Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Hong Kong still remembers

While the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown goes largely unremarked on the Chinese mainland, the people of Hong Kong turn out every year in huge numbers for a candelight vigil in Victoria Park (see a report of this year's event in the South China Morning Post). Far from fading in the memory, the public response seems to have been getting stronger in recent years, with Monday's crowd being the biggest ever - organisers estimate that around 180,000 people took part. [Here's a video report on this year's vigil.]

Fang Zheng, one of the most famous victims of the Beijing crackdown (his legs were torn off when he was run down by a tank on Chang'an Avenue, not far from the Party leaders' residences at Zhongnanhai - an incident that Deng Xiaoping always sought to deny), was among those in attendance this year.

There was also an excellent article in The Washington Post yesterday - by He Xiaoqing, a Chinese history lecturer at Harvard who specialises in studies of the Tiananmen crackdown and its aftermath - about the work of Ding Zilin's Tiananmen Mothers group (here's a link to their Chinese website; or you can register your support for their efforts here), which concludes with the observation:

The moment a government orders its army to fire on its own people, it loses its legitimacy; when a regime tells its people that human lives and human rights, human dignity and human decency can be “sacrificed” for the sake of higher goals such as national pride and economic development, it sends the message that any principle can be compromised for the ideals of “get rich” and “rising.” Such mentality has become the root of major social and political problems in the post-Tiananmen China.

[I also just turned up this fine essay from the Tiananmen Mothers, first published a couple of years ago, and still available on the Human Rights in China website. This year's message from the group, also on that site, laments the sorry lack of progress towards acknowledgement and redress of the crimes of June 4th over the last decade, but notes rumours that Wen Jiabao - the only member of the current leadership who seems to be sincerely an advocate of reform - has in the past year again been arguing behind closed doors for such an initiative. In the current climate of insecurity, I can't see him making any progress to that end. Indeed, my gut feeling is that it will probably take another decade or two - if it happens at all. But we must all keep lobbying for it. For me, the issue is not so much about showing respect for the victims and their families, but about whether you can found the future progress of the nation on LIES. The continuing cover-up on Tiananmen is shackling China's development - it has got to STOP one day.]


moniker said...

Hi, I have been on and off looking at your blog entries for a while and I was wondering how you came about going to China in the first place. Did you need a change of scenery, or did you have a skill that brought you there? I was also wondering if you, in all honesty, like it there, or not? I know these are big questions that maybe you wrote about in other places, and you could direct me to those places if you wish.
It just seems such a different culture from the England you apparently grew up in, and I was wondering what the appeal is.

Froog said...

Well, yes, why I went to China is a very big question. My fascination with the place dates back to my early childhood. I have dealt with this personal history of 'China & me' in two LONG posts, here and here.

Whether I like the place or would recommend anyone to come and live here is a very difficult question too. There's still a lot about China that I love, but I have become very disillusioned with it in the last couple of years. I am particularly stale on Beijing: most of what I loved about the place - including the low cost of living! - has been swept away in the rush to modernisation.

The main thing I dislike about the country, though, is its political culture; and you tend to be more forcefully, more continuously reminded of that when you live in the capital. There are other places I would consider living instead, for a different (and hopefully less stressful) kind of China experience - Kunming, Dali, Xiamen, Suzhou, maybe Changsha, maybe Shanghai. Or some of the smaller and less developed cities.

Some of the sources of my dissatisfaction with the country go wider and deeper, though, and would perhaps oppress me just as much wherever I tried to live. It's difficult to make a living, because corruption and penny-pinching and the guanxi principle are so ubiquitous. Excellence at what you do isn't worth much; marketing isn't worth much. Everything depends on personal introductions and favours-for-favours. Everybody skims money off for themselves; everybody expects backhanders; nobody wants to pay a proper market rate for any skill or service. And there's no rule of law here, and just about no underlying moral culture: you really can't trust anyone, you must always expect to get screwed by an employer or a business partner sooner or later, and there's usually bugger-all you can do about it.

Racism/xenophobia is very deeply ingrained as well; and it is quite often deliberately whipped up by government propaganda to cement national unity and divert attention away from the country's domestic troubles.

And the environment is utterly toxic. It's terrifying how many people I know - young, healthy people - who've gone down with serious health problems while living there. Cancer rates would be going off the scale, if anybody kept accurate statistics of such things. I've had some major health worries of my own over the past few years; I am feeling enormously better after less than a fortnight back in a more normal environment.

So, I've convinced myself that it's a good time to leave. And I can't therefore recommend it to anyone else as a place to attempt to live and work long-term. Just for a year or two, just to sample the experience - OK. But you have been warned...

moniker said...

I myself have never had an interest in China but I wondered how you ended up there.
Good luck with this new chapter in your life.

moniker said...

Hi again-
Off topic but...I thought of something that you might like since you do enjoy film. Roger Ebert is the foremost film critic in the U.S. and both his website and journal are very well written. He's had severe cancer surgeries so he cannot talk but he does still write, and the website is full of interesting things to read

John said...

Tienanmen will arguably always be the most notorious atrocity (in a single act) by a government and be something that China is infamous for for a long time yet. The man nicknamed "Tank Man" has done more than anything else to establish and bolster this fact. It's ironic then that this single event during the period was non-violent; it's of course the symbolism in the footage that gives it its magnitude. In fact it's something of an image of hope, of standing against power. We all know though how fleeting that rebellion was but how much does the average person know about what happened? Not a lot is the answer you'll most likely find.
My point is that even though Tienanmen was a terrible occurrence it is still one atrocity among many by many governments. One photo and ignorance of the facts makes it the most well known but as I write this massacres are occurring in Syria and they have been for a good few weeks now. But they will end, things will move on, a lot of the world will forget, if they ever knew at all. But, ask anyone about Tienanmen or just China even and it's there straight away- massacre, that picture of the man standing in front of tanks etc.; unless you live in mainland China of course but that's another story. Infamy is incredibly strong and long-lasting but so often is built on half-truths and inaccuracies, I find it very interesting.

Froog said...

Yes, I do look at Roger Ebert's stuff from time to time. His catalogue of film clich├ęs is great fun.

Froog said...

The feebleness of the international community's response to the Syrian atrocities is shaming; but it's probably rather more robust and outspoken than the response to Tiananmen was. And the Assad regime has surely become untenable, can't hang on for very much longer. Let's hope not.

What makes the Tiananmen crackdown uniquely important is the scale of the protests (they went on for over six weeks, and came to involve hundreds of thousands of people in the capital, many millions across the whole country; it was probably the largest mass movement of its kind in history), the scale of the response (entire armoured divisions being turned against the population of the capital, deaths and serious injuries probably running to at least several hundred, possibly well into the thousands), and the fact that so much of it was caught on television and watched all around the rest of the world. And also the fact that nearly a quarter of a century on, the same regime is still in power.

JES said...

Speaking as a very distant (and not particularly well-informed) observer of both incidents, I might mention one other difference between the Syrian crackdown and the Chinese: the government behind the former seems to have taken the position, "What crackdown?"; the Chinese authorities seem to have reacted much more truculently, along the lines of, "So we cracked down. What business is it of YOURS?!?"

Froog said...

A fair point, JES.

The Syrian situation seems to be a full on civil war, and mostly happening well away from the cameras of the international press. The Tiananmen crackdown was more of (monstrously heavy-handed) police action. And, happening right in the heart of the nation's capital, of course a lot of it was going to get caught on film.