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The great squall of China

A 25th anniversary edition of Morgan Chua's cartoons of the events around the Tiananmen Square massacre is a chilling reminder of how states can turn against their citizens

Kanika Datta 

Last week, two significant anniversaries fell within two days of each other representing contrasting aspects of human freedom.

First up was June 4, which marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing, when the Chinese state publicly murdered thousands of its citizens, many of them students.

June 6 commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in northern France to liberate Europe from a right-wing dictator.

In Beijing, the vast square, bounded by Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, the ironically named Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Great Hall of the People, was devoid of all signs of remembrance. The Chinese state had worked overtime to “unremember”: blocking Google, arresting journalists and a hapless worker who took a selfie in the square flashing the victory sign (apparently, this can be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the protesters of 1989), and stepping up the military presence around the city.

Nearly 5,000 miles away, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande joined a dwindling band of World War II veterans to celebrate the D-Day landings in a poignantly joyous commemoration of the sacrifices their people made for freedom.

If there is a similarity between the events, it is that the West and went on to enjoy extraordinary levels of prosperity afterwards. But where D-Day and other World War II campaigns remain alive in public memory, China’s post-1989 generation remains indifferent to those grim one-and-half months that shook the world.

They are, after all, beneficiaries of “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”, as the party described the exercise of jettisoning Chairman Mao’s ideology and transforming from the world’s most populous poor country into today’s global powerhouse. These developments provide an interesting contrast to an event that took place just a few months later in the same year — the fall of the Berlin Wall. That epochal event marked the death of communism in Europe — and, significantly, the beginning of an era of renewed prosperity in the former Iron Curtain countries.

Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government, the 1989 tragedy did get to be commemorated. Not just in courageous samizdat online postings but, overtly, in Hong Kong, where people gathered in thousands to remember the protesters who stood up to the brutality of the state security apparatus.

Still, it is unlikely that many mainland Chinese will get to see this 25th anniversary edition of Morgan Chua’s book of cartoons. Which is a pity, because it is a collector’s item, a chilling indictment of state-sponsored violence against its citizens.

Morgan Chua
Readers of a certain generation will remember Chua for his bitingly satirical cartoons in the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. He was 40 at the time of and an admirer of Deng Xiaoping. A Singaporean of Chinese origin, he felt moved to sketch these cartoons, digitally restored for this edition, as he watched the events unfold on TV.

“I respected his [Deng’s] pragmatic reforms,” Chua writes in the preface. “Most of all, he suffered during the Cultural Revolution and was later purged by the Gang of Four” [the coterie around Mao’s wife that seized power after his death]…

“On 4 June 1989, he betrayed me, just as he betrayed his people... His government used the military to suppress its own innocent, unarmed people with firepower, brutality and insanity. And this on the authority of a parvenu who had suffered so much in the past and yet was imposing it all over again on others!”

The Cultural Revolution is a recurring echo in this collection. In 1969, Mao urged loyalists to denounce dissidents and “capitalist roaders” and purged the party of his opponents. Deng did the same 20 years later. One of the cartoons has Deng telling Mao: “Chairman Mao, anything you can do, I can do better!”

The cover reproduces the pick of this selection – a menacingly simple illustration of the June 4 dawn massacre. My other favourite — reproduced on this page — is of Gorbachev’s brief and disastrous visit at the height of the protests.

Since public memory is notoriously short, the edition has added a timeline of the events and profiles of the protagonists, both the Chinese politicians and the student leaders. It is instructive to remember that the massacre had its roots in a gathering of students at on April 15 to pay homage to the recently deceased Hu Yaobang. Once Deng’s heir apparent, Hu was forced to resign in 1987 for his inability to contain student activism. It is also useful to remember that the students were protesting against the slow pace of economic reform.

The prosperity the Chinese Communist Party has delivered to its people since 1989 makes it worth wondering whether those student protesters were as naïve as the children of the sixties’ flower power revolution. Did they die in vain? Will their obedient successors inherit the earth? Who knows, history is full of inconvenient truths. When it comes to the Chinese authority’s response to popular protest, Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution on another crackdown, this time in East Germany in 1953, could apply just as well:

“After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

25th Anniversary Edition

Author: Morgan Chua
Publisher: Navayana
Pages: 128
Price: Rs 350

First Published: Sat, June 14 2014. 00:28 IST