Notebook: The past is a foreign country in China
Sunday 06 June 1999
The problem with China is that the future so often fails to live up to expectations. In my seven years reporting on China (which ended yesterday), the most memorable interviews have been with people spectacularly let down by history. Three years ago I met Zhang Qingyi, one of the dwindling band of Long March veterans who had survived the 6,000-mile ordeal in 1934-5. A hero of the revolution, by 1960 this wizened former peasant soldier had been condemned for "rightist tendencies", because he had the nerve to speak out about the Great Leap Forward famine created by Chairman Mao's lunatic policies. "I complained. I said the socialist construction I was taught about was different to the reality. And I was reported," he said.
Or consider Xiao Qian, the only Chinese journalist to cover the whole of the Second World War in Europe. In 1949 he had stood at a "great crossroads" in his life, when King's College Cambridge - home to his intellectual mentor, E M Forster - had offered him a fellowship. Instead Xiao Qian went home to Mao's "New China". But by 1954 the political climate was such that he could not even take delivery of a book and letter sent by Forster. Unaware of Xiao Qian's predicament, an enraged Forster destroyed all his Chinese protege's letters.
In the political purges of 1957, Xiao Qian was branded a Rightist, and sent to hard labour in the countryside. He was not "rehabilitated" until 1979, yet right up to his recent death he never doubted that he had been correct to return to China. "Its history flows in my veins," he wrote.
For ordinary Chinese, the most searing historical memories flow from the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Scratch the surface, and the wounds still bleed. In 1996, I met three Peking men - now in their 40s - who as promising teenagers had been sucked into the destructive whirlwind Mao had unleashed 30 years before. Lu Chen was a hard-bitten private investigator when I met him, but he began to sob when he recalled how his father had been detained as a "Capitalist Roader". His old classmate, Yao Zhongyong, remembers wandering to Peking's Houhai Lake "to see people committing suicide. Some wrote their wills in chalk on the ground".
Few Chinese are brave enough to admit that they were actually the perpetrators and not the victims of political campaigns. The third man, Li Jiang - a former Red Guard - was a rare example. "There was a wife of a landlord. We went to the house, to take the property. But the old lady was quite tough ... And then we pushed the old lady on the ground and beat her for one hour with our belts. And she died. I was one of the beaters." And yet of the trio, Li Jiang, now a property developer, seemed the only one who had come to terms with the past, perhaps because he did not spend his time looking for someone to blame.
The relatives of the June 1989 victims know who they want to blame for the killings. But when a reassessment of the Tiananmen massacre finally comes, as surely it must, it is likely to prove just as cursory as the party's apologies for the Cultural Revolution and the anti-Rightist movement. The Cultural Revolution was a "mistake", it was agreed after Mao's death. But "rehabilitation" for the victims was swiftly followed by families being expected - you've guessed it - to look to the future. Meanwhile, Mao's Great Leap Forward famine of the late 1950s, in which at least 30 million people are believed to have died, has been airbrushed from the official history books.
In a country as nationalistic as China, the finger of blame only ever points easily at foreigners. Last week's official gloss on the 4 June 1989 crackdown made a glaring contrast with China's stance over the deaths of three journalists in the Nato bombing of its Belgrade embassy. Peking has demanded a thorough investigation of the "war crime". Last week's state-controlled newspapers continued to thunder that the embassy bombing, which is assumed by almost all Chinese to have been deliberate, indicated that "the will of Western hostile forces to subjugate our nation has not died".
As I leave China after seven years, the country's immediate future is again mired in the vengeful anti-foreigner ideology of the past. China's most important bilateral partner, the US, has been cast as super-villain in the hope of unifying an increasingly fragmented country. Never mind, say China's leaders, that this is jeopardising Western investment and technology, crucial to a hobbling economy.
It is, of course, possible to imagine a rosier future - one where the portrait of Mao is quietly removed from Tiananmen Square, and his hideous mausoleum is replaced by a tasteful monument to those who were slain in June 1989. But in the present political season, that future still seems a long way distant.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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