Erasing the past

Last week the international media did a good job of recalling the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Thirty years on from one of the most shocking examples of abusive state power it is difficult to register the same sense of horror and disbelief at the elimination of innumerable numbers of peaceful young demonstrators because so many other shameful events have occurred almost everywhere since then. But can we forget Tiananmen Square and should we allow it to be forgotten?

The history of the world is littered with blood and gore and it will never stop because we are just pathetic human beings. We may have huge brains and evolved so amazingly that we can now understand life itself and will soon be able to create it but the nature of man has hardly evolved. As human world population increases and land, food and water become scarce there will be more bloodshed as the powerful seek to control those important assets. They may well erase all of us while trying. For those who know, such as the relatively recently deceased Stephen Hawking, mankind as a species will disappear from earth, either through our own efforts or we will be knocked out by a massive meteorite, as it is assumed the dinosaurs were. That is why Hawking was so keen on the development of space travel and interplanetary discovery. Our future lies elsewhere, he believed. But since apocalypse probably won’t happen in our lifetime or even possibly our great grandchildren’s we have to get on with the matter of trying to survive here on planet earth, resisting all attempts to steal our power as individual beings.

Most of the coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Beijing killings focused on replaying that most indelible image of a single student risking his life in front of a line of tanks that rolled through the square. All of us watching the world news then had a sense that he would be crushed, but instead he was whisked away and has, apparently, never been seen or heard of since. The Chinese Communist Party has successfully erased that entire episode of the country’s history. It is reportedly not in the history books and if images and reports still exist in media files they must be in an underground fortress. Probably like everyone else from abroad who has ever stood in Tiananmen Square, I thought, “So this is where it happened.” The Chinese who lived it, though, won’t speak about it and so the young are ignorant. This fact of mass ignorance has been the other focus of media coverage three decades later.

It helps having a strong image or refrain upon which to hang a moment of history and make us remember. The image of Anne Frank, the young Jewish teenager whose face spreads across the cover of her still available published diary, is a starker reminder of Hitler’s wartime atrocities and of what could again happen than any formal text. The paintings of Francisco Goya of the bloodshed in Spain during the suppression of the Inquisition and the otherwise generally forgotten Peninsular Wars live on in the mind’s eye and influenced younger generations of Spanish painters, like Picasso, who continued to comment on the horrors of war in his legendary paintings of events in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. We know what happened in Spain through those vivid images and through the mesmerising poems of Frederico Garcia Lorca, for example, who was killed by Gen Franco’s forces, which went on to win the war and locked down Spain for the next 40 years. Chile’s terrible 1970s and 80s history of mass disappearances, ordered by Gen Pinochet, will never die as long as we can hear the beautiful music of Victor Jara whose fingers were summarily crushed so that we would never play again before he was murdered with 44 bullets. Only last year nine ex-soldiers were convicted on his murder and sent to prison. His music and his verse contributed to the success of that legal redress, and the fact that people outside of Chile remembered and cared.

Will China succeed in completely erasing its recent past? It will not, nor will the Communist Party exist forever, nothing does. But China will certainly be very effective in training people to think differently by ensuring they have what they need, in excess. “Full bellies don’t make revolution”, goes the adage. It is astonishing how easily people can be swayed away from their better judgement. None of the abuses of power would happen if ordinary citizens did not collude in it. The sad truth is that we can always be played off against each other because of self-interest and fear. We all need to recognise that and remember where it leads.


"Erasing the past"

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