David Burchell: The uprising China would have us forget

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr David Burchell is senior lecturer in politics and history at the Penrith campus of the University of Western Sydney.]

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.

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...

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