From the invisible commemoration of Tiananmen to China’s festive 60th birthday

2009 is no piece of cake for Chinese officialdom. Having survived the invisible torment of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen they turn now to the preparation for the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic. Despite daily high temperatures in the 30s in North China, one wonders if Peking bureaucrats might be suffering from cold sweats. Cliquer ici pour la version française.

Certain early indicators indicate that the event is being taken seriously. Visas are being restricted, as they were in the period leading up to the Olympic Games. Several travel agencies have already announced that they will be unable to secure business visas for travellers after mid-September.

China’s 60th birthday will not be a one-day event. In fact, festivities began…on October 1, 2008. So as to encourage patriotism and health among the younger generation, the Ministry of Education decided to add jogging to the curriculum. The goal for the month of April, 2009, was for elementary school children to log 120 kilometers, high school students 180, and university students 240. (The astute mathematician will notice that all these numbers are multiples of 60).

If the Beijing Olympics were meant to showcase China’s modernization and the quality of Chinese athletes, and Expo Shanghai 2010 the glowing future of the young dynasty, the first parade of the Chinese military in the 21st century will serve to put China’s military power on display. For Fang Fenghui, Commander of the military region of Peking and Deputy of the 11th People’s Congress, “the appearance of new military hardware will be one of the highlights of the military parade.” This 14th parade will be particularly important in that the Chinese contribution to the first parade in 1949 was limited to horses, while in 2009, again according to Fang Fenghui, “there will be a great deal of equipment of Chinese manufacture, of impressive quality, to be seen during the parade.”

What is the interest of this 60th birthday for those who will not be in China in the coming months to witness the ballet performances of the Red Guards, or for those who are not fascinated by military matters, straight lines, and squeaky clean uniforms? For one thing, an ostentacious display of Chinese military power is an excellent occasion to take the pulse of the American political elite and to see how many of them remain enamored of the theory of the “yellow peril.”

The theory of the China threat is a « hard » version of realist geopolitics built in part on the history of dealings with the rise of Fascism, and which tends to see each new emerging power as a threat to the balance of power. Those who hold such tenants do not believe that engaging China and linking it to the international system (as liberal theorists would prefer) will change China. On the contrary, they believe that such an approach will only allow China to get richer and to continue to modernize its military. For the China threat crowd, October 1st will be a painful day in that they will see that China is at least twenty years behind the US in terms of military technology.

At present, however, it would seem that the yellow peril is haunting Washington less than in the past. What we find are rather sentiments which argue against the China threat hypothesis, such as those expressed by Thomas Barnett, author of Great Powers: America and the World after Bush (Putnam Adult, 2009) : « If there is anything to worry about, it’s not China’s massive military; it’s the economy, stupid.»

With the economic crisis and the new administration in Washington, we see more “panda huggers” than “panda sluggers” around Obama. In 2001, Bill Gertz’s China Threat (Regnery, 2000) was all the rage, while the liberal theory of cooperation seems to be making a comeback. The idea of a Chinese-American partnership is upheld by those in Washington who oppose the notion of the China threat and see cooperation with Beijing as being in the national interests of the United States. Is Beijing happy to see the yellow peril go into hibernation? Surely, but at the same time, a rapprochement with the US might mean that China would have to play a more active role in international affairs and in the leadership of the new world order: « With great power comes with great responsabilities »! In the willfully provocatice language of the geostrategist Barnett:

«China has great power and demands much in the way of resources and finances and trade from the world, but China does not give much back in return. It hides behind diplomacy, denying that its troops should ever spill their blood in defense of Chinese economic interests that are now protected by American blood spilt in the Middle East...It simply does not fulfill its rising—and already enormous—responsibilities as a great power. So, yes, if you were waiting for the time to declare America to be no longer omnipotent, that time has arrived. But the bad news is, now is the time for China to stop simply talking and start actually doing something. Slogans are not enough...China needs...now to start acting much older and much wiser and much more willing to play a seriously active role, because the days of hiding behind the skirt of the U.S. Leviathan and pretending Beijing can always play the “good cop” to America’s “bad cop” are over.»

China’s leaders prefer the current situation, where they can have their cake and eat it too. American leaders can (or could) justify themselves by claiming to spread democracy, individualism, and liberty. Should Beijing claim world leadership, it would be accused of hegemonism, given its confusing model mixing authoritarian politics and state capitalism. And calls for greater liberalization would accompany the accusations.

François Lachapelle, in Harbin

RUNNY NOSE ALERT: Autopsy of the Coming Pandemic

This just out!

Twelve new cases of the H1N1 virus have been discovered at the very upscale St. Paul’s Convent school on Hong Kong island this week. These are the first local victims of the illness, adding to the fifty of so cases already reported in the territory, none of whom have left Hong Kong in the past weeks. Cliquer ici pour la version française.

Today, June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization has raised the threat level associated with the pandemic to 6. In early afternoon, Hong Kong authorities announced the closure of all primary educational institutions in the territory. More than 500,000 students are affected by the mesure. Click here for a detailed article on the subject.

For the next two weeks, Hong Kong theatres will be filled to overflowing from Monday to Friday. The skating rinks, usually empty during the week, will be invaded by novice skaters. Forget about quiet walks on the beach.

What do the parents have to say? Think about it. Everyone twelve and under at home for two weeks before the beginning of holidays. What to do? Who will take care of them? If this happened in Quebec it would cause consideration commotion.

Of course, the situation in Hong Kong is different. More than 10% of families have a maid at home. But what about the others? How will they organize themselves with so little advance warning. Is this not an extreme measure which ignores the problemes of working parents?

Hong Kong : Life in a Sardine Can

Since the SARS crisis of 2004, Hong Kong does not fool around on matters relating to health care. The population density of the territory has reached 6000 residents per square kilometer—heaven on earth for viruses.

Face masks are required in most of the hospitals and clinics in Hong Kong. Liquid soap dispensers are found in all public places and residential areas. Elevator buttons are sterilized several times a day. The borders of the territory are watched over by a team of nurses. The body temperature of visitors is observed with care.

It’s social suicide to have a nasty cough in Hong Kong. Strangers do not hide their contempt. An old lady made me put on a face mask, scolding me in public like a naughty child. This is the somewhat paranoid atmosphere in which the government decided on the most recent measures to contain the pandemic.

When the first case of H1N1 was discovered in April 2009, the government did not hesitate to put an entire hotel—including its staff—under quarantine for a week. The comings and goings of a Mexican tourist in Hong Kong were followed by all the Hong Kong tabloids. At the Metropark Hotel, the lobby quickly became a scene from a reality TV show. The young tourists closed up inside asked to speak with the public amassed outside by telephone. Click here for scences of some of the action. The government of Hong Kong was much criticized for having gone to such extreme measures.

Then, during April and May, a few Hong Kong students reported via Facebook or Twitter that they had been quarantined on returning to Hong Kong from their foreign studies. Never before had a Canadian or a US stamp in a passport been such a bad omen.

When a Virus Becomes the Subjet of a Patriotic Debate

Chinese blogs I’ve been reading over the past few weeks suggest that rapid reaction to the H1N1virus is a matter of national pride. All media are used to spread information about the virus. Click here to learn more about the use of Twitter and here for information on the pandemic in China. Many Chinese have called for Chinese currently studying or working in North America not to return to China for the summer.

From this angle, Hong Kong is serving as a good example, applying the lessons learned during the SARS crisis. One must admit that their reaction has been extremely rapid, and that this will probably minimize certains risks.

We parents, however, will have to get through it somehow. Two weeks. Two whole weeks.

Valérie Nichols, beseiged in Hong Kong


Law and the Environment in China

On June 2, Wang Canfa, Director-Founder of the « Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims » (CLAPV), and professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, gave a talk at McGill University on the challenges and solutions in the field of environmental rights in China. Cliquer ici pour version française.

Named « hero of the environment » by Time Magazine in 2007, Wang began his talk by noting the apparent failure of the environmental movement in China. Despite considerable effort since the beginning of the reform period, the environment continues to deteriorate. Before 1978, the concept of environmental legislation was completely nonexistant. The situation has greatly changed over the past thirty years. Whether it is a question of sea pollution, water tables, or air pollution, from a legal standpoint, China is on a par with most industrialized countries.

Nonetheless, in the past few years, ground pollution, caused by heavy metals, has led to a reduction of ten million tons in grain production, losses which are the equivalent of millions of Chinese yuan. Barely 200 kilometers north of Peking, a desert is replacing what was once a green countryside. In many regions of China, desertification is advancing at an alarming rate. The production of animal waste is also increasing at a troubling rhythm, surpassing the production of household waste, which is growing at at 12.5% annual rate. In terms of water pollution, we note the phenomenon of the “red tides,” toxic tides caused by an overabundance of agricultural pesticides or industrial detergents in the water, and which are on the increase since the 1960s. Finally, in Southeast China, emissions of nitrous oxide account for important problems linked to the acid rains that fall on nearly one third of the county. Such rains are harmful to both flora and fauna.

According to Wang, the problem is not with China’s laws. The laws are severe, but China lacks the means to assure that the laws be respected. According to Wang’s research, less than 60% of China’s enterprises respect the present environmental laws. Having participated in several court cases, Wang has had occasion to witness the incapacity of the legal system to render adequate judgements. In 250 cases of major pollution followed by the CLAPV, only 10% of the enterprises involved were called to account.

Wang deplores the fact that environmental laws cannot act independently from economic considerations. Because of China’s centralized structure, local leaders do not have to account for their actions to the Environment Ministry, but rather to the central government, which naturally favors economic growth. Currently in China, environmental costs are not factored into calculations of the economic profitability of a region.

The same logic holds for individual office-holders. Local leaders, hoping to get ahead in their careers, are judged exclusively on their ability to contribute to GNP growth, which leads to all sorts of irregularities. Improvement on the environmental front is thus held hostage to a larger reform of China’s meritocracy. In addition to statistics, the quality of a leader should be judged by the people under him, and these people should consider the environment. In general, the people should assume an ever-increasing role in the process of decision-making, so that power will no longer be concentrated in the hands of a few officials concerned only with economic growth.

At another level, the system of taxes and fines is also faulty. In the current system, there are few monetary constraints on pollution, nor on non-respect for environmental laws. In many cases, fines paid for non-respect for environmental laws are but a drop in the bucket compared to the profits made through pollution-ridden production. A system of taxation which would tax companies according to how much pollution they are engaged in could solve the problem. Similarly, damages to be paid in the case of non-respect of environmental laws should be decided in terms of the profits realized by the companies involved, and these fines should be increased if the companies continue to break the law.

At present, NGOs like CLAPV or the EPA have no real power. Even if they report cases of industrial pollution to local leaders, their recommendations are rarely considered. Given the shortage of specialists in environmental law, Wang would like to see the EPA given the right to take direct action. Popular culture in China leads too many Chinese to view the government as having unlimited power, and to believe that all will be well if only the laws are respected. Yet the reality has demonstrated that few Party members have the professional competence necessary to ensure environmental protection. To solve this problem, Wang argues that a certain number of environmental experts should be sent to serve in China’s legislatures, where they would have the right to speak during debates and deliberations.

Despite this depressing portrait, Wang remains indefatigable and more than ever determined to advance the cause of the environment in China. The CLAPV continues to offer a telephone service providing legal aid to victims of pollution. This service has already responded to more than 10,000 requests for aid, and also offers free training in environmental law to Chinese lawyers, as well as continuing to organize symposiums and conferences, like the one we attended June 2.

Twenty Year after Tiananmen, What's Left of Democracy?

Twenty years after the events which swept away the hope for democratization, or even for genuine political reform in China, what is left of the democratic ideals in that country? Cliquer ici pour la version française.

We should start by noting that a good number of China-watchers believe that multi-party democracy, with its free and impartial elections, is far from being a central concern of most Chinese citizens or of the Chinese intellectual elite. And the notion that an organized political opposition might arise is simply unrealistic. Indeed, ever since the brutal response by the Communist Party to the four principle student demands (1. better conditions for intellectuals and students, including more money for education; 2. the end of corruption of Party cadres; 3. political reform leading to greater democracy; 4. respect for individual freedoms, such as the freedom of association, of speech and of the press), any attempt at political or civil organization outside the strict Party framework has been nipped in the bud.

Nonetheless, democratic values have been reincarnated in a new form, and in a movement which seems less threatening to Chinese authorities than did the student demostrations : the movement for civil rights (weiquan yundong). The incident which gave the movement its genuine beginning was probably the case of Sun Zhigang, an engineer beaten to death by local authorities in Guangzhou in 2003 because they believed he was an illegal migrant worker. As the news of his death spread in the media and on the internet, people reacted with anger and three lawyers sent a petition to the authorities. These reactions, in bringing strong pressure to bear on the government, succeeded in the abolition of the brutal system of confinement and repatriation of migrant workers without permits.

Over time, the movement for civil rights has slowly taken form, and those participating in it, including « barefoot lawyers » and other defenders of the rights of the most vulnerable, have decided on a strategy based on never openly questioning the monopoly on political power enjoyed by the Communist Party. Those who labor for civil rights thus strive to clothe their message in official garb by using Party discourse and the laws adopted by the Party. In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao, faced with increasingly frequent social distubances throughout China and determined to maintain social stability and the legitimacy of his government, pledged to “govern the country through the rule of law” (yifa zhiguo). The participants in the civil rights movement have taken him at his word and call on authorities to employ and respect existing laws as well as the fundamental rights of people who have suffered specific abuses.

Who calls on these barefoot lawyers? Laid-off former state employees who find themselves in difficulty. People who have been displaced by state construction projects. Migrant workers who have been mistreated or have gone unpaid. Workers who are victimes of accidents at work. People who have been mistreated by the authorities or who have been victims of official corruption. People suffering from the deterioration of their local environment. All of these people share the fact that their rights have been violated, rights which nonetheless appear in the legal documents of the People’s Republic, even if not honored. Often, their only recourse is to call on the defenders of civil rights who will begin legal proceedings—a trial, a petition, a group cause.

These lawyers, who are extremely sensitive to the limits—often vague—of official tolerance of their activities, are careful to not be associated with any non-orthodox political message. Despite such caution, several have been imprisoned in shameful conditions (notably Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng and Teng Biao). Nonetheless, the existence of these defenders of the rights of the weak illustrates that despite many difficulties, the democratic ideals defended by the students, workers, and white-collar workers in Tiananmen Square and in many Chinese cities in 1989 have survived, if in a new form.

Ariane Pelé, in Montréal

Tiananmen Roundtable in Montreal

On June 1st, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Canadian organization “Rights and Democracy” invited three well-known spekaers to participate in a Round Table discussion at the Centre d’Archives de Montreal: Rowena Xiaoqing He, rechercher at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University; Charles Burton, political scientist at Brock University, and former student of the history of Chinese thought at Fudan University in Shanghai; and Cao Chungguo, author of the book I Was at Tiananmen and editor of the Chinese-language version of the China Labour Bulletin. The three joined to discuss the heritage of the 1989 movement. Cliquer ici pour la version française.

From the outset, Rowena Xiaoqing He and Cai Chongguo emphasized the enormous effect that the events had had on them personally, as well as on most of the students present in Tiananmen twenty years ago. This was a seminal moment, and the ensuing tragedy left indelible marks on their lives and sowed the seeds of an enduring democratic faith. This is what gives them the courage to fight against the fading memories, and to contest the official vision of the movement which seeks to erase 1989 from the collective memory of the Chinese people. Rowena He, who admits that the ignorance of succeeding generations concerning Tiananmen leaves her feeling alone and even desperate, continues nonetheless to decry Peking’s efforts to silence all out dare question the official version. Rowena He cites for example the courage of the « Tiananmen Mothers », who continue their struggle to have the memories of their sons and daughters properly honored, to have an official enquest into the events of 1989, to see victims’ families compensated and the guilty parties punished. Arguing that China needs above all stability and economic development, the Chinese authorities refuse to confront the legacy of the tragedy. Indeed, instead of reconciliation, the Tiananmen mothers are met with insult: their web site is blocked and their image sullied in propaganda pieces depicting them as criminals having raised their children to be lap dogs of the West.

Rowena He also mentions the example of Yuan Weishi, best known for his article, “Modernization and History Books.” In this 2006 article, Wei denounces the historical distortions by which the Party blinds the youth to their own history. Mincing no words, Wei blames the Communist Party monopoly on history for most of the abuses committed during the Maoist period—and notes the Party continues to enjoy such monopoly rights. Immediately following the publication of this article, the license accorded to “Freezing Point”, weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily where Yuan had published his thoughts, was revoked. This case led the speakers to wonder “who is educating whom?” in China.

Cai Chongguo was more positive. He notes that China has changed dramatically since 1989, and that some of these changes are hopeful. In his eyes, the rise of the internet has created a new forum for discussion, a new public space, and stands as an important rupture in the formerly solid wall of official censorship. The internet has enabled the movement to enter a new phase, having resolved certain previous problems of communication. More than 200,000,000 Chinese use the internet today. There are more than 70,000,000 blogs. Of course censorship continues to exist, but the internet is difficult to control. In the pre-internet age, certain topics were simple off-limits. For example, the question of democracy. Censorship has not disappeared, but takes on new forms. Using specialized software, the authorities focus on certain words, and less the people behind the words. But as we know, dedicated bloggers and net-users in China have been quick to get around this problem, using more subtle language.

For Charles Burton, it is China’s unique character that captivates his attention, China’s knack for confounding its observers. Since the 1980s, China has refused to respect the theories of political development, theories of modernization, or any theory insisting on a correlation between economic development and democracy. One would well wonder how many followers of Seymour Lipsett’s “Political Man” have been tracking China’s urbanization, industrialization and educational development in order to predict the arrival of democracy in the Middle Kingdom? Burton admits straight out that he used to be one of them! Now he tends to see China as a case apart. China had set up a new sort of apartheid allowing urban residents to prosper in a way that the peasants—condemned to a life in the countryside by the hukou (internal passeport) could not. In such a system, democracy could only be seen by the urban elite, the new bourgeoisie, as a threat to their rights. Burton remains optimistic nonetheless, noting that a majority of Chinese today approve the principles of Charter 08, even if there is considerable division on the question of how to move forward.

The three speakers reveal a movement which is becoming increasingly pragmatic. Instead of hoping for a deux ex machina, the group’s hopes lie rather in concrete actions among the people. Knowing that at the moment, no group could contest the Communist Party if elections were to be held, the democracy movement chooses to respect Chinese laws and the Chinese constitution. The time has come to create a dynamic public space to promote the circulation of ideas. The time has come to stop asking, and to act.

Charles Hudon, in Montréal

Peking Coma and the Obligation of History

On June 4, 2004, we marked the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen. Ma Jian's most recent novel, Beijing Coma, available in English- and French-language translations, affords the reader a unique perspective on this tragedy. Like most of Ma’s works, Beijing Coma, the Chinese title of which is "Land of meat" (肉土), straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, personal testimony and fable, history and freedom, between disillusion and the obligation of memory. Click here for French version.

Sometimes called "China's Solzhenitsin", Ma Jian was born in 1953 in the picturesque city of Qingdao (in Shandong province). He began his career as a photojournalist and painter for the propaganda services, and began writing satiric pieces in the 1980s. His style displeased China’s authorities, who put him under surveillance. Ma left China for Hong Kong in 1987. One year later, he published his first novel, Stick out Your Tongue. The novel takes place in Tibet, and Ma paints a sober picture of Tibetan culture, despite its exotic allure. The novel was immediately banned in China. In 1990, he published The Noodle Maker, in which the city of Beijing is the canvas for an intrigue involving a writer writing for the Party and a man who had made a fortune in the blood trade. Ma moved to Germany in 1997 and to England in 1999 (with his wife and translator Flora Drew), and subsequently published Red Dust, a sort of autobiographical novel in which the narrator recounts a trip to China, a country where he now feels a stranger, a country which is hopelessly corrupt.

Ma Jian was in Hong Kong when the events of 1989 occurred in Peking. Out of a feeling of soldarity with the causes defended by the protestors, he left Hong Kong to join the students. In the streets of Beijing, he took pictures and wrote down his thoughts on the movement and its dénouement. Some of these memories and feelings are found in Chinese Noodles and others in Beijing Coma, which Ma took ten years to write.

In Beijing Coma we relive the events of Tiananmen Square through the character of Dai Wei, a student leader on the barricades with his posters demanding freedom and democracy. Struck in the head by a projectile from the weapon of a plainclothes policeman, Dai, a doctoral student in biology at Beijing University, falls into a deep coma, and enters a kind of parallel life where he remembers, in bits and pieces, events from his life and the life of his friends and family. He recounts the lives of his father, a “rightist”, and his mother, a devoted communist, and emerges finally from his coma after ten years, and no longer recognizes the China for which he had fought at Tiananmen. The reader follows the same journey as Dai Wei and lives the chronological evolution which produce the strange China described for us by Ma Jian. We see for example the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), through Dai’s memory of a young village girl whose body the Party ordered to be eaten, on the principle that “If you don’t eat the enemy, you are the enemy.”

The author also touches on a number of newsworthy subjects in contemporary China, such as the frightening increase in the cost of health care, the greed and the hunger for profit which have taken over many Chinese, the attraction of the Falun Gong (Ma Jian’s mother was a practitioner), etc. The end of the novel—I hope this won’t spoil it for future readers—stands as a magnificant evocation of the China consumed by Deng Xiaoping’s slogan « to get rich is glorious. » The two main characters, one mute and the other crazy, lie down in the road to try to block the bulldozers which have come to destroy their apartment building.

Most of the novel, however, is about Tiananmen, which Ma Jian treats one day at a time, or even one detail at a time, which occasionnally tries the patience of the reader. Ma Jian’s rendering of the events of Tiananmen are very much of a piece with his other ascerbic writings, and he does not hesitate to point out the internecine struggles between groups of students with different ideas and slogans, and strategies that take them in different directions. He notes the search for celebrity among certain leaders, the cowardice among others, those who abandoned the cause before the end…Ma’s portrait is limited almost exclusively to the students, and he hardly mentions the popular demonstrations in which so many other Chinese and Beijingers were involved. Despite their contradictions, the students are portrayed as “those who carried history on their shoulders,” and Ma Jian masterfully allows us to relive the events from the inside. He has concentrated more than half a century of history in this physical, dense, and sometimes painful portrait.

In sum, as one reads this novel which is both a political statement and « statement of accounts, » one has the impression that the Tiananmen exiles have some issues with which they must come to terms. Above all, the reader, whether he is Chinese or not, is called upon to perform the duty of remembering, a theme often repeated in Ma Jian’s writings. Ma is well-known for the public stances he has taken to this effect in recent years: Tiananmen must never be forgotten. "When you lie inside your silent dreams, your memories press into your flesh like iron nails." (p. 313) Today, on the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen, Ma’s book is to be launched in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Will the Chinese recognize themselves? Or has the effacement of these events from their common history and common memory left them forever in their “coma”

Émilie Cadieux, in Montréal


Rainy Days in Harbin

A cold front, accompanied by heavy rain, beseiged Harbin yesterday, June 3. Almost as if in response to the silence of the Chinese government as to the tragic events of June 4, 1989, the sky had decided to grieve the memory of what the Chinese have been forced to forget. Cliquer ici pour la version française.

"Hi," said Zhou Meng, arriving with his friend at the U.B.C. café, where I had been reading Harbin’s newspapers for some hours. Meng introduced me to his friend, Zhang Lei. Lei seemed a bit nervous, mistrustful. Both are doctoral candidates at the Harbin Institute of Technology, one of China’s ten best universities, and I a future sinologist from Quebec studying Chinese in the same city. I ask them if they had had discussions about Tiananmen, or if the subject had been raised recently among their classmates.

"Yesterday," Meng replied, “I asked a friend if he knew the importance of today’s date, the 20th anniversary of…and he interrupted me to say that that he didn’t know it was my birthday.” To me, this anecdote spoke volumes about the ignorance of today’s youth concerning what happened at Tiananmen. But Zhou Meng just laughed. He takes everything philosophically. He studied for three years in Canada while getting his M.A., an experience which completely changed his point of view of the history and development of China. Since he is fluent in English and can even get by in French, he gets a good deal of his information from foreign web sites. Zhang Lei came to his understanding of the events of 1989 through listening to the lyrics of Chinese rock music, which teems with references to the lives and stories of certain leaders of the student movement.

I had asked these students to meet me so as to examine the Chinese press in the hopes—in the words of the writer Simon Leys—of "interpreting nonexistant inscriptions written in invisable ink on blank pages." In other words, to try to find in articles published in today’s press hidden criticisms of, or references to, the events of 1989. Although these two students were happy to play along, my Chinese teacher reacted with bemusement, even condescension. Still, using history to criticize the present is a Chinese tradition prized by the literati under the dynasties to express their opinions and criticize the heavy hand of orthodoxy.

On page four of the June 4th edition of City News of Harbin, we read an article on the secret planning for the embalming of Mao Zedong and the construction of his mausoleum, all of which went on behind closed doors. Zhang Lei smiles and says “And where is this monument? In Tiananmen Square! It was attacked during the demonstrations in 1989. Without Mao’s reign and without the painful experience of the Cultural Revolution, the democratic movement of the 1970s and 1980s would not have had the same energy and strength.”

In the same paper, we find half a dozen articles which relate to the 1980s in one way or another : divorce among those born in the 1980s; a robber who went into hiding for twenty years to escape from the police after committing a crime and who reappeared miraculously in the last little while. Zhou and Zhang think that the article on divorce can be read as addressing the question of the “forced divorce” of the dream of freedom and the Tiananmen demonstrators, while the story about the robber might be a reference to someone recently released after twenty years of prison. On the back page of the Modern Evening Times, another Harbin daily, we find a picture of a young lawyer who set up a booth on June 3 so as to advise citizens of the appropriate measures to take in the event of legal problems.

Zhang Lei tells me that last year at the same time, he read an article criticizing the historical revisionism in Japanese history textbooks, which left him with a strange feeling. Rather than talking about the apology that the Japanese government owed China, the article insisted that the Japanese government had a moral obligation to stop keeping its people in ignorance and thus to tell the truth concerning the actions of its army during WWII.

When I ask them if they really believe their readings of today’s papers, or if they’re just humoring me, Zhou replies: “In spite of the culture of silence and the forced ignorance of the people, there are many signs that historical conscience continues to exist in China. People want the truth and more. There are many people—intellectuals, journalists, common people—who take action to keep their will alive (mothers of Tiananmen, the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the Charter 08 petitions, etc.). Thus even if our reading was the result of your coaxing (I was the one who had the idea, after all), it helps me keep my spirits up.”

As we leave the café, the cold rain which had been falling for some 24 hours gave way to a timid ray of sunlight, as if our discussion had done a little something to relieve the sadness of the anger of the heavens.

Which made me wonder: the last sentence in the article on Mao mentioned that the thirtieth anniversary of the construction of his mausoleum had taken place. Could the author have been meaning to call attention to the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre? Even in an article on Mao Zedong?

François Lachapelle, in Harbin


Tiananmen Documentary

Valérie Nichols recommends an excellent documentary on Tianmen, produced by Al Jazeera, a network which remains little known in North America. Twenty-five minutes long, in two parts, available here. Great interviews with the leaders of the movement--Wuer Kaixi and Han Dongfang, among others--and with Western China-Watchers such as Jan Wong (journalist for the Globe and Mail) and Perry Link (Professor of Chinese literature at Princeton University). The tone is nuanced, the images arresting, the editing brilliant. Watch it.

poste en français

David Ownby