Millennium Post

The Year That Wasn’t

Some say the world changed in 1989. Probably it did, at least the world order that was bequeathed and birthed from the chaos of the two great wars. But the order was flimsy, and the fag end of the last century was a time that substantially altered the scheme of things. 1989 was the definitive year.

 1989 was a quarter century back. There were upheavals before – Prague Spring of May 1968 – but there was something pandemic about the tectonic shakings of 1989. There were tanks on the streets before, there were decades of labour camps in the name of Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. Globalisation was still a hazy word, a distant dream of international integration (economic, symbolic, festive: it still is). And democracy, at least in its pristine ideal form, was something desirable by those circumscribed by the fetters of official ‘communist regimes.’ China and then East Germany were such countries which, much like those during the Arab Spring of 2011, had caught on the cult of democracy (at least by their impressionable but also the more politically assertive and idealistic student populations). 1989 brought them out on the streets. The consequences varied.
 Tiananmen Square episode of 4 June and fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November were the two events that have projected 1989 out like a hologram of history, a strange peak of intense political awareness, activity, disillusionment and difference. While the memory of Tiananmen Square (it was a massacre of over 2,000 people, mostly university students) has been systematically airbrushed (although unsuccessfully outside China), the fall of Berlin Wall and the ‘Unification of the Two Germanies’ became the fulcrum of a future European economic integration, centred on unified Germany, which became the engine of growth and change. 1989 was the beginning of what global, also Chinese, commentators marked as ‘dramatic changes in East Europe’, with communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany and Romania collapsing by 1990. Yet, for People’s Republic of China, the political turmoil in Europe was initially comprehended as mere expressions of dissidence, which, in the wake of what happened at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 4-5 June 1989, could have been curtailed by brute force. Europe disappointed China, while the latter shocked the world, itself shrouded in historical ironies. The disintegration of Soviet Russia was just two years away.


 Despite the economic leaps achieved by China under Deng Xiaoping, who combined the ‘exceptional paths of political dictatorship and market ideology’, civil liberties and political freedom remained the casualties under a regime that had defined itself against the neoliberal, neo-imperial Western governments dressed to be internal democracies and external militias. Communist China, in the late 1980s,was pulling itself out of the backward drag of the years of systemic repression and gruesome killings under Chairman Mao Zedong. Deng’s vision of quickening the pace of China’s economic growth, however, did not have time or inclination to open up the society. Disaffection brewing among the restless youth slowly gathered enough heat to burst out in one massive and spontaneous expression of dissent. From April to May 1989, men and women, students, teachers, artists, ‘dissidents’, gathered around Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing in the first of its kind ‘pro-democracy’ protest in China. Some of the students brought in a statue resembling the Statue of Liberty in New York City and called it the ‘Goddess of Democracy.’ They placed it right outside the portrait of Chairman Mao. There were songs, dance, lectures, talks, speeches, brawls, and all that can be done to launch a peaceful campaign towards establishing peace. They set up a makeshift ‘Democracy University.’ They talked about French Revolution. It was a carnival that Beijing hadn’t seen before. But it was an ‘uprising’ that rattled the Communist Party of China enough.

Howling  for democracy, as seen in 2011 again, is a punishable offence in the eyes of the state. Tanks were sent on the streets of Beijing. Tiananmen Square saw the army open fire on unarmed protesters, lecturers, students, artistes, some on hunger strike, some sporting bandanas and some just there to witness the sea of people dance in throes of history-making. Thousands were killed. Official figure puts it at hundreds, but witnesses say over 2,000 perished. Thousands were jailed. Many fled the country, have lived in self-exile, living to tell the tale. Among the protesters there were Liu Xiaobo, Nobel laureate for Peace, who’s still in jail, Zhou Duo, the economist, Hou Dejian, singer, even CCP member Gao Xin, who wanted a peaceful transition to democracy. In the rueful words of novelist Ma Jian, ‘In the madness of 20th-century China, the Tiananmen protests were a moment of sublime sanity, when the individual emerged from the somnolent collective and found their true voice.’


 Even though 1989 marked a crisis point for communism, the Chinese government was happy to consider it as at most a major surgical operation to cull out the cancer of pro-Western call for democracy. However, the situation in East Europe left them confused about Europe’s own ability to continue with the socialist experiment. China, for long, believed that it shared a lot with East Germany and Soviet Russia, as all belonged to the socialist camp, a far cry from the neoliberal ‘democratic’ West. The diplomatic relations between China and German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) were established within weeks of their births, on 1st and 7th of October 1949 for China and GDR respectively. But for a brief spell in the 1960s, when GDR under Walter Ulbricht was having a momentary brush with partial opening up, similar to Nikita Khrushchev of 1950s USSR, China and East Germany had a cordial relationship, with frequent high-level diplomatic visits to respective countries. In fact, as late as October 1989, on the 40th anniversary of the founding of GDR, the vice-Premier of China, Yao Yilin led a delegation to East Germany to participate in the state celebrations.
 Yet barely a month later, the Berlin Wall came down. East Germans hugged West Germans. As the Wall was broken and entered, as bricks lay around as heaps of discarded history, China was perplexed. Its Solidarity Day and Beijing Week in GDR couldn’t stop the iron curtain from coming down. Europe was elated. America waited for another year to pronounce the ‘end of history’ and the ‘victory of democratic capitalism over socialism’. China was left twiddling its thumbs, even though the events were heavily censored in its territory. On 9 November, West Germany opened its borders and saw the flood of East Germans rushing in: their deprivation made them crave the junkiest of Western delights, pornographic magazines, food items, trinkets. Chinese media reported how ‘the check points in between East and West Berlin , at the border of the two Germany, and the various police stations in East Germany, were crowded with East Germany citizens applying to cross the borders.’ In Beijing, there were press conferences held on the ‘shocking changes’ in Berlin. Communist China had lost a cherished ally, a dear friend in East Germany.


 Till now, Tiananmen Square of 1989 is a taboo topic in China. Despite the recent overhaul in the once-a-decade change of guard in the Communist Party of China, the new top layer led by Xi Jinping, the memory of Tiananmen remains locked up in the dark. Histories are built on airbrushing of memory. As Milan Kundera says, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ 21st century China, despite well on its way to become the biggest global economy, needs to come to terms with its own demons to truly deserve international admiration.
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