China: waking from its ‘Beijing Coma’

Ma Jian’s gripping novel about Tiananmen Square, told from the point of view of a comatose, injured protester, vividly captures the years of slow-motion blackout that followed the government crackdown in 1989.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘The Square has divided into little kingdoms, each with its own student marshal team, each claiming to be the true representatives of the students… The government won’t need to break us up, because we’re doing the job for them.’

It is the height of the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. A student activist in Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is frustrated by the fractured student protests; just days into the seven-week occupation of the square in central Beijing, the protest leaders are divided by political infighting, power struggles and petty bickering.

In Beijing Coma, these events are observed and recounted, at times minute-by-minute, by the character Dai Wei, a medical PhD student and the head of security for student protesters in Tiananmen Square until the military crackdown on 4 June 1989. This, of course, is the date which, across the world, is commonly referred to as ‘the Tiananmen Square Massacre’, and in China as ‘the June Fourth Incident’. Some prefer to call it ‘the Beijing Massacre’ in acknowledgement of the fact that the military cracked down on uprisings across the city as non-students, too, protested against corruption and market reforms under the rule of Deng Xiaoping.

As the military tanks move into Tiananmen Square, Dai Wei frantically helps wounded protesters get to hospitals that are overflowing with blood and bodies, until he himself is shot at close range and falls into a coma.

He is paralysed, blind and mute, and – unable to let anyone know that he is still conscious and able to hear what is going on around him – he ransacks his memory as a means of escaping his body, which he describes as a ‘fleshy tomb’. Lying immobile in his mother’s flat, Dai Wei sustains his sense of self through his vivid memories. But while his mind wanders freely, the memories he preserves are being erased from society outside.

The police keep a close eye on Dai Wei and his mother, in case he wakes from his coma. Thus, if he were to re-join society, to wake from his coma, Dai Wei would likely be robbed of his freedom by the always-watching authorities. Ma Jian seems to be suggesting that, even in his vegetative state, Dai Wei benefits from a measure of freedom which many of his compatriots do not enjoy: at least he can continue thinking of the incidents of 4 June, and continue to appraise and reassess them.

Throughout Beijing Coma, and even in the title itself, Dai Wei’s comatose state becomes a striking metaphor for the political and media blackout in China after the 1989 spring. Some of the student protesters are still in jail today; families of activists are still monitored by the state; and discussion about what happened at Tiananmen Square is restricted by censorship. Through Dai Wei’s vegetation, Ma Jian paints a dramatic picture of a society standing still, blocking things out, becoming comatose.

However, it is not just the Chinese state that has distorted the memories of the 1989 protests and effectively muted the student activists. Western journalists and human rights campaigners have helped fuel an image of the Chinese students as passive peacenik victims; the workers and ordinary citizens of Beijing who also protested – sometimes violently – have been pushed to the sidelines of historical memory, as Western observers have transformed this into a ‘peaceful student protest’ that took place in one square alone. The famous image of the ‘tank man’ obstructing the military vehicles approaching the square has become an enduring symbol in Western liberal circles of the need to send our politicians and our forces to assist the Chinese, and other victims, who are being crushed by military power.

But if the disorganised and squabbling student protesters achieved anything, it was to demonstrate that a desire for, and potential to achieve, social change certainly exists in China. In Beijing Coma, the student protesters are propelled by the injustices suffered by their parents’ generation during the Cultural Revolution.

Dai Wei’s father, a violinist for the Chinese National Opera, was sentenced to 20 years in a ‘reform-through-labour camp’ after shaking hands with a visiting American conductor at his orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Dai Wei’s friend Wang Fei’s father was tortured and ended up in an asylum. His girlfriend Tian Yi’s father was condemned as a counter-revolutionary and her mother committed suicide after suffering the humiliation of having her pubic hair shaved by Red Guards.

Before the vivid descriptions of the 1989 protests, we learn of Dai Wei’s childhood in Beijing as a ‘son of a rightist’ and of a stern mother who is committed to gaining Communist Party membership and shaking off the social stigma of having been married to a man with ‘liberal bourgeois values’.

Dai Wei eventually becomes politicised as a student at Beijing University. As his political consciousness and activism intensifies, and the spring of 1989 draws closer, the accounts of Chinese student politics become more and more detailed and intense. Though we know from the outset what awaits the students, and Dai Wei, Ma Jian manages to hold the reader’s attention through suspense until the final moment of his 600-page novel.

It is widely known that the students and professors protesting in Tiananmen Square lacked a common leadership. The protests began with a student march in memory of the former Communist Party leader and reformer, Hu Yaobang, who had died a week before. Hu Yaobang had been forced to resign in 1987 following a series of student demonstrations for more freedom and reform. The 1989 protesters demanded democracy and an end to corruption, but, as Beijing Coma so vividly describes, the students were also naive and lacked integrity, constantly forming and dissolving new councils and committees. Their tedious squabbles, posturing and competitions in heroism and rebellion are recounted in minute detail by Ma Jian.

The students stage coups and set up rivalling broadcast stations, sending out mixed messages to the thousands of people gathered in the square. They accuse each other of siphoning off donations given to the student movement, and at one point, when things are looking particularly precarious, the leaders decide to split the cash and run, only to return a few hours later.

While some students want to focus on demanding political reform or calling for an end to corruption, others call for overthrowing the Communist Party. Some build primitive weapons in preparation for confrontations with the military; others insist that the demonstration must remain non-violent.

In Beijing Coma, the most striking proof of the lack of collectivism in Tiananmen Square comes when the student demonstrators hand over three men from Hunan, Mao’s home province, to the police. The men had thrown ink-filled eggs at Mao’s portrait, which hangs over the square, and the students were eager to distance themselves from this behaviour.

Nearly 10 years later, gathering around Dai Wei’s bedside, some of the former student leaders are still in disagreement about the purpose of the protests.

‘The Tank Man got a lot of attention, but no one talks about those three guys from Hunan who threw ink on Mao’s portrait’, says Liu Gang. ‘They’re the forgotten heroes of our movement. One of them got a life sentence, the others got sixteen and eighteen years. I only spent seven years in jail, but it nearly destroyed me. I don’t know how they’ll manage.’

‘But the truth is we were protesting against corruption’, Mao Dao says. ‘We weren’t trying to overthrow the Party or attack Mao. I think they took things too far.’

‘Well I was attacking Mao’, Wang Fei says loudly. ‘We had guts back then, but we lacked political foresight.’

Throughout the novel there is a cramping sense of claustrophobia; the students are trapped in the square, Dai Wei is trapped in his body, and his mother is confined to his bedside in her junk-filled flat.

Dai Wei’s own body is prodded, looted and assaulted. He is brought to various qigong masters who give false hope that they can bring him out of his coma. When rumours spread that his urine has healing qualities, people with various ailments queue up at his mother’s house to purchase bottles of the ‘miracle cure’. A student renting a room in his mother’s flat sexually assaults Dai Wei on the eve of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. Desperate for money, Dai Wei’s mother sells one of his kidneys to a wealthy colliery boss.

The ‘Tiananmen Square generation’, as Dai Wei and his friends think of themselves, is forgotten, assaulted and hollowed out, and China’s material development starts taking root. ‘As society changes’, Dai Wei observes, ‘new words and terms keep popping up, such as: sauna, private car ownership, property developer, mortgage and personal instalment loan’.

As China’s economy opens up, the people of Beijing find new opportunities and means of self-advancement. Dai Wei’s friends take part in these capitalist developments, and consequently distance themselves from their past.

Dai Wei’s childhood sweetheart becomes chairwoman of a company that bulldozes their old neighbourhood to make way for a new shopping centre. Yet as the walls crumble around Dai Wei and his by now mad mother – who is detained for a week after participating in a Falun Gong gathering – a new beginning looms, and China seems to start waking from its coma.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian, is published by Chatto and Windus. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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