A laowai in the thick of it.
A laowai in the thick of it.

I ran across an article at Found in China entitled Chai Ling: then and now, which made mention of Philip J Cunningham, author of a new book called Tiananmen Moon.

Over the years I’ve seen an article here or there about Cunningham, but had no idea he was so intimately involved in the protest, being one of the few foreigners to have marched with the students to on May 4. Tiananmen Moon captures that march, as well as the weeks leading up to the fateful day that lives in silent infamy here in China. Marking the 20th anniversary this year, Cunningham provides day-by-day recounting of the significant events that converged in catastrophe and carnage.

Though the book isn’t officially released yet (May 28th, I think), Cunningham provides us with some fantastic excerpts on his blog Frontier International. A few grabs from the post entitled The New May Forth Spirit:

There are not enough mimeographed song sheets to go around so marchers scribble down lyrics in their notebooks, copying them off handout sheets and public blackboards. No cribbing is needed for the Internationale, as everyone knows the anthem inside out.

Why sing a song embraced by the establishment? The idea is brilliant in a way. If you sing it enough, you own it. The communist-indoctrinated youth of Beijing are waving the red flag to beat the red flag, employing iconic rhetoric of rebellion to remake China in their own image.

The more things change…

Standing in the swirling, excited pack of protesters, I am hit with a pang of self-consciousness. Not because I am over six-foot tall, a 190-pound blond man in a sea of black hair and thin physiques; this is a political rally in a country where foreigners live in separate buildings, eat in different restaurants and shop in different stores using different money from local people. Everywhere I go, thousands of curious and sometimes resentful eyes observe my every move. Any lapse of judgment on my part will be magnified many times over because of the stigma of difference.


Daily life in the People’s Republic has been excellent preparation for the practical and dramatic demands of staging political theatre at Tiananmen. It was the art of skirting the edge without crossing the line. It was rebelling within the orthodox vocabulary of rebellion. On what grounds could the May Fourth inspired Communist Party object to a May Fourth march of students waving red banners and singing communist anthems?

Already townspeople were swarming towards the protest, and they too knew how to play they ambiguity game. If questioned they could say they were watching out of curiosity, not in solidarity.


We surge southwards like a river swollen with rain, seeking Tiananmen. Crossing Second Ring Road, one of Beijing’s key arteries, brings east-west traffic to a halt, leaving taxis and busses stranded and abandoned. Meanwhile, construction workers halt their heavy lifting to line the streets, some of them waving and shouting rowdily. As if on cue, the Arts Choral Group accordion players change tack, “The red sun shall shine all over the globe,” fading out on the line, “The Internationale shall definitely be realized,” to launch a new tune. When I hear the lyrics I know why. It is proletarian agit-prop outreach time.

“Peasants, workers, soldiers, unite together!”

The gaggle explodes in celebration upon hearing the call for solidarity. The rhetoric is not new, but hearing it in this context is.


  1. I will deflower this post with a suggestion for those who may be looking for more details about May 4th ’89. If you search “Tank Man” google videos has some documentaries on Tiananmen square and the guy who confronted the platoon of tanks. There is lots of footage from the event as many western journalists covered the event and/or smuggled out footage taken by locals. It’s pretty amazing and scary stuff.

  2. Even more amazing and scary is that Cunningham may have been a journalist. He was a translator, according to his first book.

    Now, instead of calling himself a go-fer, now he says that he was–depending on what he writes– a demonstrator, an activist, a witness, a reporter. (Google his name and you can find the various ways in which he refers to himself.) Maybe he was a reporter then, though he says he worked for BBC, ABC, and others. He has not written that he reported for them. So who did he REPORT for? Or was he just hanging out and what he writes now is just gossip?

    Wasn’t he a student then? Can you be both? Freelance still means you are filing stories, doesn’t it? OK, what did he file during that time? For which news service? Or was he just a student who got a job with some news organizations that needed help and then all of a sudden decides that he is a “freelance reporter”? But how do you get a Nieman Fellowship if you are not a journalist? Maybe someone at Harvard, where those fellows are based, can explain that.

    If Cunningham was a journalist (and there are plenty of bloggers who think they are or describe themselves as that), why is he doing marching with demonstrators? Why does he call himself an activist? Isn’t he blurring the lines?

    You start asking yourself, what is going on here? Was the guy a photographer, with all these photos? Did he happen to be in Beijing as a student and knew some people and so hung out with them, and now writes about what they said? But is that a reporter? Did they say it was OK to reveal these conversations? Did they know that he saw himself as a reporter? Did he identify himself that way to them?

    Maybe someone needs to ask the publisher some of these questions. Or at least the people posting his material might want to be a bit more careful of Cunningham’s claims and credentials. If he is claiming that he was something he was not, what does that say about his credibility where the stories he tells are concerned.

  3. @Skeptical: Really?

    I don’t know anything about Philip J. Cunningham, but the tone of your comment inspired me to look deeper than I usually do into such things out of fear I had just touted the book of a China charlatan.

    I wasn’t able to find anything particularly dirty or scandalous, other than a rather heated debate about Cunningham being kicked out of some American “China Experts” e-mail list on Danwei a few years ago.

    And so I re-read your comment and can’t but scratch my head with a WTF expression on my face.

    Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but where did he say he was a journalist or reporter at TAM Sq. in ’89?

    If Cunningham was a journalist (and there are plenty of bloggers who think they are or describe themselves as that), why is he doing marching with demonstrators? Why does he call himself an activist? Isn’t he blurring the lines?

    Again, WTF? I am reasonably certain he was not a blogger at the time. As for what Cunningham is now, your requested Google hunt laid out a pretty solid professionally published body of work — certainly enough to allow him to be called a freelance writer should he choose to do so. However, the only mention I found of him referring to what “he is” was his “Peakcock Hotel” bio: “freelance writer, translator, tour conductor, TV and film producer and teacher.”

    Or are you insinuating that by writing about his personal experience (it is dubbed a “memoir” after all) at all, on an event that happened two decades ago, he is somehow un-chronologically insinuating that he was a journalist then and there?

    Colour me confused, I just don’t see it. I’m really not understanding what your point is. I rarely defend people I don’t know, but your six paragraph “warning” seems excessive, that it makes little sense seems outright bizarre.

    And just for posterity, as it really has NO connection to anything:

    Freelance still means you are filing stories, doesn’t it?

    It never meant that. It means working independently. Being a “freelance writer” also means there’s a good chance you know how to use a dictionary.

  4. Thank you for your response, and for allowing my comment to stand for your response.

    The issue here is credibility. You might want to Google again, and perhaps read his first book. Cunningham received a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard in the early 1990s sometime, for his work during 1989. You only get those fellowships if you are a journalist. But how did he manage that if he was a student then? A documentary on 1989 in talking about his interview with Chai Ling describes him as a student. What did he tell Harvard?

    In his first book, he says that he was broke and got jobs as interpreter and minder for some of the international media that went to Beijing. That makes him a journalist? Did he tell the people he was hanging with that he was a journalist? From the postings on his blog and elsewhere, it does not appear that he did. So what was he?

    If he considered himself a reporter/journalist, why did he march in support of the demonstrators? Why did he throw rocks and bricks at the soldiers, which is what he said he did? (That account is in his first book, and I wonder if he says anything about that in this current book.)

    It is also interesting to see (again, by searching the internet) that Cunningham, depending on the site and his writings, describes himself in different ways, as an activist, an essayist, a professor, a freelance journalist, a reporter, to suit whatever he is writing about.

    So, what was Cunningham during this event? What did he do? What did he tell Harvard he did? Did he file any stories? A search of the internet does not turn up anything. Or was he a student, who happened to know some of the people involved, hung out with them, supported their views, got himself a job or two as a translator, and decided to write about it 20 years later as if he was a main figure, at the center of the action? If he was so important, why did it take him this long to put together a book that not one of the people involved in that event he said he was close to cares to write in support of? If you go to the website advertising the book, you will not find anyone among the main figures who Cunningham says he knew saying that this account is true or urging people to read the book. Why not? Could it be that no one at the event remembers him because he was not at the center of the action? Or that he betrayed their trust because they saw him as a comrade and he ended up being a storyteller?

    Sharing a cab ride with one of the leaders of the student movement and filming an interview with her does not make Cunningham an insider anymore than it qualifies him as a journalist. If he is trying to make himself to be something then he was not, you have to wonder about his account of those events as he relates them.

  5. Having participated (or followed as some might called it) the incident and witnessed it first-hand and still be able to write a nonpartisan comment like the one that got him booted from the Chinapol mailing list, I would like to think he knows China more than any of us here.

  6. @Skeptical: I think the problem I have with what you’re saying is it puts a lot of emphasis on people falling into one specific role and not veering away from that. Though I agree that doing so can call into question someone’s credibility, I don’t believe that doing so equals poor credibility.

    So, is what you’re saying that you believe (a) Cunningham didn’t participate in the events leading up to or during TAM? (b) He participated, but mislead the people he was with and didn’t inform them he was acting as a Western journalist? (c) Wasn’t acting as a journalist, but through relaying his experiences later (in journalistic fashion) he was praised and rewarded with a Nieman Fellowship? (d) Was acting as a journalist and shouldn’t have gotten emotionally involved with his subjects?

    Because him simply referring to himself in different ways depending on the situation is what we all do. A lack of labels means an unlived life, an abundance would simply indicate the opposite, no?

    As an aside, do you happen to have a link to Phil’s first book? Or a name? I had assumed it was the fiction piece about Bangkok, but it sounds like you’re talking about another book about TAM?

    @Matt: I don’t know, I just read the post about Yang and it didn’t seem “embarrasingly fawning”. Definitely complimentary, but more in how a friend of Da Shan might write about him. I had heard mention of Cunningham’s friendship with Yang Rui on the posts about him getting kicked from Chinapol, and it was then also used against him.

    I posted about Yang Rui and that Wikipedia page that called him a “little biatch”, and have never enjoyed watching Dialogue, but have to admit that Cunningham’s post definitely humanizes Yang in a way his stony, dry personality seems to miss completely on TV.

    Selling himself up in the following quote or not, he is a veteran of the industry, and it’s an insightful and promising thing to say:

    Yang Rui says self-censorship is much more insidious than formal controls; a willingness to take risks should be part of the news sub-culture at a TV station. During orientation, new recruits are admonished; “be willing to be casualties.”

    The challenge is to do your job well, he adds, “even if it means losing your job.” During the weekly two-hour meeting he chairs for the youthful, largely female staff of seven producers and a number of assistants, Yang Rui challenges the innate caution and “one-day, one-dollar” attitude of today’s youth. “I see journalism as a noble cause, a mission; too many others see it just as a job.”

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