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China, 1989-2014: one woman's story

A Shanghai worker imprisoned following the Tiananmen events remains haunted by her experience, finds Kerry Brown.

A quarter of a century has passed since the events of 3-4 June 1989 in Beijing. There is still controversy over what exactly happened that evening and precisely how many died. But one thing is certain: the event just won’t go away. It seems the more the Chinese government tries to erase it, the more its stain becomes resistant.

Those who participated in the events around Tiananmen Square, and the many demonstrations linked to it across the country, divide into two groups: the committed activists who paid a high price by being either imprisoned or exiled, and those (many more) for whom their activities were a brief period of youthful rebellion. Most likely, the latter had no deep thoughts about the reasons for the protests or what their intention was; rather, they were caught up in the moment. For this group, life after the event was more straightforward: they compromised, got on with their lives, and in many cases conformed. A good number has been immensely successful and form part of the new establishment.

One element does surely connect people in both groups. This is that all live with their memories - and at least once a year, in whatever way, revisit and think about the meaning of that time.

Another, much smaller group exists, however: of those individuals for whom June 1989 continues to be a daily part of their lives. Sun Baoqiang is one of these. She is a writer who was based in Shanghai at the time of the uprising, and wrote a lengthy memoir of her experiences during and after the events: Shanghai Woman Prisoner, published outside China in 2011. The book tells how, when Sun was working in the local cooking-oil company, she was swept up in protests against corruption. The date of greatest significance to her is 6 June when she was involved in a protest in central Shanghai that brought her to the attention of the police, and led to her being jailed. This was the start of three years of incarceration, and a lifetime thereafter of carrying the label of "counter-revolutionary".

Sun’s account has all the grim humour and anger of a survivor bewildered by the situation she finds herself in. She was sentenced after the most cursory of trials, and describes the  separation from her young son as the most painful torture she faced (he was looked after by her husband while she served her sentence). There is in her account a degree of camaraderie amongst her fellow convicts, but also endless mean bullying, physical violence, and inhumanity. The simple fact is that Sun was - before, during and after her imprisonment - no threat to anyone; in most other cultures she would have been able to express her views without serious consequences. It was the very treatment meted out to her for her role in 1989 that turned her from a critic into an opponent of the authorities. It was a lose-lose outcome for everyone.

Sun makes clear at the start of her story that the status of political prisoner in modern China is a very distinctive one. Amongst her cellmates, this meant she (and anyone else with a similar label) occupied the bottom-most rung,lower even than murderers or thieves. But when Sun has a conversation with one of the prison officials, she is struck by their staggering ignorance of the politics they are charged with defending. The person she speaks to in late 1989 is unaware that Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had either retired or been removed from party leadership positions, and simply asserts that whatever the party says is true.

The long shadow

The party itself, in Sun's version, is very far from an abstract entity that occupies a rarefied zone of ideological and moral purity. It is rather a daily, living reality embodied by endless officials, who occasionally show sporadic flashes of humanity and at other times seek the opportunity to prosecute their personal vendettas. When Sun, on one of her husband's rare and brief visits, apologises for putting him in this predicament, he replies: "It is not you who need to apologise. It is the party."

That, in essence, is what many Chinese people still want - people who are similar to Sun, and whose memories of the 1989 events remain close to them each day. An apology, an admission that wrong was done, a simple declaration that using lethal force against its own students and citizens was wrong - this is what they want from the party. As long as some party elders directly implicated in the events live on, It is unlikely that that apology will come. But it is clear now that the shadow of 1989 is not going to shift. In this it resembles the pernicious smog that sometimes descends on Chinese cities, only to be blown away by strong gusts of wind. There are indeed plenty in the party who are thinking deeply about how to come to terms with the legacy of that time.

For people like Sun Baoqiang, June 1989 was a moment of searing spiritual agony and loss. All the economic development thereafter in China has done nothing to heal these feelings, and never could. In the end, it was a moment of revelation, exposing the party's decision over where its loyalty lay: with the good of the people, or with itself. The party, twenty-five years later, lives with the choice it made. Sun Baoqiang's book is but one eloquent testimony of the terrible price everyone had to pay, and is still paying, for the events of that long night in Tianamen Square.

About the author

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London, associate fellow at Chatham House, and lead member of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. He was formerly director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His latest book is China's CEO: The Rise of Xi Jinping (IB Tauris, 2016).

His previous books include Carnival China: China in the Era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (Imperial College Press, 2014); (as editor) EU-China Relationship: European Perspectives (Imperial College Press / World Scientific, 2015); (as editor-in-chief) Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography (Berkshire, 2014-15); Contemporary China (Palgrave, 2nd edition, June 2015); Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009); Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State (Zed Books, 2011); and Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler (World Scientific, 2012). Kerry Brown's website is here

Read On

Kerry Brown, Carnival China: China in the Era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (Imperial College Press, forthcoming, May 2014)

Andrew J Nathan & Perry Link eds., The Tiananmen Papers (Hachette, 2002)

China Studies Centre, University of Sydney


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