B. is a graduate student in one of the social sciences at the University of Chicago; he came here from China and plans to go back. He doesn’t want his name published, but he’s happy to tell how the idea of establishing the Tian An Men Archives in Chicago first sprang up, in early June 1989.

“We were having a conference at the Hyatt Regency with a group of students from China in comparative literature. The conference was on the relevance of [Soviet critic] Mikhail Bakhtin to the analysis of Lu Xun, who is the single most important fiction writer in modern China. We were debating whether Bakhtin’s theory of the “polyphonic novel’ was conducive to the development of democratic political systems.”

At the same time, the Chinese student-led “democracy movement” was occupying the world’s largest public square in Beijing and challenging the country’s Communist gerontocracy. It seemed as though anything might be possible–anything except what happened, that is. “We were all following events very closely on TV,” says B. “And the afternoon of June 3–the morning of June 4 in Beijing–the news of the massacre came.

“Right at the conference, the director of the Center for Psychosocial Studies [one of the conference sponsors] gave out his telephone card number, and we used a public phone in the Hyatt to call Beijing. Somehow we got through. Some people we talked to said they had heard gunshots. We talked to one friend who said that three onlookers in his building had been killed.

“We were outraged. But we had been in the middle of a discussion of a very relevant topic, and we wanted to do something more than just parade or shout slogans. People thought that, being in literature, what we could do in a more significant way would be to preserve that part of history. We come from mainland China, and we knew how history could easily be distorted by the government. We knew about George Orwell’s Newspeak and all that. So we immediately came over to this place [the office of the Center for Psychosocial Studies] and drew up a charter for the archives. The idea was to collect and preserve original documents from the square. We stayed here until midnight, and the next day began making contacts to desperately try to get stuff out of China.”

But despite the archives’ beginnings in spontaneous outrage, the archivists have since distanced themselves from the continuing Chinese dissident movement. Those closest to this collection now believe that China needs deep thought before political change can make any difference worth mentioning.

The archives now occupy three shelves in a small room on the 13th floor of 111 E. Wacker, in the offices of the Center for Psychosocial Studies, a private nonprofit research institute “fostering broad, multidisciplinary work on the interface of the psychosocial and social sciences” and on public policy. The Tian An Men Archives include eyewitness reports (with identities concealed, where necessary, for security reasons), pamphlets, leaflets, recordings, newspapers official and unofficial (including copies of the students’ own short-lived alternative newspaper), and videos (including the official Chinese government version of events). According to B., one document mimics the voice of an ancient royalist minister, pleading for Deng Xiaoping’s resignation. The materials focus most closely on the period from April 15, 1989–the death date of Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who was considered more tolerant and reform-minded than his top-echelon colleagues–to around July 4, 1989, about a month after the military crackdown.

“We feel it’s almost complete,” says B., although student organizations in Hong Kong still have large collections of material. Some of that material may already have been duplicated in the United States, but it’s likely that other material has not. B. and another student work part-time as research assistants in the archives, with funding from research fellowships available to its two directors, Professor Leo Ou-fan Lee, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for East Asian Studies, and Dr. Benjamin Lee, director of the Center for Psychosocial Studies.

B.’s reference to 1984 is not farfetched. Following the June 4 massacre, Deng Xiaoping was quoted as saying that the Chinese government must “create revolutionary public opinion on a grand scale and make the people understand what really happened.” The subsequent six-part official documentary showed no military assaults on civilians, only attacks on soldiers. In a query that Lee and Lee published in the New York Review of Books last fall, they asked for materials and said pointedly that the archives would “provide an accurate account of the democracy movement.”

That goal may be accomplished just by preserving and cataloging the documents–and perhaps also by translating, publishing, and annotating them (as Yi Mu and Mark V. Thompson did, for instance, in Crisis at Tienanmen: Reform and Reality in Modern China). But protecting the historical record is only the beginning. The next stage is for dissident Chinese exiles to use these archives to begin rethinking a movement that, after all, did not succeed.

Perhaps it lacked the cultural and intellectual tools to do so. B. says one Chinese described the democracy movement afterward as “a giant with a very strong heart but no brain.” B. himself recalls coming across a small-scale demonstration at the bookstore at his Chinese university early in 1987: “My personal reaction then was not very positive. They seemed to be repeating the age-old May 4 [1919] slogans–‘Democracy, Freedom, Science'”–without, B. felt, full understanding.

B. points out that the 1989 students’ proclamations, though they opposed the government in substance, often mirrored the government’s language and style. Sometimes they did so in fun, of course. One pivotal antimovement editorial in the People’s Daily of April 26, 1989–“Take a Clear Stand Against the Turmoil”–declared the student movement to be a planned, unpatriotic antigovernment conspiracy. Different versions of the editorial began to appear around the square in the next few days, but “they were parodies,” says B. “They were making fun of it.” (Parody–or at least punning–as a form of protest has survived even the repression. According to Fred Shapiro in the New Yorker, on the first anniversary of the massacre students dropped little bottles–called “xiaoping”–out of upper-story dormitory windows to shatter on the ground below. Demonstrators here, by analogy, might protest U.S. policy by uprooting bushes or shooting quail.)

But the similarities to government language and style weren’t always a joke, and weren’t always intentional: most of the students’ serious documents were also couched in the government’s dogmatic rhetoric. As Leo Lee explains in an essay on the cultural crisis in China, soon to be published in China Briefing 1989, “Post-Mao political discourse remains essentially in the Maoist mode even as most of the intellectuals are becoming vehement anti-Maoists. In other words, their rhetoric is ‘monologic’: it pronounces its own truth as self-evident without giving any room for alternative views or solutions. According to [various] critics, Chinese intellectuals must liberate themselves not only from Maoism as an all-embracing ideology but also from the prison house of Maoist language.”

Accordingly, many now-exiled thinkers believe that their country’s problem lies deeper than just the matter of who holds power. It is rooted in how the Chinese people think and speak. And, to such exiles, rethinking–a kind of prepolitical process that could lay the groundwork for true democracy–must take place, or no movement will be able to break the cycle of tyranny once it takes power. In such a case, the Chinese would have to relive a different Orwell fable–Animal Farm.

A key date for modern China is May 4, the anniversary of the successful 1919 student protest against China’s acquiescence in the indignities imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Much as Democrats and Republicans alike now scramble to run on FDR’s posthumous coattails, virtually all Chinese factions pay tribute to the May 4 movement’s invocation of “science” and “democracy,” Western concepts that China in some way needed to adopt and adapt in order to take its rightful place in the modern world.

“I think this [1989] student demonstration has the potential to be historically as important,” says Benjamin Lee–but only if it stimulates serious rethinking. Among other things, May 4, 1919, led to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party–and after decades of struggle and accomplishments, it began killing, exiling, and stunting its best and brightest, first in the Cultural Revolution and now once again.

“You could say that Chinese intellectuals are reacting to their own failure,” says Benjamin Lee, “realizing that their previous work was not adequate to the needs of modern China.” The 4,000-year-old culture has yet to digest the West, to make sense of it in Chinese terms. Meanwhile those best qualified to carry on that work are prosecuted and persecuted by their own government. The rest of us await the time when those who maintain the archives and those who use them no longer need fear to tell us who they are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.