Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

China's Secret Grief: Mourning the Victims of the May Earthquake Has Reminded a Nation of the Deaths It Is Forbidden to Recall-The Students of Tiananmen and the Tens of Millions Who Lost Their Lives under Mao

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

China's Secret Grief: Mourning the Victims of the May Earthquake Has Reminded a Nation of the Deaths It Is Forbidden to Recall-The Students of Tiananmen and the Tens of Millions Who Lost Their Lives under Mao

Article excerpt

For three days in May, China's national flag flew at half-mast in Tiananmen Square to honour the victims of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China had publicly commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.

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Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has been estimated at 80,000, the earthquake shook the nation back to life. The Chinese people rushed to donate blood and money and to join the rescue efforts. They rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.

Their grief, shock and confused solidarity recalled the hours that followed the Tiananmen massacre 19 years ago, when the Communist Party sent army tanks into Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement organised by unarmed, peaceful students.

The protests had been set off by the death of the reform-minded Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. College students had camped out in the square--the symbolic heart of the nation--to demand freedom, democracy and an end to government corruption. There they fell in love, danced to Bob Dylan tapes and discussed Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

The city had come out to support the protesters: workers, entrepreneurs, writers, petty thieves. After the tanks drove the students from the square in the early hours of 4 June 1989, nearby shop owners turned up with baskets of trainers to hand out to protesters who'd lost their shoes in the confrontation. As soldiers opened fire in the streets, civilians rushed to the wounded to carry them to the hospital.

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But even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee, the party was rewriting history. It branded the peaceful democracy movement a "counter-revolutionary riot" and maintained that the brutal crackdown was the only way of restoring order. As leaders of the movement were rounded up and jailed, people who had donated food and drink to the students during their six-week occupation of the square began reporting them to the police.

Realising that their much-vaunted mandate to rule had been nullified by the massacre, the party focused on economic growth to quell demands for political change. Thanks to its cheap, industrious and non-unionised labour force, China has since become a world economic power, while the Communist Party has become the world's best friend.

Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia.

Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is still recovering from a recent disaster. The western news media turned their attention away from political repression in China and Tibet, out of respect for the dead. When invited to speak at a London human rights event recently, I was asked not to say anything negative about my country. …

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