Political Sleepwalking

There are some events which are so wide-reaching that it seems incredible that anyone could be unaware of them, yet a couple of years back I had a slightly unnerving conversation with a young Chinese student I knew.  It was the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, and I asked them if they had seen any of the coverage of the anniversary on television.  Not only had they seen nothing in the news, they actually knew nothing about the occurrence at all – and, initially at least, thought I was making the whole thing up.

To understand how something like this could happen, you need to find out more about the country, and the incidents of June the 4th, 1989, and there are few better ways to do so than by reading Ma Jian’s celebrated novel Beijing Coma.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Dai Wei, a young student who is in a coma after being shot in the head after the students occupying Tiananmen Square were forced to leave by the army.  Through Wei’s reflections on the events leading up to his shooting, and the little he grasps from his sick bed, we are given two parallel stories of life in China: the tumultuous build up to an infamous historical event and the following decade of corruption and denial.
The happenings in Tiananmen Square are certainly impressive.  A group of students somehow mobilise a demonstration which grows and grows, gaining support from the common people of Beijing and students elsewhere in China.  At its height, Dai Wei, a security officer assisting the real stars of the movement, looks across the square and estimates that he’s looking at around one million people…  Of course, dictatorial regimes are not as easy as all that to shift, and as the weeks pass, not only does the revolutionary fervour dull a little, but the regime starts to quietly plan the protests’ end.

Meanwhile, back in Dai Wei’s flat in the future, he lies on his solid iron bed, almost fully aware of what is happening around him but unable to communicate with the outside world.  From visits from friends (and his mother’s increasingly bitter and confused ramblings), he gleans information about the aftermath of the protests and the consequences for his friends.  With the passing of the years, although the state’s interest in him wanes slightly, there is a new threat to his safety.  The Chinese government wants to attract the Olympics to Beijing, and old, decrepit buildings like Dai Wei’s home need to be knocked down in order to make way for a new, shiny capital…

At one point, the author makes a telling comparison, saying:

“Your body is a trap, a square with no escape routes.” Beijing Coma (2008), Chatto & Windus, p.266

These parallel versions of the story, with Dai Wei trapped and besieged both in the square and in his bed, make up the most important message that Beijing Coma has to offer, namely that in a totalitarian state nowhere is safe.  You have no home when the state can kick down the door at any time.  You have no family when many parents will deliver you to the authorities themselves.  However, the coma could also be seen as an allegory for the whole Chinese populace, who know what democracy is (and want it) but are unable to do the slightest thing about it.  Ma Jian’s book is really a portrayal of a whole country trapped in its sleep.

In contrast to the oft-quoted ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ label, most of the students were funnelled out of the square by the enormous number of soldiers who went in to clear it, and Ma Jian makes this very clear in the book.  Nevertheless, this novel is (as far as I’m aware) banned in China, where any mention of the ‘June the 4th Incident’ is strictly taboo.  In my opinion though, the writer’s criticism is focused less on the events leading up to the clearing of the square and more on the blatant human rights violations both before and after the crackdown.  For those of us living in (imperfect) democracies, it’s only when we read about what actually happens in other countries that we realise how lucky we are to live in a country where two groups of professional politicians take it in turns to sort out the country and make snide comments at each other.

While the criticism of the ruling party is a given, what is a little more surprising is the way Ma Jian handles the demonstrating students.  Instead of a desperate, freedom-seeking gang of desperadoes, what we instead see is a horde of power- and publicity-hungry egomaniacs, each one afraid of being left behind in the latest shuffle of organisations and functions.  Dai Wei’s low-ranking role enables him to observe the power games from the inside and the outside, the ludicrous screaming matches over who is really in charge (while the tanks slowly roll towards the square) are reminiscent of the Iraqi Minister for (mis)Information’s denials of allied successes.

In many ways, this portrayal of the inevitable corruption of the students’ ideals is very similar to what happens in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – in Beijing in 1989, some animals students are definitely more equal than others.  As the student leaders lose their heads, arguing amongst themselves, changing their minds on an hourly basis and (some at least) kowtowing to the government, Dai Wei, the foot soldier of the student elite, strides through it all, hard-working, uncomplaining.  Just like Boxer in Animal Farm (and we all know what happens to him…).

Part of the beauty of Beijing Coma though is its pictures of normal life carrying on in less-than-normal circumstances.  They may be taking part in one of the most famous revolutions of the twentieth century, but that doesn’t stop the students from looking around for someone to spend a few quiet moments in a shady corner with.  Dai Wei himself is guilty of spending more than a few moments lusting after a fellow student (although when you think of what is to happen, you can hardly blame him).

Sadly, at the end of it all, we know what happened, and we know what is still happening.  Despite the protests, Tank man and the loss of the 2000 Summer Olympics, little has changed politically in China, and there seems little prospect of any progress in human rights issues in the near future.  However, if the Chinese people are looking for hope, they could do worse than look a few thousand miles to the West.  The current events in Egypt show that people will only put up with repression for so long…

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7 thoughts on “Political Sleepwalking

  1. Great review, Tony.

    I went to Tianamen Square in December and our local tour guide told us: “I know that you know that something really bad happened here but I cannot discuss it and you cannot ask me questions about it. This square is patrolled by secret police.” And then she just beamed this giant smile at us and started bombarding us with facts and figures about the buildings in and around the square!

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  2. I have heard of this book, but for some reason I didn't realise it was about the events in Tiananmen Square. Like Kim, I have been there and it is very weird to know what happened there, but for it not to be acknowledged. I am going to ensure I get hold of this book and read it. Thanks for drawing its contents to my attention.

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  3. It's a bit chilling to read Kim's comment, and to hear that young Chinese people don't know what happened. I wish everyone who whinges about “having to vote” in this country would think about what it would be like to live in a totalitarian state.

    I'm adding this to the list.

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  4. I've never been to China, and although I'd like to for many reasons, there are just as many reasons not to. We are very, very lucky people to live in relative affluence and freedom…

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  5. You write such brilliant review. Although I saw this book sitting on shelf yesterday, it was its thickness that stop me from picking it up. I am not sure when I would read this, but it does feel urgent.

    For all the reasons that you may have, I strongly urge you to visit China at least once in your lifetime. It's eye-opening.

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