May 16, 2009 | Category: China
[Originally written for my "Reporter's Notebook," i.e., blog, at GlobalPost]
China watchers have been abuzz all day with news of a forthcoming book, “Prisoner of the State,” based on tapes secretly recorded by Zhao Ziyang, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party who was stripped of power and placed under house arrest after opposing the military crackdown in Tian’anmen Square in 1989.
Media large and small have greeted the book with blanket converage, including a fulsome review by Paul Mooney in the Far Eastern Economic Review and an impressive presentation of the tape recordings (with transcripts in Chinese and English) on the Washington Post website. While some in China will surely try to label the book a hoax, the tapes appear to be authentic.
[For those dismayed at the attention the book has received, suffice it to say that Zhao is considered a mensch by many who followed his career (no small feat for a Chinese government official) and there was considerable worry after he died that he had taken his insights to the grave.]
There’s no point in re-hashing all that’s been written about the book already. But I feel compelled to note it here because we are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square crackdown (June 4) and Zhao—or rather, Zhao’s death—is what first started me thinking seriously about how the event is remembered, and not remembered, inside China itself.
Zhao died in January of 2005, apparently after suffering multiple strokes while under house arrest. I recall it vividly because the day after he died I found myself sitting in a classroom with several Chinese journalists on the UC Berkeley campus, listening to a lecture on media in China. One of the journalists was slightly older and visbly shaken by the news. It emerged he had been on the square, a college student protesting for democracy, in 1989. When the professor asked him to offer his thoughts on Zhao, he made to talk, then covered his face and offered a muffled apology.
The instructor next turned to the younger journalists and asked them for their thoughts. Silence.
Finally, one of them spoke up, saying, “I’m not really sure why people here think it is such a big deal.”
These were not your average Chinese journalists. They were some of the top reporters from some of the country’s most daring publications—reporters who, had they been old enough in 1989, very likely would have been marching with the students under banners calling for press freedom. But they were not old enough in 1989. And while they knew as much or more about the episode as any American their age, they didn’t accord it the same significance.
An old official, maybe a good old offical, had died. That was it.
In subsequent conversations with young people in China, I’ve found the same thing: A tendency to view the protests and crackdown with a kind of clinical ambivalence. It was a turning point, to be sure, but nothing to get emotionally worked up about. This is not wholly the result of ignorance or propaganda: Any Chinese teenager with a reasonable grasp of Internet filter workarounds (which is to say, nearly all of them) can access Western news reports and documentaries on the subject. A fair number have. And yet, many still refuse to buy the notion that the protests were a good thing, or even a momentous thing. (Others have noted the same phenomenon.)
Coincidentally, I was talking with a Beijing friend last night about the legacy of 1989 for Chinese people and what, if anything, the older generations are telling their children about it. When the news about Zhao Ziyang’s book came out this morning, my friend, who’s 30, sent an email about one night nineteen years ago when she was lighting off fireworkers with her father. The firework casings were made of old newspapers:
There was enough scrap for me to tell they were all about how anti-revolutionary Zhao was and how Chinese people despised him. So i asked my dad if he was a bad man. My dad said “he’s not a bad man and don’t read this newspaper!”
They didn’t talk much about Zhao or Tian’anmen after that.
As of this writing, the Zhao tape excerpts on the Washington Post website and another set of excerpts on the New York Times site are both still accessible in China. It might be China’s Internet authorities haven’t gotten around to blocking them. Or it might mean they’re not all that worried.