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Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Part Two
Liao Yiwu, June 2, 2017
(Continued from Part One)
LIAO: I’ve heard some people say that if they had known blood was going to be shed, they would not have resisted.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was the student’s Command Center that turned us over [to the authorities]. The guy who headed the UAA Guards was called Guo Haifeng. He told us his name himself — you have to give him credit for being pretty open and candid. He said that the UAA standing committee members took a vote, with the majority deciding to send us off to the Public Security Bureau of the Eastern Quarter Branch Tiananmen office. He had strongly opposed the decision. After an impassioned debate, he was overruled and, what’s more, charged with the task of delivering us into the hands of the police, since he was the UAA Secretariat. I assured him it was alright and, cleaning out my pockets, handed him for safekeeping the two-thousand yuan we had left. He wrote me a receipt on the spot, and he asked the police to provide proof that we had been dropped off. We got into the patrol car in a downpour. The police put the handcuffs on us. Guo stood in the rain for a long time.
LIAO: Could you have escaped at some point during the uproar?
YU ZHIJIAN: I definitely could have slipped away starting when we did the deed at 2:30 p.m. until the cops got their hands on us in the early evening. Not sure about the other two. But why should we run away? We were mentally prepared to shoulder the consequences.
LIAO: What next?
LIAO: The next day, we were transferred to a detention facility. The entire place was empty. There was only one other guy in my cell, an inveterate thief. The guy took everything at his own pace and stayed put; he even asked me to help him to get a drink of water. I really wanted to keep abreast of the movement, but I was completely cut off. I think it would be fair to say that the entire judicial and enforcement system of Beijing was half paralyzed. I barely even saw the wardens in that place. They must have all been watching the power struggle at the highest echelons of the Party to see where the chips were going to fall, to know which way to turn.
LIAO: No prisoner could have ranked higher when it came to incurring imperial displeasure than your gang. You weren’t interrogated overnight? What the..?
YU ZHIJIAN: For the two weeks before and after the massacre, never mind interrogation, no one even bothered with us. I spent the day just lying around. God, my bones hurt from sleeping so much. Thank goodness I am pretty lazy and laid-back by nature; I’d perfected my sleeping technique early on, and I don’t overthink when I run into problems. If the sky is going to cave in, and you keep holding on to hope that it won’t, all that stressing isn’t going to get you anywhere.
The first wave arrived bright and early on June 4. All dedicated youth and college students, averaging no more than twenty. By June 5, so many people came in they filled up the empty cell. The wardens kept stuffing them in after we reached capacity. It’s a good thing people are made of flesh and can expand and contract.
We were formally arrested on June 15. The paralyzed judicial and enforcement system, like me, woke up from a dream and recovered, at a moment’s notice, its vicious capacity to churn at high speed. Wanted notices and announcements went up everywhere, and checkpoints for sweeps flourished. The red terror was comparable to 2003’s SARS epidemic outbreak, when you would have trouble spotting anyone on the street. The sterilization of thought, it turns out, isn’t that different from sterilizing the body.
LIAO: I’m picking up some Taoist vibes here — the state of letting things take their course.
YU ZHIJIAN: In the middle of the night on June 3, gunshots went off outside the walls of the detention center. It was like someone was sautéing peas and woke me up. Fuck! They finally opened fire! These bastards only dogs would fuck went and opened fire! My premonition, Dongyue’s premonition, all came to pass. As they say, political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. This is how the CCP rose to power. Students and intellectuals had no chance in this game against seasoned and murderous players. I could not sleep that night and strolled around my cell until darkness began to lift. Anxiety had all my muscles twitching involuntarily. The thief, very nicely, talked to me about it: What can you do about our country plunging into chaos? Agonizing won’t help any. It’s not like a bursting bladder – just let it out and you’re done with it.
Given the unrest, the Beijing police were not to be trusted either, so the detention and intake facilities were all taken over by the army. The soldiers, coming fresh from airtight brainwashing, bared their teeth and claws and no rules bound them. They thrashed both students and residents within an inch of their lives. When I was getting turned over to the detention center after our arrest, a soldier dangled me like I was a newborn chick and threw me several feet away toward the military jeep. As that wasn’t enough for him, he raised his automatic rifle and whacked my face with the butt, and I spewed out a mouthful of blood. You see this false tooth over here? That’s the replacement for the one I lost then and there.
LIAO: This detention center you were at, was it the Tortoise Building?
YU ZHIJIAN: Yes. Lots of Tiananmen ‘insurgents’ were locked up there.
LIAO: And that includes you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Since we didn’t get around to starting fires and blocking military convoys, we had to content ourselves with being “rapists of our Great Leader.” After five months’ of protracted proceedings in the Tortoise Building, a secret trial was held in the basement of the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
LIAO: No sunshine for this trial, I see.
YU ZHIJIAN: The fuckin’ thing was just going through the motions. The crime was there for everyone to see, and what defense we had no one was around to hear. It was over in under two hours. The sentencing was postponed for a week, and then we received the sentencing document.
LIAO: As perfunctory as that?
YU ZHIJIAN: I forgot what statements Decheng and I made. Dongyue’s was the most intriguing. He argued that we had no political end in mind, we were merely finishing a piece of artwork.
LIAO: Performance art?
YU ZHIJIAN: You got it. That’s what Dongyue called it. And the greatest of this century to boot. People would only truly comprehend the full scope of its meaning after years and years.
LIAO: As a piece of political pop art that ended an entire era, personally I think it will become part of the art history of our time.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Laughing). This one went right by the prosecutor and the judge. They couldn’t make head or tail of what Dongyue was saying and, looking like asses, blew their top. They seriously thought he was messing with them. Even the defense lawyer dropped the act and kept interrupting him.
LIAO: That’s priceless. The mood in that courtroom is clearly a part of the performance art by extension.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Chuckles).
LIAO: Did you try to figure out the outcome before that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Everyone was bored in prison, so folks spent a lot of time analyzing our case and peering into crystal balls. You’ve got phrases coming at you like “premeditated and calculated violation, doing the dirty job willfully in the face of great odds,” “with extremely blah-blah means and extremely blab-blah consequences.”
Anyone familiar with the Criminal Code can tell you, when the prosecuting docs specify “especially grave crime and especially vicious particulars,” your head is hanging by a hair. (Sighs). Waiting for death was hard. I even wrote several last notes, for my older sister, my baby brother, and my parents too. Looking back, I was a bit of a wuss: causing them hurt, how sorry I was, hoping they’ll put this unfilial son clear out of their minds, belief that posterity would come to understand what we did and how we had stood up and done something we could stand by, and so on.
LIAO: Somewhat contradictory.
YU ZHIJIAN: You thought one thing one day and something else the next. It was no small thing – confronting death and the empty abyss of it. Terror when you wake and more of the same when you fall asleep. And tears flowed too. But I did not regret doing what I did.
LIAO: When the sentencing document was handed down, you were relieved nonetheless….?
YU ZHIJIAN: The stuffing just about went out of me. What novel did I read this in? The death knell of dictatorship sounds in my ear already! Liberty is before me and all I have to do is to reach for it.
LIAO: Maybe Dongyue was right. That completed this unparalleled performance.
YU ZHIJIAN: I got life and spent 11 years and 6 months in jail. Decheng got 16 years and did 8 years and 8 months. Dongyue got 20 years and, clocking in at 16 years and 9 months, was actually the last one they let out in the end.
LIAO: You didn’t appeal?
YU ZHIJIAN: We didn’t have the death-wish. Year end, 1989, we were sent back to Hunan and kept in the prison in Hengyang.
LIAO: Were you beaten in there? Kept in solitary confinement?
YU ZHIJIAN: Dongyue suffered a lot of torture. One time, after the cops took him apart, a bunch of us protested with a three-day hunger strike. But the authorities refused to apologize. I’d never been put in solitary confinement, but half of the time before 1992 I was locked away under the Disciplinary Team. Pretty horrifying.
LIAO: You were acting up in there?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was new and didn’t have a good grip on how things stood. I told everyone I ran into about the people who died in the massacre, how autocratic and vicious the Communist Party was, hardly stopping to catch my breath. To top it off, I didn’t do the work, all caught up in analyzing the development of current events with other political prisoners. The authorities gave me repeated warnings, which fell on deaf ears, so they announced I was now under “Strict Discipline.” I was beaten up five or six times. This one time the two cops grabbed me and hammered away with two tasers. I fended them off just a tad and then went limp. Fists and steel toe boots flashed like lightening, and had me rolling on the ground. I was wearing quite a decent outfit; after the beating, the whole thing was in rags. I lied there without a stitch on. I had no fractured bones, so you can say they held back, given how brutal all Hunan prisons were.
Eventually I wised up and didn’t fight back at every goddamn turn. But there was one point I wouldn’t give way on: I was a political prisoner and RTL was not for me. After a while they also made sure an experienced inmate would be there to team up with me, set up the master-apprentice connection. The most I ever did was to stand by and watch the guy work. And then I would huddle in a corner, or chat up other prisoners.
LIAO: Were you held in Hengyang Prison the entire time?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was later transferred to Hunan No. 3 Prison, also known as Yongzhou Prison; Yu Dongyue was transferred to the No. 1 Prison, which specializes in locking up politicals. It’s got a reputation as the most savage prison in Hunan.
After 1992 I heard about Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” and I really started analyzing it, concluding that, basically, China has entered the equivalent of the Soviet’s pre-Brezhnev era. We’re in for a long, dark ride. Around that time I also started feeling dark, and time passed slow.
But for all that, we still have to get by. I told the jailers that my specialty is teaching — so they took me out of the steel workshop and put me in a classroom. On a regular basis I gave literature classes to inmates, all the way until I was released.
LIAO: I guess that counts as a silver lining.
YU ZHIJIAN: Of the three, Lu Decheng was the luckiest. He fled from the Yunnan border to Thailand, even though he risked being picked up and sent back. But what Yu Dongyue went through was too cruel. On the day he was released, I called a few democrat friends to go pick him up. It never occurred to me that he’d be like a broken block of wood, completely another person from the radiant and joyful Yu Dongyue that I knew from before. I was yelling “Dong, dong, what’s going on? Don’t you recognize even me?” No reaction. When he did react, he’d suddenly drop to his knees and clutch my legs, yelling “spare my life! spare me!” I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. The June 4 incident is just too much. The historians and political scientists can worry about a comprehensive examination of it. What I’ve never been able to shake all this time has been Yu Dongyue. I’ve always felt that I’ve the one who ruined him.
LIAO: I read some reports on the internet about what happened. People in China and abroad have been raising funds for his medical care. How is he doing now? He doesn’t even recognize you? That’s incredible.
YU ZHIJIAN: He doesn’t even know himself. If you ask him, “Who is Yu Dongyue?” he just gives you a blank stare. He can’t recall.
YU ZHIJIAN: Nobody knows what kind of hell and trauma he went through in jail. There’s no saying they didn’t give him some kind of drug in there. You know how even today so many people worship Mao still; a lot of taxis have Mao’s portrait hanging over the driver’s seat as a talisman.
LIAO: Will how he lost his mind stay an unsolved mystery?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to say. There were so many other prisoners in Yongzhou with him, it shouldn’t be that hard to find out who the perpetrators were. Just recently, Public Security put me away in criminal detention for 32 days on charges of incitement to subversion, after I published a handful of ‘reactionary’ pieces on the internet. After I came out, I took a short break for a couple of days, then went to visit Dongyue at his home 70 kilometers outside the township. Well, his mood is a bit more stable now since he’s been out so long, so he doesn’t kneel in front of whoever happens to walk through the door anymore. But his eyes are still dazed, and you can’t talk loud around him, or he gives a shiver and falls on his knees again. His family is constantly trying to help him get his memory back, talking about so-and-so from what year, and this or that neighbor. For a moment it would look like he realizes who he is, but then he’d turn around and forget right away. It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez — all the characters live by themselves in this dreamed-up space. Dongyue used to think the world of that book; none of us knew he would one day end up in it.
Occasionally I’d take him with me when people in the movement met up. Look at this photo, there, the one in the middle, that’s him. Even when photos were being taken he’d be muttering along, and it’s like there is absolutely nothing in front of him, and he’s aware of no one around him.
LIAO: Quite a festive-looking picture you’ve got there. Who are all these people?
YU ZHIJIAN: My wedding. A lot of democrats came to celebrate.
LIAO: Congratulations! How do you plan to make your living now that you’re married?
YU ZHIJIAN: I’m not sure. To sum it up, we’ve got no house, no pension, insurance and such. Chugging along on luck. Our primary source of income right now is tutoring. The number of my students goes up and down so it’s not stable. Average income each month is less than a thousand yuan.
LIAO: Have you ever thought about going abroad?
YU ZHIJIAN: What for?
LIAO: Freedom. This country is run by such a band of thugs.
YU ZHIJIAN: But at the end of the day this is the land where I was born and raised. I can’t go through with breaking away.
LIAO: You have a great attitude.
YU ZHIJIAN: No one can rob me of my inner freedom. As far as things at home go, you’re always going to rub each other the wrong way here and there. But romantic love, the love of your family and friends — these are our eternal verities. I’m slowly adapting to the world out there. We’re all average nobodies who have to roll with the punches. But compared to the other average nobodies we’ve got our June Fourth complex that you can’t rub out, so we still have the impulse to take on the fears the government hangs over everyone’s heads.
LIAO: What is your biggest fear?
YU ZHIJIAN: The future. I don’t see a future for our people, our society. Will the price we paid, the hot blood that spurred us on, dwindle to nothing, a mere joke? Is our fight to stamp the memory of those who come after us a self-indulgent wish, doomed to failure? It may well be that the very fact we ever existed inconveniences those who are feted and successful whenever and wherever. (Sighs). Let’s let it go. Got to get by first. Thinking too hard about these things gives you a headache.
LIAO: Are you planning to have a child?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to afford. Not in the cards for now.
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989
Liao Yiwu, June 1, 2017
On the afternoon of May 23, 1989, sitting at home in a small town in Sichuan, poet Liao Yiwu watched in awe scenes from Beijing just after “three hooligans from Hunan” threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong, sized 6 by 4.6 meters, hanging on Tiananmen (the Gate of Celestial Peace). Increasingly astonished and impressed, once the full significance of the act sunk in Liao Yiwu came to regard it as the most singular event during the 1989 movement — second perhaps only to the Tank Man. Liao himself, a rebellious poet publishing in underground magazines during the 1980s, would be imprisoned too for writing and performing a long poem titled “The Massacre.”
On a sultry and airless day in Changsha, June 2005, Liao Yiwu interviewed Yu Zhijian (余志坚), one of the “three hooligans from Hunan.” The other two were Yu Dongyue (喻东岳) and Lu Decheng (鲁德成). In 1989, Yu Zhijian was sentenced to life in prison and eventually served 11 years and 6 months; Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 16 years and 9 months; Lu Decheng was sentenced 16 years in prison and served 8 years and 8 months. Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue fled China in 2008, and eventually settled in Indianapolis as political refugees. Before them, Lu Decheng settled in Canada.
When the student movement began in Beijing, 1989, Yu Zhijian was in his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan Province. The year earlier he had resigned from his teaching job in the countryside, and since then had been loafing with his childhood friend and neighbor Lu and college classmate Yu Dongyue. Our excerpt of the interview begins from this point.
In memory of Yu Zhijian, who died on March 29, 2017, in Indianapolis.
— The Editors
LIAO: They both had jobs, didn’t they?
YU ZHIJIAN: Lu was a bus driver and Yu was a reporter at Liuyang Daily. We were cut from the same cloth, blabbed day and night about literature. Yu was ahead of me in putting a lot of stock in modernism and avant-garde ambiguity, which was all the rage. For two months or so, they didn’t bother going home and crashed at our place every night, crowded as it was. Looking back, it was a wonderful time. When Hu Yaobang died on April 22, our literary zeal was sublimated overnight and we answered the call: “Chinese people are now in the direst crisis.” A lot of friends came together and agreed that we absolutely had to organize a memorial for Hu, the great man from our hometown.
I was the one who wrote all the slogans in traditional calligraphy, using an ink stone and ink brush: In memoriam for Hu, constitutional amendment, democracy, freedom, anti-corruption – it just about summed up my lifelong political aspirations. In the middle of the night, like the hero-bandits from the novel Water Margin, we plastered several blocks with our revolutionary – or counterrevolutionary as the government saw it – slogans. At daybreak, would you believe it, the residents of Liuyang City were reading the stuff in droves and talking about it in whispers. It’s a bit like Lu Xun’s story where the unconfirmed but true rumors about the impending fall of China’s last dynasty bring a claustrophobic village to a boil. We hotheads stayed back and watched it all happen, with an ineffable sense of excitement and impending doom.
We were all fired up in our role as activists. Talked about what was happening in Beijing that day, every day. Didn’t eat much but were more alert than ever. We tried to get the students at Liuyang Normal College to start a street protest, but our town was too small and the people too conservative. We may all have been hopping around like the rebellious Monkey King from the classic tale, but nothing came of our agitating.
LIAO: That’s why you decided to go to Beijing.
YU ZHIJIAN: The hunger strikes began in Tiananmen. And a few students got down on their knees on the steps outside the People’s Congress when they handed in their petition. Complex political games are beyond people like us, but intuitively we weren’t happy with that sort of thing. If they didn’t want to be the docile subjects of a feudal monarch, why did they kneel? An autocratic regime wouldn’t even bother brushing off that sort of concession.
On May 16, after an all-nighter debate on the state of the nation, we three decided to go to Beijing. We were all broke and none of us had ever gone north before to “make revolution.” We took out our wages and it didn’t look enough. The night before we left, I knocked on the door of a classmate who was a private entrepreneur in the electric appliance business. He was generous for the sake of the revolution and forked over a grand — which would be twenty-something times that amount in today’s money, right? The train ticket from Changsha to Beijing cost less than fifty.
LIAO: Very generous indeed.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was part and parcel of our collective fantasy over democracy. Bus drivers along the way to Changsha wouldn’t take our fare when they heard we were on the way to Beijing to show support. When we pulled into Changsha early morning, we headed toward the May First Boulevard and the provincial government buildings to get a read on what was happening. Woa! The student movement in the capital of Hunan was in full swing. The maze of streets was overrun by students and residents. That set our blood boiling, there was no holding back! Given my long legs, I was tasked to go out and buy stationery, and Yu made a giant banner. We occupied the train station plaza, set up our banner, and took turns giving speeches on the most popular themes of the movement: Anti-corruption, change to the political system, amending the Constitution, and opposition to one-party rule. Yu was in charge of taking photos because his camera was made in Japan. He was supposed to use it to cover his beat at Liuyang Daily – in those days you don’t come across a camera like that one every day. I was with him when he bought more rolls of Kodak film than any of us could keep track of. These masterpieces of photography all ended up in court as incontrovertible evidence of his counterrevolutionary incitement to subvert the state.
LIAO: Not that different from my own situation. I manufactured a lot of irrefutable literary evidence against myself.
YU ZHIJIAN: The crowd was milling around us. I, an incompetent teacher whose previous encounters had all been with children under the age of ten in a village classroom, was taking a first crack at “incitement” in public. Fluent and fervent, it was pretty effective, and the worked-up crowd threw money into our makeshift donation box. In pennies and yuan bills, even tens. It was so moving. There were no hundred-yuan bills yet at that time. I remember to this day this one man, stuffing bills into the box with both hands. After only a few hours of incitement the box overflowed.
LIAO: There was so much passionate conviction in those days.
YU ZHIJIAN: We collected more than three thousand yuan. Some students joined our petition group to go to Beijing to support the student movement.
LIAO: How many?
YU ZHIJIAN: Forty, fifty? A big crowd. We got on the express train that had just started operating. It leaves at 9:00 p.m.
LIAO: The train tickets alone would cost a fortune.
YU ZHIJIAN: What could you do? We bought platform passes and rolled in. The train was overflowing with patriotic crowds. We were stuffed into the corridor skin-on-skin. The train conductor checking tickets got the head of the crew to come see us. He was all courtesy: Who is responsible for this group? I said I was. He told me he understood and supported our cause unconditionally, and had us taken to the crew lounge where we could take turns sitting down. We got to the train station the next day and the first thing we did was to unfold our banner – the thing was half as long as a train passenger car. It sure drew attention. Only a few moments after we took off in the direction of Tiananmen, I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of several hundred people materializing behind us. These were mostly students visiting Beijing and looking for a group to belong to. We were more on than ever. “Down with Deng Xiaoping! We want Zhao Ziyang! Freedom, democracy and human rights – Chinese people will stand tall once more!” We were shouting slogans louder and faster than the gongs and drums of folk plays. After just under an hour, we sighted the ramparts of the Forbidden City looming over Tiananmen; until then, we’d only seen it in newspapers. Before we had the chance to “lose ourselves in the sea of the masses,” someone who carried himself like a student leader marched up and told us he was from the Guards of the University Autonomous Association. He commended our group for supporting the cause. “But your slogans are a bit inappropriate; that is to say, extreme. Even the people in the Square are not going this far this thoughtlessly.” Initially that did not go down well with us, but then we thought it through and wanted to make the movement’s needs our priority, so we did as we were told and put away the counterrevolutionary extra-long banner for the time being.
Over the next couple of days, the college students who came with us all found their own student body organizations or other clusters like birds returning to their nests. Our petition group fell apart, leaving only the three of us core members with no pigeonhole to fit into. Our “class categorization as lone vagabonds” was exposed, as they say in Communist social theory.
LIAO: Didn’t take much for that group to fall apart, it looks like.
YU ZHIJIAN: We got into trouble on May 23, so we were only in the middle of everything for five, six days in total. We went to some rallies and called for the abolition of one-party dictatorship and full-blown Westernization in some speeches. Didn’t sleep a whole lot during those few days. At night, when we couldn’t keep going any more, we would roll out a piece of tarp in some underpass or on the sidewalk, snuggle into a military coat, and doze a little. This one morning, I opened my eyes to find a girl, a student, lying asleep on top of me. (Laughs). It was so romantic.
Three quite memorable things happened around this time. A sign saying “Extraordinary Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” was put up over the Great Hall of the People. We went into wanton fantasies over it, as if the utopia of democracy was looming right there in front of our eyes. At the same time, a lot of military helicopters were circling over the square, sometimes flying so low they practically grazed the ramparts of the Forbidden City. They scattered flyers “To the Deluded Masses” calling on everyone to surrender and desist. The exact same way the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty brought his formidable foe to his knees – inundating him and his troops with the songs of their homeland, softening their morale so much they disbanded on their own.
The last thing that sank in the most was how inconsistent the student leaders were in their talks. Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi were running on and on: “Do your best to maintain the order at the Square” – duh. Or, “Residents and workers, return to your posts and normal working routines,” duh. Chai Ling was even acting like some variety-show host on TV, “Thank you, thank you! Thanks for everyone’s support.” All of them carried on as if the students were a privileged group who alone enjoyed the mainline privilege to love our country, and every other social element was only there meddling in what was none of their business and making things worse. What the hell? If it weren’t for everyone else’s support, could the students have lasted? The Communists would have taken them out long ago. The troops were already kicking up their heels in the suburbs, and the students were still busy infighting, holding dialogues, freaking out, stalemating – what was the goddamn use of their play acted composure? Did they think the soldiers, armed to the teeth, were weenies just in town for a visit? What if the army did open fire? The democracy movement was so vast, with tens of millions caught up in it. What made them believe, the handful of lousy babies that they were, that they could stay on top of it and make sure everything wind down smoothly? Bloodshed was breathing down on everyone, and there they were, thwarting their country’s fate with their empty talk. Completely immature.
LIAO: Your intuition was pretty sound.
YU ZHIJIAN: But grassroots folks like us from the provinces had no chance to speak up. We tried getting through the guards to talk to the student leaders, but when the guards saw me acting all aggressive and pent-up, there was no way in hell we could gain access to the Command Headquarters of the square, let alone see the chief. What to do? We turned in a Proposal of Recommendations, and begged and pleaded and stormed until the guards promised to hand it to the leaders. If only “for reference as needed.”
LIAO: Do you remember what the recommendations were?
YU ZHIJIAN: First, University Autonomous Association should declare the Chinese Communist regime illegal in the name of every citizen in the country. Second, the Association ought to call on Beijing and the entire nation to strike. Third: Students and worker guards…oh, wait, I can’t recall off the bat.
LIAO: Didn’t hold back, did you? Was there a response?
YU ZHIJIAN: Nothing. Everything was so chaotic. Maybe they never even gave them the thing to read.
LIAO: That must have sucked for you. But maybe you were too far out.
YU ZHIJIAN: I know. We couldn’t get anywhere.
LIAO: As Confucius says, “Mingle not in projects with a man whose way is not yours.” You could have dusted off the seat of your pants and walked away.
YU ZHIJIAN: No. We’d come all this way to Beijing, and we had to live up to our duty. Yu Dongyue was so upset and saddened that he proposed we self-immolate as a group. We came up with several plans. For example, we could stand on Gold Water Bridge, pour gasoline over ourselves and light it up. The effect was sure to be dramatic. But what goal were we trying to achieve? Should we put out a statement beforehand, or get somebody to notify the country afterwards that our sacrifice was for democracy and freedom, an act of protest against state violence and a wakeup call to the people? But things were stacked against us. If something goes wrong, people would not have understood why we self-immolated. There was even some chance the government would turn our deaths into a smear campaign against the democracy movement.
That would have been pretty senseless. So I proposed that we take action against Mao Zedong’s portrait — the original prototype one — hung on the ramparts of the Forbidden City. Put a symbolic end to the repressive Communist regime. My two friends agreed right away. From midnight to sunrise of the 22nd, we talked over our options. From a distance, it did not look like climbing up to take the portrait would be all that hard. But the square was guarded so closely we would have had better luck getting up to heaven than the walls of the palace. Our eyes ruddy from sleeplessness, the next morning we got hold of a ladder after a lot of to-do, and carried it to the archway beneath the portrait like patients burning up in a high fever. We looked up and you could have knocked us down with a feather. The bastard despot who sat on our heads and had his way with us, who had died years ago – he was out of our reach even when we stand on top of a ladder as tall as several grown men!
We took turns carefully examining the setup. After a lot of hard staring, we finally made it out – the nail on which the portrait hung was as thick as a man’s arm. Which means even if we could set up a high enough ladder and be ready for death and torture worse than death, we still might not be able to take the emperor down with us.
LIAO: Did no one notice you?
YU ZHIJIAN: No one had the time for anyone else. In the tumult of a movement like that, oftentimes each person is marginal and alone, with very little to connect him to it. Of course, it’s something else entirely if you were chosen as the focus of the world’s attention.
LIAO: That’s why it occurred to you to treat the despot to rotten eggs? I was at home in Puling, and saw you guys doing it. I was stunned. I remember the news broadcaster was China Central Television’s Chen Duo, with graying hair, whose voice was shaking — he was that angry.
YU ZHIJIAN: We really had no other way to get to Old Man Mao and that’s how we came up with our lousy scheme. We shopped at the Wangfujing Department Store and bought twenty eggs. At first we thought we could eyeball the distance and pitch the eggs as is, but it didn’t take long for us to realize eggs are too light-colored and the splash would be hard to see. Lucky for us, Dongyue dabbled as a painter. He said let’s make a dark gray from oils and fill the eggs with it.
We took a long time with the preparation and treated it all quite seriously. After buying stationery supplies and paint, we went to the post office to send our last letter to our families. It’s incredible, but I’ve actually forgotten what I wrote to mine; I think I cited a lot of Byron. Lu mulled over what he wrote for a long time. It was tough, pretty emotional — he is an only child. I heard later that when his parents saw the TV broadcast about us they fainted on the spot. I remember bits and pieces from what Dongyue wrote. He had five boys back home — he bound himself to them in brotherhood unto death — and he lied on his belly writing them letters one after the other. He was going to imitate Don Quixote and battle the windmills, and they should see him off like the legendary assassin Jing Ke, whose friends said farewell to him in the chill wind on the banks of the Yi River, never to return, et cetera. Lyrical compositions.
LIAO: People tell me he’s quite gifted in poetry.
YU ZHIJIAN: He wrote doggerel I can still remember: There may be a thousand reasons for you to walk on one side of the street. But there are a thousand and one reasons for you to cross the street and join me!
LIAO: The impulse to cross the line. Lo and behold, you did cross over to the other side.
YU ZHIJIAN: We were so hungry after we finished writing our last words, we took the twenty eggs to a food stall next to the Gold Water Bridge. You spread a flour paste on the pan, add the eggs and sprinkle scallion on top. We stuffed ourselves with too much of this northern-style pancake. The first few batches, fried to a bright gold and smelling delicious, went down real easy — we don’t have them in Hunan. But it got to be too much after a while and we almost threw up.
We then went to the park named after Sun Yat-sen, the man who overthrew the last dynasty, and sat down to put the eggs together, filling the shells with paint and sealing them one by one. Then we spread out calligraphy paper, 1.2 meters long and 80 cm wide, on the ground. This had got to be the gutsiest couplet written in China since 1949. I came up with the words and Dongyue, deep in thought, dashed it off with an ink brush: “An end to five thousand years of despotism / Cult of personality is no more.” The matching slogan was: “Hail Liberty!”
The gun was cocked, so to speak. Dongyue took shots of the banner, and Decheng and I had our photo taken at the gate of the park “for keepsake.” All of it, unfortunately, is now part of the criminal record archives at the Public Security Bureau.
LIAO: You didn’t bequeath the “revolutionary keepsakes” to someone you could trust?
YU ZHIJIAN: We couldn’t think of anyone reliable despite knowing so many people. We divided up the job. I am the tallest so I was in charge of blocking the crowd and making the announcement. Dongyue and Decheng would put up the banner and pitch the eggs. We took our respective positions. I made the first appearance, running to the archway and blocking pedestrians: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Please stop for a moment!” More people came toward us and I could not keep them back, until a few students rushed over to help.
LIAO: Why did they help you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Decheng and I were only 25 or 26, and Dongyue was 22 (he’s a prodigy, and graduated from college at 18.) Based on the way we looked, the students thought we were their peers. I was just getting a grip on things when my buddies unfurled the banner with a swoosh and put it up. They were a bit rushed and the thing was a little skewed. Those two then immediately ran backwards, aimed for the best angle of elevation and began pitching. We had thought twenty eggs would be plenty to deface the entire giant portrait, but the two dummies were so lame: the eggs went flying and missed their mark every which way. They didn’t have enough strength in their arms, and the egg would fall halfway through. I couldn’t do anything except watch it happen. I started cussing: What the hell do you think you’re doing? They didn’t end up losing face entirely though. Three out of twenty made it, and graced the despot’s double-chin with a smattering of pockmarks.
LIAO: How long did that take?
YU ZHIJIAN: The whole act took five or six minutes but the eggs took only two or three. It was like a dream, and no one there realized what was happening. They were out of it, surprised, and some people clapped their hands and cheered without thinking it through. When they came to, the deed was done. Walls of people closed in on the “criminals,” and someone reprimanded: “What did you do? Where are you from? Who is behind this?” The UAA guards also rushed over. I was standing to the side and could only see the top of their heads. I overheard lots of jabbering, accusatory voices: “Your motivation is malicious. You intend to destroy everyone, destroy this patriotic movement of ours.” Decheng, sporting the color of the palette from all the broken eggs, was fighting to be heard: “Outlawing Mao’s portrait is both just and legal. We didn’t do anything wrong!” I applauded from far away and spoke up: “That’s right!”
The student standing next to me was having none of it, pointed his finger at me and said, “You’d better not interrupt if it’s none of your business.” I said: “Of course it’s my business. We’re in this together.” That clinched the matter and I was snapped up for good, too. We all got taken to the Command Center.
LIAO: Did you get beaten up?
YU ZHIJIAN: Just pushed around and jostled. Both the people for and against us were in just for the heck of it anyway. The student guards were, when you come right down to it, protecting us. We finally reached the Center set up at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — the movement’s nucleus we had racked our brains for a way to get into before all of this happened. There we finally were, even if the way we burst on the scene was a bit less dignified than we would have preferred.
We sat under the memorial with hanging heads, forlorn, waiting to see what would be done with us. The student leaders took forever discussing what to do. Finally, plainclothes agents showed up, circled the place, then walked in to demand that they turn us over. The students, quite diplomatically, refused. Right then a lady inched up to me when no one was looking and whispered: “Things are turning out really badly for you all; you’d better look sharp and get away as soon as you can.” I shook my head, “We will live and die together. I won’t walk by myself.” She paused for a moment before saying, “Then why don’t I give you a telephone number. If you need any help, call this number and look for me.” I agreed. I was young and had a good memory, so she only had to say it once for me to remember it.
LIAO: You didn’t ask her who she was?
YU ZHIJIAN: I did not, and I doubt she would have told me anyway. But the way she looked at me, I think she really wanted to help me, so I would like to make sure to mention it now.
LIAO: What happened with all that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Too many things happened and I forgot both about her and the number. Even if I am to stand face to face with her now I doubt I’d be able to recognize her.
LIAO: And then what happened?
YU ZHIJIAN: After some deliberation, the student leaders took us to the Museum of History to the right of the Square for what may count as an informal press conference for Chinese and foreign reporters. There were a lot of reporters and people waiting around already. We did not expect it to be so short; the whole thing lasted under five minutes. The questions were primarily for Lu Decheng. Some head honcho from the UAA also “made clarifications” on behalf of all the university students, stating that they had nothing to do with what happened. Their goal was to promote democratic reform and was absolutely free from this sort of hostility. It is not within the realm of possibility for the UAA to attack the Communist Party or to damage Chairman Mao’s image, et cetera, et cetera. My mind just about exploded.
Then we ended up in a bus, and Decheng was interviewed again, this time by the China Central Television. It began to rain. Outside the window, tents and tarps everywhere on the Square were one big mess, like a disaster area roughly patched together. Who would have thought the official media, usually so sluggish, would have moved so fast and done such a long interview? Questions included where we came from, our profession, how long our planning took, our initial motivation, and whether we had contemplated the consequences. Decheng also answered him at a measured pace, making sure to state that the students were not involved in any way with what we did. People tell me on that same day “XWLB News Broadcast” aired our story as a warning to others and the segment ran for five or six minutes. The program included eyewitnesses, some students and people from Beijing, where they narrated what happened and expressed their views. One student said, “I really admire them for having the courage to do this.” (Chuckles).
LIAO: That’s where I first found out about you, that program. The tone was mostly, I’d say, “angry condemnation,” but the reporters’ anxiety and good will lurked right beneath the surface. They were worried that the incident would bring unthinkably negative consequences to the movement.
YU ZHIJIAN: Negative consequences were on the cards from the very beginning. As long as Mao’s specter roams China and Deng’s iron fist stays on our necks — as long as the Communists are in power, the only outcome to resistance will be bloodshed. We were just one of the episodes.
( To be continued.)
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017
In the world of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, the image of Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) has been molded into that of the master architect of China’s reform and opening up. He’s said to have helped China through two major transformations: the reform and opening up following the Cultural Revolution, and then the development of a market economy following his Southern Tour in 1992. Thus, in the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng is the second deity following Mao Zedong (毛泽东).
But if we step back, take in a broader historical perspective, and make a rational examination at the twentieth anniversary of Deng’s death (February 19, 1997), it quickly becomes clear that Deng Xiaoping managed to effect only one transition: launching China onto the road of crony capitalism after the June 4 massacre. The baneful consequences of crony capitalism have saved the Party but are a crime against the nation.
Historians have already used a wide variety of documentary sources to show that during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s, Deng Xiaoping was a “leading vanguard” and a chief perpetrator. But there’s no need to rehearse that history here — after all, the chief culprit in the anti-rightist campaign was Mao, and Deng only truly came into his own as a historical figure following the Cultural Revolution, as the so-called “second generation core” leadership. This essay aims at analyzing why Deng Xiaoping only oversaw a partial, not a full, transition, and it argues that this is the key in any evaluation of Deng.
The first matter to address is why the first so-called transformation wasn’t a transformation at all.
By the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had been so thoroughly ravaged by Mao that people could hardly get by, the economy was ruined, and the Chinese people were living in unspeakable misery. Mao, as head of the Party, had driven the country into the ground. When Mao died and the Party carried out so-called “reform and opening up,” they said it was to save the nation and save the people — but it would be better put that they were mainly about saving themselves. The Party’s decision for Deng Xiaoping to take the lead was no more than a passive historical choice, the only option when there were no options. In the years following 1949, all the outstanding political leadership of the Nationalist Party had either fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek, or were slaughtered by the communists. During Mao’s dictatorship, the communist’s own pragmatists, for instance Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) and Zhou Enlai (周恩来), had either been struggled to death or had their careers stifled out. The designated successor, Lin Biao (林彪), died trying to flee to Mongolia, and other veteran revolutionary cadres were either too old to be of any use or were already dead. The remnants of this corps, including Ye Jianying (叶剑英) and Li Xiannian (李先念), had ideals, but were too old to be at the helm. The only two remaining figures who had the resourcefulness and strategic measure to rule the country were Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (陈云). Overall, Deng was more capable than Chen, and so it became a matter of “none but Deng.”
Given what a wreck China was at the end of the Cultural Revolution, no matter who the successor was to be, their only option was to reform and open the economy. This was a product of circumstance, the trend of history, and not something that any individual could reverse. The fact that Hua Guofeng (华国锋) was unable to keep the Maoist antics going is a prime example. If it wasn’t Deng who took control, it might have been, for instance, Lin Biao — and he may have taken things much further than Deng, and been still more groundbreaking. Simply taking a glance at the seditious, anti-Mao thought in Lin Liguo’s (林立果, son of Lin Biao) “Project 571 Outline” (《五七一工程纪要》) makes clear the possibilities. My claim that the circumstances overrode the individual is to say that at that point in China, whoever took charge simply had to carry out economic reform and opening. Besides, the official propaganda around Deng Xiaoping being the grand architect of reform and opening doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As scholar Wu Wei (吴伟) revealed in his recent book “On Stage and Backstage: China’s Political Reform in the 1980s,” (《中国八十年代政治改革的台前幕后》) Deng lifted many of his ideas about governance from Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In particular when it came to political system reform, Deng was no architect. Thus, attributing the entire reform and opening program to Deng, as Deng’s achievement and the first post-Mao transformation, is simply not supported by the historical evidence.
These days, there are many people of my father’s generation who hate Mao but feel a great sense of gratitude toward Deng. The reason is simple: they were persecuted in the Mao era, and in Deng’s time they were able to live a normal life. But rarely do they think it through a step further: they should have been able to live unmolested in the first place. The Party under Mao robbed them of that, and under Deng it simply gave them back a bit — not all — of what was stolen. Not to mention that their youths, and most of their lives, had been wasted — giving them their lives back shouldn’t be seen as the grace and magnanimity of the Party, but simply the basic rights they are entitled to as citizens.
At the end of the Cultural Revolution, a group of veteran cadres used classic coup d’état-style tactics to purge the remaining Maoists. The Party, with Deng at the helm, then transitioned from Mao’s mode of frantic political violence to a form of stable, pragmatic politics: so-called abandonment of class-struggle as the guiding principle, and a turn to economic development as the central focus. Through this, Deng was able to gradually establish his personal power and authority, and forge for himself the historical role as so-called grand architect.
And yet for all this, because what Deng presided over was always merely a maimed transition — economic reform without political reform — China’s reform never resolved the most fundamental issues and it failed to achieve the genuine transformation that would have brought true political modernization. Throughout the 1980s, Deng constantly suppressed the political reformist leanings of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, he personally ordered the June 4 massacre, and then he used his personal power and prestige to make clear that “whoever fails to promote economic development will be sacked.”
This was the direct catalyst for ushering in the period of China’s crony capitalism, which persists to this day. It’s not only through the Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), and Xi Jinping (习近平) eras that discussion of political reform has been out of bounds — nothing comparable to the political reformist aspirations of the 1980s in the Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang period has been allowed to appear. As Wu Wei reveals in his “China’s Political Reform in the 1980s”: “Deng Xiaoping added a line to a draft of the document ‘Overall Considerations in Political System Reform’ (《政治体制改革总体设想》), saying: ‘We absolutely won’t carry out Western-style separation of powers, with periods of elected office.’ Without this line being added, Deng wouldn’t have felt reassured. And without Deng’s approval, the entire political reform program at the time would have died in its crib.”
The liberal intellectuals have mocked the “Five Nos,”* proposed by the then-National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) in 2011 that summed up the key political changes that the Party rejects. Few know that Deng Xiaoping was the one who first set out the “Five Nos.” Rejecting political modernization is in fact rejecting reform, because true reform must have at its heart reform of the political system. Any reform without political reform is ersatz reform — all simply a matter of using the banner of “reform” to monopolize power and plunder the people of their wealth. For these reasons, following Deng there was simply no more so-called reform. Reform was long dead. What was left were a pack of political swindlers.
People who think clearly ought to be able to see that Mao and Deng were not at loggerheads. Their commitment to the sustenance of Communist Party totalitarianism was identical. Mao pointlessly set the Cultural Revolution in motion, and Deng caused the June 4 massacre; Mao created a one-man dictatorship, Deng demanded eternal adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles (四项基本原则).** Whether under Mao or Deng, the same one-Party dictatorship was up there all the same, lording it over the people. This is the fundamental commonality in the ruling power clique, and could be said to be the Party’s core, unshakable mafia code.
The only true transition that Deng Xiaoping oversaw was his opening the road to crony capitalism. It was this transition that threw the Communist Party a lifeline following the 1989 massacre — and which also threw open the floodgates for the mass expropriation of the Chinese people by corrupt officials, which continues to this day.
This historical turning point that Deng presided over comes into clearer focus twenty years after his death because, as the Party’s crony capitalists continue their mad plunder of the citizenry, the regime is getting closer and closer to the mouth of a volcano that threatens to erupt. If we concede that his reform and opening following the Cultural Revolution saved the Party, then we must say that his inauguration of crony capitalism will lead to the death of the Party, and the June 4, 1989 massacre was the historical inflection point.
Deng ended the madness of Mao, but he ushered in another form of madness. The latter has led to an enormous wealth disparity in China, to a corrupt class alloyed with power who act as they wish, to environmental disasters, moral collapse, and the plunder of the country’s patrimony. Perhaps even Deng failed to foresee all that.
*Five Nos: No multiparty rule; no diversification of the Party’s guiding principles; no separation of powers and no two parliaments; no federalism; no privatization.
**The Four Cardinal Principles of Deng Xiaoping: Keeping to the socialist road, upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat, upholding the leadership of the Communist Party, and upholding Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.
《黎学文：邓小平转了什么折？》 translated by China Change.
Arthur Waldron, October 17, 2016
This is a speech delivered on October 2, the first day of the three-day conference on the prospect of a democratic China in New York City, organized and attended by overseas Chinese scholars and dissidents. With Professor Waldron’s permission, we are pleased to post the text of his speech here. – The Editors
Good morning, my dear friends, it’s a great honor to be here.
The first demonstration against dictatorship in China took place outside of the Chinese Consulate in New York more than 30 years ago. I knew it was going to happen, so I went there. There was no press, just me sitting in a café. About 12 people appeared wearing grocery bags over their heads, and they unfurled a banner saying “Democracy for China.” The Consulate was absolutely silent, the windows sealed, but I said to myself: “You have just seen the beginning of a river that’s going to grow and grow and grow.” And I think I’m right.
Since July 9 of last year more than 300 Chinese human rights lawyers have been abducted or threatened by the Beijing authorities and two dozen of them have been incarcerated, tried, and given heavy sentences or are awaiting trial. One is Xie Yang who was abducted in Changsha, July 11 of last year, and tortured in the hope of eliciting a confession, but now looks set to be put away for a long time.
Here is what Xie told the Beijing agents as they threatened him: “I will not confess, because these two charges against me are spurious. I will never dismiss my own lawyers, and I want to meet with my lawyers according to normal procedure. I hope that more lawyers will take part in my case.”
He and those like him, even in prison, represent something new and important for China. A class of fearless people, who are not frightened, and refuse to lie, has appeared. They cannot be intimidated and they cannot be bought.
My argument this morning is that they are writing the future of China, that great civilization.
We must keep these people always in our minds. Tens of thousands of them. We must keep lists, raise names and wrongs at every opportunity, and never forget.
In the pitch black of a prison basement, hungry, shackled, attacked by rats and vermin, just to stay sane is a challenge. If you know that thousands of people outside have you constantly in mind and in the public eye, however, your hope will not die.
Let me now turn to the People’s Republic of China, sixty-seven years and one day old today, an aspiring great power.
China has decided, sometime under Hu Jintao, to abandon her tactical military connection with our country to become flagship of the dictatorial fleet, and oppose the United States and other free countries. China now has the largest military forces in the world equipped with technology that often matches ours, and they have decided that they have no need for the U.S. to counterbalance the USSR, gone a quarter of a century.
Democracy is not somehow new and alien to the Chinese who are, it is thought by some foreigners, natural slaves who need a master – a khozain as they say in Russian. My dear younger son returned from the politically intense Princeton in Beijing summer program unhappy at the attempt to brainwash him, but convinced that democracy in China would mean chaos, which is the Party line.
In fact China had elections from the turn of the last century, a parliament into the 1920s whose building can still be found in Beijing, a truly democratic constitution in 1946, local elections in 1947, and national elections the following year. Yes, pre-communist China was not entirely stable. But she was like a rock of stability compared to the PRC, where more than fifty million people have died in peacetime and good weather.
Even Mao Zedong pretended to be a democrat and fooled both many Chinese and most Americans specialized in the country.
On September 27, 1945, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) provided written and thus presumably definitive answers to written questions posed by the Reuters correspondent in Chongqing. One was “what is the Chinese Communists’ definition for a free, democratic China?”
Mao answered that “a free, democratic China would be a country in which all ranks of governments, including the central government, would be produced by popular, judicious, and anonymous voting, and the country would realize the ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ concept of Abraham Lincoln and the ‘four freedoms’ proposed by Franklin Roosevelt.”
This exchange was published in the newspapers at the time but was not included in the Chinese edition of Mao’s complete works, though it is included in the Japanese edition. Strict control of information. One of the things I love about China is that they screw up all the time. If you go to Baidu, this document will pop right up on your computer. What kind of dictatorship is that?
Today the People’s Republic has decided to abandon even talk of liberalization. She wants a Party dictatorship without end. She has no interest now in the United States.
We Americans do not yet entirely recognize that this change of course has been determined in China. We are all, as it were, Emersonians. We believe other cultures will understand our gestures as we mean them: our hand proffered for a handshake, our attempt to walk a mile in their moccasins, our gestures of restraint, will signal desire for peace and understanding, even friendship. That is the message we are trying to send.
How does the Chinese government receive it? Not at all as intended, but as the opposite.
The official Chinese reaction will be, “We have successfully intimidated Washington to the point she won’t even mention us. The Americans are weak, irresolute, and when it comes to it, craven. We can deal with them and drive them out of Asia.”
“Compromise” is a scarce concept in Chinese theories of conflict. Rather the phrase they use is ni si wo huo (你死我活) —“you die, I live.” That is not “win-win.” We do not understand the culturally-determined difference between the message sent and the message received.
China’s rulers suffer from the dangerous delusion that the Communist Party can maintain stable and continuing control over China by dint of terror and arrests at home, combined with red carpet welcomes and intimidation abroad.
Let me conclude with my deepest worry, which is the acceptance and normalization, as it were, of the largest and longest lived and hideously oppressive PRC. HHDL comes in past the garbage cans to the White House. We are the United Bloody States of America, as Churchill might have put it. We are a super power and our ideals if not always our actions, are of sublime goodness. So since when does Beijing get to tell us how to treat our guests? We should tell them – write a protest, hand it to our deputy under assistant secretary and we will file it. And the Dalai Lama should go in from the front door and into the Oval Office.
Now, since 2009 Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) has been imprisoned in Liaoning Province, I believe the United States should say to China that, until he is released, we will have no high-level exchanges, no visits of the Chinese presidents, our president doesn’t go over there, because all the work of diplomacy can be done by an ambassador, the rest of this is fluff. Just tell them: look, if you want to come and have the red carpet, dinner at the White House, you have to release these people. Otherwise, we can wait.
The White House has told the Pentagon, secretly, to stop speaking about China’s growing military strength.
Chinese money has infiltrated our system in staggering quantities. One of my colleagues is tracing how many of our so called scholars, think tanks, foundations, etc. take money from the PRC, and are bought intellectually.
But the best deception is self-deception. Our current China policy comes from Henry Kissinger, a man entirely ignorant of the real China. Zhou Enlai he almost worshiped, and trusted completely.
Myself and scholar/diplomat Jay Taylor—he working through Taiwan and me working through China—have now shown that all of the ultra-secret China policy [of the United States] that Kissinger secretly confided to Zhou Enlai was in fact shared immediately from about 1969 onwards with Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. And it was discussed – Zhou and Chiang had discussions about how to handle this American approach.
This is an astonishing discovery. But the thing is, we never even suspected the Chinese. This is absolutely certain. It’s confirmed in Taiwan, and it has been confirmed to me by Chinese who are authoritative on this. Some people doubted, but this is absolutely true.
Two of those who went with Henry in 1971 are persuaded; Mr. Kissinger has never answered any of my very polite notes and indirect inquiries.
For decades we Americans told ourselves fairy tales about how China was going to liberalize and democratize. I think she will, but how and at what cost is the question. Now we have stopped talking about liberalization and democratization. Our view is, “that’s just how the Chinese are. They disappear people, they beat people up, they run a tight dictatorship. We have to accept this—not as a communist but as a Chinese characteristic—if we are going to get along. So we accept it.”
As an American I am deeply ashamed of this approach, which is both unrealistic and corrupt. But we too are sitting in China’s school room. I am confident that China’s dictators will teach us the lessons we need to know.
Democracy has been the key theme of Chinese history and politics for well over a century. It continues to be the key word. It cannot be stopped though it can be persecuted and delayed. I believe, and I know you all believe too, that in the end it will win.
Thank you all.
Arthur Waldron has been the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, since 1997. He works mostly on the history of Asia, China in particular; the problem of nationalism, and the study of war and violence in history.
By Yang Jianli, published: September 1, 2015
“At the time of the Cairo Conference, although the US military had already gained the upper hand in the Pacific and was actively planning an Allied invasion of Europe, and despite the first glimmerings of hope for an Allied victory over Germany, Italy and Japan, another threat was already taking shape, this time within Allied ranks: it would grow to become the greatest and most persistent threat to global peace in the post-war era.”
On the eve of the 70th anniversary celebration of the victory over Japan in World War II, The Cairo Declaration – a so-called “historical epic” produced by the August First Film Studio – has managed to cause a public outcry even before its theatrical release. The reason for the outcry is that publicity posters for the film feature Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong front and center, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the Cairo Conference. For a time, the poster became an object of public ridicule and Internet spoofs by Chinese citizens, overseas Chinese and the international public. Wanton misrepresentation and distorted history are par for the course for the Chinese Communist Party and its propaganda machine, but in this article, I would like to raise and hopefully answer the following question: At the time of the Cairo Declaration, exactly where was Mao Zedong and what was he doing? Understanding the answer will not only clarify an historical point of fact, but also give us a fuller understanding of the prevailing domestic and international situation at the time, and maybe even help us to interpret the critical problems China faced in the years after the Cairo Declaration.
The Cairo Conference that took place between November 22-26, 1943, was a gathering of the leaders of the United States, Britain and China: Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek. At that time, Mao Zedong was in Yan’an in northwest China, doing things that would alter the future of China, and indeed the future of the world, every bit as much as Chiang Kai-shek would.
We know that when the Red Army arrived in northern Shaanxi after the Long March, it numbered fewer than 30,000 troops, and by the time of the Xi’an Incident (西安事变) of 1936, it had had recovered to about 50,000 troops. After the Xi’an Incident, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won not only legal recognition of its status, but also funding from the Republic of China central government, and its fighting strength rapidly improved. By late 1937, the Communist-led Eighth Route Army numbered over 80,000, and the incorporation of guerrilla forces south of the Yangtze into the Communist-led New Fourth Army expanded that army unit to 12,000. From 1937 to 1940, CCP-led military forces increased by fifty to one hundred percent annually. In August 1940, the Eighth Route Army launched the One Hundred Regiments Offensive (百团大战) against Japan; in October 1940, skirmishes between New Fourth Army and Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) troops led to the Battle of Huangqiao (黄桥战役), in which the New Fourth Army wiped out over 10,000 KMT troops. These two battles gave the world a new appreciation of the rapidly developing fighting prowess of Chinese Communist forces.
Throughout the war, with the notable exception of the Hundred Regiments Offensive, Communist forces rarely engaged in large-scale battles with the Japanese army. The well-known statement that the Chinese Communists spent “10% of their time fighting [the Japanese], 20% in skirmishes [with the Nationalists], and 70% expanding [their political influence]” is borne out by a close examination of CCP wartime history. As Communist forces grew in military strength, skirmishes between Communist and Nationalist government forces became more frequent. This eventually led to the Wannan Incident of 1941 (皖南事变), in which the New Fourth Army suffered great losses. CCP troop losses in the Wannan Incident and the Hundred Regiments Offensive convinced Mao Zedong that he needed to strengthen his authority over the military.
In the past, the Eighth Route Army’s frontline leader Peng Dehuai and the New Fourth Army’s political commissar and de-facto leader Xiang Ying were not sufficiently obedient to Mao, but Mao understood that the CCP’s objective was not to fight the Japanese, but to allow the Nationalists and the Japanese to battle it out and destroy each other, thus allowing the CCP to step in and seize power after the war. This had always been Mao’s primary concern. Moreover, by this time the Japanese had already halted their westward advance, and the Xi’an line was no longer under threat from the Japanese, allowing Mao to concentrate his efforts on military expansion, on the one hand, and on inner-party power struggles, on the other.
Aiming to rid the CCP of dissenting opinions, Mao launched his Yan’an Rectification Movement (延安整风运动) in May 1941; the movement continued unabated until the war ended in the summer of 1945. During this period, the CCP and the Japanese did not engage in any major clashes or battles. On the contrary, there are strong suspicions that, during this same period, CCP intelligence agents maintained friendly contacts and traded information with the intelligence organizations of local Japanese-backed puppet regimes.
As Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek were meeting in Cairo, Mao’s Yan’an Rectification movement was in full swing. From September 1943 to April 1944, the CCP Central General Study Committee held a series of rectification meetings during which Wang Ming, Zhou Enlai, Zhang Wentian, Qin Bangxian, and other party leaders accused of “dogmatism” and other offenses were forced to engage in self-criticisms and soul-searching, thus paving the way for Mao Zedong to seize full power for himself. During these meetings, Peng Dehuai also came in for severe censure for not securing the approval of Party central when he launched the Hundred Regiments Offensive, which revealed to the world the true military strength of Chinese Communist troops. Although Peng Dehuai refused to grovel before Mao Zedong as some of the other leaders did, in the end, he had no choice but to make a self-criticism too.
In retrospect, we can see that while the Allied and Axis powers were suffering terrible losses fighting each other during World War II (this includes the war between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union), Mao Zedong spent the period from 1941 onward enjoying the protection of Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan to the east, and Xinjiang warlord Sheng Shicai to the west, shouting patriotic anti-Japanese slogans, periodically requesting handouts of grain tax from the Chinese Republican central government tax coffers, and transforming Yan’an into a Communist Utopia in the midst of a warzone. In Yan’an, he was free to indulge his own whims in remaking CCP military and political leadership, carrying out a brutally-thorough brainwashing campaign of the armed forces and political cadres, and becoming the first CCP leader in history to exercise full control over both the military and the Party.
This level of transformation and centralization would have been impossible for Chiang Kai-shek, who had his hands full battling the Japanese. Therefore, when the Chinese Civil War broke out a few years later, Chiang Kai-shek was no match for Mao Zedong, who enjoyed an unprecedented level of military control.
Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek were clearly unaware that while they were meeting in Cairo to secure peace for all humanity, Mao Zedong was hidden away in his Yan’an oasis making preparations for the coming large-scale civil war. The reason Mao could lay low in Yan’an was because Chiang Kai-shek was busy at the front, fighting Japanese Imperial Army troops tooth and nail; because the U.S. Navy was crisscrossing the vast Pacific Ocean, wresting control of one after another small island from the Japanese; and because American, British and Chinese Nationalist troops were engaged in bloody combat against the Japanese all over South Asia. The purpose of the Cairo Conference was to cement this alliance, and to expand the scope of their wartime cooperation after the conference was over. Thanks to the hard work of the world leaders who did actually attend the Cairo Conference, Mao Zedong had the leisure to remain in Yan’an furthering his Rectification Movement, watching operas, dancing and wooing.
Far from Yan’an, in the various CCP “Anti-Japanese Base Areas,” Communist troops and local militias did their best to avoid direct military confrontation with the Japanese, but they engaged in skirmishes with Nationalist troops and took every opportunity to seize more of their weapons and territory. For example, former CCP Defense Minister Zhang Aiping recalls that when he was operating behind enemy lines in Jiangsu as Deputy Commander of the CCP’s New Fourth Army, Third Division, he received a message sent by Han Deqin (the Chinese Nationalist Deputy Commander of the Suzhou-Shandong Military Region, and distinguished commander during the Battle of Tai’erzhuang in 1938) asking for permission to withdraw his men temporarily to an area near the Cai Bridge in Huai’an, because his men had suffered such heavy casualties fighting the Japanese in northern Jiangsu. Falsely claiming that the bridge was too narrow to provide any real safety, Zhang Aiping instead suggested that Han Deqin and his troops retreat to the shore of Lake Hongze, where the CCP New Fourth Army, Fourth Division, had established a line of defense. As a result, when Han Deqin and his men arrived at Lake Hongze, they were met by a surprise attack from the New Fourth Army, Fourth Division, under the command of Peng Xuefeng (whom Zhang Aiping had notified by telegram beforehand). Many of Han Qinde’s men were killed, their weapons and ammunition taken as spoils, and Han Qinde himself taken prisoner.
Let us leave Yan’an for a moment, and take a peek at Mao Zedong’s political patron, Joseph Stalin. We know that Stalin declined to attend the Cairo Conference because he was unwilling to meet with Chiang Kai-shek. In order for these four Allied nations (the U.S., U.S.S.R., Britain and China) to coordinate their wartime strategy, the planned four-party conference had to be divided into two parts: the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference. After the meeting in Cairo concluded, Roosevelt and Churchill headed for Tehran to meet separately with Stalin. At the Yalta Conference chaired by Stalin in Soviet territory one year later, China’s highest-ranking official Chiang Kai-shek was not even invited to attend, despite the fact that the U.S.S.R. and the Republic of China had established formal diplomatic relations.
Therefore, at the time of the Cairo Conference, although the US military had already gained the upper hand in the Pacific and was actively planning an Allied invasion of Europe, and despite the first glimmerings of hope for an Allied victory over Germany, Italy and Japan, another threat was already taking shape, this time within Allied ranks: it would grow to become the greatest and most persistent threat to global peace in the post-war era. As subsequent history would prove, far more people would die under the Communist tyranny of Stalin and Mao than under the fascist tyranny of the Axis powers. When it came to provoking conflict or warfare to suit his own interests and ambitions, Mao was clearly a cut above the rest. The leaders of the Western world, particularly President Roosevelt, severely underestimated the rise of Communism as both a political force and a political threat. This was due in part to Stalin’s apparent adaptability and Mao Zedong’s clever ruse of filling the Xinhua Daily and other official Communist newspapers with slogans of democracy and freedom.
Discussions at the Cairo Conference mainly focused on issues related to the independence and territorial integrity of China, Japan, Korea and the nations of Southeast Asia. The postwar peace more or less adhered to the demands set out in the Cairo Declaration – the independence of Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan, and the return of the Penghu Islands to the Republic of China – although both the Chinese mainland and the Korean peninsula would soon be engulfed by more fighting. By early 1945, four years into the Yan’an Rectification Movement he had launched, Mao realized that Japan’s defeat would come about earlier than he had anticipated, so he hastily wrapped up the rectification movement, issued a mea culpa to those who had been targeted for rectification, and began preparing for civil war with the Chinese Nationalists.
Among the western nations, World War II was seen as a war to defend world peace and human freedom. But in the triangular relationship between the Allies, the Axis and the U.S.S.R. (and its junior partners, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party), the western world was devoting so much of its energy to dealing with West Germany, Italy and Japan, that it neglected to remain sufficiently vigilant against Communism, which spread rapidly in the absence of any organized opposition. This is a point on which we should reflect today, as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Even the United Nations, one of the most positive outcomes of the Second World War, has not proven an effective defender of freedom and human rights around the world; in this sense, it is not unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations. Today, the Communist nations of Asia that emerged in the wake of the Second World War continue to suffer from numerous human rights violations and the failure to protect the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. In this sense, the World War II objective of defeating fascism remains incomplete.
There is a Chinese proverb that warns of the danger of pursuing one’s aims so single-mindedly that one remains blind to the larger dangers: “The mantis stalking the cicada does not notice the lurking finch.” If Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek—so intent on fighting the Axis powers—were the mantis stalking the cicada, then Mao Zedong—with his long-contemplated scheme to seize the whole of China and “liberate” all humanity—was certainly the finch, waiting to pounce at the first opportune moment. That point is essential to any accurate depiction of the geopolitical landscape during World War II. Moreover, were it not for Mao Zedong, there would be no death-and-disaster-ridden Red China, nor the Korean War, nor the Vietnam War, nor the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.
In late 1943, when most of humanity was endeavoring to end the Second World War, it was easy to overlook that irrepressible time traveler, Mao Zedong. Looking back on those war years, one might forget that Mao Zedong even existed, for his contributions to the war effort were minimal. But Mao was not idle during this period. Let us remember this, and trust that today’s World War II historians will never again neglect the fact of Mao’s existence in late 1943. We should thank the makers of The Cairo Declaration, for it was they who dragged Mao Zedong, in all his false glory, from his cave in Yan’an and placed him squarely where he belongs: in the midst of a true picture of the Second World War, a canvas on which we can reflect and remember.
August 27, 2015
(This article was slightly abridged, edited, and translated by China Change, with the consent of the author.)
The U.S. Was the True Mainstay in the Fight Against Japan in World War II, by Han Lianchao, China Change, August 31, 2015.
By Yaxue Cao
The disparaging of Mo Yan began before the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced on October 11 when rumor had it that Mo Yan was this year’s favorite. With the exception of the literarily versed, the criticism wasn’t based on his works, to be sure, but on a few events that had thus far shaped people’s perceptions of the man: Boycotting dissident writers during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009; refusal to comment on Liu Xiaobo’s sentence in late 2009; and handcopying Mao Zedong’s Talks on Literature and Art earlier this year. (The Chongqing doggerel, turned up after the prize, wasn’t part of that perception, so I will leave it out of my discussion.)
Since the prize, Mo Yan voiced his support for Liu Xiaobo (“I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible,” “I read some of his literary criticism in the 80s… but I lost track of what he was doing later on”), defended himself, and explained things away. As commentaries poured in the last few days, a view, eloquently argued by Branden O’Kane at rectified.name, seems to have taken hold among many foreigners who seem to be struggling for an opinion of the man that they feel comfortable with: Much of the online criticism isn’t fair; the boycott was something Mo Yan had no choice over since he was with the Chinese delegation; it’s regrettable that he failed to speak up for Liu Xiaobo, but then again, it’s understandable that he took measures to protect himself so that he could write if he didn’t want to be thrown in prison or exiled; handcopying Mao really is boneheaded; and Mo Yan’s works in no way portray the Communist Party and China’s recent history in a favorable light. Julia Lovell, writing for the New York Times, also urged critics of Mo Yan’s political compromises to look beyond these incidents and delve into Mo Yan’s works for answers.
I thought I was done with the topic of Mo Yan. But thoughts kept coming, so here I am, revisiting the topic by examining the three incidents more closely and asking a question that so far everyone seems to have neglected to ask. Even if you have made up your mind already, knowing a little more never hurts.
The exiled poet Bei Ling (贝岭) recounted the Frankfurt Book Fair boycott in a recent book and again here (in Chinese). There is another take by Didi Kirsten of New York Times who attended the Fair and shared her notes about the events and Mo Yan). According to Bei Ling, “in the morning of September 12, as soon as Dai Qing (戴晴, a journalist and writer living in China known for her writings about the Three Gorges project and many other social issues) and I walked up to the rostrum, I saw Mo Yan, silent and glum-faced, getting up to leave with Chinese officials and scholars like a school of fish. Are we their enemies? To refuse to listen to me and Dai Qing giving speeches? Embarrass the mayor of Frankfurt and the organizers of the Fair? What surprised me about Mo Yan was the helplessness of someone who had to submit to an order. … Then events became more theatrical. First, the Chairman of the Fair apologized to the Chinese delegation (for featuring dissident writers without China’s knowledge), then the Chinese ambassador chided the organizers in a long speech, in fluent German, at the podium. In the end, the seminar resumed, but Dai Qing and I were removed from the list of speakers.” It’s said that Mo Yan, later on, privately told others that he himself didn’t really want to boycott the dissident writers but had no choice.
There is much more to this story, it turns out, and the renowned historian Qin Hui (秦晖) of Tsinghua University, who went by separate invitation and didn’t boycott the dissident writers, gave a detailed account of Chinese government pressuring the organizers about who should attend, and who should not, way before its delegation left China. Interestingly, the seminar was called “China and the World: Perceptions and Realities.” I don’t know what perceptions and realities they discussed, but I bet one would walk away with more useful perceptions and knowledge of realities if one examines the Chinese government’s attempts and actions before, during and after the event.
On December 25, Christmas Day, 2009, Liu Xiaobo was tried for “inciting subversion” after being detained extralegally for seven months. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his writings calling for political changes in China. The verdict angered and saddened the more liberal-minded members of Chinese intelligentsia. Cui Weiping (崔卫平), a well-known intellectual and a professor at Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院), called her friends and acquaintances to ask their views of the verdict. She called 146 of them in total, and posted each answer—with the speaker’s permission—on Twitter. Later she compiled all the responses here. Yesterday I went over each of the 146 answers, and found a few things. First of all, most of the interviewees are working within the system, e.g., for institutions run by the government: university professors, commentators, movie makers, literary writers, poets, critics, musicians, journalists, etc. Second, most of them gave a measured response: a few offered straightforward support for Liu Xiaobo’s political ideas, while the majority either didn’t say anything about Liu Xiaobo’s political stand or stated clearly that they didn’t agree with it. But almost unanimously the interviewees condemned persecution against speech.
In other words, most of the interviewees took precaution to protect themselves without shying from moral clarity. Out of the 146, only 7 people declined to make comment, and Mo Yan was one of them. Cui meant to interview more people, but after 19 days, she was told by the authority to stop. So she did. A year later she reported in this article (last sentence) that no one had been punished for speaking out in her interviews.
Mo Yan’s reply is No. 13: “I don’t know much about it; I don’t want to talk. I’m entertaining guests, and I am talking with them,” a response that reminds me of how I brush aside advertisement calls at home.
Then there was the event, earlier this year, of 100 writers and artists handcopying Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art, the 1942 document that cut the rule for literature and art: Serve the Party. It went like this, according to an account of the episode by Nanfang Weekend (《南方周末》): China Writers’ Publishing House, the publishing house of the Chinese Writers Association, wanted to publish a Collectible Commemorative Edition of Comrade Mao’s ‘Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art’, Handcopied by One Hundred Writers and Artists ( 《毛泽东同志〈在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话〉百位文学艺术家手抄珍藏纪念册》). It sent invitations to 120 or so writers and artists, asking them to handcopy any paragraph of their choosing, with RMB1000 for those who do. According to the Publishing House, most of them responded “enthusiastically,” but two dozens of them declined, including Wang Anyi (王安忆), the chairwoman CWA’s Shanghai chapter.
Since everyone got to pick what to copy, I become curious about Mo Yan’s choice (translation link):
“The problem of class stand. Our stand is that of the proletariat and of the masses. For members of the Communist Party, this means keeping to the stand of the Party, keeping to Party spirit and Party policy. Are there any of our literary and art workers who are still mistaken or not clear in their understanding of this problem? I think there are. Many of our comrades have frequently departed from the correct stand.
“The problem of attitude. From one’s stand there follow specific attitudes towards specific matters. For instance, is one to extol or to expose? This is a question of attitude. Which attitude is wanted? I would say both….”
Frankly, I don’t think Mo Yan gives a damn about Mao’s old crap in the year of 2012. What many found interesting and irritating is this: Why did he do it? It wasn’t an “obligation,” and it’s not for self-protection because there is no risk in not doing it. For a Chinese writer with a modicum of principle, you would imagine this is a distasteful thing to do.
On the other hand, for many Chinese, ordinary or well-known, the aversion to Mao’s Talks on Literature and Art, and to the act of writers and artists copying it, was palpable in late May when the event, a small one by all means, made news. The list of 100 names were widely spread online, and I remember looking over them, one name after another, including that of the future winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, filled with disgust and contempt.
The public’s response was so strong that that Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the legal scholar, rights advocate, founder of the Open Constitution Initiative whom this blog translated more than once, called for the “Ten Thousand People Handcopy the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” campaign on Weibo and Twitter and received, yes I was a witness and I knew, an enthusiastic response from thousands of netizens.
You may ask, “Again, what do all these have to do with Mo Yan and his literary achievement?” The answer is: Nothing; nothing against him as an individual making choices. If nothing else, the online outrage was a sign of the times—China in 2012: It is a time when more and more Chinese are becoming clear about what they want the country to be. It is a time when more and more ordinary citizens are taking a stand, taking risks, to do what they can to push for changes, not to mention those spearheading the struggle who have been locked up in prisons and in re-education-through-labor camps. It is the time of Chen Guangcheng, fellow Shandongese living in the neighboring municipality, whose saga embodied the sickness of China on one hand and the extraordinary courage on the other that inspired so many. When you watch this recent video and feel haunted by the silhouette of Liu Xia (刘霞), wife of Liu Xiaobo under house arrest with no legal justification, smoking a cigarette by her window, many—myself included–find it difficult to rejoice in Mo Yan’s award even without having read a word of his but knowing that he submit himself readily to the Party, he has never uttered a single word of support for anyone fighting for rights and justice, nor taken any stand, no matter how slight, on the important issues of our time.
Someone on Twitter, a non-Chinese I believe, actually yelled at me the other day, “Oh leave him alone! You freaking liberal!” Well, I’m sorry, there is no such thing as leaving him alone. A public figure, especially a literary one, is bound to be judged against his time and place; for Mo Yan, it’s against the awaking China on the eve of big changes. Things matter now.
If you are one of those who wondered why, or were even irked by, Twitter’s Chinese community’s strong reaction against Mo Yan’s prize (the Weibo reaction is similar except censorship caught on quickly), this post hopefully will give you some answer. It is not a random, shrill burst; it has come a long way. True that it is not a reaction based on Mo Yan’s works, but a legitimate and grounded reaction nonetheless. On the other hand though, I have been pleasantly surprised that many of his critics in fact know his works pretty well, were once his fans, and can speak of his works eloquently, despite Mo Yan’s claim that those who are criticizing him have not read his works.
Both O’Kane and Lovell went on to point out that Mo Yan’s writings by no means reflect the sanctioned views of the Party:
“Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.” (O’Kane)
Lovell’s assessment is that “Mo is a writer who plays a public game with authority while maintaining a creative space that enables him to present an indirect challenge to this same authority” (Lovell).
I concur with both. I have never for a moment suggested that Mo Yan is a literary stooge for the Chinese government or the communist ideology. I knew enough of his works to know he is not.
What both O’Kane and Lovell, and just about everyone else, have neglected to ask is this obvious question: If Mo Yan is such a critical writer as they think he is, how come the Party embraced him completely, featured him prominently in all the international events such as book fairs in Europe, and awarded him all the official literary prizes there are in China, knowing that the government censors criticism harshly and consistently? Why?
I proposed this question (well, the gist of it anyway) to O’Kane on Twitter after reading his post, and his answer is that “[Mo Yan] is an ambitious and prolific writer, whether you like his works or not (I’m pretty lukewarm on him), and he is from the same generation as the people awarding the prizes, so they share certain tastes.”
I hope Brendan won’t chase me down the lane with a baseball bat if I say that his answer is woefully inadequate, and not even relevant. But then again, Twitter is not the place for adequate answers, and I’m certain he has a lot more to say to address this “why”.
I don’t have an adequate answer either due to my limitations, but in the second part of this post, I will bring a few things out to at least help us answer that question.