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Tiananmen Square

Many Chinese no longer wish to remember the day when Communist tanks burst in to Tiananmen Square an

In March 2008, I returned to Beijing for a visit, the first in ten years. One afternoon, trapped in a traffic jam, I chatted with the middle-aged cab driver, a native Beijinger, judging from his accent. “This is no longer the city you knew,” he said when he learned about my visit. I had been repeatedly told that since my arrival.
“Is it becoming too modern for you?” I asked. The cab driver had told me that he grew up in a people’s commune next to the Summer Palace, and that his wife was a sanitary worker in the district.
“Beijing does not have its heart any more.”
I leaned forward, fascinated by this unexpected answer. The cab driver studied me in the rear-view mirror. “How old were you in ’89?” he asked. Old enough to remember it, I said. I was 16 when the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened. Did he remember it, too? I asked.
“Remember?” The cab driver raised his voice, and for a moment I worried that he was offended. “Every man in our neighbourhood went to block the tanks and army trucks. Would you be called a man if you didn’t go? My wife donated a whole month’s salary to the college kids on hunger strike at the square – not that she made much, of course.”
I was not prepared for discussions of Tiananmen Square on this trip. Old friends and neighbours whom I had seen earlier talked about, among other topics, real estate and stock-market booms.
“But what good came out of it?” the cab driver said, and honked at a car with a sudden violence. “In the early Nineties, when those provincial people came to town, my neighbours started to rent their extra rooms to them. I said, ‘Do not rent to the out-of-towners.’ Did they know what we Beijingers went through in ’89? All they wanted was to make money in this city. I told my neighbours: ‘Wait until their children grow up to take the bites out of our children’s mouths.’
“Guess what? It happened as I said. The out-of-towners gave birth to their children, the children went to school with our children, and now they compete for the best jobs, and feel they have the right to claim Beijing as their city. Let me ask you – do they care what happened in ’89? No, they don’t. All they care is about money. This city, I tell you: it doesn’t have the heart it had in ’89!”
The cab driver’s angry nostalgia moved me. I wondered if, 20 years earlier, he had been one of those young men pedalling flatbed tricycles to transport bodies on that night of bloodshed; perhaps he had helped push a bus into the street to block the tanks, had thrown bottles and rocks.
A few days later, I met an old friend, Lei, who grew up in the same apartment building as I did. Five years my senior, he was a college student when the protest broke out in April 1989. I remembered how he used to come to our apartment every week to report on the progress of the protest: parades, hunger strikes, slogans invented, new strategies of the students’ union, overnight dance parties at the square, romances between strangers. Yet, two weeks before the crackdown, he had withdrawn from the protest and announced his new goal: to prepare for the GRE aptitude test so he could go to the United States. He scored well enough in the test, but in the end he was not able to emigrate – for a few years immediately after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, only those who had relatives overseas were allowed to apply for passports, and Lei could not find such a connection to leave the country.

What did he think of ’89 now? I asked Lei at our dinner. In the past ten years he had become a successful businessman, with a consulting company and multiple real-estate properties to his name. He had gained weight, and looked like one of the plump, well-dressed men in the city, their cars and watches and clothes and wives showing off their status.
“It was all nonsense,” Lei said. “Aren’t we glad it was a failed revolution?”
Why, I asked.
“As a failed revolution –” he said, waving to dismiss the waitress standing next to our table. “There’s always that bit of history nobody can deny. Yes, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire. Yes, people were killed. But other than that . . . Let me ask you: if the college students – well, if we – had succeeded in ’89, what would China have become today? We’d have got a bunch of young, inexperienced corrupters to replace those old, experienced corrupters.”
“Was that why you left the square? That you thought it was not a good revolution any more?”
“Let me tell you this story,” Lei said, already a little drunk from the liquor he had consumed. “I was on my way from one part of the square to the other, where one of my best friends was on hunger strike. I was going to see him but the student security guard told me that I could not pass. ‘I have handwritten permission from one of the top leaders of the students’ union,’ I said to the guy, and he said the permission was no longer good, as the one who wrote it had just been ousted. He told me three other names and told me that only their signatures would count. Think about that. At the square the students’ union said that if one person refused to end the protest we would all stay with him and protest with him. See, there was no democracy there, only a wild party run by a few leaders. And innocent people died for the ambitions of those few.”
It was the first time Lei was telling me these stories. Perhaps, at 16, I had been still too young to understand the situation. I remembered people pushing buses into the street to block army vehicles in the late afternoon of 3 June. Shortly after nightfall the shooting began. My father locked my sister and me in while my mother went to the nearby intersection to gather news. At midnight she came home and cried. She had seen the body of a seven-year-old boy in his mother’s arms. A man had volunteered to drive the mother and her dead child to different neighbourhoods and military checkpoints; some of the soldiers had cried, too, he said.
“Of course I have ’89 to thank and ’89 only,” Lei said, more drunk now. He would have emigrated to the US, had it not been for the fact that he had not been allowed to leave China. “I don’t envy you because I live here, in my own city, in my own country, and I lead a good and successful life.”
I nodded, thinking about the cab driver who would not give up the memory of 1989. I suspected that most people in the country would be like Lei, ready to leave the dead behind and board the train, running towards a new, if uncertain, future.
When the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian gave a reading in New York City last year, a young Chinese woman angrily asked him why he would not let the Tiananmen Square Massacre go. Similar questions have been put to me: why do you have to write about the 1970s when China is no longer that country, the one of the 1970s? Why can’t you let go of the past and write about the glorious Olympic Games, or the strong and wealthy country that China has become?
My answer to the questions – imagine saying to Toni Morrison: “Why do you still hold on to history and write about slavery when America has long put slavery behind?”
In the past 20 years, China has grown into the China we know today partly because of 1989, and it is both fascinating and alarming that the refusal to revisit the events comes not only from the government, but also from the people, who seem to feel more at ease when they turn their eyes away from that history. Perhaps only those who lost their loved ones in 1989 will light vigil candles now. A line of an ancient poem, written in the 4th century, offers our ancestors’ wisdom on this: “The bereaved ones are still grieving but the others are already singing in happy oblivion. What is death but a journey back to join the mountain?”

Yiyun Li’s most recent book is “The Vagrants” (Fourth Estate, £12.99). Her debut short-story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”, won the 2006 Guardian First Book Award

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror