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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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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