China’s Spring

Li Peng
Li Peng; drawing by David Levine

To stand, in early May, atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which guards the entrance to the Forbidden City, and look across the vast crowd of people jammed into Tiananmen Square was to have a historically new sense of what Mao called “the broad masses.” It was to this ancient gate that Mao himself came on October 1, 1949, almost forty years before, to greet the adoring “broad masses” upon the defeat of the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the founding of “new China.” Just the day before, in a declaration for the first plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he had proclaimed that

we are holding this session at a time when the Chinese people have triumphed over their enemies, changed the face of their country and founded the People’s Republic of China. We the 475 million Chinese people have now stood up, and the future of our nation is infinitely bright.

It was to be a new beginning, which for many Chinese promised the hope of delivering their country from the warfare, corruption, economic ruin, and seemingly endless and humiliating failures that had plagued every aspect of its history for so long. Through the selfless devotion of its people to socialism and country, Mao promised that China would be uplifted from its status as the “poor man of Asia.” He went on in his declaration to proclaim defiantly that his new government would

organize the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people in political, military, economic, cultural, and other organizations and put an end to the disorganized state characterizing the old China, so that the great collective strength of the masses may be tapped both to support the People’s Government and the People’s Liberation Army and to build a new China, independent, democratic, peaceful, unified, prosperous, and strong.

This past May, Mao’s dreams for China seemed far away indeed. Not only had most of the main principles of his revolution been annulled by reformers, but now Tiananmen Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of dissident free thinkers deriding the very party Mao had helped found and challenging the very notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Moreover, instead of marching in lock step from a single direction with resolute socialist smiles as they had done in the past, people now were spilling spontaneously down the Avenue of Eternal Peace from both east and west, where, with flying banners extolling bourgeois democracy; they converged chaotically like two turbulent rivers, and in the confluence of the square became a roaring crowd that swirled and eddied in changing configurations. Even in back alleys and surrounding neighborhoods of the city one could hear their clamor reverberating like the roar from a faraway cataract. The only place I had ever heard a sound like the one that rose from the vast square below me was in a crowded…

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