China on my mind
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 22: MoneySexPower
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Ellingsen
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Peter Ellingsen's biography and other articles by this writer
China shines. It radiates possibility. If it were a fashion it would be the new black. My problem is that I remember the old darkness. At least I think I do. Memory is an unreliable companion. All I really know is that until now I have avoided revisiting that night in Beijing nearly twenty years ago. Even though I lived in the city for three years and was married to a local Chinese woman, China has been a wasteland for me. Just before I left in 1991, I wrote that the place felt like a disease crawling across my skin. That was extreme. But then so was what I saw and what I have been unable to forget. These things, which are stored in memory, roar inside us. The night when the tanks rolled over the students in Tiananmen Square I was a journalist and I thought I could contain it all in a notebook; now I am a psychoanalyst, and I no longer know what name to put to what occurred. But I need to bear witness to it, partly because it was a crime and partly because my telling of it felt like betrayal.
That night was filled with terror, but none of the Olympic tourists who negotiated the guarded underpasses that block access to Tiananmen Square would have found it. Like the blood I saw soaking into the Avenue of Eternal Peace, it has been scrubbed away. China is particularly good at erasure. It has levelled the old Beijing, and with it, physical signs of the murder that took place there. I have done the same with my past – or tried to. Journalism taught me a formula for certainty, and for a long time I confused that with truth. Now all I have are stories, some of which may be true. It is only in the telling that I will know.
I am not sure what I expected of China when I first arrived in 1988 – a mixture of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and hip socialism, I suppose. After a while I got used to the scrutiny, although it never seemed normal, and I wondered how ordinary Chinese managed the lack of privacy that came from being spied upon by their neighbours. Once past the inhuman scale of the Stalinist edifices and the giant – and then largely empty – freeways, I observed a spirit of remarkable buoyancy. With a reform process in full swing, there was a sense of expectation. A week after arriving, I found myself sitting on the cluttered floor of a tiny dormitory talking pop music with students I'd met at a gallery opening. Much drinking and hand shaking took place, making it easy to forget that Beijing had been through upbeat cycles before.
As the summer of 1988 turned into the winter of 1989, rock'n'roll jostled with Tai Chi in Beijing's Ritan Park. It was one of a number of hopeful signs that offset the useless telexes I received each day from Xinhua, China's official news agency. Every morning, the news that China wanted me to convey was piled up against my office door in a grim high-rise apartment block near Tiananmen Square. In the tradition of the nineteenth century Board of Rites, set up by the emperor to manage barbarian affairs, it served to frustrate outsiders like me, forced to live in foreign ghettos guarded by the police, surveillance cameras and informers.
Outside the compounds, the narrow laneways where life was less monitored spawned tiny bars. They had names like JJs and were places where foreigners could mingle with the new generation. It was in these poorly lit alcoves and the homes of academics that intellectuals emboldened by the moderation of party boss Zhao Ziyang began to agitate for the release of those jailed during the last outbreak of hope – the Democracy Wall protests of 1979. Wearing bohemian black and chain-smoking, some of China's best-educated framed a petition to seek the release of the dissidents. This set the scene for a new protest, one that only needed a spark to ignite it.
That spark came in April 1989, when former party chief Hu Yaobang died, some said of a heart broken by the party. Hu had been an icon for China's youth. They saw him as sympathetic to their dreams, and when he was pushed aside, dying in disgrace, it prompted protests the like of which China and the world had never seen. As the weather warmed, students from Beijing's universities left their classes and began to march. It was a euphoric time. Each day I drove out of the city to the campuses on the fringe to look for the character posters urging change. They spoke of political reform – a dangerous idea then, as now. It felt like a celebration, but one of great passion and naïve intensity. Inevitably, the marches headed for Tiananmen Square, where forty years earlier Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People's Republic. In those days, you could just walk into the vast expanse of the square. It was open. People played cards and flew kites. Now it can be reached only through corridors patrolled by armed police. Like many of the cutting-edge skyscrapers that have risen around it, Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is no longer peaceful, or even particularly open.