By David Burchell
June 01, 2009
IN traditional Chinese culture the festival of Qing Ming marks the spring equinox: the time of regeneration, of budding and rebirth. In that ancient tradition, rebirth and remembrance are different facets of the same natural process. And so when, after the thawing of the frosts, you venture outside on Qing Ming to "tread on the greenery" afresh, it's appropriate also to tend to the graves of the departed, and to spare them some portion of your budding spring thoughts.
Qing Ming: a rite of ancestral veneration.
Back in 1949, year zero of the Chinese Revolution, the exultant Jacobins of the new regime banned Qing Ming, treating it as yet another benighted symbol of the superstitious past, to be swept away as the slate was wiped clean. Last year, however, as part of the geological thawing of that great revolutionary winter, the Communist Party restored Qing Ming to the festival calendar. And so China's citizens have returned to them, after a brief interruption of 60 years, the traditional right to mourn and remember their friends and ancestors in peace.
Well, most of them, anyway.
In the early morning dew on April 4 this year, when 75-year old retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang set off in a hired taxi to the summit of Yingxiong Mountain to engage in his first legal act of public remembrance, he found he had acquired an escort of no fewer than nine police vehicles. As he decamped at the summit, he was greeted by a group of men in plain clothes: they threw him down a two-metre slope and set upon him for a good 10 minutes, breaking three of his ribs.
Sun had made two errors. First, he had announced his intentions on bulletin boards around the university, an institution where he's been harassed as a troublemaker for two decades now, ever since the upheavals of 1989. Second, he'd decided to exercise his new-found right to mourn by honouring the memory of China's most famous non-person, former party secretary and premier Zhao Ziyang.
Zhao, you may recall, was the decent and honourable man who tried and failed to stop the military takeover of Beijing in 1989, and who tried and failed to peacefully disperse the protesters in Tiananmen Square before they were mown down by the battalions of the People's Liberation Army. Zhao then fearlessly defended his actions to a disciplinary meeting of the Party's Central Committee, with the result that his speech was erased from the party records, and the final 16 years of his life were spent under house arrest.
That vast and serried regiment of Beijing apologists, whose self-serving chatter extends from China's meticulously supervised blogosphere through to the boardrooms of some of Australia's largest listed corporations, are happy to tell you at the drop of a hat that nobody in China nowadays remembers the events of June 4, 1989.
And in any case, that those who do remember it don't care. If you should find yourself belaboured by one of these kind individuals - so keen, as they are, to cure you of your human rights prejudices - I'd suggest you ask them why, in that case, it was necessary for China's state security to put a 75-year-old man in hospital for a week for the crime of climbing a mountainside to honour a dead man.
Why, come to that, when Zhao's former senior lieutenant Bao Tong and his wife attempted to leave their own domestic confinement to pay observance to Zhao's corpse, was it necessary for plain-clothed officers to set upon them, too, with sufficient industry that Bao's wife suffered spinal injuries?
Why, again, when a Chinese citizen types the characters for Zhao's or Bao's names into a post on an internet bulletin board, must the words mysteriously disappear in front of their eyes? For a man who no one apparently remembers, and about whom supposedly no one cares, Zhao's name still seems to exert a striking effect upon the legion of snoopers and time-servers in Beijing, such that it seems necessary to wipe the slate clean of his memory again and again.
Zhao Ziyang in 1984.
This Zhao-effect, no doubt, is the reason why another, smaller army of individuals have laboured to spirit his personal testament out of the country, as a memorial to the 20th anniversary of June, 1989. As it happens, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang offers fewer surprises than some keen-eyed readers may have hoped.
Zhao had already communicated most of what he had to say about 1989 to the equally fearless party veteran Yang Jisheng (deputy editor of the dissident journal Chronicles of History) in a series of personal conversations in the 1990s, posthumously published in the Hong Kong-based journal Chinese Law and Government in 2005. The great discovery of the "secret journal" is really that until his death Zhao sincerely believed in the possibility of the Communist Party as an agent of democratic reform, through the gradual assumption of a parliamentary road to freedom. Even as that selfsame party erased every public memory of his life, and cut him off from almost every contact with the outside world.
It's habitual to think of Zhao as China's almost-Gorbachev: the man who might have disestablished the Communist Party, and introduced political pluralism, if only the party hardliners hadn't got him first. Yet the painful sequence of events recorded in Zhao's testament suggests another, nicer comparison. For, as Zhao goes to enormous lengths to establish, what happened in Beijing in 1989 had no legal basis whatever.
It was, in point of fact, an invasion of the capital by several hundred thousand troops of the Chinese army at the behest of a private group of individuals within the communist leadership, because of a fear that the people had mobilised, and were coming out on the streets in support of the party's general secretary. As Zhao told Yang in 1995, "our party had never done such a thing in all its history".
In short, 1989 was China's Prague Spring, and Zhao was its Dubcek. Ever since, the Chinese Communist Party has been haunted by the obscure but troubling recognition that it is in effect an occupying power in its own country, a kind of benevolent foreign tyrant, like the Moghuls or the British Raj, such as colonised countries have known for centuries.
This is why, I'd suggest, we should take June 4 as our own moment to "tread on the greenery", and to honour the memory of a decent man and his patriotic supporters, even though China's spring is yet to return, and the wisteria is still nipped in the bud.