‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life, especially in China.’
When I was a 17-year-old secondary school student, thinking about what I wanted to study at university, I decided that I wanted to learn a new and difficult language. I narrowed my choice down to four: Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I discounted Arabic immediately; as a woman I couldn’t imagine it would give me a wide range of options. At the time (in 1983) the Soviet Union seemed entrenched and I wondered where Russian studies would take me. I was also discouraged knowing that instead of an academic year abroad it was only possible to go there for three months. Japanese was appealing, and in the early 1980s, with Deng Xiaoping opening China and its economy up it seemed that there was a world of possibilities in East Asia. A year later my exam results were in and I was on my way to study Chinese at the University of Leeds and as part of that, a year as an overseas student at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Shanghai in the autumn of 1985 was not the city you would see today. The shiny futuristic Pudong was still farmland, there were very few cars apart from taxis and official limousines, a lot of old Shanghai still remained. During that year I travelled both with school trips (to Beijing and Kunming) and on my own (to Chengdu, Lhasa and Guangzhou). I got to know Shanghai, I poked around in the dusty corners of the city and when I needed a break I went to the foreigners-only Friendship Store or Jessica’s at the Jinjiang Hotel and bought nutella, croissants and coffee.
After I graduated in 1988 I spent about eighteen months working in the UK, and in February 1990 I returned to China, this time to Shenyang, to teach at a college there, but also to brush up my Chinese. At the time, it felt like I had been away from China for a long time, but looking back today after far more years it doesn’t seem long at all. I am also amazed at my younger self, that less than twelve months after June 4th 1989 I was heading back. Shenyang in 1990 was a lot like Shanghai in 1985-6. Visiting Shanghai later in the year I was struck by how much it had changed already. By 1996 the Oriental Pearl Tower was already open, but looking rather ridiculous and stranded in what was not yet the 21st-century city of today.
In some ways I feel a bit of a fraud writing about China these days, because I haven’t been back in so very long. But China has and will always have a special place in my heart. Even though Japan has been good to me, has been home for over twenty years, China got under my skin first. Hearing Chinese spoken around Tokyo by the many tourists that visit Japan now, it stops me in my tracks, opens up a different part of my heart and my mind, pings me back to those early days at Fudan.
So here I am again, marking June 4th, and this year it’s twenty-five years since the Pro-Democracy movement was crushed on the night of June 3rd and 4th. At the time it didn’t seem possible that the Chinese leadership would manage to hold on to power, that surely something would change. But I also remember in the months after June 4th attending public meetings with Chinese students studying in the UK, with human rights groups, and hearing the students speak of their aims. They wanted democracy. What would that look like? How could it be achieved? There were no answers. It was a dream. A wonderful, shining dream.
Twenty-five years later, the Chinese Communist Party still has its grip on power. There have been plenty of reports in the last few days about the Chinese human rights activists detained in the run-up to the anniversary, the international news broadcasts blacked out, the Internet search terms blocked. On CNN a reporter went to the campus of Beijing University and asked students if they knew what today’s date signified. They looked mystified, asked if maybe it was a public holiday . . . the reporter expressed his disbelief to the camera. Chinese students these days must be so ill-informed! Do they have no curiosity? How can they not know?
I would say, of course they know. They know at least enough to know not to know. The ill-informed student would spill all kinds of beans to the camera. The savvy student is cautious. They may not know as much as we think they should know, but this generation can find its way round some of the roadblocks China’s leadership sets up in cyberspace. They have smart phones and know how to use social media. They know not to speak to every foreign journalist with a microphone and a video camera. A people that has gone through all the upheavals that China has in the last sixty plus years knows what it takes to protect yourself against the Chinese Big Brother.
China doesn’t have the political freedoms the young people in Tiananmen Square dreamed about, sang about, died for. But while their leaders could slam the door on their demands, it couldn’t (and didn’t want to) slam the door on economic development, and so a lot of Chinese people have some of the freedoms spoken of, yearned for, in 1989, at least in the cities. (The ever-increasing gap between the cities and the countryside is another matter.) People have the money to travel, to buy the technology that connects them with the rest of the world. Not all of it, but quite a lot.
They know that today is not an ordinary day. They will know that their government is keeping the lid on whatever they can today. They may not know as much as we would like them to know, they may not be willing to blurt out their thoughts to a passing journalist, but today is not an ordinary day and I am sure people are aware of that. Chinese people have to develop antennae sensitive to what can be said, and to whom. To not have that awareness could be dangerous. Just because they know not to say everything we want to hear out loud does not mean they are not thinking all of it, and more.
In 1925, Lu Xun wrote:
‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life, especially in China. People with good memories are liable to be crushed to death by the weight of suffering; only those with bad memories, the fittest to survive, can still live happily on.’
To have come through the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution, and 1989, to be resilient through it all, a short memory, at least publicly, might just be the best way to get by.
June 4th 1989. Never forget.