Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Democracy Wall - China (1978)

I’ve run across references to the Democracy Wall in several books I’ve read about China over the past few years. I have this image in my head of a wooden board, posted in the middle of town on a wall, where people post things; opinions; items of local news; and maybe some swapping of goods and services, are all what I would imagine to be on that sort of thing. I envision it as something akin to what we have at the laundromats and supermarkets. But, I’m not really sure.

So, I’m going to find out and tell you about it. I mean, what are they reading about in the picture above; and where are the women? Was this photo taken during the Mao years? And where did the guy get that green jacket from?

Well, the answer to the first question; what is it and where; is pretty cool. The Democracy Wall actually sprang up out of one of the Communist Party purges, in which the people were encouraged to post their opinions concerning the Four Evils. At the time; shortly after Mao’s death; there was mass dissatisfaction on the part of the Chinese people.
In October of 1978; when these events occurred; the Communist Party was engaged in a campaign of "seeking truth from facts," which was a way of trying to get to the bottom of the way people were feeling in the aftermath of the death of Mao Tse Tung. As with most things in China at the time, and to a certain extent even today, the phrases are not always in line with the outcomes. In other words; what you hear is not always what you get.

Literally, thousands of Chinese citizens posted written grievances of protest on a stretch of blank wall located on Chang'an Avenue; to the west of the former Forbidden City, and close to Mao’s tomb. This site became known as "Democracy Wall."

At first the postings were news and ideas. These were in the form of the large character posters known as “daziba”; similar to the ones in the picture above. The first posting of note was by Huang Xiang. It was posted after he had planned the event and told 3 of his fellow poet/dissidents about it.  Those men were Mo Jiangang, Li Jiahua and Fang Jiahua. They arrived at their destination on October 11, 1978. They had a bucket of handmade flour paste and went to the alley off Wangfujing Avenue Beijing near the offices of The People's Daily. There they began to posting over one hundred of Huang Xiang's poems. The first posting was “The Fire God Symphony.”

With not much else to do, a crowd began to form and watch as the 4 men posted these writings and then they began reading them. A traffic jam ensued, calling attention to the event and bringing the police. When they arrived the crowd linked arms to prevent them from getting Huang; who then began to recite his poetry out loud. The crowd was dispersed but returned that evening to re-read the poems by torchlight.

This was a huge victory, and would have remained so had not the 4 men returned to the same location in November, when they posted another 70 yards of poetry; this time overtly dissident in nature. As a matter of fact, that particular 70 yards was on the fence surrounding the mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung in Tiananmen Square. Here is an excerpt from the first posting;

“Of course, internal problems cannot be solved overnight but must be constantly addressed as part of a long-term process. Mistakes and shortcomings will be inevitable, but these are for us to worry about. This is infinitely better than facing abusive overlords against whom there is no redress. Those who worry that democracy will lead to anarchy and chaos are just like those who, following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, worried that without an emperor the country would fall into chaos. Their decision was to patiently suffer oppression because they feared that without the weight of oppression, their spines might completely collapse! To such people, I would like to say, with all due respect: We want to be the masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors and we don't believe in saviors of any kind...we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators with personal ambitions for carrying out modernization want to modernize the lives of the people. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives.”

Now, this alone took balls, but then Huang crossed another line; one which would have severe repercussions for him. Dipping his brush once again, he penned the following two slogans right outside Mao’s tomb;

"The Cultural Revolution Must Be reevaluated!" and "Mao Zedong was thirty percent right and seventy percent wrong!"

Both of these sentiments were unthinkable; even two years after Mao's death. This was something which the authorities felt called for immediate action. Apparently there was a limit to what you could post. Moreover, he used his real name and address  and named Deng Xiaoping by name.

Accordingly, Premier Deng ordered Huang’s immediate “detention.” Now while you and I think of detention as being kept after school for a few hours, the Chinese have a completely different concept of the matter. Hence, Wei was promptly arrested and convicted of "counterrevolutionary" activities “. He was then “detained” for 18 years and not seen again until he was briefly released in 1993.
Even when he was released in 1993 Huang continued his activities by speaking to visiting journalists; which was forbidden by the terms of his release; and as a result he was imprisoned again until 1997, when he was granted Medical Asylum in the United States.

But what of the Democracy Wall today? While there is ample evidence and history of the Wall here in the west, it has been largely eliminated from all official accounts of Chinese history of the period.  Which is a shame because the event marked one of the first attempts by the Chinese government to right some of the problems caused by the reign of Chairman Mao. It should have been celebrated rather than erased. The whole event took place only a few streets from the offices of what was called the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee; which was engaged in enacting reforms.

As for the “Democracy Wall” itself, today there is no trace of the wall, no monument to mark the spot; as there is in Berlin to mark the places where the “wall” once stood. Rather, it is now a shopping mall with no evidence that the people who live, shop and work there are even aware of the history which happened where the fancy shops and boutiques now stand. And that’s sad; because without Huang and his 3 friends, those shops would not be there today.

And, as for the green jacket; apparently it has no significance. It’s just a green jacket. I suppose that; unlike the “Democracy Wall”; even in China, sometimes things are just what they seem to be. But I never did find out where the women were.

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