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The great Tiananmen taboo
It is 20 years since students and lecturers filled Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy, only to be crushed by tanks and fired on by the Chinese army. Banned novelist Ma Jian, who was there at the protests, returned to Beijing to find a country desperate to erase all memories of the thousands of innocent lives lost
Tuesday June 2 2009
Two thousand years ago, contemplating the relentless flow of time, Confucius gazed down at a river and sighed, “What passes is just like this, never ceasing day or night …” In China, time can feel both frozen and unstoppable at the same time. The Tiananmen massacre that 20 years ago ravaged Beijing, killed thousands of unarmed citizens, and altered the lives of millions, seems now to be locked in the 20th century, forgotten or ignored, as China continues to hurtle blindly towards its future.
The amnesia to which China has succumbed is not the result of natural memory-loss but of state-enforced erasure. China’s Communist regime tolerates no mention of the massacre. But Tiananmen Square, and other sites connected with the events of 1989, still remain charged with memory. When the written and spoken word is censored, the urban landscape becomes a nation’s only physical link to the past.
I left Beijing in 1987, shortly before my books were banned there, but have returned continually. In 1989, I was on Tiananmen Square with the students, living in their makeshift tents and joining their jubilant singing of the Internationale. In the two decades since, each time that I have gone back, visions from those days seem to return with increasing persistence.
During the Beijing Olympics last August, I took my now five-year-old son to the square. On our journey there, our movements were observed by the CCTV cameras in the lift of our apartment block and outside the front gate of our compound, by the listening devices in our taxi, by the armed police who lined the streets and by the security guards who frisked us before finally allowing us on to Tiananmen. We emerged from the underpass and stepped on to the square. Apart from the crowds of policemen, the plain-clothes officers (instantly identifiable by their dark sunglasses and striped Airtex shirts) and the gaudy flower displays, the concrete-paved square, the size of nine football fields, was almost deserted.
In spring 1989, the square had been taken over by Beijing students and civilians who were mounting the largest peaceful protest in history. They were pressing for dialogue with their Communist leaders, and ultimately for freedom and democracy. The packed square became the city’s pulsing heart; the police had vanished. This was a benevolent form of anarchy – noble, joyous, and surprisingly orderly.
My son ran to the spot where 20 years ago the students had erected a huge polystyrene replica of the Statue of Liberty. He looked northwards to Tiananmen Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City where China’s emperors used to live. In 1949, Mao stood on the gate and declared the founding of the People’s Republic. Now the gate’s blood-red walls were covered in scaffolding and green gauze. At politically sensitive times these walls are invariably covered for “important repair work”, ensuring that the public won’t get near enough to daub them with subversive slogans. The only bit of the gate that tourists could now photograph was the portrait of Chairman Mao over the central arch.
My son stared up at the tyrant’s pink, pudgy face and asked me who he was.
“Mao Zedong,” I replied.
“Is he dead now?” he said, sweat dripping down his cheeks.
“He died years ago, his body is lying in that big building over there,” I explained, pointing to the grey, concrete mausoleum behind us. My son turned round and ran off towards an ice-cream stall, and I thought of how, in 1989, I too had run across the square in the sweltering heat, with a bag of ice-lollies in my backpack, which I then handed out to my writer-friends who had marched to the square from the Lu Xun Writers’ Academy, calling for freedom of expression and an end to government corruption. I gave them the victory sign as they paraded past. More than a million people were on the square that day. The sky was just as blue then, but instead of the scent of flowers and green turf, the air was filled with the sour smell of sweat, rotting refuse and exuberant cries of protest.
As my son peered into the vendor’s ice box, I glanced at the bridge over the Jinshui moat that skirts Tiananmen Gate. It was now lined with police. They were there to prevent the suicide jumps of anti-government petitioners. Five years ago, a Beijinger named Ye Guoqiang had attempted just such a fatal jump as a protest against his recent and forceful eviction from his home in order to make way for an Olympic Games construction project. He was sentenced to two years in prison for embarrassing the state. “If you want to kill yourself,” the judge told him, “at least do it in the privacy of your own home, not beneath the Chairman’s nose.” Citizens can allow themselves to be shot dead by the army below Mao’s portrait, but not to commit suicide there.
Opposite the Museum of Chinese History on the east side of the square, I took a photograph of my son standing in front of a garish maroon, yellow and orange potted flower display. The slogan above read: One World, One Dream. In early May 1989, during the students’ mass hunger strike, I had told my friend that if the army came to the square and turned their guns on us, I would take her straight into the museum for cover. “You think they’d turn their guns on us?” she laughed. “Are you crazy?” She was wearing a straw hat at the time, with the words “Sorrow! Joy!” printed on the front. Like almost everyone else, she couldn’t believe that the People’s Liberation Army would shoot innocent civilians.
On May 28 1989, my brother had an accident in my hometown of Qingdao and fell into a coma. I immediately left Beijing to look after him, so I didn’t witness the massacre of 4 June. (Perhaps if I had, I would never have been able to write about it.) My friend Li Lanju, the head of a Hong Kong student association, told me that in the early hours of 4 June she too had been sitting here in front of the museum. She saw PLA soldiers in green helmets pour out from inside and line up on the steps in front. A boy of about 15 ran towards the soldiers with a rock in his hand and shouted, “You just shot my brother! I want to avenge his death!” Li Lanju rushed over to him and pulled him back. But a few minutes later, a man ran past carrying the same boy in his arms. He was dead now, his face covered in blood. The Museum of Chinese History holds no records of those events that happened below its front steps.
I walked over to my son and bought him a panda-shaped ice cream on a stick. (Back in London, a month later, his mother and I were horrified to learn that the dairy products we’d been feeding him and his three-year-old sister had been contaminated with kidney-stone inducing melamine. The Chinese government had known that unscrupulous farmers had been adulterating milk to increase profit margins, but had suppressed all news of the scandal to avoid spoiling their Olympics propaganda pageant.)
We continued south past Mao’s mausoleum and my thoughts returned again to 1989, when a student in my tent told me how he longed to muster a few friends, charge into the mausoleum, drag out Mao’s corpse and throw it into the Jinshui river. He said that as long as Mao’s embalmed body remains in the square, China will have no peace.
Feeling tired and dispirited, I took my son’s hand and led him across the road to the Qianmen district. In 1989, I’d often scarpered off to its crowded, bustling lanes in search of a quick bowl of noodles. Back then, stall holders would hand out free drinks and bread rolls to hungry protesters. I heard that after the students were driven out of the square on 4 June, street vendors came out with baskets of trainers to give to protesters who’d lost their shoes in the scrum. Today, the place was almost unrecognisable. In the run-up to the Olympics, the Ming Dynasty buildings along the main street, with their beautiful stone carvings and ornate wooden eaves, had been demolished and replaced by soulless, modern replicas of their former selves. I stood with my son amid the kitsch while locals wandered around in bewilderment, cameras in hand, now reduced to tourists in their own backstreets.
After a while, the sense of alienation from the past becomes suffocating and makes one long to reconnect with old friends. When I arrived in Beijing a few weeks before the Olympics, the secret police summoned me to the Sheraton Hotel and, over coffee and cakes, told me very politely not to speak in public, meet with any foreign journalists and especially to stay away from politically sensitive people such as Liu Xiaobo and Zhou Duo – two of the four intellectuals who went on hunger strike in sympathy with the students during the last days of the democracy movement. Zhou Duo, a former economics professor at Beijing University, is an old friend of mine. He is a quiet, scholarly man, with a love of philosophy and classical music. In 1989 he became swept up in the democracy movement after the more flamboyant and charismatic essayist, Liu Xiaobo, declared him to be the most important intellectual of our generation. Zhou Duo had never taken much interest in politics before, so I was surprised to hear that he had joined the hunger strike. In the late hours of 3 June he and the Taiwanese rock star, Hou Dejian, went to negotiate with the army. While the students huddled in terror below the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he implored the army to let the students retreat from the square in safety. His quiet, diplomatic demeanour no doubt saved thousands of lives.
Unlike Liu Xiaobo who, having spent several years in prison, is now in detention again for signing a charter last year calling for political reform, Zhou Duo has disappeared from public life. He hasn’t been able to work or be published since 1989 and is under constant police surveillance. He regrets his involvement in the protests and the loss of his career. Having found God, he manages to hold small services in his heavily monitored flat in the outskirts of Beijing, and spends most of his time drawing up models for China’s political future. Few will ever see them. We spoke briefly on his bugged phone before the Olympics, but I didn’t dare suggest a meeting.
In February of this year I returned to China to research my next book. The authorities know about the novels of mine that have been published in the west, including the latest one, Beijing Coma, about a student shot in Tiananmen Square, but so far have allowed me to return. They continue to search me at customs, confiscate my documents and monitor my movements, but no doubt realise that as long as they deny me a voice in China, I can’t do much harm. Although my next book has nothing to do with Tiananmen, a few days after my arrival in February I found myself involuntarily drawn back to that vast open space. I went there by taxi. The square was deserted and carpeted in snow. The emerald conifers along its perimeter drew one’s gaze skyward. I wound down the window to take a photograph, but before I had time to press the shutter, the driver barked, “Close that window! There’s a new rule, didn’t you know? All taxi windows must be kept shut when driving past Tiananmen Square. It’s been designated a ‘politically sensitive area’.”
This year is one of many important anniversaries in China, including the 60th of the founding of the People’s Republic and the 20th of the Tiananmen massacre. The government is more on guard than ever. I wound up the window, glanced out at the square and recalled a multitude of raised hands, banners and flags. The cries of a million silenced protesters echoed in my mind’s ear, saying more to me than anything my eyes could now see.
Beijing Coma took me 10 years to finish. The first few years, I wrote very little. A single recurrent image was blocking my progress: a man lying naked on an iron bed, a sparrow perched on his arm, his chest illuminated by a cold beam of light. Those 10 years were a struggle to prove to myself the power and meaning of that single beam of light.
“Why is it that men are so good at turning their heaven into a hell?” I muttered to myself as I closed my eyes.
The taxi driver looked out of his window and said, “That snow is nothing. You should see how much has fallen back in our village …”
“I don’t want to get out at the square any more,” I said. “I’ve changed my mind. Please turn round and take me to Tongxian.”
I had a sudden wish to visit the artist and photographer Chen Guang. The photographs he had taken many years ago of himself surrounded by naked women or having sex with a prostitute had been crude expressions of an inner rage. But recently, he had completed a series of oil paintings of the Tiananmen massacre, and had exhibited them on the internet.
I wanted to see them.
Chen Guang’s flat in Tongxian is in an anonymous modern block. In the middle of his stark room was a plastic bucket filled with his cigarette stubs; the white walls were hung with green swirling paintings of tanks, helmeted soldiers and flattened tents.
He gave me a glass of water and confessed that in 1989 he had joined the army. He was just 17. Within a few months of conscription, his regiment – number 62 – was sent to Beijing to help quash the student movement. On 3 June his fellow soldiers received orders to disguise themselves as civilians, make their way independently to the Great Hall of the People on the west side of the square, and await the signal to drive the students out.
“There were 7,000 of us,” he told me, lighting a new cigarette from the glowing stub of his last one, “and I was given the job of transporting our 4,000 assault rifles to the Great Hall. I dressed myself up as a student and loaded the guns on to a public bus the army had appropriated. As the driver edged through the packed crowds of students on Changan Avenue, I was terrified that they might jump up and spot the rifles stacked along the floor, so I leaned out and gave them a cheerful victory sign. When we reached the back yard of the Great Hall and locked the gates, I spent two hours unloading the guns, armful by armful. They were brand new. By the end, I was drenched in oil.”
I’d never heard a soldier give a first-hand account of the crackdown. He took a deep drag from his cigarette and continued, his eyes beginning to redden: “Each soldier was given a loaded rifle and told to stand in line. Most of us were young boys from the villages. We had hardly eaten for days. We were weak and terrified, convinced we were going die. Some guys shat themselves, others were trembling so much that they inadvertently fired their guns and injured fellow soldiers.
“At 12 midnight on 4 June the doors of the Great Hall were swung open. It was chaos outside. Special forces in camouflage were brandishing bayonets and driving out the students still left in the square. Nearby, a small group kicked a student to the ground and hit his skull with their rifle butts. I heard machine-gun fire in the distance, and saw the Goddess of Democracy being rammed by a tank and topple to the ground …
“I clutched my rifle but didn’t know where to point it. I was ordered to help clean the square and burn all evidence. I walked across the swath of flattened tents, blankets, sandals and leaflets, and picked up two journals and one long plait of black hair tied at the bottom with a plastic band. I guessed that some girl must have cut it off in despair before the army arrived …”
I asked Chen Guang what was his most vivid memory of those days. He said, “After we sealed off central Beijing, we could go everywhere, places we’d never usually get to see. I remember wandering into the Zhongnanhai compound. All the government leaders had abandoned their villas. Their pet cats and dogs were left to starve outside the front doors … I remember that, and other little details. But when I close my eyes and think back on those days, what I see first is the colour green, a nightmarish swirling green of helmets and tanks.”
I told him that although I wasn’t in Beijing during the crackdown, I too pictured a terrifying green, the sea of dehumanising khaki that kills and maims, when I came to describe those days in my book. I imagined how at dawn on 4 June, even the rising sun was stained green.
I asked him why he’d decided to talk about this now. “It’s the 20th anniversary this year,” he said. “I think it’s about time. Anyway, I can’t hold these nightmares inside me any longer.” He is one of the few artists to have dared confront Tiananmen Square head-on. The day I met him, his internet exhibition was closed by the censors, just three days after going online.
The Chinese have made a faustian pact with the government, agreeing to forsake demands for political and intellectual freedom in exchange for more material comfort. They live prosperous lives in which any expression of pain is forbidden. When I talk to young Chinese about 1989, I am invariably accused of spreading false rumours and being a traitor to my nation; when I bring up the subject with my old friends, most of them laugh scornfully, as if those events are now irrelevant. But I know that behind this show of derision or apathy lies real fear. Everyone knows that attempts to break the Tiananmen taboo can still destroy a person’s life and the lives of their families. The authorities, for their part, may have a monopoly of the nation’s resources, but they can never fully control the nation’s soul, and every day they live in terror that the intricate stack of lies they have constructed will collapse.
Xidan Book Store, a five-minute walk down Changan Avenue from the Zhongnanhai government compound, is the largest bookshop in Asia. A few days after meeting Chen Guang, I went there to buy a Chinese translation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz. Like the protagonist, I too am always struggling to find out how many memories a human life needs. This five-floor bookshop sells 100,000 books a day. A huge poster of smiling President Obama is displayed close to the main entrance. Inside you can buy translations of the latest scientific or economic tomes, and books charting China’s 5,000-year history, but you will not find a word about the Tiananmen massacre, or any accurate accounts of the other tragedies that the Communists have inflicted on China since 1949. These missing chapters of the nation’s history weaken the power of every other Chinese text in the shop.
My mobile phone rang. I had arranged a meeting at the bookshop with Liu Hua, a Tiananmen survivor and son of a Beijing University professor. I glanced outside the window and knew at once that it was him. He was the only person in the crowd to have only one arm.
We walked together down Changan Avenue. A cold wind was blowing and the snow on the pavements had been shovelled towards a line of holly trees. The ancient red walls of the Zhongnanhai compound were glimmering in the evening sun. We reached the Liubukou intersection. A few years ago I’d stood here and taken photographs as part of my research for Beijing Coma. At that time, the gap between the eyewitness accounts I’d heard of the carnage that took place at this intersection in 1989 and the mundane reality before my eyes could not be closed without an effort of the imagination. Now, with Liu Hua right beside me, the present scene was instantly merged with the past. He had come on the dawn of 4 June with two young students.
“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.
What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.
“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”
As the sun began to set, we retreated into a restaurant. I stared out at the darkening walls of the Zhongnanhai compound and thought of the government leaders inside sitting down for a family meal in their sumptuous villas, their cats and dogs scampering around their feet.
Liu Hua turned to me and said, “Those bloody Communists! What right did they have to take my arm from me? If they don’t apologise for the crackdown and offer justice for the victims, I’ll take them to the courts!”
“Be sure to keep all your evidence and medical records safe,” I said. “The day of reckoning is bound to come.” I’m always surprised by how much faith the Chinese place in the legal system. In a country that has no rule of law, our only weapon in the fight for justice is the strength of our convictions.
Without these witnesses, we would become more and more distanced from the atrocity. In just 20 years, the Tiananmen generation that inspired people across the world to rise up against tyrannies has faded from view. School teachers, parents, newsreaders and armies of censors have collaborated in numbing a generation. It is left to brave survivors including Liu Hua, Chen Guang, and many others such as Ding Zilin, founder of the “Tiananmen Mothers” support group, to drag the dead back from oblivion and fight for truth.
Not all of those who died on 4 June did so unknowingly. Some chose deliberately to walk towards the rifles. As the bullets were flying towards them, possibly the one thought in their minds was: “This is the darkest moment; afterwards the light will come.” The unfree bodies chose to fall so that millions of others could stand up freely again and trample on the injustices of the past. The only point of self-sacrifice is to force one’s oppressors to live with the burden of guilt.
I think of my brother who 20 years ago fell into a coma. His wife and children abandoned him long ago. Today, he is able to eat, drink and sleep, but has no emotions or self-respect. He can’t speak, but he can sit in front of a television show and laugh himself to tears. Or he can stare at the ceiling for hours on end. He has no control over his life. He is like the Chinese people.
And yet, something extraordinary happened the last time I visited him. I often give him a pen and paper and wait to see what he draws. Sometimes it’s just boxes and crosses; sometimes he’ll write my name or the name of his first girlfriend. But this time, he drew a picture of a horse galloping across an open field. Although the lines were shaky, they were more expressive than any I could have drawn. For a moment, I saw a faint beam of light on his chest, and I knew that there was still hope.
© Ma Jian, May 2009. Translation by Flora Drew. Beijing Coma is published by Vintage. To order a copy for £8.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009