What does it say of a government that continues to be in power in spite of having ordered the massacre of thousands of its citizens, mostly young students, who had marched out to the streets 25 years ago to participate in peaceful pro-democracy protests? That its will to survive is severe, to say the least.

Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), one of the few organizations in the world to have successfully married political dictatorship with a free-market economy, has not only managed to last well into the 21st century but has also nearly succeeded in suppressing its blighted past by systematically rounding up dissident activists—putting them behind bars, banning their books and artworks within China, and instituting strict censorship policies that regulate the circulation of news around, and out of, the country.

Even as tributes on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre kept pouring in this week, it was business as usual in China, where prominent journalist Gao Yu (70) was arrested for disclosing a CCP memorandum that urged the press to avoid topics such as the party’s historical aberrations, universal values and freedom of expression. Gao is only one name in a long line of others who had faced similar reparations over the years.

Machines can be controlled and calibrated, but men and women tend to be less pliable, even when threatened with dire consequences, as the Chinese authorities have realized over the years. Chinese-born Ai Weiwei, one of our greatest contemporary artists, keeps making work that is subtly but intensely critical of the CCP. In 2010-11, the Tate Modern in the UK hosted his gigantic installation Sunflower Seeds in which Ai filled the entire floor of the turbine hall with hand-crafted sunflower seeds made of porcelain and painted over by individual artisans. At once simple and sublime, the work drew attention to the fate of the masses, living as faceless millions without a voice, under the iron thumb of a police state.

Other artists, who may not be as well-known as Ai, continue creating polemical work with as much conviction. For the past few years, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings (4 June), Hua Yong made it a ritual to appear before the police and attempt to stage a performance. It would involve the artist using his own blood to inscribe the letters 6 and 4 (alluding to the date of the tragedy) but getting arrested and imprisoned each time.

In this tradition of protest comes the work of cartoonist Morgan Chua, whose book Tiananmen has been just published by Navayana in India in a 25th anniversary edition. Chua, a Singaporean by birth, has been an interested observer of Chinese politics as an “Overseas Chinese". In a preface he admits of once being an admirer of Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic reforms until the Chinese leader let down his trust spectacularly by ordering the crackdown of June 1989. As Chua explains, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was employed with the Far Eastern Economic Review, his cartoons often tended to praise Deng’s work, but after 1989, their mood changed dramatically.

Although Chua’s book is a collection of cartoons satirizing the authorities and upholding the plight of the people, it is curated with imagination. Beginning with a chronology that leads up to the tragedy and continues well into its aftermath (from 15 April to 29 June), the volume moves on to pithy pen-portraits of the principle characters, both the villains and the heroes. Alongside Mao Zedong and Li Peng, the architects of the disaster, we meet student leaders like Wu’erkaixi, an ethnic Uighur now living in exile, and Chai Ling, the woman who was considered the “general commander" of the student protests and was married to a fellow leader, Feng Congde, at the time. Chua closes the book by updating us of the current whereabouts of the dramatis personae—some of them, as it turns out, may have been long dead, but their legacies continue to poison the lives of the living.

Between these two sections are cartoons that are extraordinarily evocative of the events of 1989: A PLA soldier killing a giant panda with a bayonet screaming, “We’ve no enemies to kill…so we kill ourselves!"; Mao in his jumpsuit woken up by bullets, only to be told by a choric voice, to go back to bed, it’s just another Cultural Revolution; or a scathing panel showing the various stages of transformation of Li Peng from being a prisoner in the Gulag to reformer to hardliner to, finally, premier. Executed in black and white, often with a wild frenzy of strokes and sharp lines, these images speak more eloquently than many written records of the events—one of the reasons that makes this historic edition a collector’s item.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.

Close