Frontline on Tianamen

Ron Silliman (
Wed, 5 Jun 1996 08:16:02 -0400

Last night, almost by accident, I caught the final 2/3rds of
Frontline's "Heavenly Gates of Peace" (I may have that garbled
somewhat) show on the 1989 Tianamen democracy movement. I was struck by
how much of what the documentary showed reminded me of the student
movement of the 1960s (of which I have firsthand knowledge) and of what
I saw and learned secondhand about somewhat later events, such as the
Attica prison massacre.

The show, which has been controversial because it shows the splits
between the different student, worker and intellectual factions, was
produced in part by a kid of Bill Hinton's and Orville Schell, among
others. It shows, among other things, one of the student leaders, Chai
Ling, being very conscious about her goal of provoking a violent,
deadly response from the government out of a belief that only such a
result would lead to a spontaneous revolt capable of overturning Deng
and Li Peng's hold on power. It also shows her fabricating the level of
violence that did occur, again for political purposes.

It also struck me, and I don't have a way of gauging this, since the
only people I know personally who where in Beijing at the time are
Russian (and thus don't have direct experience of the US student
movement), whether or not those similarities are "real" or a construct
of the filmmaker's narrative, having presumably experienced that here
themselves to some degree and/or knowing that their audience might
relate to these events from that perspective.

The other thought I want to throw out on this is that in such events as
spontaneous revolts, the forces of power (the state, the party, the
Chicago cops) almost always win the battle in the short term, but that
the longer term remains somewhat more up for grabs. In this way, what
took place in Moscow after the coup against Gorbachev, with Yeltsin on
the tank and all, seems all the more remarkable because the general
forces of history suggest that that was almost an "impossible" event.
Ditto the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia. I'm totally conscious,
of course, that it is not at all clear, yet, who may or may not have
"won" in Russia or Eastern Europe and that, while the student movement
did force an end to the war in Indochina and had several other impacts
(leading not so much to the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll scenarios
bandied about here of late as, say, the increased participation of
women in positions of economic and political power), that "who won the
60s" remains a point over which people are still fighting (Dole,
Gingrich and Buchanan can all be read as attempts to "erase" that
decade from different perspectives).

I'm curious about what others think.

Ron Silliman