The Beginning of the End

Moving the Mountain

a documentary film directed by Michael Apted, produced by Trudie Styler

The Gate of Heavenly Peace

a documentary film directed and produced by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon

Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China

by Craig Calhoun
University of California Press, 333 pp., $37.50

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing Spring, which ended in the so-called Tiananmen Massacre of June 1989. “Moderate” students and intellectuals blame other, more “radical” students for the bloody conclusion. Veterans of the square, as the authentic “freedom fighters” (their words), look down on those who were overseas at the time. Activists who stayed in China after June 1989—often in jail—dismiss the exiles. And the exiles, mostly in France and the US, have splintered into groups of reformists, cultural chauvinists, democrats, neo-Confucianists, soft-authoritarians, and so on. Some thrive in the West, making money, trading on fame; others, less adept in the ways of the marketplace, sulk in regret, chilled by the loneliness of freedom, and dream of returning to the stifling embrace of China.

Two new documentary films about the events in Tiananmen Square have brought these internecine battles to wider public attention. Both are partisan. The first, Moving the Mountain, tells the story of 1989 from the perspective of a student “radical” who was at the square, managed to escape to the West—and is thriving. It is a propaganda movie for what its main hero calls a democratic revolution. The other film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, argues the case for moderation, compromise, and slow reform, and takes the radicals to task for harming the reformist cause by pushing the protest movement too far.

Near the beginning of both movies we are shown the famous image of a young man defying a tank. Millions watched this small, defenseless figure as he refused to budge, while the tank swerved furiously this way and that. Here was a great twentieth-century drama neatly compressed in one photographic image, to be dissected, mulled over, celebrated, and deconstructed by journalists, academics, writers, filmmakers, and other interested parties all over the world. But not everyone read the picture in the same way. The young man, so tiny, so vulnerable, could be seen as a tragic figure, a symbol of the futility of empty-handed opposition to brute force. But he could also serve as a heroic model for future resistance. The Chinese government took another view: the incident was proof of the sweet tolerance of the People’s Liberation Army. After all, the tank could simply have flattened the boy.

While The Gate of Heavenly Peace tends toward the tragic view, Moving the Mountain is more in the heroic mold. The main character is Li Lu, a student from Nanjing who came to the protest movement relatively late. The movie has the air of a political bio-pic, shot in the snazzy, exotic style of an Asian airline commercial. For atmosphere there is an intrusive sound track of loud, portentous music (by Liu Sola) that drones on without respite. The narration is by Li Lu himself. His development…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.