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Post-Tiananmen Reflections on China – I: Whither 20th Anniversary


Whither 20th Anniversary

20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Incident is a bygone affair. Chinese security agencies laughed at long last in their sleeves. China watchers all over the world did not have any better spectacle to ponder as the heat generated over the past couple of months literally dissipated. It leaves yet an array of questions unanswered, much of which could ruffle the order of civilized world unless a due corrective engineered.

I was in China five months after the fateful event. I had spent complete Nov 1989 moving around Beijing, parts of Hebei province including Tianjin, parts of Sichuan province including Chengdu and Chongqing, parts of Hubei province including Wuhan, parts of Jiangsu province, and Shanghai. I had advantage of being a state guest and knowing both China and Chinese language. This journey of mine had then again taken place in the midst of euphoria generated by the first ever China visit of the then Indian Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi. The Chinese were ordinarily expressive. However, they first looked reticence, in particular in chance meetings in public places, such as temples, exhibition halls, corner theatre shows, co-commuters in trains, ships and aeroplanes and the like. They would shake hand with warmth and end up in retelling India’s venerable heritage. They would refer India and China as two pivots of growth and developments in Asia and the world. The academics with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the faculty members of universities and different institutions of higher learning would deliberate all issues at length except sensitive points in bilateral relations. As and when it cropped up, they would term it as a product of history. Characteristically, in common, the men in the streets as well high academics were tight lipped on Tiananmen incident in public glare.

My visit had taken place under the aegis of CASS and the Indian Council of social Sciences Research (ICSSR) under exchange programme. I was studying developments of agricultural enterprises in China. The host had put one scholar from its rural development department to assist me in my interactions with the Chinese respondents. He was thoroughly professional. However, quite characteristically, the Chinese respondents were on guards in their statements in his presence. He would personally parry even slightly inconvenient questions. As I was fully aware of the nuances of political management of the Chinese society, I seldom put straight questions relating to Tiananmen massacre. A day before I left Beijing for Chongqing, he came to my hotel room. He looked slightly perplexed. I enquired his wellbeing at home. He took out a book from inside pocket of his overcoat and handed over with soiled eyes. In a whisper, he told me that the work was proscribed in China. I could not believe my eyes. It was Zhao Ziyang’s work “where to go” (Xiang He Zou). Before leaving my hotel room, he took solemn promise that the book shall be kept in safe custody until I was in China. The incident is innocuous but tells volume how Chinese cadres in otherwise academic pursuits lived unto themselves under fears of strong hand treatments of the state.

Chongqing in Sichuan province, the native place of Zhao Ziyang, turned out a bit different. On the side lines of structured interviews and seminars, I interacted with a large number of academics. I visited Le Shan at the confluence of Dadu, Minjiang and Qingyi rivers, known for Giant Buddha facing sacred Mount Emei. I also visited Meishan prefecture. I took this opportunity to put the issue political reforms as concomitant of economic reforms. Nine out of 10 did not find the demand for democracy unjust, and some of them looked a worried lot in face of reformists such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang suffering the fate of purges. It was yet queer that the academics, officials and commoner alike wanted to be anonymous.

Wuhan in Hubei carried slightly a different story. It is a 3500 years old city, holding the legend of “White Clouds and Yellow Cranes”. Made up of Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang and situated on the point where Han and Xunshi rivers meet Changjiang, Wuhan is known as metropolis of unlimited possibilities. It has a centre of education as well. Wuchang uprising led the end of Qing dynasty, which ultimately paved the way for the founding of the present communist regime to run the People’s Republic of China. My queries relating to political reform, and euphemism for democracy what led to Tiananmen massacre at the end of the day drew indifference from all and sundry during and after my talks with the faculty of Wuhan chapter of CASS.

My host had organized a boat safari in the East Lake. The host had put on duty one of its officials as my companion for the boating event. I did not know that the local evening news had featured an item on my visit to the Wuhan chapter of CASS. As soon as I got off the boat, some 30 and odd people greeted me and requested for a question-answer session on the Indian economic stride, in particular the Green Revolution and White Revolution. I agreed and asked the group leader to take Wuhan chapter into confidence. It was organized the following day in the premises of the CASS. Representatives from 22 departments, which included dairy development, problematic soil management and the like, joined the discussions. I used this opportunity to my advantage. I boldly put across the plausibility of economic reform surreptitiously paving ways for political reform and the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen incident turning a harbinger much in the way of May 4, 1919 movement. There was no taker of the hypothesis.

Back to the hotel, I found three of the participants waiting in the lobby. They were apologetic but persuasive. They handed over half a dozen copies of vernacular news papers, which included Chinese language Wuhan Wanshang Shijian. They carried news items on how the PLA units started using force and protestors retaliated and threw stones, leading a pitched battle. Some of the news items referred demonstrations and protest marches taking place in Beijing and Shanghai in 1985 and 1986, where the placards read: “Law and Not Authoritarianism”; “Long Live Democracy”; and the like. The stories in the papers gave passing details of all developments following death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. It referred People’s Daily editorial to suggest that the demonstrations were planned conspiracy. It spoke of firm hand dealings of 27th Group Army of the PLA. The three officials told me how unjust it was for the authorities to clamp martial laws in Beijing on May 20, 1989 and use military force to quell protestors. The Officials suggested that the political reform was a hard bargain for the Chinese masses until the strangle hold of cadres continued in ordinary life of the people.

Shanghai gave still different picture. I met a lady with a small child in a park. After interactions, she took me to her house at dusk on her cycle to meet her husband. He was a professor with his thesis on impact of Buddhism on Chinese life. The space limit of this column does not permit full length account of two hours long exchanges of thoughts. The Prof. gave insights how shanghai group among the leadership had then worked against Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang and how the hard liners prevailed over the moderates.

Then and now it is 20 years. I have watched rather closely how the Chinese central authorities have since reacted when the anniversary of the dreaded event approached. This time, the authorities allowed some tourists under heavy pose of security personnel to visit the site. This was amidst total ban on international broadcasters covering the event. 10 years ago, they had allowed not even a bird to fly over. Dynamics of change include China’s growing confidence in international politics. In his discussions, the Prof. had expected political change to come in distant future once the “middle income affluence” was able to push aside high income progeny of party cadres. It remains to be seen how the recessionary spiral went into making the world of change in China’s political life.

(The writer, Dr.Sheo Nandan Pandey, is a long time observer of China, based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.)

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