Powerful pictures from Tiananmen

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Produced and directed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton
From October 24 for three weeks at Valhalla, Glebe, Sydney; followed by Adelaide, Canberra and Perth
Reviewed by Eva Cheng

Supported by valuable footage, The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives a powerful account of the most important mass mobilisation in China since the 1949 Revolution — the student-led protests, occupation and hunger strike from April to June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, which ended in a bloody massacre.

More and bigger gatherings took place during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. However, the spontaneous nature of the 1989 movement, and the efforts to address and press for a solution to some of the most burning social contradictions in China, gives the later events far greater social significance.

Minzhu (democracy) and guandao (down with corruption of party officials) were the central demands in 1989. Students even defined their understanding of democracy: min stands for renmin (people) and zhu, for dangjiazuozhu (take charge). Anger at rampant corruption — Deng Xiaoping and other top officials were widely named — stood out in the square. So did anger at widespread unemployment and growing social inequality.

This contrasted with the 1960s, when people would be putting their lives and those of their families at risk by not responding to the call for actions by one or another rival faction within the Communist Party. Mao's offer of a state-funded trip to the capital to attend rallies was, on its own, a big attraction.

Gordon and Hinton focus too much on the students' formal demands — for a "dialogue" with the party centre, and retraction of the editorial of the People's Daily on April 26, which condemned the student protests — and take them at face value. Surprisingly, they missed the central mood in the square and the most popular demands.

They suggest that the 1989 actions were a revolution, but make no noticeable effort to trace its social origin. They do not mention the student protests in a number of cities in 1986-87, of which 1989 was a continuation and from which it drew experience.

Gordon and Hinton draw parallels between 1989 and similar recent Chinese developments, but superficially. They compare 1919 and 1989, because they are both student actions; the protests in 1976 and 1989, because both happened in Tiananmen and took the form of a mourning over the death of a top party official. he was opposed in the latter.

Very different contexts and social meanings are disregarded. Superficial, disjointed "ironies" are drawn.

Students rose in 1919 to defend Chinese territories from being annexed by imperialist Japan. But in 1989 — after a social revolution, in which the social order was overhauled — students and workers were fighting for fundamental democratic rights against the ruling bureaucracy. There were clear illusions in 1976 that the good hearts and right policies of a section in the Communist Party could solve China's problems, but they were basically gone by 1989.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace captures at great length the intense developments in 1989, especially the tactical differences on how to take the struggle forward day to day. It does a reasonable job of providing useful material from which political lessons can be drawn.

However, the focus is on too narrow a segment of the participants, and distortingly so on the chief field commander, Chai Ling. She was a formal field organiser at most, chosen on the basis of her vow to sacrifice herself — literally her life — ahead of others should danger occur, a promise from which she retreated when put to the test. She made clear later her hidden conviction that blood, that of others, must be shed in Tiananmen because she thought this the only way to wake up the Chinese people.

Gate is certainly worth seeing. It contains plenty of valuable footage and useful raw facts, powerfully captured and presented. But one really has to go elsewhere to understand what they mean socially and politically.