Tiananmen: bullets and opium

Within China, as for the whole of the Maoist era, public memory of the righteous student protests of 1989 in China continues to be repressed. A valuable recent addition to the extensive literature published abroad (see e.g. this list, with perceptive reflections by Jeff Wasserstrom) is

  • Liao Yiwu, Bullets and opium: real-life stories of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre (German edition 2012; new English edition translated by David Cowhig and Jessie Cowhig, ed. Ross Perlin, 2020).

After Ian Johnson’s lucid introduction, reflecting on the “failed revolution”, Liao Yiwu (@liaoyiwu1) provides a useful Prologue. He himself spent four years in prison after 1989, going on to document these first-hand accounts (cf. The corpse walker) while under constant harrassment, before fleeing to Berlin in 2011. He returns to his own story in the final chapter, and fantasises about museums and monuments in China to political movements: “How will our children and grandchildren find a place to live in a country crowded with so many monuments?”

Liao’s subjects (he co-opts the Party’s terms “thugs” and “hooligans”) are not the student “elite” of the movement whose later emigration and defection from the cause aroused much resentment, but those left behind—the common people of Beijing and Chengdu (often factory workers, also mostly very young) who bore the brunt of the military crackdown as they tried to support the patriotic protests. Tortured and sentenced to long prison terms for their righteous actions, after their release they found themselves having to beg for low-paid menial jobs, scrabbling for a place to sleep, with chronic health problems, ostracised, condemned to poverty. Meanwhile the economic miracle served as if to bribe people not to ask any more questions. Even now, over thirty years later, few of the survivors or bereaved hold much hope for any official recognition of the events.

Though Liao’s interlocutors are all men, the impact on their wives and families is clear (this review includes a critique of implicit sexism). Despite their anger, several of them comment on the sorry plight of the troops sent in to quell the “chaos”—they too were victims, misled by their rulers.

The unrest extended far beyond central Beijing. Not only was there fierce resistance in the suburban counties through which the various armies had to fight their way, but protests erupted in many provinces (note this wiki entry). In Part Two the scene shifts to Sichuan, where Liao catches up with some of his former colleagues.

The Afterword, “The last moments of Liu Xiaobo” (translated by Michael Day), is based on Liao’s conversations with his widow Liu Xia. And in three appendices, “A guide to what really happened”, Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, founders of the Tiananmen Mothers movement, conscientiously attempt to document some numbers for the victims, and their fates. And many more—3,000, or over 10,000, according to other reputable sources—may have been killed, besides countless injured.

This playlist includes the documentary of Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, and a Storyville film:

Throughout this aftermath Western scholars (including me) blithely continued visiting China, judging it better to engage than to leave our contacts even more isolated. And as the economy flourished, China was an ever-more tempting place to do business, as the general population retreated into blind materialism.

In academic circles too the climate seemed open enough: Chinese scholars somehow found a certain latitude to explore sensitive topics. Through the 1990s, as I explored the hutongs of Beijing, I must have come across many people with harrowing stories to tell—or to refrain from telling—of June 1989. Among my urban and rural friends, the climate didn’t seem too (sic) repressive; we could still function around the workings of the police state. Even in 2018 I had a great time in Beijing and the countryside. So it’s taken me all this time to draw the line, as repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has become more extreme—and the recent escalation may also remind us to resist Tiananmen fatigue.

For more on political amnesia, see e.g. China: commemorating trauma; The temple of memories; Confessions; for Tibet, Forbidden memory; and further afield, many posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

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