Chinese memories

Suddenly the other day, on the 3 of June 2009, in a bizarre flash of memory I went back two decades ago, June 3 1989. As is well known, hundreds of students in Beijing had begun a protest a few months ago with wide-ranging critiques of the regime – more democracy, end to corruption and workers rights. They were joined by workers, office goers, Beijing residents, local party officials, just about everyone else. Soon the protests had spread all over China, there were demonstrations everywhere. A Chinese friend of mine was in Tiananmen Square, the main centre of the protests. He later told me – “we were all giddy, everyone traveled free in trains to Beijing, people helped us with food and water on the streets, we sang the Internationale and all the old revolutionary songs, suddenly they felt real not false…” All went to Beijing.

For many on the left in India, China occupies a peculiar, proximate place. The events of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when Soviet tanks crushed uprisings, did not cause the storms they did in the European left. But China was different – it was in Asia, a large peasant society with an old civilization, and the site of one of the great revolutionary transformations that had begun in the nineteenth century. China had to be different. When the Naxalite militants scribbled ‘China’s path is our path’ or ‘Listen to Radio Beijing’ on the walls of Calcutta in 1969, they were probably out of their mind, but only just.

In mid May 1989 the Chinese regime declared martial law and tried to suppress the movement. But it was in vain. Every time troops or police tried, they were stopped by peaceful Beijing residents, who demanded why they were marching on the ‘people.’ A certain naïveté about the army was widespread among the students too. Xu Youyu, professor and researcher at Philosophy Institute in Beijing recalls this today:

“I remember clearly going to Tiananmen Square in May of 1989 and trying to persuade the Beijing Steel and Iron Institute (now the University of Science and Technology Beijing) students who were meditating there in protest to go back to school. I said the troops were about to enter the city, and the suppression was about to start. Two doctoral students said without a second thought, ‘Why would the people’s army suppress us?’ The students’ naiveté and earnestness make me sigh even today.”

I was visiting an old friend and comrade in London in June 1989. On June 3, the tanks moved in to Tiananmen Square. Soldiers who had been carefully cut off from the city were told that ‘ruffians were attacking people’, and to shoot all in the way. We saw the moment almost live on television in my friend’s house, in complete shock at the incidents. Only few days ago almost a million Beijing residents had demonstrated in support of the students at the Square. But now the army had arrived with force, shooting all in the way. Angry residents attacked them on the way, stopping them and getting brutally shot in the process. William Hinton an old US radical who was the author of the classic sociology of a Chinese village during the revolution (Fanshen), later told me that most people were shot on the way to the Tiananmen Square. Hinton was also in Beijing in June 1989.

How many died? No one knows, hundreds, thousands? Perhaps many years later the figure will be known. But 1989 scarred an entire generation of Chinese students, some went into exile, depression and reflection – the fate of all defeated uprisings. In the banned 2006 Chinese film, Summer Palace, which deals with the generation of 1989, the characters go through death, depression, and endless drift after the massacre.

But everything changed in 1989, the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe soon collapsed in a heap, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and old style Marxism was in a complete spin, never to recover from its former glory. In India the CPI(M), the largest left party shamefully spread the canard that the Beijing protesters were working to restore capitalism, and continued doing the same with East European protests until the end of 1989 when there was nothing left to defend, . But the shock among its own cadres was significant – I can remember so many people who began the process of leaving the party after 1989.

But the CPI(M) did not immediately decline after 1989 – it was temporarily saved by the Hindutva movement after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1993. Incredibly, the CPI(M)  positioned itself as a ‘secular’ alternative. Only much later, as is always in time, 20 years after Tiananmen, did the peasants of Singur and Nandigram give the party the thrashing it needed years ago.

Looking back at the events of 1989 in Beijing, the massacre was the end of a long century of the Chinese revolution beginning with the peasant uprisings of the nineteenth century, the working class strikes in the 1920s, the victory of the Communist Party in 1949, the Cultural Revolution and the new period of the 1980s climaxing the events of 1989. The massacre clearly accelerated China’s transition to a powerful capitalist economy, combining brutal political authoritarianism, rapid growth, privatization of all forms of life, and endless destruction of the millennia old rural and urban worlds. The murderers of the 1989 protesters,  were the real closet capitalists, not the protesting students and workers as they regime would claim. In China the 1989 events have become a gigantic public secret, hidden away for a new generation, carefully censored to all. Cui Weiping, a Beijing resident wrote recently in her blog: “Since it has existed for so long, this tremendous secret has become a huge emptiness. People try to avoid it, shun it, and act carefully not to face it.”

She goes on powerfully:

“To allow such a hole to exist in our lives has made our ethics blurry and problematic to a large degree. When we give up our ground on commenting on this issue (even if it’s temporary), we have given up our ground on making comments on many other things, or we have made our grounds ambiguous. Thus those things that act as pillars of our life become dubious. The bottom line of our existence has been attacked or shaken. Our own dignity has been severely challenged.”

Who will restore that memory back? Memory is a strange thing; it hides schizophrenically in our mental landscape, something builders of spectacular monuments to the dead often miss. A few weeks ago I met my old Chinese friend who had been in the square in 1989 as a student. He was now focusing his energies on writing, translating, and reading. At first when I asked him about 1989 he sighed. “No one remembers,” he said. All young people now want to make money.” Then he went on:

“The regime is more powerful today and more vulnerable than it ever was. The protesters in China today are dispersed but many, and ask simple questions – jobs, corruption, closed factories. The old questions will all come back.”

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