China's secret grief

Mourning the victims of the May earthquake has reminded a nation of the deaths it is forbidden to re

For three days in May, China's national flag flew at half-mast in Tiananmen Square to honour the victims of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China had publicly commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.

Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has been estimated at 80,000, the earthquake shook the nation back to life. The Chinese people rushed to donate blood and money and to join the rescue efforts. They rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.

Their grief, shock and confused solidarity recalled the hours that followed the Tiananmen massacre 19 years ago, when the Communist Party sent army tanks into Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement organised by unarmed, peaceful students.

The protests had been set off by the death of the reform-minded Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. College students had camped out in the square - the symbolic heart of the nation - to demand freedom, democracy and an end to government corruption. There they fell in love, danced to Bob Dylan tapes and discussed Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

The city had come out to support the pro testers: workers, entrepreneurs, writers, petty thieves. After the tanks drove the students from the square in the early hours of 4 June 1989, nearby shop owners turned up with baskets of trainers to hand out to protesters who'd lost their shoes in the confrontation. As soldiers opened fire in the streets, civilians rushed to the wounded to carry them to the hospital.

But even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee, the party was rewriting his tory. It branded the peaceful democracy movement a "coun ter-revolutionary riot" and maintained that the brutal crackdown was the only way of restoring order. As leaders of the movement were rounded up and jailed, people who had donated food and drink to the students during their six-week occupation of the square began reporting them to the police.

Realising that their much-vaunted mandate to rule had been nullified by the massacre, the party focused on economic growth to quell demands for political change. Thanks to its cheap, industrious and non-unionised labour force, China has since become a world economic power, while the Communist Party has become the world's best friend.

Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia.

Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is still recovering from a recent disaster. The western news media turned their attention away from political repression in China and Tibet, out of respect for the dead. When invited to speak at a London human rights event recently, I was asked not to say anything negative about my country.

But grief refuses to be channelled. It spills over. In Sichuan, it turned to anger as parents demanded to know why 6,898 school buildings collapsed during the quake while government buildings remained standing. As the nation continues to mourn, it will begin to remember the deaths it has been forbidden to recall: not only the thousands who were slaughtered in 1989, but the tens of millions who died under Mao Zedong's rule during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The government leaders know that, despite their efforts to erase history, the wounds inflicted by past repression are festering. With each anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre it becomes clearer that behind the bravado, the party is as fearful as a deer caught in the headlights.

This year, Tiananmen Square was patrolled once again by plain-clothes policemen, ready to quash any attempts to remember the vic tims of the massacre. People in volv ed in the de mo cracy move ment were removed from the city or placed under house arrest. Last year, editors of a news pap er in Cheng du that carried a tiny advertisement saluting the "Mothers of 4 June" were fired from their jobs. It turns out that the young clerk who had approved the ad hadn't grasped the significance of the date. She, like the rest of her generation, had been robbed of her own history.

Still, a few brave individuals continue to speak out and remind the world what happened. In 2004, the poet Shi Tao sent to a western democracy website a government document banning the news media from mentioning the 4 June anniversary. He was arrested and is now serving a ten-year prison sentence.

Two months ago, Ding Zilin, the head of the Tiananmen Mothers group, who lost her 17-year-old son in the massacre, opened a website - Tiananmenmothers.org - containing detailed evidence of the massacre. Only three hours after its launch, the Chinese authorities blocked it.

There is an expression in Chinese that says: "One can only stand up from the place where one fell." If China is truly to stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell. The regime must reveal the truth about past crackdowns and apologise to the victims and their families; release the hundred or so people still jailed for their connection to the Tiananmen movement, and the tens of thousands of other political prisoners. And it must introduce democratic reforms.

The Chinese people were reminded by the Sichuan earthquake that lives are not expendable and that deaths cannot go unmourned. Now they have to extend that understanding to the victims of Tiananmen.

This essay was translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The pro-democracy writer Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953 and now lives in London. Decried as "bourgeois liberalism", all his works are banned in China. His latest novel, "Beijing Coma" (Chatto & Windus), is the story of a student injured in the Tiananmen massacre

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times