The Film

Excerpt from "Totalitarian Nostalgia"
Geremie Barmé, In The Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
Reproduced with permission of the author.

The Rhetoric of Democratic Denunciation

In April 1995 a heated controversy erupted in the dissident Chinese community in the United States and Europe, one which soon spilled over into the Hong Kong and Taiwan press. This controversy centered on the depiction of the role of radical student activists during the 1989 Protest Movement as presented by the documentary film "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," directed by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon (referred to hereafter as "Gate").

The debate surrounding issues raised by the film -- a work that had not been completed in April and which was attacked by many dissidents sight unseen -- quickly revealed a style of political rhetoric typical of Chinese radicals on both ends of the political spectrum. Whereas the nature of the debate was not surprising, for the film "Gate" does raise serious questions about the democratic pedigree and practices of some student activists, what is interesting is that it was carried on in a language and style that was highly reminiscent of the ideological Newspeak of Mainland Chinese politics. This was the language of totalitarianism. Its deployment, for readers versed in Cultural Revolution venom and contemporary Chinese official jargon, held a certain nostalgic charm. But it also revealed aspects of the more vocal Chinese "democratic dissident" community in the West that is not generally discussed in non-Chinese language works, nor appreciated by Western commentators or scholars.

Before continuing, I should point out my own interest in "Gate". I was involved with this project from 1990 and acted as both the main script writer and an associate director for the final three-hour film. The film reflects ideas that I, like many others, have espoused since 1989.


On 22 April, 1995, Xue Xiaoguang, a prominent Hong Kong-based reporter for the Taiwan newspaper United News Daily (Lianhe bao), having heard details of the film "Gate" and its historical analysis of the 1989 Protest Movement in China, published a story on the interview Chai Ling gave to Philip Cunningham on 28 May, 1989, that features prominently in the film. In her article Xue discussed the issues raised by that interview and questioned the responsibility Chai Ling shared for the final bloody outcome of the student movement. Xue's article was based on material provided by Carma Hinton and the Long Bow Film Archives. The piece was published on the Mainland News page of her paper Taibei and reprinted in the World Journal (Shijie ribao), New York, the leading North-American Chinese daily on 26 April, 1995.

In that article Xue quoted from the interview Chai Ling gave Philip Cunningham as follows:

Chai Ling: "My fellow students keep asking me, 'What should we do next? What can we accomplish?' I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?
"And what is truly sad is that some students, and famous well-connected people, are working hard to help the government, to prevent it from taking such measures. For the sake of their selfish interests and their private dealings they are trying to cause our movement to disintegrate and get us out of the Square before the government becomes so desperate that it takes action....
"That's why I feel so sad, because I can't say all this to my fellow students. I can't tell them straight out that we must use our blood and our lives to wake up the people. Of course, they will be willing. But they are still so young..." [cries]
Interviewer: "Are you going to stay in the Square yourself?]
Chai Ling: "No."
Interviewer: "Why?"
Chai Ling: "Because my situation is different. My name is on the government's blacklist. I'm not going to be destroyed by this government. I want to live. Anyway, that's how I feel about it. I don't know if people will say I'm selfish. I believe that people have to continue the work I have started. A democracy movement can't succeed with only one person. I hope you don't report what I've just said for the time being, okay?"

In her article, Xue reported that "Gate" was being produced by the Long Bow Group, one of the directors of which is Carma Hinton, an American who grew up in China, and the daughter of William Hinton (the author of Fanshen, among other works).

Xue acknowledged that when Chai spoke of Tiananmen Square being "awash with blood" she could hardly have been aware of the extreme government violence that awaited the protesters on 3-4 June. She may only have thought, Xue wrote, that the authorities would use rubber bullets and batons to quell the demonstrations. But, Xue asks, as one reads Chai's chilling comments one cannot help wondering "what type of age could have produced such a value system that has resulted in the values of this post-Cultural Revolution generation of Chinese youth?"

Xue pointed out that, of course, the Chinese government was responsible for the bloodletting of 4 June. However, student leaders like Chai Ling and Li Lu had, through their constant refusal to leave the Square even as disaster loomed ever closer, should also be seen as responsible parties in the continued escalation of the conflict between the protesters and the authorities and also partially responsible (or morally if not legally implicated, to use Karl Jenks' categories) for the tragic denouement of 4 June.

Xue asked Ding Xueliang, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a leading Mainland political commentator, why extremism had won out among the students towards the end of the Protest Movement, forcing moderates (whose numbers included Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi and Wang Chaohua) to the sidelines. Ding observed that those who felt remaining in the Square was pointless gradually left while those who thought it wasn't stayed. These extremist protesters in turn supported even more extreme demagogues to lead them. He went on to comment on the collapse of moral values and self-restraint in post-Mao China as well as the Communist-style rhetoric common the students during the Movement.

Xue's article concluded with a quote from Liang Xiaoyan, a teacher at Beijing Foreign Languages University, a woman who was involved in the Movement and who features prominently in "Gate" (Liang is now an editor for the prominent "liberal" intellectual journal Oriental in Beijing):

In this process there was something so pure, so unforgettable. There were also unacceptable things, things I found repulsive. But there were all mixed together, and this is history. History is this kind of process. There's no way to sort things out neatly.

On 27 April, 1995, a rebuttal of Xue's article by Chai Ling was published in the features page of World Journal (Shijie ribao), the leading North-American Chinese newspaper known for its pro-dissident stance. The published article is a heavily edited-down version of a much longer piece which appeared in full in Beijing Spring (Beijing zhi chun), the main Chinese dissident publication based in New York and again in Tiananmen , a new dissident journal that appeared in June 1995.

In her response, Chai wrote in the style typical of what Kremlinologists used to call "esoteric communication", that is, coded Party rhetoric produced for public consumption but only fully understood by the politically initiated:

...Certain individuals have for the sake of the gaining approval of the [Chinese] authorities have racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them. And there is another person with a pro-Communist history [i.e. Carma Hinton] who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to show up something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white. First, last year, there was Dai Qing [who also features in "Gate" and who is a controversial independent critic of both the Chinese government and the dissidents] clamoring for Chi Ling to be "given a stiff sentence", "guilty of interfering with traffic"; now, today, Chai Ling has become a person with extremely selfish motives who "will let others shed blood while she saves her own skin".

The thrust of these comments, and Chai's whole article, is aimed against Carma Hinton and the film "Gate". Hinton is known to have grown up in China and to be the daughter of William Hinton, a man famous for his long-term support of the Chinese revolution. On the strength of this association Chai labels Hinton as a pro-Communist (although as a youth in China she never joined any Communist Party youth organization or the Chinese Communist Party and since traveling to the US in the early 1970s has maintained an independent stance on China). -- This is an intriguing point since virtually all of the famous exiled dissidents have had a far more intimate "pro-Communist" history than Hinton. Most of them grew up as members of the Communist Party's Young Pioneers, Youth League or even joined the Communist Party itself. Chai herself was named one of the Communist Youth League's top 100 students in 1982, at the age of 16. -- Hinton is also accused of being a calculating capitalist who indulged in journalistic sensationalism so as to "hawk" the documentary "Gate" and distort the historical record.

If one reads all of Chai's article and the numerous other attacks on "Gate" and Hinton published in the Chinese media from April by the extremist Chinese dissident exiles (they are, it should be noted, only one faction in a large and complex community), a veritable mini-mountain of material that comprises many dozens of pages, one finds many curious things. There is talk of "international plots" to discredit the Chinese dissidents -- one author claims that Patrick Tyler (the New York Times Beijing correspondent) and the New York Times are part of a conspiracy to discredit the dissident exiles and help China's Communist reformers -- "traitors", "agents" and along with the usual plethora of terms used by right-wing extremists, a group I would refer to tongue-in-cheek (and pace Rush Limbaugh) as China's "demonazis".

In this passage quoted above Chai's use of rhetoric -- not to mention the delightful deployment of the third person to refer to herself, a style typically used by political luminaries when on the defensive -- is highly revealing. It is worth listing the expressions she uses in Chinese for they reflect the style of discourse common in the Chinese official media and are highly reminiscent of the emotive language of denunciation used in, say, Red Flag (Hongqi) during the Cultural Revolution (the following translations are taken from two major Mainland-produced Chinese-English dictionaries ):

liyu taohao dangzhengzhe -- beneficial to ingratiating [oneself] with the government
wakong xinsi wei dangzhengzhe chumou huace -- rack one's brains to mastermind a scheme on behalf of the government
mouqu shangye baoli -- reap staggering [and immoral] profits
tuixiao yingpian -- hawk a film
duanzhang quyi qitu yao biaoxin liyi -- quote out of context in an attempt [negative connotation] to do something new just so as to appear different
ying yao ba lishide heibai diandao guolai -- obstinately wanting to turn the black and white of history on its head [note that this is a grammatically confused clause in Chinese]
Dai Qing jiaorang -- Dai Qing clamored/ shouted/ howled...

Similar highly-colored terms and expressions were common in the denunciation of another highly controversial film about China. That film was "Zhongguo" and it was made in 1973 by the Italian director Antonioni. Red Flag , the official Communist propaganda organ of the time, published denunciations of Antonioni's film and the Party called on the nation to engage in the frenzied vilification of the Italian's film, one that tried to depict, with a goodly dose of irony, some of the sodden realities of revolutionary New China. Numerous articles and speeches attacking the film were produced. Needless to say, to vouchsafe the ideological health and protect the "feelings of the Chinese people", the authorities did not let China's outraged critics actually see the film.

Again, in the case of the 1995 denunciations of "Gate" by Chai Ling and her fellows none of these critics had actually seen "Gate" when they launched their emotive onslaught on both the film and Carma Hinton in the Chinese press.

Chai Ling's language is not the only element of the article that bespeaks a totalitarian inertia in her habits. In defense of her comments to Cunningham she ignores the verbatim quote given in Xue Xiaoguang's article and which features in "Gate":

"I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people."

She translates what is for her and her defenders like Ruan Ming a sanitized English line back into Chinese to the effect that "all we can expect ( qidai ) is bloodshed". She blithely ignores the rest of the interview and the context in which the original remark was made. She also passes over the actual circumstances of the interview: she had voted with all of the other participants in the Joint Liaison Committee of groups concerned with the movement for leaving the Square on 30 May. When the decision of this group was announced at Tiananmen, Chai Ling having been advised by the student radical Li Lu (who was not at the meeting that voted to persuade the students to leave) and others unilaterally overturned the decision and then made plans to leave Beijing, following which she asked Cunningham to interview her leaving what could be called a final political testament for the public record. That she later changed her mind on her own tactics may have been for the most laudable reason, but her support for the decision to leave the Square her attack on conspirators and capitulationists and the frank comments she made to Cunningham on the record are part of the historical record.

Furthermore, in her 1995 article Chai claimed that during the movement "our demands never exceeded the freedoms and rights granted to citizens by the Constitution..." Here again she ignores what she said to Cunningham, to whit: "Unless we overthrow this inhuman government, our country will have no hope! Our people will have no hope!"

Over the years, the factional opponents of ideological extremism in China have been all too ready to use the language of their enemies in writing their denunciations and attacking their enemies at various fora. On one hand they have done so as an ironic inversion of Party language, but on the other such writing also betrays the fact that even the self-styled free thinkers of China are infected by the same type of sectarian narrowness and virulence that they so abhor in their opponents.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a writer for Zhongliu , a Mainland "retro-Maoist" journal founded after 4 June 1989 to propagate the new "leftist" line of right-thinking ideologues, published a critique of Cultural Revolution-style diction as used by supposedly liberal journalists. The writer in question noted that the rabid ( yaoya qiechi -- literally "gnashing one's teeth" or vituperative) form of CultRev language reflected a dated and extremist political psychology. But it was also noted that the so-called enemies of such linguistic revanchism themselves readily indulged in the hysterical prose of ideological hype.


In late September, 1995, shortly before its screening at the New York Film Festival, "Gate" was subjected to another volley of attacks.

Again, the critics of the film had not seen it.

Once more, the politics involved was reminiscent of the 1974 attacks on Antonioni.

Now as then a group of foreigners were criticized for having dared make a documentary on a controversial Chinese issue, one which the Chinese presume they retain the sole "droit du seigneur".

Again, the political motives of the film-makers were questioned and a media storm-in-a-tea-cup was created.

This time, however, the attacks on "Gate" came not from the exiles, but the enemies of the exiles, the Chinese government, the very group that Hinton and her fellow film-makers were supposedly pandering to through their work. The Chinese authorities, unable to induce the New York Film Festival to drop "Gate" from its schedule, penalized one of its own leading directors, Zhang Yimou, and his latest film "Shanghai Triad", which was scheduled to open the festival. They banned Zhang from attending the Festival and tried to force the organizers to cancel the screening of his film or at least drop the scheduled screenings of "Gate".

The frenzy within the Chinese world, dissident and official alike, as well as in the U.S. media, is an ironic replay of the very issues we have tried to raise in our film.

"Gate" follows the history of the 1989 Protest Movement while weaving into its structure the pre-history of those events and commenting on the "deep structure" of the political habits and attitudes that have come to inform public life in China over the past century. It then follows the development of the movement and in doing so reflects the drama, tension, humor, absurdity, heroism and many tragedies of the six weeks from April to June in 1989. Through this process, the film reveals how moderate voices in both the government and among the protesters (including students, workers and intellectuals) were gradually cowed and then silenced by extremism and emotionalism on both sides. This extremism was couched in terms of "plots", "conspiracies" and a kind of political scare tactics that had developed under Maoism. The end-result was not the defeat of extremism but rather the purge of moderation. Liberal and moderate figures in the government were ousted, leading forums for public debate were closed down and independent activity in the society was crushed for some years. All of these things have had a devastating and baneful effect on China and an incalculable impact on the rest of the world. This is not only true of the situation within the Chinese polity, it also holds true within the ranks of the protesters. Moderate opponents have generally been silenced or at least overwhelmed by the media-hungry (and media-inflated) radicals who rose to prominence in Square and have enjoyed international acclaim since fleeing China. Many moderates in China have resurfaced to struggle for gradual change and reform while overseas their supporters have often chosen to remain stay silent for fear of being publicly reviled or attacked for "helping the cause of the enemy" (i.e., the Chinese government). Anyway, few media outlets, whether Western or Chinese, have been interested in their story for it is one that contradicts the exaggerated claims concerning the protests that have been made by the "media-dissidents" since 1989.

"Gate" is a film that has attempted to recreate the history of 1989 and follow the fate of the moderate "third way" of Chinese political debate and civic action. It is a sobering tale for, faced with the Manichaean opposition between Communists and anti-Communists, there has been little middle ground left for the rational and thoughtful proponents of positive reform in China. "Gate" also attempts to reconstruct what key players in the events of 1989 really said and did. That some of their number today find such revelations inconvenient or positively threatening might not have been an aim of the film but it becomes an important theme when we witness the efforts of individuals who have remained in the Mainland to struggle for change both on an individual and societal level. To an extent, then, the film is about such individuals. This is one reason why "Gate" is unpopular with various ideologically-driven groups.

"Gate" has been reviled by both sides of the Chinese political divide. Now, subject to the "feeding frenzy" of the U.S. media which helped create the mythic status of people like Chai Ling and Li Lu in the first place, the film has achieved a notoriety that may ironically blind people to its true intent.

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