In response to:

China: The Uses of Fear from the October 6, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the English translation of my prison writings, Tiananmen Follies, Jonathan Mirsky [NYR, October 6, 2005] makes a number of claims in relation to my work and my public stance both prior to, and since, the Beijing Massacre of June 4, 1989, that call for some comment.

Based on his reading of Tiananmen Follies, Mr. Mirsky reaches two conclusions. The first is that the Communist Party authorities employed the same methods of emotional torture and terror in dealing with those incarcerated as a result of the 1989 Tiananmen incident as they did during the Yanan “rescue movement” of the 1940s. Secondly, he avers that in 1990s China such methods were still effective, or at least they proved to be so in the case of the author of that book, that is to say, myself. As a result Mr. Mirsky claims that while I wrote some worthy things in the past, following my imprisonment I was cowed into abandoning my former beliefs.

The truth about me is quite the contrary. Even though I had been on a list in prison of people slated to be executed, I remained determined throughout that ordeal to stick to my convictions. When I was released from prison in 1990 I gave an interview to a foreign journalist in which I declared, for publication around the world, that “you could say about my release that they’ve let me out of a small prison into a massive jail.” I have continued to speak and write in a forthright fashion ever since my release—on the environmental dangers China faces, on the sensitive issue of repression in the Chinese Communist Party’s history, and on a wide range of equally sensitive topics. As a consequence, at one point I was placed under house detention, and at another I was exiled to Hainan Island in the extreme south of China.

In his response to the letter to the editors from Geremie R. Barmé and Jonathan Unger published by The New York Review [November 17, 2005], Mr. Mirsky repeats his earlier claims against me and expresses a wish to hear directly from me. Well, I have the following to say:

In his response Mr. Mirsky remarked that “the Three Gorges essays, as I pointed out, were excellent, but were written before her time in prison.” He attempts to demonstrate that I have been frightened into silence. Surely, this is at odds with the facts.

Prior to my imprisonment I produced only one book related to the Three Gorges Dam, the edited volume Changjiang, Changjiang (Nanning: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 1989). Following my release from jail, I edited another work, Shuide Changjiang (literally, “Who Owns the Yangtze?”), a book that appeared in Chinese in 1993 through Oxford University Press in Hong Kong. The English version of that work was published in 1996 under the title The River Dragon Has Come.

In relation to my public opposition to the Three Gorges project, for example, I would have thought that any reader of Chinese with an interest in my work, or for that matter a concern for the environmental fate of China, would have easily been able to find the numerous essays that I have published in the mainstream international Chinese press and on the Internet since 1992.

Furthermore, for over a decade I have given speeches, keynote addresses, and talks relating to the Three Gorges Dam in many countries, although on one such occasion, in Vietnam, my speech was canceled at the last minute due to official Chinese government pressure. My most recent engagement with this issue was in October 2005. I was able to make a public speech in Beijing for the first time in some fifteen years at Sanwei Bookstore on Chang’an Avenue, Central Beijing. My talk was entitled “The Three Gorges and the Environment.” The Chinese transcript of that speech was posted on the Web for a week before being deleted by the authorities. However, both the English and Chinese versions of my remarks are readily accessible internationally on the Internet.

In regard to my engagement with other controversial issues of moment, I repeat here what I said on the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen at a commemorative symposium held at the John King Fairbank Center of Harvard University on May 13, 1999. I told my audience that:

I have lost my voice in China; I have lost my true audience, my supporters and critics in China; and I have been deprived of a chance for open and direct public engagement with my world. Yet although I have been thus diminished, I have not given up hope. Nor have I given in to the fashionable opinions and simplistic caricatures of China that prevail, both in China itself and here in America.

In China I have refused to mouth the government lies about 1989; I will not uncritically sing the praises of the power-holders and what they have done during these ten years.


And here, in America, I won’t parrot the simple slogans and extreme rhetoric that so much of the US media delights in. I refuse to play the simple-minded dissident; I refuse to give in to the thoughtless stereotypes that so many public figures in this country pursue when talking about China; I won’t follow the crude claims of some critics that unless you mount a direct and provocative challenge to the Communist Party, you are nothing less than a toady to the power-holders.

In my own limited way I want still to write and speak of the vast, complex, and rapidly changing realities of China.

In his response to Barmé and Unger’s letter to the editors, Mr. Mirsky expressed some regret that the editors of Tiananmen Follies had failed to ask me whether I still stood by “some of the things she said in the book.” I presume he is referring to passages that I wrote in prison such as the following:

Would it have been possible with a certain timely control to keep the Beijing student movement from turning chaotic in the streets between April and June of 1989? The answer is yes. If, at any time during the end of April, early May, mid-May (when the hunger strike began), and late May (once martial law was established), the government in power had really intended to put an end to the movement and had ordered the students and city residents to leave the streets, it would not have been difficult. But without such action, it is quite natural that matters escalated rapidly, because two kinds of people wanted the protest to escalate in the hope that some people would die and the protest might then turn into an “incident” of some magnitude.

Do I still hold to these views? Yes. I maintain the view that by declaring a hunger strike on May 13, 1989, the student leaders contributed to a precipitous escalation of a situation that, until then, might have been defused. The relatively open-minded faction of power-holders who were in the public eye and who had been charged with dealing with the protests were now put in a very difficult position. From the perspective of Deng Xiaoping, the paramount power-holder, these developments were proof that the “reformist faction” was incapable of containing the situation, and therefore it would no longer enjoy his confidence.

Mr. Mirsky is convinced that any talk of there being a “black hand working behind the scenes” is nothing more than a repetition of a government calumny, one aimed against the intellectuals who supported the students. He hasn’t managed to work out what I, writing in jail and faced with the prospect of death, was saying in my prison writings: that the people who hoped that the situation would spiral out of control were the factional opponents of Zhao Ziyang. As for the student leaders themselves, I believe that their problem was their youthful rashness.

Seventeen years have passed since the events of 1989, and it is clearly evident today how profoundly the value system and thought processes inculcated by Mao Zedong have beguiled generation after generation of China’s young people. Take Chai Ling for example, the activist who famously said that what her group of student leaders were “actually hoping for is bloodshed” on the eve of June 4, 1989 (yes, Mr. Mirsky, the word Chai Ling uses in Chinese, qidai, does mean “look forward to” or “hope for”). People show their true colors in extreme situations, and Chai Ling proved to be a good student of Chairman Mao’s. Furthermore, there were others who really did hope that the hunger-striking students would stay in the square. Various factions among the power-holders reasoned that if they did so they could be used as political pawns during the National People’s Congress that was soon to be held.

As to my evaluation of the question “Who benefited and who lost out?” as a result of the massacre of June 4, 1989, I would say that perhaps even Deng Xiaoping himself did not want to see such an outcome. This is because there were indications in China at the time that he was actually planning to speed up the process of political reform, a process that had long been bogged down. Indeed, shortly before the Tiananmen demonstrations erupted, I was present when Wang Feng, the head of the Taiwan office of the Party’s Central Committee and one of Deng Xiaoping’s intimates, remarked that “Comrade Xiaoping is actively considering removing the Four Basic Principles from the Constitution and having them limited to the Party Constitution.” The Four Basic Principles, it should be recalled, were introduced in February 1979 at the time of de-Maoification, and they were used to maintain ideological rectitude during the years of economic reform that followed. They were like a Sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of people, forcing people to conform to the Party’s norms. Such a decision to remove the Four Basic Principles from the Constitution would have augured a major development in the political reform of China, just as a similar act by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union had signaled a major political transformation in that country.


Those who got the most out of the situation were the political opponents of Zhao Ziyang, who hoped to force him and his associates from power, as well as those members of the nomenklatura, that is, the Party gentry, who enjoyed all the privileges afforded by the monolithic state created under the conditions of the “proletarian dictatorship.”

To this day I say, as I wrote then in prison, that I “support the martial law order issued on May 20, 1989, and support the army implementing it immediately.” I would emphasize to Mr. Mirsky that martial law was declared on May 20, but it was not implemented immediately. Indeed, the weeks between the declaration and the final tragedy of June 3–4 saw the further unfolding of a complex political drama involving internal Party factions and the manipulation of restive mass and student opinion.

The question I ask in Tiananmen Follies is: Weren’t the authorities willfully allowing the situation to get out of hand? Weren’t they manipulating things so that they could undermine the reformers who were in favor of using martial law as a way of restoring order, reformers who were anxious that things not spiral out of control? If martial law could have been imposed quickly, the power-holders in favor of democratization would have been able to shepherd their forces and make a comeback at some time in the future.

In his review, Mr. Mirsky was also particularly disdainful of my remark that the students should have been satisfied with the government’s concession that henceforth the authorities would no longer hold party meetings at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, or avail themselves of imported luxury vehicles. I still believe that squeezing such a concession out of the Party at the time was a big victory for the protesters. Over the years, the Party had proved itself to be extraordinarily reluctant to relinquish any of the perquisites of power. And, after all, Mr. Mirsky may recall that in my work on the early Yanan-era dissenter Wang Shiwei, which he avows to admire, I outlined that one of the reasons for the denunciation (and the eventual beheading) of Wang was that he had the temerity to question the special food and clothing allowances the Party leaders gave themselves at a time of supposed egalitarian frugality.

As for my “confessions” in jail, Mr. Mirsky declares himself to be particularly offended by my references to “Chairman Mao” and “ideological method,” as well as my confession’s promise not to get involved in political issues in the future. Of course, I wrote this in my confession; my life was at stake. It is ironic that having weathered the interrogations of the Communists, years later I am subjected to the intemperate declamations of a reviewer who has so obviously misread my book. Well, Mr. Mirsky, I’d like to spell it out for you: I was using my “confessions” to explicate my position, and to announce my innocence. The vast majority of these written statements were laden with diversionary tactics, or commonplace irony, “slipping away under the cover of a big coat,” as we say. These are all devices with which the average Chinese reader is completely familiar. I also used the Party’s language to make fun of it.

Of course, I should acknowledge Mr. Mirsky’s detestation of communism and note his sympathy for the Chinese people. However, if he presumes to have anything of value to say regarding the complex and confusingly intricate realities of China, I would suggest that he’ll have to work quite a bit harder. All right, if his Chinese isn’t quite up to the task, he could always have spared a few minutes Googling my name in English. At least in that way he could have avoided making the most elementary mistakes regarding my work. Or, if his Chinese was equal to it, over these many years he could have read at least a few of the many dozens of articles I have written for a worldwide Chinese-language audience, essays that touch on a wide range of subjects related to his own interests in contemporary Chinese politics, culture, society, life, and civil liberties.

Anti-Communist sloganizing does nothing so much as mirror the kind of mentality favored by Mao and Kang Sheng during the 1942 rectification campaign. Mr. Mirsky praised me for exposing the horrors of that campaign to the world. The mentality of that campaign has played an invidious role in Chinese politics and life ever since the 1940s. It is, I’m afraid, a mentality that has been shared by many others. In the end, extremist and simplistic ideologies express themselves in the same strident fashion, only the wording differs. While one chants “Chairman Mao is our savior!,” the other shouts “Mao Zedong is a monster!”

Dai Qing, with Geremie R. Barmé


Jonathan Mirsky replies:

In Dai Qing and Geremie Barmé’s letter criticizing my review of Ms. Dai’s book, Tiananmen Follies, there is much material on what she has done since her release from prison in 1990. My review, however, was of her book, which is devoted to her arrest and her time in prison. She thought well enough of these materials to publish them under her name.

When I was preparing my review I sent a list of questions to the editors. Did she still stand by what she had written? Were there, for example, “black hands” behind Tiananmen? Ms. Dai still says flatly that there were. Does she really believe that the Beijing “black hands” were behind the other four hundred uprisings throughout China that spring? She says I should have been able to “work out” what she really meant. She could easily have made this plain in her book, but, one of her editors explained, “while a general reader might need a longer introduction I don’t think this book calls for one. Anyway, Dai Qing didn’t want one.”

I sent the editors a final draft of my review to check for factual errors. This was the response: “review looks good, reads well, no surprises…Sullivan team [i.e., the book’s editors] not unhappy or displeased.”

The key matter here is her confession. I asked the editors, “Is the confession real or just something she was forced to say. In the introduction it says she is no ‘snitch’ but she is, and she shows plenty of remorse, though it is said she doesn’t.” So was it real or was it staged, and if staged is this obvious? Ms. Dai now says: “I was using my ‘confessions’ to explicate my position, and to announce my innocence. The vast majority of these written statements were laden with diversionary tactics, or commonplace irony, ‘slipping away under the cover of a big coat,’ as we say. These are all devices with which the average Chinese reader is completely familiar. I also used the Party’s language to make fun of it.”

Does that mean that the—rare—footnote in Ms. Dai’s book on her confession is false? In it she says, “I had told the truth and nothing but the truth, mainly because this would make things much easier and more convenient. This, I believe, was something that left a profound impression on the minds of the comrades of the special case group [her interrogators].”

On the book jacket, in words I presume were approved or written by Dai Qing or the editors, it says of her confession that it is “at times quite unflattering to the author…. She begins to accept the government’s view on certain matters, ending up fingering others in a manner that suggests previous collaborationist actions in China.”

So whether the confession is true, as she emphasizes in the book, or was really “slipping away under the cover of a big coat,” Ms. Dai misled her publisher, her editor, and me. She must take responsibility for her text, which contains the words about which I wrote my review.

This Issue

April 27, 2006