Writings – Essays – The Collective Amnesia of China – and the West


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This essay was published

in The Globe and Mail
on June 4, 2009
The Collective Amnesia of China – and the West

In the spring of 1989, my wife and I were teaching at a college in east Beijing. On April 15, a reform-minded Communist Party leader passed away unexpectedly. His death brought students from various schools to Tiananmen Square, the traditional venue for mourning high officials. When the students decided to stay on the square, a protest was born. By early May, with classes suspended, we were riding bikes into the city to observe the demonstrations.

Early on, the mood of the democracy movement, as it came to be called, was serious but festive. Initiated mostly by undergraduates whose demands ranged from ending state corruption to better cafeteria food, it was soon broadened by the involvement of groups from all walks of Chinese life. Activists knew the moment was special and knew the world was watching.

They sensed this wider interest, in part, because they were now allowed to be interested in the world again. In the 1980s, elements inside China wanted to open up the country. To do this, they needed exposure to fresh ideas that could be adapted. As such, they encouraged their “intellectuals” to think a little outside the party box.

Older intellectuals brought Cultural Revolution memories to their embrace of the era’s modest reform agenda. Younger ones tended to be more innocent. When a film-teacher friend biked past me during the first days of the protest, I jokingly asked what he was rebelling against. “Whaddya got?” he answered, channelling Marlon Brando in The Wild One .

Four weeks later, with the occupation of Tiananmen Square and hunger strikes, the million-person marches and Goddess of Democracy statue all serving to enrage the government beyond any point of safe return, martial law was declared. One evening, a student announced that she had spent her day outside the leadership compound, shouting to the soldiers guarding the entrance: “The People’s Army doesn’t shoot the people” To us, she added a nagging doubt: “Do they?”

They did. Starting on the night of June 3 and into the morning of June 4, soldiers cleared Tiananmen Square and the streets around it. Several hundred Beijingers, and a handful of students, died, with many more arrested and imprisoned. Conservative party factions rid themselves of the main reformer in their midst: general secretary Zhao Ziyang, purged and placed under house arrest. “Your enthusiasm for democracy and the rule of law,” Mr. Zhao had assured protesters, “for the struggle against corruption and for furthering reform is very valuable.”

That’s what happened on June 4 in Beijing.

Except it didn’t happen that way. On June 9, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping issued the official version. “A handful of people first staged turmoil, which later developed into a counter-revolutionary rebellion. Their aim was to overthrow the Communist Party, topple the socialist system, and establish a bourgeois republic.”

My wife and I had been asked to leave the college four days after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We returned to our teaching positions the following January to discover just how successful Mr. Deng had been at distorting public history: There had been no killings in the square. There had been only a scattering of necessary violence around the city. The People’s Liberation Army had saved China from Black Hand agents serving foreign interests.

In subsequent years, efforts were made at encoding this revision in the collective DNA. The party offered the population a deal: denial of a murky past in exchange for a bright future. Forget June 4, and you may prosper. No surprise, most Chinese, accustomed to wild reality swings and guessing the consequences of refusing the deal, went along.

In short, China suppressed the events of spring 1989 for its own reasons. Never mind the crushing of spirits of a generation of its brightest young people. Never mind the discrediting of artistic and intellectual inquiry birthed in the 1980s, forays into a culture’s deepest conscious and unconscious impulses.

Never mind, either, how differently the country might have emerged as a global power had a freer media and more confident, questioning populace been present to balance other forces. Contrary to Mr. Deng’s assertions, a ragged reform movement, most of its agitators barely old enough to shave, had posed no real threat to stability. China’s emergence from Maoism would have proceeded apace.

Instead, totalitarian governance asserted itself in the usual fashion: a cautionary boot to the face, followed by the erasure of any inconvenient complexities. “An internal Chinese matter,” as officials like to say when brushing off international criticism.

No less distressing has been the decision by the West to validate this dismal treatment of reality. After a little post-Tiananmen Square wrist-slapping, it was decided that China’s potential, China’s labour force and, more recently, China’s markets and cash reserves made it prudent that we, too, see the democracy movement as having been a mistake, even an aberration.

To help us with our view, we have adopted notions of “incrementalism,” of the nation’s slow, steady progress in treating its citizens decently. We’ve decided to be pragmatic. “Get over it,” was one recent summary of the correct attitude. Anyways, we can’t change China, can we? No more than those foolish, if brave, students could way back in 1989.

One problem persists in this mutual denial. As I’ve discovered during visits to mainland China over the years, many individuals have looked to the West to validate and support their own struggles for rights and reforms and basic rule of law. They assumed we’d be on their side. After all, most of us enjoy these privileges. We even make noises about demanding reluctant nations live up to universal standards, or else. But not with China. China, we have concluded, is different. Different human rights for, apparently, different humans.

Our moral relativism has done more than hurt reformers’ feelings. The deeper legacy of June 4 has been the enshrinement in the West of a policy of small-scale – specific to specific people – betrayals of Chinese citizens in pursuit of a generalized, at-a-later-date support of their humanity.

Round up perceived dissidents on the eve of the Olympics, and we’ll focus on the glittering opening ceremonies. Arrest signatories of a human-rights document and we may express mild disappointment. Or how about this very recent outrage: the harassing and detaining of the grieving parents of the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake?

Each time the Chinese government makes plain its scorn for its own people, a scorn that shows no signs of being moderated or even chastened by the “soft” pressure we believe we are applying, June 4 lives as a reminder of the various betrayals that have left so many Chinese so vulnerable, and without much sense that the rest of the world cares.

A year ago, publishers hustled to release a novel to coincide with the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma used an audacious metaphor to explore the fate of the individual in China. A student protester, shot in the head by a soldier on June 4, has lain in a coma ever since. He is able to hear, smell and remember, but not to see, speak or respond.

For nearly 600 pages, the reader shares the insides of his cranium. He relives his state-swaddled childhood and soul-crushing adolescence. He also delivers a passionate rendering of what the democracy movement had represented to its participants: an intimation of the challenges, and risks, of not only demanding certain liberties but of asserting the individual will, self-directed and free to make choices, wise or ill-advised.

The price the coma victim pays for his assertion is high. He wastes away in a Beijing apartment, harassed by officials for his counter-revolutionary crimes but otherwise forgotten. People stop visiting and, having accepted the “deal,” eventually stop remembering why he’s even in such a woeful state. By the end, they are cannibalizing him for body parts.

The apartment building is torn down in order to build a bigger, better structure, with the coma victim still within, a ghost in the machine of history-free progress. Only the afflicted, Ma Jian suggests, can “see” how China replays patterns of oppression and amnesia; everyone else, healthy and alert, can’t see much at all.

Beijing Coma appeared in the West, where Mr. Ma lives in exile in London, but not in China. State censorship ensures the Chinese can’t read the novel that explains to them what occurred to their society and, perhaps, to their own souls, both on June 4, 1989, and in the two decades since. Westerners, of course, can read the book; they can also decide to remember what happened in Beijing 20 years ago and not be told, or tolerate, otherwise.

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