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

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