabout sort of way, “democracy” meant very different things to different people. It had such a bafflingly wide range of meaning, it was so easily co-opted and distorted, that one could better appreciate the efficacy of a banal but concrete cry.

Thus “support the students” became one of those rare phrases, polished and spit out by the crowd, that a million voices could safely agree to say in unison.


The frictionless interactions I was enjoying with Bright, Jenny, Lily and other friends from Shida also bolstered my confidence, my sense of being part of a giant, magnificent sort of drama that had a role for everyone and anyone willing to step up on stage.

The spirit of the day permitted ample interaction of the sort I liked best. Not above, not below, just side by side with everyone else. No big fuss about obvious differences, nor any need to elaborate obvious commonalities, just people getting along. All afternoon I moved through the congregation feeling very much a person, and not much a laowai.

It was long after lunch hour but the kitchen staff continued to stand stoically on the grease splattered cement, tending boiling huge vats of broth, kneading dough and ladling out portions to impatient eaters, restoring the flagging spirits of tired protesters and nurturing the dehydrated bodies of sun-exposed men and women weary of foot. Cooks, cashiers and cleaners who toiled in low-rent, ramshackle shops such as this had no illusions about their social status. They were among the losers in Deng’s new hybrid system of socialism mixed with capitalism.