Editor’s Introduction: The China Blog often publishes something at this time of year that looks back in one way or another to the June 4th Massacre of 1989, an act of state violence that curtailed a national movement whose biggest protests took place at Tiananmen Square. This year is no different. Our June 4th anniversary post this time takes the form of an interview with an eyewitness to the demonstrations and crackdown of 1989, Scott Savitt, who has recently published a memoir, Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China, which deals in part with the dramatic events that convulsed Beijing and captivated television audiences around the world twenty-eight years ago. Matthew Robertson, a researcher and translator, conducted the interview, which begins after a brief introduction he provides to Savitt’s life and Crashing the Party, which Publisher’s Weekly describes as the work of a “smart, thrilling memoirist.” -Jeff Wasserstrom
Scott Savitt, a translator, journalist, and entrepreneur, was among the relatively few Americans to embed themselves in Chinese life before the tumultuous events of 1989 — and then bear witness to the massacre that took place late on the night of June 3 and early on the morning of June 4. Originally arriving in China as a student in 1983, Savitt later parlayed his Chinese language ability, as well as his personal network — his girlfriend for a time was the personal assistant to Bette Bao Lord (wife of U.S. ambassador to China, Winston Lord) — into a position as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times and then United Press International. For years he darted through the streets of Beijing on an imported “flame-red 500cc Honda motorcycle,” sometimes covering the plates if he needed to execute a night mission, disappearing into the hutongs (alleyway neighborhoods) if police tried to flag him down. In the early 1990s, Savitt established the first English-language magazine in China, an experiment that came to an abrupt end soon after the turn of the millennium. Since its publication late last year, his Crashing the Party has attracted praise for its candid and personal vision of China before and after Tiananmen. I recently spoke to Savitt, asking him to revisit the heady events of the 1980s and reflect on the continued significance for China of that decade and the June 4th Massacre in particular.
MATTHEW ROBERTSON: You arrived in China in 1983 and were there for most of the rest of the decade. China in the 1980s was a special time. Many of my older Chinese friends, for instance, have spoken of that decade with nostalgia. What was it like being there then?
SCOTT SAVITT: I arrived in China in 1983 and it was really the honeymoon stage. The Communist Party has admitted that they fucked up under Mao, that they have to go in a different direction. Nobody knows what “gaige kaifang” [reform and opening up] really means. There’s still a Mao hangover. They’re breaking up the communes in the countryside, in the cities people start buying and selling vegetables in free markets. The Party’s propaganda had run out of steam completely, and so everybody knew that everything they’ve taught us is a lie.
The 1980s felt like springtime — though of course it wasn’t. Mao’s henchman Deng Xiaoping was still in power, and politically active people were getting arrested all the time. But the difference between then and now really is like night and day. The equivalent would be pre-709 crackdown [the mass arrest of Chinese human rights lawyers from July 9, 2015]. You know it’s dangerous, but people are speaking out anyway. Whether it succeeds or not, being among a group of people who are living for a larger cause is really inspiring. That’s how the 1980s was.
I grew up in the 1960s U.S., and it felt like the 1980s in China was what the U.S. had experienced in that decade. The hopeful atmosphere felt very familiar to me. I grew up wishing that I could have been one of the civil rights Freedom Riders or anti-war demonstrators I admired in my childhood, and in China I got my chance. My Western friends in Beijing and I would joke: This is our Vietnam.
You arrived as an exchange student at age 19, living in a dorm with Chinese students and intensively studying the language. How were you and your fellow students received? You document many raw, intense encounters with new Chinese friends — how did those relationships evolve so rapidly and organically?
In my encounters, I was the first American that anyone had met. They were so curious. We got told: “You are diplomats; be on your best behavior.” That’s a good, heavy thing to be told as a teenager. It makes you feel: “Wow, there’s something more important than my little life.” It was a situation we weren’t ready for, but had to grow into quickly. It brought out the best in us.
Chinese are used to foreigners being ignorant about China. When they meet people that take the time to learn their language and culture, they want to tell you everything. They want to make you an educated person according to their standards, so they can have deeper interactions with you. I feel like that’s what was done to me. I had to meet that standard. And when I was a reporter there, I was never off duty. Everybody was a source.
After your study abroad year, you returned to Duke to finish your degree, and then as soon as you could returned to China, seemingly for good. How hard was it to go from being a college student to breaking into the foreign correspondent corps, especially as someone without a background in journalism?
Pre-internet, it wasn’t that easy to get published. You really had to hustle and self-promote. Since I decided that’s how I was going to make my living, or at least supplement my income, I had to be doing it all the time. It was all very fortuitous. I don’t know if it was clear in the book, but that L.A. Times job — a lot of people wanted those jobs. The only reason I got them was because of my Chinese language ability and contacts. It was the same with the UPI job. Those are plum jobs. You have a work visa, a car, an apartment. It’s the golden ticket.
The magazine you founded, Beijing Scene, was suddenly raided, you were arrested and then ejected from China in 2000. This book was published last year. Was it difficult to sort out everything that happened and get it down after you got back?
I started composing it in the prison cell. The structure seemed crystal clear. Yet it’s still difficult to answer the question as to why it took so long. I went from having daily deadlines to a complete vacuum. It took me a long time just to even not want to blow my brains out — not to put too fine a point on it. It was a constant struggle just to want to live in this world. The weight felt overwhelming. Being back around Americans, people feigned interest but their eyes would glaze over in 30 seconds. They don’t want to hear your tale of woe.
People asked me if I thought the story was still relevant. Well, if you’re going to write a book you have to believe it’s important. It took so long to write because it took so long to get some distance from that trauma. It’s really hard for people who didn’t experience that pre-1989 period. Chinese friends didn’t get why I was writing it. They’ve all internalized ideas like: Forget about the June 4th Massacre; the Party is right; don’t talk about it anymore; stop living in the past; stop nursing your hurt.
Talk about the student protests themselves that led up to the June 4, 1989 military crackdown — what was noteworthy, or is memorable about them, and what do they say about China at that moment?
Well, the news blackout in China was broken. The People’s Daily was reporting on the protests. You got a glimpse of what a free China might look like. Beijing then, filled with students protesting and locals supporting them, was an upbeat place. The police stopped working and the traffic got better. They said the crime rate went down. I can’t confirm or deny that, but you basically came to realize that this system of repression is not necessary. The Party’s biggest argument is that they make the trains run on time. It’s not enough.
Actually, what’s missing in everyday life in China is trust and goodwill. That’s why Ai Weiwei’s latest op-ed about the stifling of freedom of speech — even though people complain about him getting all the attention — that kind of thing has to be said over and over again, even though it seems obvious. Stopping people from saying what they really think cripples the human soul.
That brief flowering, those seven weeks of protest, is still the most amazing experience of my life by far. You felt like sleeping was a waste of time. I lived in that square for those seven weeks of protest. You just couldn’t get enough of it. It was like a big carnival. And when people are so repressed like that, that sudden flowering of freedom is, even now, a perfect time to look back on.
Just imagine today, a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square saying whatever they want, saying “Fuck the Communist Party.” Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The authorities said the protesters were trying to overthrow the Party, but that wasn’t the focus. The focus was: We don’t want to live in fear.
What of the political consequences that follow from that entire debate and movement simply being violently shut down, the issues it raised about the future of China left unresolved?
Right. That’s why I get riled up when people say that everyone’s happy with the system now. You don’t understand. No one likes the system. They just don’t want to commit collective suicide. Anyone who tells you that they predicted the events of 1989 is lying, or stupid, or both. It was not predictable.
However, the thing that was truly unexpected was the government’s dawdling. They could have nipped the early protests in the bud immediately, like they had so many times before. They could have stopped the students from marching to Tiananmen the very first night. But they didn’t. This is why I always maintain that it was the impasse at the top of the Party that allowed those protests to go ahead.
This is why I predict you’ll see something like that again. That system appears much more functional than it really is. What it’s completely ill-equipped for is crisis. I think you saw that a little bit with the Bo Xilai affair, even though nobody knows for sure what really happened, China’s political system is fragile, prone to internal power struggles. The significance of all that Xi Jinping is doing lies there — his windfall was the Bo Xilai conspiracy. It gave him the perfect excuse to centralize power. And who knows if there is something more behind his appearance now as the hardest of hard liners.
It seems that what you saw during the massacre was deeply traumatizing, though this comes across as quite understated in the book. I recall the bit where you call your editor saying that the military has started firing into the crowds, and that you’ve seen someone killed. Your editor, David Schweisberg, asks: “How do you know he’s dead?” and you go: “Because his brains are splattered on the pavement.” How did you deal with that?
It’s something I’m still grappling with. I don’t think people were meant to witness things like that. There was more carnage that night than some people see in warfare. A massacre is something different.
It’s very difficult for someone who has not experienced that to relate to it. It’s why I feel much closer to people who have seen people shot or killed. You realize that not many people have. It’s got to scar you for life. It made me numb and reckless. It plays a role in my life now, because we have kids. I’ve gone to therapy with my partner, to help me stop being reckless.
It feels like the entire establishment and operation of Beijing Scene, the magazine you went on to found, was driven by this recklessness. Is that so?
Of course. There was never going to be a happy ending. Actually, the investors in Beijing Scene were attracted to that. When we negotiated with our venture capital backers, one of them asked me what was going to happen to the magazine. I said: “The police are going to kick the door down, that’s what’s going to happen.” My accountant kicked me under the table. He thought it might scuttle the deal, but it just made it more sexy to them. Beijing Scene became successful by caring not a whit about success. We sold a 10% stake in the magazine for $500,000.
It’s intimated but not elaborated on in the book that a kind of social scene grew up around Beijing Scene — tell us about that.
It was a clubhouse. It was a bit like the American Embassy gatherings under ambassador Winston Lord before the massacre that I write about. I tried to recreate that in the newspaper office. It was a who’s-who of people. A big open plan office. The office had two cooks, and I made sure there would be a big lunch and big dinner every single day. Who’s not going to come to that? Chinese like Cui Jian, the actors and directors Jiang Wen, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yuan, bestselling writer Wang Shuo, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang, all those folks came to the office. It was a great environment.
Compare the China you knew before the massacre with the post-Tiananmen decade that followed. What was different? Why does that matter?
It’s a bit subjective, but so many of your friends going into prison and exile — that’s significant. The whole tenor of the place changed.
That’s why I feel like my story is a microcosm of Beijing in the 1980s and 90s. Starting a business — xiahai in Chinese [literally “jumping into the sea,” common vernacular for entrepreneurial activity in the 1980s and 1990s] — after June 4, and that’s what everyone was doing. The Chinese are an entrepreneurial people. But there was a different reason behind that post-1989. The unstated contract with the Communist Party was: We’ll give you economic liberty, but not political liberty. That’s what everyone acted on.
That’s where so much of the corruption comes from. If you don’t free up the political system, but free up the economic system, well guess what: Markets, political as well as economic, are going to create themselves. And that’s where things remain. Everything in China got a lot more cynical. The money culture didn’t come naturally to people. It was simply all that was allowed. Of course making money is what smart people are going to do, in that case. If it were an open society, you would have had a lot more of those people doing other things, being socially engaged, but when you only give them one channel…
The Guo Wengui case that has been in the news recently is a perfect example. It’s tragic — because for everyone you hear about who has made millions or billions of dollars, it makes people that much more desperate to know that your billions can’t save you if you find yourself on the wrong side of a political power struggle. That gives the whole place a sense of insecurity.
Some laugh at the claim that everything goes back to 1989, but I think it was a glimpse of how that society could have developed differently — in a much more healthy, diverse way. I think we see evidence of that constantly. It’s still a very unstable society and political system. I maintain MY prediction that we will wake up some morning and there will be news that changes everything. Recall the first news of Bo Xilai’s police chief fleeing to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. The apologists laughed and dismissed it, but it was true. Some triggering event like that will happen again.
The remarkable aspect of the anti-corruption campaign is how it has pulled back the layers of rot. It’s so Orwellian. Look at how corrupt those top generals in the Central Military Commission were — Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou — who had villas, golden Mao statues, and basements full of cash. Yeah, like I’m not going to ask the obvious question that follows: How did they amass those fortunes? How did they operate so long? Who was protecting them? There is nothing normal about that. The Chinese people aren’t stupid. Now, 28 years after Tiananmen, they still don’t desire to live that way.
Matthew Robertson, based in New York City, is a translator and editor with China Change and a researcher with the Human Rights Law Foundation.