The man in the cage did not really look out of place in Times Square, with its near naked Cowboys and Indians, superheroes and supersized muppets, tourists from everywhere frolicking beneath flickering canyon walls of building-height video screens advertising everything from Coke to Chengdu, the super-city in China’s Sichuan province. The man wore a gray suit, a bright yellow tie and very sensible rubber-soled leather shoes. He flicked his wispy black comb-over back across his balding forehead every time the wind blew it out of place. Otherwise, he sat meditatively in the cage and allowed me and my friend Jaime “Jimi” FlorCruz to snap photos.
Jimi was visiting from Beijing and wanted to find this specific man in a cage. I told him there might be several in the area. Falun Gong, the flying-saucer-believing cult banned by the Chinese government, often demonstrates in public places in New York City by putting people in cages to illustrate human rights abuses back in the old country. But we found Jimi’s specific guy. At the tail end of Cultural Revolution, the two of them had attended the same school back in China, Peking University, the most prestigious institute of higher learning in the People’s Republic. There they were in Times Square: Jimi working for CNN, Wang Juntao sitting in a cage.
Jimi and I had walked up to the Times Square area from Café China on East 37th Street, a restaurant dressed in Shanghai nostalgia but serving the tongue-numbing cuisine from Sichuan, where we had a raucous and sumptuous lunch with ex-comrades from TIME magazine (Jimi used to be the magazine’s Beijing Bureau Chief before moving to CNN; I was News Director until earlier this year). We shared spice and gossip as well as practical leads about the availability of freelance work for those of us who pursue it.
Jimi wants to find Wang, who was accused of organizing the Tiananmen Square demonstration 24 years ago.
I had the great and terrible fortune of being booked for two Sichuan meals that day—dinner with more journalists would be four blocks down off Madison Avenue, at La Vie en Szechuan, where the heat is balanced, but still formidable—and so Jimi joined me in walking off the lunch. Then we wandered back toward the center of Manhattan after he told me about his quest to find Wang, one of the “Black Hands” accused of organizing the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that shook the Communist government 24 years ago.
Jimi was in the square in the early hours of June 4, 1989 to see the People’s Liberation Army move in to clear it of demonstrators; elsewhere in the capital and its suburbs, hundreds of people were believed to have been massacred. I was in New York, talking to Jimi and our late colleague Sandra Burton over the phone to update our China story, as we turned it into that issue’s breaking news cover, just hours away from the magazine’s print deadline.
If you’re wondering how someone named Jaime FlorCruz ends up in Peking University in the waning days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, let me give you a brief account of the legend. Jimi and I both come from the Philippines, where lots of people have Spanish surnames (my own is based on a Chinese dialect but my cousins are Belmontes and Beltrans; my grandmother was a Velasco). In 1971, Jimi FlorCruz and several other young Filipinos belonging to a left-leaning student group were in China as guests of an official Communist organization. That did not sit well with the right-wing government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, which would eventually impose martial law on the islands and rule by fiat. Jimi found himself stranded in China, forbidden to return by the Marcos regime and then, after his passport expired, with no legal recourse but to remain in the People’s Republic. China had become his cage.
He worked in a farm in Hunan province, where Mao Zedong was born; and then as a fisherman in Shandong in the north. He taught himself Chinese by copying out an English-Chinese dictionary and, eventually, gained admission to Peking University. The death of Mao in September 1976 and the arrest the month after of his would-be successors in the Gang of Four—led by his widow Jiang Qing—brought the Cultural Revolution to a definitive close. That dramatic unwinding, including the very public trial of Jiang in 1981 and Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist-style transformation of the country, would help Jimi find work with Western media organizations, first Newsweek and, soon after, TIME. Eventually, Jimi would get his passport back.
One of Jimi’s classmates was Bo Xilai, the Communist Party rising star who is now serving life in prison.
In between all of that, however, Jimi attended Peking University, which is so proud of its place in Chinese history that it has kept its official English name as Peking—not Beijing—University, adopted in 1898 at the end of the Qing Dynasty. It refused the new-fangled pinyin transliteration imposed on the Chinese language by the Communist regime. (The Chinese call it Beida for short, from the first syllables of its Chinese name Beijing Daxue.) It provided not only the best education in the country but it was an institution in which students could well befriend the future leaders of the country. One of Jimi’s classmates and a close acquaintance would be Bo Xilai, the charismatic Communist Party rising star, now disgraced and sentenced to life in prison for corruption. Jimi wanted to find out if Wang Juntao was, as he thought, also from the same Beida graduating class and so we trekked to Times Square where he heard that the dissident was sitting in a makeshift cage with moveable bars to protest the imprisonment of a pro-democracy activist back in China.
As it turned out, Wang graduated the year after Jimi did, in the same class as China’s current premier Li Keqiang. Arrested after Tiananmen, sent to prison in 1991 and then exiled in 1994, Wang—who now lives in New Jersey—explained his educational history to Jimi and me during a break from the cage as we all sat on the metal chairs New York City has set out in Times Square. He remained a Peking University chauvinist, declaring that Beida graduates were smarter and more astute in reasoning than anyone else from any other school in China. He then went on a long-winded description of his mission, his background and the development of his political beliefs. My Mandarin, which I learned in the Philippines under the tutelage of Jesuits expelled from China by the Communists, is barely useful but even I could tell that Wang was using long practiced political rhetoric, arguments built on tropes he had wielded again and again during his years of exile. At certain points, he verged on oratory. As we bid goodbye, Wang was back in his cage, spouting comparisons of the current situation in China with not just the last imperial dynasty but with the country’s first emperor—from way back in the 2nd Century B.C. Mao used to do a lot of that.
As we walked away, I asked Jimi if his friend Bo Xilai spoke like Wang. He said Bo was much more personable and immediate. Then Jimi pointed out the strange ways of fate in the lives of the three near-contemporaries from Beida and their distinct destinies: Li Keqiang was now the second most powerful man in China; Bo Xilai, the fallen star was now penned up for life (albeit in a comfortable prison); and Wang Juntao was now spouting political boilerplate in a cage in Times Square as a gigantic neon video screen in the background proclaims the power of Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, and tourists from the People’s Republic pose for photographs nearby, unaware that his flimsy fake prison is probably in the shot.
There is, of course, a fourth Beida graduate with a different destiny. That would be Jimi FlorCruz himself, for whom China was once an enormous cage but who is now free to go where he wants and to tell the world what he has seen and heard and lived. It is as tremendous a story of survival as any that has come out of China. But that epic is his to tell.