The Thugs of Tiananmen8 min read

Grace Jackson reviews Bullets and Opium by Liao Yiwu

“Thugs” was how Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo described demonstrators who gathered in historic numbers on June 9 to protest against a bill that would allow for extradition to China, at the outset of a wave of protests that have roiled the city ever since. That word is one of several threads connecting Hong Kong in 2019 to Beijing thirty years earlier. Prior to this year, the last time Hong Kongers took to the streets in such numbers was in solidarity with the student protestors who gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the aftermath of that democracy movement in Beijing, “thugs” (baotu 暴徒) became a buzzword too. It was the PRC government’s designation for all non-student protestors: the workers, shopkeepers and bystanders who felt compelled to put their bodies between soldiers and students.

The forgotten “thugs” of Tiananmen are the subjects of a newly translated book by exiled dissident and poet Liao Yiwu. Liao left China for Germany in 2011, smuggling out the recordings and notes which would eventually become Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre (the book was previously published in Germany and Taiwan). Bullets and Opium sheds new light on the internal social and cultural dynamics of the protests, shifting the focus from the students and their well-articulated ideals to the mostly working-class people who shared many of their grievances but lacked a formal connection to the democracy movement. Unlike the student leaders, they would not be given opportunities escape the repression that followed the massacre, as some student leaders had in the form of scholarships to US universities and support from overseas NGOs.

Liao profiles 14 “thugs” or groups of them, devoting a chapter to each, named after their archetypes: ‘The Arsonists,’ ‘The Squad Leader,’ ‘The Hooligan,’ and so on. The profiles are divided into two locations, Beijing and Sichuan – hinting at the national extent of the protests – and supplemented by appendices. Patterns emerge from Liao’s interviews: most of those profiled are struggling to make ends meet and face discrimination in the job market. Many are divorced and crippled by the psycho-sexual problems they developed in prison, as explored later in this review. Several express faith that one day the Tiananmen protestors will be officially rehabilitated. All bear physical and emotional scars from torture, re-education through labor and years of isolation at the margins of society.

Liao frames himself as a “remembrance worker,” a compulsive compiler of repressed narratives”

The “bullets” of the title, author and journalist Ian Johnson notes in his introduction, refers to the ammunition fired on civilians on the morning of June 4, 1989 and the Chinese state’s repressive measures in general. The “opium” is the drug of economic development, which gathered momentum in the years following the massacre. In Liao’s view, the material incentives of economic development has rendered the once politically-engaged population catatonic, like addicts in a 19th century Canton opium den. Most of Liao’s subjects recall horror at realizing, upon release from prison three, seven or 15 years later, that they no longer recognize society. “Who was it that told the Chinese people to move into this era of reform and opening when everyone would only care about themselves and would lose their moral integrity?” asks Liu Yi (“The Captain”), who spent eight years in prison for “organizing a mob for an armed counterrevolutionary rebellion.” During the protests, he was elected the leader of the Disciplinary Patrol Team, a group of about 200 ordinary citizens who helped keep order in the square in the run-up to June 4.

With most of the book dedicated to transcribed interviews, Bullets and Opium is primarily a work of oral history. Liao frames himself as a “remembrance worker,” a compulsive compiler of repressed narratives. It is also a work of psycho-geography, with Liao serving as a flâneur, wandering through the urban underworld – usually at night – in search of his subjects. Each chapter finds him in a different location: chain smoking in a teahouse in Changsha; sat cross-legged in the filthy room of an unlicensed hotel in Beijing; taking refuge from the northern wind in a subterranean restaurant “with an entrance like a mine.”

The translators, Jessie and David Cowhig and Ross Perlin, have deftly captured the two registers of Liao the poet and Liao the dissident, resulting in dramatic combinations of expressive and earthy language. The raw realities of incarceration (“diarrhea-filled days in such a small space, with all those bastards, skin sticking to skin, reeking ass next to reeking ass”) abut meditations on righteousness, such as Liao’s fantasy of building a monument to China’s tens of millions of ideological criminals, each individual represented by a tear-drop shaped crystal: “Seen from a distance, it won’t look like a monument but like a mountain gleaming with the cold light of eternal tears, one piled on top of another.”

Most significantly, Bullets and Opium reveals fault lines of class and gender within the dissident community that have been concealed by the banner issue of human rights in China. In Tiananmen Square, Liao attests, many workers and peasants were refused access to the student leaders’ base camp at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. “People like us, grassroots, from the provinces, couldn’t join the conversation,” remembers Yu Zhijian, one of the three men who came to Beijing from Hunan to throw eggs at Mao Zedong’s portrait on the Tiananmen gate tower. Later, as political prisoners, the so-called “rioters” occupied the lowest rung of the jail hierarchy, and were subject to extra beatings by fellow inmates.

The book reveals fault lines of class and gender within the dissident community”

More pointedly, Bullets and Opium can be read as a study in masculinity and the consequences of its shattering. “All over China,” Liao writes in the prologue, “many of those arrested after the 1989 protests were teenage boys, virgins.” On their release, “they were middle-aged men dealing with erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.” Several of the “thugs” – Liao included – describe suffering pathological levels of sexual frustration and dysfunction as a result of their prison sentences. Three attest to having had their genitalia shocked with an eletric prod, among other forms of physical humiliation, during torture sessions. “After being violated so many times, you become like a prostitute with clients,” Liao says of his own emasculation. It is an uncomfortable comparison, ascribing the indignity and lack of agency of torture victims to sex workers. And it is consistent with the worldviews of men so starved of female affection that, on release, they often turn women into objects.

In one of the most disturbing passages of the book, Li Qi, “The Accomplice,” recounts his torrid reunion with his wife after serving a half-year prison sentence for his involvement with Liao’s production company (Liao himself was jailed for four years for making a film musical about June 4). Having begged his unwilling wife to have sex with him, and with their baby daughter in the bed with them, Li Qi lost control. “Seized by lust, I pulled off her clothes and forced my way into her,” he tells Liao, “The child was fussing and the mother was crying.” It is a scene of such abjection that it tests the limits of the reader’s empathy. Later, Li Qi describes a second act of spousal rape that preceded their divorce. Liao’s response: “She was deliberately hurting you,” and later, “We’ve all had this experience.”

There are no female protestors profiled in the book. Early on, Liao acknowledges that many of the non-student protestors were men, “for reasons that are deeply rooted in Chinese society,” and that he selected exclusively male subjects “partly for reasons of access.” But for a book with the explicitly humanistic goal of documenting oppression, Bullets and Opium is sometimes troublingly sexist. Women – mainly the wives and girlfriends of the men profiled – feature as objects of lust or abusive frustrators of male desire. Upon leaving a hotel after an all-night interview, Liao describes feeling drained, “like a bunch of johns who had indulged too much in sexual pleasures.” These testimonies make clear that being a bro is a matter of survival in prison in China, as anywhere else. But the comparison would be less inapt in a book that didn’t feature multiple first-person accounts of sexual coercion and trauma. One thinks of the culture of sexism among male rights activists and lawyers in China described by Leta Hong Fincher in her 2018 book Betraying Big Brother, in which female activists are taken less seriously than their male counterparts, and have even endured cover-ups of sexual harassment at the hands of male activists. The contexts are different – most of the Tiananmen protestors have given up the fight, and most of Liao’s “thugs” never had pretentions to formal activism – but both suggest a dynamic in which the genuine moral valor of men is used to justify the abusive treatment of women.

That does not diminish their suffering, nor the power and value of their testimonies. Liao’s is a towering achievement in bringing their voices to the fore. Yet the relationships destroyed by the Tiananmen massacre – between men and women, parents and children, state and citizenry – have yet to be mended, and the ruptures that remain are a measure of the damage done. Bullets and Opium demonstrates that in the moral catastrophe of Tiananmen, no one was spared – not even Liao Yiwu. ∎

Liao Yiwu, Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre (Simon and Schuster, May 2019).