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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: 1989@newstatesman.com. 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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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt