Remembering (and Mis-remembering) Tiananmen

June 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last weekend I saw Jia Zhangke’s film, A Touch of Sin, in which he continues to show us how life in China is shaped by the economic and social upheavals initiated in the 1980s. In Platform (2000), set on a remote edge of the Great Wall as that decade proceeds, and Still Life (2006), shot in the midst of flooding for the Three Gorges Dam, the country’s physical and moral landscape is seen to be degraded in the interests of a brutal free-market capitalism driven by a dictatorial and corrupt state. All the while that state still describes itself as Communist.

Both Platform and Still Life intimate the staggeringly destructive speed at which changes have been imposed. Enormous disparities in wealth have arisen as the fruits of China’s globalised economy fall into the hands of the few. There is an expanding middle class, but also a large and growing class of the industrially exploited, the displaced and dispossessed, who are merely the tools of this enrichment. A Touch of Sin draws its material from actual events to create a contemporary compendium of four intertwined stories whose characters have reached a breaking point that provokes extreme violence. This is China as the Wild West, a place of lawless greed, sickening corruption and shocking despair. I’ve seen only these three of Jia Zhangke’s films, but their beauty and squalor stay in the mind. They indict the crime of inflicting the drudgery and tedium of lives with their potential squeezed out. If cinema can have a poetics of boredom while never being boring, Jia Zhangke is its master.

I hadn’t noticed that the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was imminent. Once reminded, I remembered how, 25 years ago, we were gripped by what was happening in Beijing and beyond. Night after night we watched the news as, through May into June, the student occupation grew, prompting huge demonstrations by its sympathisers in Beijing. The capital was the focus, Tiananmen the symbolic space for resistance, but we heard too about the surge of protest in cities across China: Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing (names that meant nothing until located on an atlas), and Shanghai – where factory workers went on strike, as did railway workers elsewhere. These shared the Tiananmen students’ demands for greater freedom of speech and of the press, and for a return to workers’ control in industry. The principle of equality prevailed along with the call for freedom; we watched students in Tiananmen Square singing the Internationale.

Our warm feelings of solidarity were shattered by disbelief at the savagery of the outcome, at the knowledge that the millions watching live TV from sofas all over the world had been of no avail, afforded no protection. All we could do was join a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in London.

But it matters that we saw, even though we saw little of the murderous repression that followed (Beijing became unsafe for curious journalists, with or without cameras). In 2014, for all the contradictions of its apparent openness, much in China’s vastness is hidden from foreign eyes. It ruthlessly continues to persecute protesters and suppress democracy, maintaining a state of amnesia about 1989 through internet censorship. It goes on giving the lie to Western claims that a free market will inevitably lead to a free society, as if capitalism itself were a prerequisite for democracy.

On Wednesday, the anniversary, I watched Newsnight. After some footage of Tiananmen and the account of a photographer who was there, there came a studio discussion with three guests: Wuer Kaixi, a former student leader who is now a merchant banker in Taiwan, Keju Jin, an LSE lecturer in economics and Martin Jacques, in the 1980s editor of Marxism Today, a publication whose title was in itself contentious, given its Euro-Communist roots and its appeal to the right wing of the Labour Party. While the ex-dissident spoke vaguely about being anti-Communist, the latter two proved to be apologists for the Chinese regime, the woman from the LSE blandly pronouncing that the Tiananmen massacre was insignificant compared with the fact of  ‘800 million people lifted out of poverty’. Martin Jacques echoed her point that there is not enough emphasis on major improvements in China and agreed on the need for ‘stability’ if there is to be economic development. Even more astonishing was his dismissal of Tiananmen’s significance: ‘It wasn’t a China-wide movement that drew in loads of people’, he said, blatantly contradicting recorded coverage at the time.

I wondered at the absence of the BBC’s own highly regarded China editor, Carrie Gracie, who has been filing TV and radio reports since the 90s, and of any notable China specialists: scholars, researchers or journalists with sound experience of the country and the events of 1989. This shabby discussion left the impression of a last-minute cobbling together for an unplanned slot. Not just shabby, but shameful. Newsnight has been sadly in decline ever since the Jimmy Saville debacle, when several of its more distinguished journalists left the programme. But its coverage of Tiananmen hit a very low point. It’s what impelled me to write this piece.

Isobel Hilton has been researching China for some four decades. You can read her New Statesman article of June 4 online:

http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/05/tiananmen-s-hungry-ghosts

If you’re too young to remember Tiananmen you can also read the Amnesty International report published in August 1989. It gives a detailed chronicle of what happened in Beijing and an account of the following days in Chengdu, when more than 300 workers and students were killed.

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA17/009/1990/en/f5924218-ee6a-11dd-96f1-9fdd7e6f4873/asa170091990en.html

Some years ago I saw a documentary screened by Channel 4 on the Tiananmen aftermath, filmed by stealth as the students’ parents converged on the square demanding to know what had happened to their children. Wave after wave of them were shot. When I googled yesterday I could find no reference to this film (if anyone knows about it, please tell me). However, my googling threw up something unexpected: the US National Security Archive documents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. These include cables from the US ambassador, commenting on the situation. One document describes splits in the military and fighting between different military units: ‘By the morning of 6 June it appeared that the situation in Beijing was teetering on the brink of political chaos or even civil war…’

You can read these at:

http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/#d13

Another way to remember Tiananmen would be to see A Touch of Sin. It is one more of the regime’s contradictions that Jia Zhangke is allowed to make his films.

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