Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Tanks and the People

Jeff Widener/AP Images
A Chinese citizen now known as Tank Man, blocking a line of tanks heading east on Chang’an Avenue, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 5, 1989

Twenty-five years ago, before the Tiananmen massacre, my father told me: “Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party.”

My father knew what he was talking about. His courage had been broken, by countless political campaigns. Right after the 1949 “liberation,” in his hometown Yanting [in Sichuan] they executed dozens of “despotic landowners” in a few minutes. That wasn’t enough fun for some people. They came with swords, severed those broken skulls, and kicked them down the river bank. And so the heads were floating away two or three at a time, just like time, or like the setting sun always waiting for fresh heads at the next ferry point. My father left my grandfather, who had made money through hard work, and fled in the night.

Afterward he never said a bad word about the Communist Party. Even at the time of the Great Leap famine, when almost forty million people starved to death, and when I, his little son, almost died. He did not say anything. It was hell on earth. People ate grass and bark. They ate some kind of stinking clay; it was called Guanyin Soil [after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy]. If they were very lucky, they would catch an earthworm; that was a rare delicacy. Many people died bloated from Guanyin Soil.

My grandmother also died; she was just skin and bones. Grandfather carried her under his arm to the next slope, dug a small pit, and buried her. But Mao Zedong, the great deliverer of the Chinese people, would never admit a mistake. He just said it was the fault of the Soviet Union. And so the wretched people all hated the Soviet Union. Just because of their goddamned Revisionism [the label Chinese Communists used for Soviet ideology after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s], the Soviets had called back their experts and their aid for China!

Mao’s second-in-command Liu Shaoqi couldn’t stand it any longer and mumbled, “So many people have starved to death. History will record this.” For this slip he paid dearly. During the Cultural Revolution they let him starve to death in a secret prison. We have a saying: “Illness enters at the mouth, peril comes out at the mouth.”

But twenty-five years later, Mao had died long ago. I was barely thirty and didn’t heed my father’s warning. I admired the American Beat Generation, their spirit and their actions. I was “on the road.” All through China, in dozens of cities, dozens of millions of protesters marched on the roads. Most of them were younger than I was, they would never heed their parents’ warnings. Especially the “Pride of Heaven,” as they were called, the university students in the capital, who had occupied Tiananmen square for weeks, under the eyes of the world, heady with drugs—freedom and democracy!

But my father’s words came true, the Communist Party opened fire. When the tanks bore down, in a thousand terrors, I recited and recorded my poem “Massacre,” in a small town in Sichuan:

Shoot through their skulls! Scorch them! Let their juice burst out. Let their souls burst out. Squirt it on the traffic bridges, on the tower, on the railings! Let it splatter on the road! Shoot it into the sky and make stars! The stars are running away! The stars are growing legs, running away! Heaven and earth turning around. All humanity wearing shiny hats. Shiny, shiny steel helmets. An army group storming out of the moon! Shoot! Strafe! Shoot! This is great! People and stars falling together. Running together. Don’t know each other. Chase them into the clouds! Chase them until the earth opens, shoot and shoot into their flesh! Make another hole for the soul! Another hole for the stars! …

Not everything in my father’s words came true. After 1949, the Communist Party had caused almost 100 million unnatural deaths. But this time, people didn’t just rejoice if they survived, though humiliated. Some people fought back, although recording those acts was strictly forbidden, and so with time no-one remembered. But people finally fought back.

In the fall of 2012, I published my book Bullets and Opium in Taiwan and in Germany. It is about the fates of more than a dozen “violent criminals” of June 4, 1989. These were people who fought back against the troops enforcing martial law. Their weapons were rocks, sticks, and fire—primeval man against the equipment of the regular army. In this unfair confrontation, Tank Man appeared—Wang Weilin, as he was called. The pictures of his heroic stand went around the world.

On the night of June 4, there were almost a million unarmed “violent criminals“ trying to stop the army. At first, tanks and armored vehicles broke through the barriers. And then they opened fire, and everybody was screaming. Every shot drew blood; people were mowed down like weeds. One “violent criminal” who was jailed for nearly twenty years told me:

People in the West only know Tank Man because he stood all alone on a big road and stopped the tanks. It was a long column, spouting smoke, like so many farting bugs! Left and right they tried to detour around him, but he stopped them again. You are made of steel, I am flesh and blood, come on down, shithead! This scene has entered history, because there happened to be foreign reporters shooting it. I heard even old President Bush in America cried when he saw the footage. That night, there were countless people like the tank man, Wang Weilin, but there is no footage of them.

Tank Man was not one of the student leaders, he was no intellectual, nobody had ever heard of him. He left behind this short scene, an indelible historical icon, and then some people led him away by the arm. No one knows what became of him. More than 100,000 Chinese people went into exile after June 4. “Operation Yellowbird” in Hong Kong went on for years, helping people escape. But none of their lists included Wang Weilin. Even the people in my book who were given heavy prison sentences—none of them ever heard about Tank Man in their jails and prison camps.

My father died in the fall of 2002. At the last hour, he couldn’t speak any more, but he would fix his eyes on me, his son, the political prisoner. The police had searched me and taken me away in front of him many times. He died worried about me. Maybe in his last moments, when he couldn’t speak anymore, he still wanted to tell me not to provoke the Communist Party. Tank Man vanished into thin air—another proof my father was right.

Twenty-five years have gone by, we have all grown old. But Tank Man in these pictures is still so young. From far away, his white shirt looks like a lily in summer, pure and unblemished. Tanks stopping in front of a lily. A historical moment, a poetic moment. And on the other side of that moment, maybe three thousand lives were taken away, to be forgotten. For my book Bullets and Opium, I checked the lists made by Professor Ding Zilin and many other Tiananmen Mothers.

Lü Peng was only nine; she woke in the middle of the night from the shots, sneaked outside, and was hit by a stray bullet. Xia Zhilei was twenty-two, a university student from the south. A little past four in the morning of June 4, she was retreating from the square with the other students. They were already at Dongdan Street. Shots burst forth, and she stumbled and said: “Faster! Faster! Look for a place to take a break. I think I’ve been hit.” She grabbed her chest, but the blood gushed out under her fingers. Her girlfriends tore down her blouse and found the bullet wound under her left breast. The blood could not be stopped. It was still dark, and the troops were closing in from all sides. They didn’t know what to do, so they held her arms while she fainted, and on they walked, on and on. Minutes later, she suddenly woke up. Speaking to her friends, she made her last self-deprecating joke:

Students! My blooming season is gone. My name is Xia Zhilei, “summer’s bloom.” Those flowers of summer don’t last very long.

Twenty-five years have gone by, the sounds of bullets are far away, the blood has dried. But the world still remembers June 4, 1989. It’s like a person who is always daydreaming—he or she is weary, has forgotten, maybe even has doubts, but the events have become part of the memory trove of mankind. Because 1989 is a frontier in world history. The Communist bloc began to crumble with the massacre in China. And so there are records of June 4 in all the archives in Europe and America.

But who would have thought that this May, in the capital of China, there would be another outbreak of arrests because of June 4, 1989. In the apartment of Beijing Film Academy professor Hao Jian, over a dozen intellectuals had gathered for a discussion. Everyone was arrested, and five are still being held, because of the “severity” of their crimes: civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, social science researcher Xu Youyu, house church activist and former political prisoner Hu Shigen, blogger Liu Di (she was born in the 1980s), and Professor Hao Jian, whose cousin was killed in 1989.

These arrests were discussed around the world. To commemorate 1989 in a private home, and maybe also keep a counter-revolutionary diary: if such crimes are “provoking unrest,” then we have returned to the thought-police of the Mao era.

A few days ago, while being interviewed in Poland, I thought of the following story:

A married couple was in the act of making love at home. The husband wanted to prolong their pleasure, and so he thought of shouting “Long live Chairman Mao!” to keep himself in check. He shouted louder and louder, hundreds of times. It worked fine, they went on and on. But the walls had ears, neighbors called the police. The police came running and broke in the door. They were caught in the act, beaten severely, and treated with prison-camp “education” for four years, because of “spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda.”

My translator and the reporter snickered. But then they both thought we should not joke, in light of the dead of 1989 and of the people who have been arrested recently.

The reporter asked: “Mr. Liao, I guess your story was just a rumor?“

I said: “To commemorate a historical event in your own home, and be arrested for ‘provoking unrest,’ that sounds to me even more like a rumor.”

The reporter asked again: “Mr. Liao, do you think China has made progress, or has it fallen behind?”

I said: “No progress or falling behind, China has ‘soared into the sky like a thundering dragon.’”

The reporter said: “I understand. But Tank Man and the people in your book, they cannot soar into the air and fly away so quickly.”

—Translated by Martin Winter

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