I’ve been catching up this week with what happened twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square. Today is the 20th anniversary of the massacre – but I have realised over the last few days that my knowledge and understanding of what occurred in Beijing in 1989 has been negligible, restricted to a memory of an iconic image of a man with a bag (or was it a briefcase?) standing alone in front of a tank. [It has been brought to my attention after I posted this that he had a bag in each hand - the unreliablity of memory!] Who was he? What was he doing there? What happened to him? What were the tanks doing there? What was this ‘massacre’ about, in a far-off place about which I know almost nothing?
Of course I knew that China’s political system was oppressive and dictatorial – 9 men control the lives of 1.6 billion people – and that China’s attitude to dissent is typically totalitarian: imprisonment for speech-crimes and for any writing that questions the State’s values, systemic human rights abuses, and all the grim apparatus of State repression that the Soviet Union and China developed and made their speciality in the last century.
This was why I was opposed to the granting of the Olympic Games to Beijing – and why I believed that all the promises made by the Chinese government about an easing of restrictions on individual or collective dissent were worthless. Their reassuring words were lies - manipulative deceptions of a staggeringly naive Olympic movement, and those sponsoring Western businesses who sought to profit from this once-in-a-generation exposure to new markets; businesses that were happy to be deceived because, after all, it’s money that makes the world go round. And what are human rights compared with profit margins. It’s almost too easy to award the gold medal for cynicism to Western banks and corporate capitalism. (Though it’s since been established that those noble institutions were drugged up to their eyeballs with toxic substances and mainlining on consumerist greed, making addicts of us all).
When I spoke about China in April last year, before the Games, I drew the obvious parallel with the shameful Berlin Olympics in 1936 (cf. sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dcqwj2sv_7g3cn5ddx). But what has shocked me this week, as I have been reading about and watching programmes on the 1989 events, is both the ruthlessness with which the Chinese government murdered their own youthful citizens – crushing them with tanks, shooting indiscriminately into peaceful crowds, then removing bodies to destroy the evidence – and the ruthlessness with which knowledge of this bloody chapter of recent Chinese history has been suppressed. In their official histories and their museums, it is as if this event never happened.
In China you can’t Google it – Google have agreed to China’s censorship of certain areas within internet sites – and recently this year, right up to this week in the run up to the 20th anniversary of the massacre, China has blocked access to sites such as Hotmail, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Microsoft’s Windows Live, blogger.com, and message boards on more than 6,000 websites affiliated to colleges and universities. Knowledge is power. And so, knowledge is dangerous.
Nobody yet knows – and maybe nobody ever will – how many youngsters (and they were predominately young people in their teens and twenties who were gathered in the Square) were murdered by government troops in Beijing 20 years ago today. Estimates range from around a thousand to perhaps 3,000. (And nobody knows who the anonymous man in the photo is. Or rather, was). Throughout China there are parents alive whose children never came home. But who cannot talk about it. Cannot be allowed to mourn. Cannot be told the truth.
And part of the tragedy of those days – which are these days – is that so many in China have agreed to live with lies and self-deception and the erasure of memory. As the banned, exiled novelist Ma Jian (author of Beijing Coma) puts it: ‘The Chinese have made a faustian pact with the government, agreeing to forsake demands for political and intellectual freedom in exchange for more material comfort. They live prosperous lives in which any expression of pain is forbidden. When I talk to young Chinese about 1989, I am invariably accused of spreading false rumours and being a traitor to my nation. When I bring up the subject with my old friends, most of them laugh scornfully, as if those events are now irrelevant. But I know that behind this show of derision or apathy lies real fear. Everyone knows that attempts to break the Tiananmen taboo can still destroy a person’s life and the life of their families. The authorities, for their part, may have a monopoly of the nation’s resources, but they can never fully control the nation’s soul...’
The struggle between truth and lies is a spiritual battle within each human soul. We may seek the truth, about ourselves and the world around us, but our capacities for self-deception and for hiding from the facts of life are endless. And the wish to be deceived - for the sake of a quiet life, or material security, or supposed emotional stability – is deeply ingrained. The truth can set you free – and that’s why it is so desirable, and that’s why it is so frightening.
‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth’ – when President Obama spoke those words today in his long-awaited speech in Cairo, quoting from the ‘holy Qur'an’ (and you could hear that his Arabic pronunciation of ‘Qur'an’ was spot-on) there was generous and spontaneous applause from his invited audience at Cairo University. And that was what he was here in the Middle East to try to do, he said, ‘to speak the truth as best I can’.
It was, as one can expect from Obama, a masterful speech: clear, intelligent, both humble and robust, and embodying the principles of dialogue – respect for and a willingness to listen to the other, and a reciprocal attentiveness to the truth of one’s own position and a willingness to articulate it as openly as one can.
The fact that Obama was speaking in a country ruled (like China) by an oligarchic, authoritarian elite – a country ruled by means of a permanent state of emergency in which human rights abuses are systemic – cannot escape our attention. But at least this was a beginning. ‘A new beginning’, as Obama put it, in relations between the US and the Muslim world. And one where Obama was able ‘to speak the truth’ as best he could about the Palestinian situation, giving voice to the truth that the ‘situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable’ , while also reiterating that ‘resistance through violence and killing is wrong.’ And affirming the self-evident truth - evident that is to most honest-minded observers - that ‘Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.’
Obama is having to play a complex game with Israel’s leaders, in particular with Netanyahu – who was once described by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, as ‘devious, dishonest and completely unreliable’ in his dealings with King Hussein of Jordan when Netanyahu was prime minister last time round, in the 1990s. And can a leopard change its spots? And is the Pope a Catholic?
Obama has his work cut out in relation to Israel but so far seems to be playing a canny yet resolute hand. If he can continue to be guided by his understanding of ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth’, there may still be a glimmer of hope in that desperate, dusty patch of God’s good earth.