Beijing Bastard: Val Wang on Hong Kong Unrest and a Changing China

Sept. 29, 2014 - Hong Kong protest cellphone vigil © Citobun

Editor's Note: Val Wang teaches in the English and Media Studies Department of Bentley University. She is most recently the author of Beijing Bastard, a memoir of discovery both of herself and of China, where her parents fled in the 1940s and where Wang arrives in 1998 to a city caught in the throes of an identity crisis. Wang joins Signature to discuss the now-fizzling Umbrella Revolution, China's long history of student-led protests, and her own involvement in the cultural evolution of China.

For the past month I’ve watched with amazement and trepidation as the student-led protests for full democratic elections have overtaken Hong Kong. It’s been a thrill to see citizens demanding to have their voices heard, but of course I’ve been holding my breath hoping not to see a redux of 1989.

Beijing is wise to be scared of student protests. From the May Fourth Movement of 1919 to student protests in 1976 that brought down the Gang of Four to the tragedies of 1989, rebellious students have historically been charged with speaking truth to power.

I lived in China from the year of the Hong Kong handover in 1997 to 2002, mostly in Beijing. The rebellious spirit of Chinese youth was what had drawn me to the country in the first place. In the mid-1990s I saw the underground film "Beijing Bastards," a gritty, low-budget film about apathetic young hooligans in Beijing who live aimless lives, going to rock concerts and getting drunk. Something clicked in my mind; I’d been raised by strict Chinese émigré parents in the American suburbs and the characters in the movie seemed like long-lost cousins of mine. The director was part of a generation of underground filmmakers who, in the words of their own manifesto, wanted "to present a more truthful and more expansive document on the life of the Chinese people." We were all rebelling against the top-down strictures of our parents, our ancestors, our history, and in the case of the filmmakers, the government. I went to Beijing seeking them.

Once there, I ended up befriending some of the filmmakers and helping them subtitle their films, which were mostly about everyday people struggling to adjust to the country’s transition to capitalism. There were no official venues for watching films; filmmakers would screen in bars or apartments and the news spread by word of mouth.

On the surface my friends were bitingly cynical, but as I got to know them better I learned that having been born in the late 1960s they had come of age in the idealistic 1980s when the country was opening to the world and political debate was beginning to flow freely. Most had been in college around 1989 and so the Tiananmen Square Massacre had hit them at an especially vulnerable point. Cynics are, after all, just disappointed idealists.

When I arrived in Beijing, the massacre was still a relatively fresh memory, but most people seemed resigned to redirecting their energies towards making money or simply weathering the economic changes. Cultural life and civil society bloomed quietly, and the government was relatively hands-off as long as you steered clear of politics.

The protests in Hong Kong are the largest pro-democracy demonstration in China since Tiananmen Square. China’s image on the global stage has taken a hit as we all wonder if the hardline government will crack down. An equally pertinent question is whether the unrest will leak into mainland China.

The spirit of insubordination is alive across the country; protests against corruption, illegal land grabs, and environmental abuses already happen on a regular basis in small villages and big cities. But these protests remain localized and disconnected and during the protests in Hong Kong, the Great Firewall worked overtime to block news and photos online.

These topics and others showing the dark side of China’s economic boom are among the stories that contemporary documentary makers, continuing the thread that my friends set into motion in the 1990s, are telling to the wider world.

Or at least trying to tell. In August, the government shut down the Beijing independent film festival for the first time since the festival’s inception in the mid-2000s. They confiscated films and documents and jailed two of its organizers for a time. The government has been tightening the screws on realms previously allowed to flourish.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently expounded on what he believes the role of artists in society should be. "Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles," he said. Artists should "disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit."

So for artists who seek to portray a "more truthful and more expansive" vision of China, what does the future hold?