DURING THE 1989 protests in Beijing, student Kong Qingdong came across two undergraduates using a mimeograph machine to makes copies of personal documents.
One of them looked up. “Kong, have you nabbed a passport yet?” he asked.
“Feng Congde, Chai Ling—they’ve both got American passports.”
As he listened, Kong found himself becoming filled with fury. He later described that moment: “My anger wasn’t jealousy, because I’ve never thought going to America would be a good thing. My place is in China. In China, I wanted to study hard and help build the country.”
The international media presented the student protesters as wanting to bring American “freedom and democracy” to China, but that had never been true. The protesters’ focus at that time was to rid the country of corruption to implement true socialist democratic representation, so the Four Modernizations could get underway – this was a Deng Xiaoping project to push for world-class development in certain areas: science/technology, industry, agriculture, and defence.
To Kong, like most students, the modernization project was “the most exciting prospect”. They wanted the government to stamp out corruption so that China could develop on its own path.
“I never wanted to pass the [a language teaching qualification] and go wash dishes in America,” Kong said.
The problem was that there was an extraordinarily level of hostile foreign involvement in what was supposed to be an important debate within the Chinese community.
Eventually, Kong went to speak to a pair of other students, Shen Tong and Wang Chiying. “The struggle for democracy in China must rely on the Chinese people,” Kong said. “It can’t depend on foreign powers.”
Foreign reporters lined up to speak to the student protesters. “Quite early on, I noticed how biased they were,” Kong recalled. “I can’t say for sure that the ones I met were spies, but in my estimation some foreign journalists were. For one thing, when they interviewed me—reporters from Hong Kong, America, Japan—they didn’t publish my words as they were spoken. They distorted and embellished them.”
He also became aware of a very different narrative being imposed on what was happening. “During the interviews, they tried to encourage me to criticize the party, to praise America.” He said they continually asked him “whether or not I wanted to ‘go to America and experience true freedom and democracy’”.
Kong didn’t know how to answer. The problem was that the students had taken a position against the Chinese government, so reporters made simplistic assumptions which students struggled to correct.
“It was embarrassing but at the time my thinking wasn’t so clear,” Kong said. “All I knew was that it was an incredibly complex situation, so what the government had been saying wasn’t totally without merit.” Indeed, students felt that the Chinese government’s main message about the protests was correct, if poorly expressed. “I wasn’t fond of the way the forceful way the government spoke,” Kong said. “But what they were actually saying was: ‘This is a complex situation. There are certain forces behind the scenes, sowing discord.’ This was the truth.”
Since both sides wanted to the same goal, development of China, what caused violence to break out? “A person like me who has studied history could see clearly what was going on,” he said. “When we were little, we watched movies like Guerrillas Sweep The Plain.” [This was a classic black and white Chinese movie in which there are tensions between two groups of fighters. A hidden third body, the Eighth Army, opens fire at both sides and then quickly hides, triggering a fight.]
Troublemakers triggered a fight in Muxidi, leading to hundreds of deaths. “They hoped to provoke the students on one side and the soldiers on the other, hit some students over here, steal some guns over there, creating a perfect excuse for bloodshed,” Kong said.
“The PLA soldiers had been stuck in their vehicles for days without any valid intel, while the students only received one-sided info, all pro-American propaganda. So the bloody outcome may have come about in this way.”
Kong Qingdong was a leading protester in 1989. But his refusal to accept the Western view of China led to him being branded “pro-China” by some foreigners. He became a Beijing University professor, but his outspokenness, often on controversial topics, led him to become better known as an author and social commentator, the Chinese equivalent of a “shock jock”. He recalled the incidents of 1989 in an interview in 2014.