1989: When hope replaced repression

Hungary began dismantling its frontier barriers to Austria on May 2, 1989. This allowed East German citizens an unexpected escape route; the Iron Curtain had suffered its first tear. This picture shows numerous East German Trabants and Wartburgs parked on a Budapest street. East German refugees had driven to Hungary in these cars but abandoned them when they fled to the West.

This is the opening of an excellent article by Neal Ascherson in today’s special issue of the Observer Review, celebrating the events of 1989:

Twenty years ago, a landscape began to tremble. At first, nobody noticed anything special. In January 1989, business was much as usual in the Soviet half of Europe. Strikes in Poland, harassment of East German dissidents, a Czech playwright called Vaclav Havel arrested yet again after a small demonstration. The west had more important stories to think about. George Bush Sr was being inaugurated as president of the United States, and Salman Rushdie was in hiding after the Iranian fatwa. In Moscow, that wonderful Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing ahead with his perestroika and glasnost.

Then the trembling increased. The mountains around the cold war horizon began to wobble and fall over. Polish communism went first. Next, Hungary’s rulers published an abdication plan. In August, the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union began to demand independence. In November, Erich Honecker of East Germany was overthrown, and on 9 November the Berlin Wall was breached.

Next day, a palace coup in Bulgaria brought down Todor Zhivkov, the party leader. On 28 November, the Czechoslovak communist regime surrendered to the people. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was chased from office and shot. And just three days before the end of the year, on 29 December 1989, Vaclav Havel became president of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Links: Observer features

Red Dust by Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Ma Jian

After reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma earlier this month, I’ve just finished his earlier work, Red Dust, his account of three years of arduous travelling through China’s most remote provinces, adopting various identities to avoid police surveillance. It’s a wonderful book – possibly the best travel account I’ve read – that has some similarities with Soul Mountain by the 2000 Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian.

In August 1983 Ma Jian, dissident poet and painter turns 30. His ex-wife has just pronounced him a political criminal and forbidden him to see his daughter. His girlfriend has taken up with a convict and betrayed him to the police. His painting is no good: ‘Not one of his paintings,’ notes a colleague, ‘conveys the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations.’ He has long hair and wears denim. The director of his work unit condemns him in front of his fellows: ‘His lax, free-wheeling lifestyle… shows all the signs of the Spiritual Pollution the central authorities have been telling us about.’

Ma Jian takes to the road. He packs his camera, some rice coupons, a little money and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and for three years wanders the distant provinces of China. Red Dust is the account of these travels. It’s an extraordinary journey: Ma Jian walks great distances, sleeps rough in the most primitive circumstances, suffers illness, extreme cold and extreme heat, hunger and exhaustion. He is pursued by the police. He is robbed. He is attacked by dogs. In the wastes of the Chaidam Basin he is forced to drink his own urine to survive. Three days lost in the Gobi drives him to the brink of madness. At one point, on the very edge of China, he narrowly escapes being washed down the Salween river to the border with Burma and certain death at the hands of Burmese or Chinese border guards, escaping the river only to find he has to climb a sheer cliff face in the dark, certain that at any moment he could lose his grip and fall to his death.

From the deserts and villages of China’s northwest he walks his way to Deng Xiaoping’s booming capitalist enclaves in the south. He travels back towards the east coast, finds himself in the rainforests near the Burmese border, and finally ends up in Tibet.

Along the way, Ma Jian mixes descriptions of the local landmarks and behaviour of the people he meets, with encounters with dissident contacts and friends aacross China. He provides a vivid description of the rapidity of the changes in China after Mao’s death.

This is a spiritual quest. Before he left Beijing, Ma Jian took Buddhist vows. His goal are places of Buddhist pillgrimage and, above all,  Tibet. But all he finds is a land and a people despoiled and corrupted by totalitarian rule and the rush to ‘market socialism’. In each town people are buying or selling something – rope, cats, last year’s calendars, next week’s brides. By the end he is weary of the road:

The further I walk, the less I know why. I have become a marching machine. As long as I have a bag on my back I will walk, until I drop. The path takes control. I follow it blindly.  I have lost all sense of direction. Why did I choose to live this way?  I am not a dog, after all.

Red Dust has been described in the Independent as ‘a tour de force…a powerful picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession…it stands out among the many literary offerings of the Cultural Revolution`s ‘lost generation.’  This is a travel book that is as much an account of an internal journey of the mind as the traverse of a physical landscape:

This stinking body no longer belongs to me, my mind is as empty as a plastic bag caught in the high wind. Suddenly, I think of Beijing, and realise that although it is crammed with police, at least there is a bed and pillow waiting for me there. I came to Tibet hoping to find answers to all my unasked questions, but I have discovered that even when the questions are clear, there are no clear answers. I am sick of travelling. I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it is just a tea cup. I cannot survive in the wilds — nature is infinite but my life has bounds. I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women. I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends. I have stopped here, not because the Himalayas stand in the way,  but because my inward journey has reached its end. In fact, we all tread a path — the gold-digger, the coil-remover, Myima who left her turquoise behind and rose to the sky. We are just travelling in different directions, that’s all. This path has ended, but from now on, my journey will he much harder…

Writing in the Guardian in July 2008, Ma Jian stated:

I am a writer. Being critical is a writer’s responsibility. In China, however, writers are encouraged to sing the praises of the government. Since being too critical may lead to the banning of their work, many exercise self-censorship or write books to please the market.

I left Beijing in the late 1980s to live in Hong Kong because, having been blacklisted by the government, I couldn’t publish my works on the mainland. My novella Stick out Your Tongue, which draws on my experience of travelling in Tibet, had been denounced as ‘filthy and shameful’ and banned. In spring 1989 I returned to witness the student-led democratic movement. As the government brutally cracked down on the protest, my brother went into a coma after an accident. I just couldn’t find the words to describe the sense of shock and despair I felt then; it forced me to see the evil face of the regime.

My brother finally woke up after six months. I went back to Hong Kong until the handover in 1997. Then I moved to London. When I make trips back to China I am often struck how people seem to have forgotten about ‘4 June’. The whole of society, increasingly money-oriented, seems to have slipped into a coma. I spent 10 years writing Beijing Coma, exploring the double tragedies that took place in 1989. I want to wake people up from this vegetative state.

I divide my time between London and Beijing. I am trying to persuade my family to spend more time in China. It’s no fun to be in exile. I can’t even figure out the basic 26 letters, let along operate in English. I often feel that although I’ve found the sky of freedom above my head, I’ve lost the soil I stand on. I need to be back in my motherland, where I can find inspirations.

I am concerned as to whether the government will let me back in after the publication of Beijing Coma in China later this year. But I have to speak the truth. My next book is a novel about the cost of the inhuman family-planning policy. But it is not just books. I openly criticise this dictatorial regime in my articles and interviews or whenever I can. If we don’t, it will never change. And I want to remind people; when a country forgets its past, it will have no future.

Cutting the Curtain

Today marks the 20th anniversary of an event that symbolised the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain, leading within a few months to the end of communism in Eastern Europe. On June 27, 1989, an image made its way around the world. It showed Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (right) and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock using bolt cutters to nip holes in a barbed wire fence, putting a symbolic end to a physical and psychological boundary of which by then there was little left.

Hungary had begun to dismantle the Iron Curtain nearly two months earlier — partly because border guards said it was in such poor condition that even small animals were setting off false alarms along the electrified fence. With most of it already gone, officials had trouble finding even a small section of the Iron Curtain for Horn and Mock’s staged photo opportunity with wire cutters.

Pictures of the event were published around the world and inspired tens of thousands of East Germans to leave their country, find temporary refuge in Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia and wait for an opportunity to travel to West Germany.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, hundreds of East Germans fled to Austria at the occasion of the ‘Pan-European Picnic’ near Sopron in Hungary.

By the end of the summer, thousands of East German ‘tourists’ were living in tents on the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest and in several other locations around the city, including church yards and the site of a communist youth camp. After allowing some East Germans to leave for West Germany via Austria in August and then some more a few weeks later, Hungary finally decided to let all East Germans out from September 11, 1989.

Within two months, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany’s reunification was formalized in October 1990.

Beijing Coma

I’ve just finished reading Ma Jian’s monumental novel of the Tiananamen Square protest, Beijing Coma. ‘ History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, said Stephen Daedelus in Ulysses. That could be the epigraph for this novel of which has its central character Dai Wei, lying in a coma, conscious but paralyzed, since he was shot in the head near Tiananmen Square on the terrible night of 4 June 1989. Trapped in Dai Wei’s mind, the novel alternates between his childhood in the cultural revolution and involvement in the 1989 student movement, and China’s transformation in the decade from 1989 to the millennium, as he overhears it from his bed in his mother’s apartment.

Beijing Coma appeared immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. As such, it is not only a powerful novel but also an important political statement. Ma Jian has made his intentions clear in a preface included in the Chinese edition, where he states that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: “Inside Dai Wei,” he writes, “there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.” As Ma Jian himself has said, for the Chinese ‘remembering has become a crime’.

The major part of the novel consists of drama-documentary style scenes from the weeks leading up to and the days during the occupation of Tiananmen Square. There’s a huge cast of characters (including at one point Ma Jian himself), and an enormous attention to details of the organisation and daily routines of life in the Square.What comes across from this account is the disorganisation of the student movement, conflicts over its aims and tactics and the emergence of opportunistic or extremist leaders. Nevertheless there’s always a sense of the immense weight of history that rests on this generation’s shoulders. who believe, against all odds, that some good can emerge from the wreckage of their childhoods during the cultural revolution and the terrible losses of their parents’ generation.

The intensity of the intertwined narratives increases as their ends draw closer: the massacre itself, with Dai Wei shot in the head, and, lying in a waking coma 12 years later, as the heart is ripped out of his neighbourhood in Beijing to make way for the Bird’s Nest stadium and other Olympic developments.

Dai Wei has discovered that most of his friends who survived the aftermath of Tiananmen Square have fully embraced the motto of the Deng Xiaoping era: ‘To get rich is glorious’. His first girlfriend, now in property development, has bought his mother’s building so that it can be torn down as part of Beijing’s redevelopment in preparation for the Olympics. Driven insane by her own imprisonment after a brief flirtation with Falun Gong, Dai Wei’s mother refuses to budge.

You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning. But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?’


Remembering Poland June 4, 1989

Tadeusz Mazowiecki: first speech as Prime Minister, 24 August 1989.

Today also marks the 20th anniversary of the nearly-free elections that broke communist power in Poland and which triggered political revolution across east-central Europe in 1989.  I think it’s worth quoting this passage from Timothy Garton-Ash, writing in 1990 in We The People: The Revolution of ’89 As Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague: written when the events of 1989 were fresh in the mind, and by someone who was there and with a deep understanding of eastern Europe.

By the afternoon, Solidarity leaders knew that they had swept the board: winning outright, on the first round, all but a handful of the seats for which they were competing. Three things happened at once: the communists lost an election; Solidarity won; the communists acknowledged that Solidarity won. That might sound like a syllogism. Yet until almost the day before, anyone who had predicted these events would have been universally considered not a logician but a lunatic. Moreover, the three things, while logically related, were also separate and distinct.

First, and above all, the communists lost. They did not lose power. They still had the army, the police, the Party apparatus and the nomenklatura. But they lost the vote. While virtually all the Solidarity candidates got through on the first round, most of the Party coalition candidates had to go through to a run-off in the second round on 18 June…

Secondly, Solidarity won. Solidarity won not against the Party, but also against many quite well-known, even distinguished counter-candidates: successful managers, television personalities, representatives of more radical opposition groups, and, most formidably Christian Democrats enjoying the explicit support of senior churchmen…

The third thing that happened was, in its way, almost as remarkable. The Party told the truth. On the Monday evening, when the first results were known, the spokesman for the Central Committee, Jan Bisztyga, appeared on the television evening news, sitting side by side with Solidarity’s Janusz Onyzszkiewicz, and Mr Bisztyga said: ‘The elections had a plebiscitary character and Solidarity won a clear majority.’…

Sunday, 4 June 1989 was a landmark not only in the post-war history of Poland, not merely in the history of Eastern Europe, but in the history of the communist world. Yet as they plunged into fevered discussions, negotiations and late-night cabals, the reaction of Solidarity leaders was a curious mixture of exaltation, incredulity and alarm. Alarm at the new responsibilities that now faced them — the problems of success — but also a sneaking fear that things could not continue to go so well. That fear was heightened by the news from China, for the massacre of students demonstrating for democracy on Tiananmen Square occurred on the same day. It was an uncanny experience to watch, with a group of Polish opposition journalists, on the very afternoon of the election, the television pictures from Peking. Martial law. The tanks. The tear-gas. Corpses carried shoulder-high. We had been here before: in Gdañsk, in Warsaw.

As Solidarity leaders began to engage in real politics, with all its evasions, compromises and half-truths, many had mixed feelings. There was more than a touch of nostalgia for the simple truths and moral clarities of the martial law period. One might passionately wish Poland to have ‘normal’ politics. But it was quite another thing to watch your own friends starting to behave like normal politicians. Yet what is the alternative? Came the answer: ‘Tiananmen Square.’

One of the most famous and powerful images of the Solidarity campaign was the combination of this iconic American figure (Gary Cooper in the western movie, “High Noon”) with Solidarity text and images. This poster hammered home the message that the June 4 elections offered a stark choice between two opponents and would have momentous consequences for Poland. Source: Thomas Sarnecki, “Solidarity Poster – “High Noon 4 June 1989”, Making the History of 1989


Remembering Tiananmen Square

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square…

Watched an excellent film on BBC2  last night in which Kate Adie returned to the scene of one of her most memorable assignments: reporting the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Beijing on the 3rd and 4th June, 1989. She was one of the few Western reporters out on the streets then, and witnessed the killings at close quarters. In the film we saw footage from her reports in 1989, as well as the testimonies of eyewitnesses and victims who she met undercover this spring.

One of the 1989 dissidents Adie spoke to was Liao Yiwu. When the tanks rolled into Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989 and brutally suppressed the students’ pro-democracy movement, Liao Yiwu was living in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Reacting to events, Liao composed a long poem, Massacre, which portrayed, with stark imagery, the killing of innocent students and residents.

Excerpts from Massacre

(translated by Wen Huang) Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice
Represent the mothers to suffocate the children
Represent children to sodomize the fathers
Represent the wives to murder the husbands
Represent the citizens to bomb the city
Open fire, open fire, open fire
Shoot women, students and children
Shoot workers, teachers and venders
Riddle them with bullets
Aiming at those angry faces, shocking faces, contorted faces, despondent faces and tranquil faces
Shoot with abandon
The fleeting beauty of those faces moving toward you like tidal waves
The eternal beauty of those faces heading toward heaven and hell
The beauty of turning humans into beasts
The beauty of seducing, raping and trampling on your fellow citizens
Eliminate beauty
Wipe out the flowers, forest, school campuses, love, and the pure air
Shoot, shoot and shoot…
I feel good and I feel high
Blow up that head
Burn up the hair and the skin
Let the brain erupt
Let the soul gush out
Splash on the bridge, the fence and the street
Splash toward the sky
Blood turned into stars and stars are running
Heaven and earth have turned upside down
Shiny helmets are like stars
Troops are running out of the moon
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
Humans and stars are falling and running
Indistinguishable, which are humans and which are stars
Troops followed them into the cloud, into cracks on the ground…

We live under bright sunlight
But we have lost our eyesight
We find ourselves on a street, so wide
But no one can take a stride
We stand in a crowd, supposed to be loud
But people open their mouth without sound
We are tortured with thirst
But everyone refuses water.
This unprecedented massacre
Survivors are those bastards.

Also featured in the film was Ai Weiwei, the artist who inspired the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium (though he later distanced himself from it and expressed views fiercely critical of the Olympics) and the creator of the Web of Light in last year’s Liverpool Biennial. An outspoken critic of the government, he has never forgiven them for sending his father into exile during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. Weiwei now lives in China and produces a critical blog. Today Chinese censors are blocking Twitter and other online services, but ChinaGeeks reports that Ai Weiwei’s blog is still up and have translated his latest entry:

Ai Weiwei: Let Us Forget

Let us forget about June 4th, forget this ordinary day. Life has taught us, under totalitarianism, every day is the same. Every day in a totalitarian society is one day, there is no ‘other day’, no ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. We no longer need partial truth, we don’t need partial justice or partial fairness.

Without freedom of speech, without freedom of news, without freedom of elections, we are not people, we do not need to remember. Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.

Let us forget every instance of persecution, every instance of humiliation; every massacre and every cover-up, every lie, every time we are pushed down, every death. Forget every moment of suffering, then forget every moment of forgetting. This is all just so that they, like ‘men of honor’, might ridicule us.

Forget those soldiers who fired on civilians, those students whose bodies were crushed by the treads of tanks, the whistle and scream of bullets and blood on big streets and in the alleyways; a city and a Square without tears. Forget the interminable lies, the rulers hoping everyone has forgotten, forget their cowardess, their evil and ineptitude. We must forget, for they must be forgotten. Only when they’ve been forgotten can [we] exist. For the sake of existing, let us forget.

The report referred to the formation of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by over 303 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in China. The Charter calls for changes to improve human rights in China, including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule.

The photo of the anonymous Tank Man taken in 1989 by Jeff Widener, then a 33-year-old American Associated Press picture editor based in Bangkok, from the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile away through a 400mm lens. The still and motion photography of the man standing alone before a line of tanks reached international audiences overnight. Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin also captured the image.

The Tank Man’s protest

Kate Adie’s BBC reports 1989

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: documentary about the Tiananmen protests, part 1