In June 1989, a revolving cast of characters and ideologies met bloodily on the streets of Beijing to decide on a peculiar situation that had been set in motion by the Communist Party of China itself. A partial opening up of the economy 10 years before by Deng Xioaping had led to freak desires: in the first flush of global capitalism in the 1980s, the Chinese wanted capitalism under the aegis of the Communist Party. A coalition of students, workers, and the intelligentsia marched to Tiananmen Square to the cries of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Democracy,’ ‘End Corruption’, even waving the Red Book, in a confused call to the (then) 25-year-old party, that still had one foot in Mao’s China and the other, in a global economy.
Book cover: Tiananmen by Morgan Chua
This encounter is captured in a graphic history, Tiananmen, penned by a cartoonist of Chinese origin, who, 40 years old at the time of the protests, watched the events unfold on CNN, read about them in the Hong Kong papers, and was inspired to “pick up [his] brush again” as a means of expressing his response to the incident. “Each group had their own reasons to protest,” the author said in an email interview.
S Anand, publisher, Navayana, has brought out the book in India to commemmorate the event’s 25th anniversary. Why is Tiananmen on the international timeline in a way that many other Asian examples of state brutality are not? “The Sikh massacre (1984) or the Gujrat pogrom (2002) happened in India, which passes for a democracy, whereas China does not,” says Anand. Tiananmen, in fact, has been seen as the reason why “Communism is the last thing China has to get rid of to be modern like the US or the West,” adds Hong Kong University historian of ideas Daniel Vukovich. “Get rid of the Party state and then you’re supposedly free and normal.”
Chua’s new book (the book written in 1989 was published with additional material by Epigram in Singapore in 2014) offers a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the period that led up to the massacre; it also tells us what some of the key leaders on both sides of the divide are doing now. In the book, Deng has been shown to be at the receiving end of some of Chua’s best cartoon-speak.
While a tank mows down student protestors, a cheery-looking Deng summarises from his corner of the panel: “Don’t get excited! We are filming a sequel of the Big Parade!” as Chua finishes the thought: “… And those killed were student extras!” The then Premier Li Peng, who declared martial law in 1989 and ordered the crackdown, gets called “Deng’s pet dog”.
Student leaders Wu’erkaixi, Chai Ling, Feng Congde, Shen Tong, and professor Fang Lizhi get considerable space as well in the book. They are clearly the book’s heroes. However, the reader sometimes wishes Chua had introduced more complexity into his graphic history. His delightfully drawn but simplistic understanding of the students’ demands renders Tiananmen as simply a stereotypical case of ‘Communist repression’ and ‘betrayal’.
The book includes internationally feted cultural figures like filmmaker Zhang (‘Red Sorghum’) Yimou, still important in today’s China. A panel shows him with a student leader, discussing the possibility of a film on Tiananmen. Interestingly, China historian Viren Murthy who teaches Transnational Asian History at the University of Wisconsin, says Yimou’s movies of the 1990s are self-orientalising, “portraying an image of China that Western viewers want to see. What we have is an image of the oppressive Chinese villain or state against the helpless individual”. An establishment darling today, Yimou (he produced the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony), like many of the Tiananmen generation, has made his great leap and safe-landed.