Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Jasmine Revolution that did not reach Tiananmen Square

There was one brief period in my life, in my early life, when I understood what it means not to have the freedom of expression.  I was barely into my teenage and I knew I hated the very idea of government clamping down on that glorious freedom.

It was when federal rule was imposed as a result of a declaration of national emergency.  The prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and her minions--especially her second son, Sanjay Gandhi--turned India into a police state.  One of my favorite magazines, Thuglak, carried blank spaces in its pages--the blank resulting from the government censors axing out paragraphs that, one would assume, were critical of the government.

A fearful life was not worth it even though trains ran on time and workers actually worked.  It became the beginnings of the doubts about the communist ideas that so much fascinated me, though it took me a few more years to completely rid myself of the red within.

A little more than a decade later, I, like hundreds of millions of others on this planet, watched transfixed the protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.  Pro-democracy protests by students who were in my age cohort.  The rawness of the emotions!

Recalling the protests, Nicholas Kristof writes:
A quarter-century has passed. The bullet holes in the buildings along the Avenue of Eternal Peace have been patched, and history similarly sanitized....
The great Chinese writer Lu Xun once wrote, about an earlier massacre: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood.”
I have to remind myself that it has been 25 years since those protests.  Twenty-five years!

Individual freedom is way too valuable for me to give up.  I empathize with those who yearn for it.  When the Arab Spring spread, I hoped that the protests in Tunisia and others in the Arab world would reach China and trigger a Jasmine Revolution.  It never happened, of course.

If you can read this blog post, tweet, update your status on Facebook, or even yell out loud that your government is fucked up, those are all evidence that you--and I--have freedoms that did not come easily.  A great many made this possible for us, and often they paid for it by suffering torturous deaths.  For now, it might seem as if the deaths of the Tiananmen protesters was all in vain.  Not by any means.  For one, it reminded millions like me that freedom is precious.  Further, as Kristof writes:
As China prospers and builds an educated middle class, demands for participation will grow. I’ve covered democracy movements around the world, from Poland to South Korea, and I’m confident that someday, at Tiananmen Square, I’ll be able to pay my respects at a memorial to those men and women killed that night.
I can only hope that we are not far from that day in the future.

Here is the late poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
Speak, by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith's shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, 'cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.


Ramesh said...

Yup. Tiananmen square represents the low point of the Chinese governance model. Even today, around the anniversary day, its such an oppressive police presence in the square and around the Forbidden city that its best not to go there at this time, even if you support what happened in 1979 !

The tragedy is that such a heavy handed action was not even required. If Deng Xiaoping had allowed a little more leeway to Zhao Ziyang, he would have quelled the protest without the resort to force. Unfortunately the politics at that time made Deng go with Li Peng - a thuggish goon who then became the Prime Minister.

This is the problem in totalitarian regimes that can only understand black and white. Negotiation, diffusing tension, etc don't come to them naturally.

The one blemish in an otherwise epic political life of Deng Xiaoping.

A much greater tragedy than Tiananmen Square is what happened during the crushing of Falun Gong. Nobody knows how many died, but probably many times the casualties of Tiananmen Square. It was done away from the TV cameras (by then the Communist Party had learnt). That is a tragedy unfortunately not remembered at all. This was in the post Deng era - Jiang Zemin was the chief culprit.

Sriram Khé said...

Hmmm ... methinks you are being way too kind to Deng.
As I recall from the narratives and commentaries I have read or watched,Deng had quashed an earlier democracy movement in the late 1970s. And, in 1989, he ruled that the army had to be brought in and for martial law in the capital. In my books, this is more than a mere blemish.

And, yes, the Falun Gong was during my California years. A couple of acquaintances were even trying to get a petition drive going so that we could then urge our rep and senator to say something ...

Mao's killing of tens of millions, and then who knows how many killed, imprisoned, tortured in the post-Mao years ... Bloody tragedy.

Sriram Khé said...

From an op-ed in the NY Times:

"On the surface the government appears to be stronger than ever, with over 80 million Communist Party members, millions of soldiers, and nearly $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves — yet it is actually so fragile that its leaders lose sleep when a few scholars meet and talk in a private home."

Sriram Khé said...

Here is yet another commentary from the NYRB (June 5, 2014 issue) on Deng's role in this horrific massacre:

" Until now, most observers have assumed that the students caused a split in the leadership, with Deng siding with hard-liners against Zhao, the reformist Party secretary who had some sympathy for the students. This was also Bao’s view until he read the memoirs of then premier Li Peng, himself a hard-liner, who argued that Deng had become frustrated with Zhao’s liberal tendencies much earlier. It’s hard to know if this interpretation is correct, but Lim is right to highlight it, showing how Zhao had been doomed from the start:

“This had nothing to do with the students,” Bao told me. He believes that Deng used the students as a tool to oust his designated successor. “He had to find a reason. The more the students pushed, the more of a reason Deng Xiaoping had. If the students all went home, then Deng Xiaoping wouldn’t have had a reason.”

This raises the question, much discussed over the past quarter-century, of whether the students could have avoided the massacre by dispersing a few days earlier when the military action seemed inevitable. In reviewing the material, however, one gets the feeling that not only Zhao’s fall but the massacre itself was almost inevitable. Deng had consistently opposed any political dissent and he seemed determined to send a message once and for all that outright opposition would not be tolerated."

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