Notebook: The past is a foreign country in China

THE 4 JUNE anniversary brings out the worst in China. It is a desperately sad time, when the relatives of those killed weep down the phone as they recall the weeks in June 1989 spent searching hospitals for the bodies of loved ones. It is an infuriating time, when day after day a government spokesman arrogantly refers to the decision to open fire as a "timely and resolute" measure. And it is a dispiriting time, when ordinary Pekingers repeatedly declare that there is not much point worrying about events in the past. Far better, they say, to look to the future.

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.

Suggested Topics
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fund, London

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fu...

    Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Multicast, Low Latency

    £60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Mul...

    Network Infrastructure Engineer

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Infrastructure Engineer (...

    Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Multicast)

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Mult...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition