4 / The Biopolitical Square: Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma
With Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008), Tiananmen receives its fullest treatment in literature to date—as at once history and myth. Of all extant Tiananmen fictions, this is the work that stays closest to social history, minutely tracking the rise and fall of the student pro-democracy movement; at the same time, it is the work that most powerfully distills Tiananmen’s political significance, epically charting the macro history of the communist state but insistently foregrounding 1989’s enduring legacy within it. As the most recently published book among those examined in this study but also the densest one textually, Beijing Coma merits its own route of engagement. Hence, in direct reversal from my first chapter on Gao Xingjian, for whom authorial reception and discursive context were thickest, here I will tunnel backward from the novel itself to the earlier, wider, and still abiding debates around Tiananmen. In the first part, I focus on the novel’s central themes of intergenerational memory and its severance, biopolitical and capitalist cannibalism, and most crucially for Ma, the continuous regime of sovereign biopower in the long span of communist history. In the chapter’s second half, I will use the novel as a prism through which to recall and reexamine Tiananmen’s fraught historiography, from the initial mythologies surrounding the June 3–4 massacre itself to the subsequent diasporic image wars over the “radicalizing” of student leadership. Fiercely intervening on these debates, Ma fictionally retraces the students’ steps out of the Square to the site of their deaths but symbolically overlaps this scene with our current moment of China’s economic ascendance—so as to herald a national as much as global future for which Tiananmen will again be a crux point, forking down the paths of either a lingering comatose life or a reactivation of the utopian polity.
Part I. Tiananmen Cannibals and Biopower
THE TIANANMEN MOTHERS AND INTERGENERATIONAL MEMORY
I began the previous chapter by discussing the international and cross-cultural politics of historical memory and knowledge production about Tiananmen via Antony Thomas’s documentary The Tank Man. What this film (or Annie Wang’s Lili) does not bring to light is the split within China itself between pre- and post-Tiananmen generations—and the rupture in historical consciousness along not a geographical horizon of East-West but the vertical relation of parents to children. This intergenerational understanding of China’s historical amnesia can serve to return the locus of agency, and that of responsibility, for collective memory back to the Chinese themselves. It is therefore no accident that the trope of parentage, with all its connotations of an endemic bond and endogenous transmission, comes to be precisely the one deployed by democracy activists within the PRC who continue to labor for Tiananmen’s official recognition and memory.
Most well-known in this context is the Tiananmen Mothers organization. Founded by Ding Zilin, a retired philosophy professor whose teenage son and only child was shot and killed on June 4, this group actively campaigns to disseminate information and educate the public about the massacre both within and outside of the PRC. Despite its name, the Tiananmen Mothers comprises not just mothers but also fathers, relatives, and friends of Tiananmen victims. The nominal emphasis on parenthood, however, and maternity in particular, is not so much a misnomer as a symbolic invocation highlighting the intense sense of familial loss, generational severance, and reproductive breakage caused by the massacre.
It is with similar overtones that the writer Liao Yiwu records an interview with a “Tiananmen Father” in his recent collection of oral histories, The Corpse Walker. In this interview, Wu Dingfu narrates how he learned of the Beijing massacre and his son’s death in it only days after June 4, through fragmentary briefings by Party officials in his provincial hometown. “Xinjing is a small town,” he tells Liao. “The Communist Party did a good job of blocking news. We didn’t know anything about the killings.” As Liao bitterly comments: “The whole world saw the tapes of the bloody crackdown. The Chinese were the last ones to learn the truth” (223). In this instance, the failure of intergenerational knowledge runs in a reverse direction, with the father being denied information about the circumstances of his son’s death. Yet Liao also suggests it is the bereaved parents like Wu who ultimately act as the most powerful narrators and cultural memorialists of Tiananmen, who most directly safeguard and transmit the massacre’s memory for China’s succeeding generations. In this light, the stories of Tiananmen parents and the work of the Tiananmen Mothers organization perform not only a personal task of mourning but also a political task of historical recovery. These Tiananmen parents endeavor to reestablish a connection not only with each other but also with their children’s generation in order to keep alive familial as well as national memory, converting what is otherwise a purely biological and cultural relation of parenthood into an oppositional political identity.
In her work on the dynamics of cultural memory of the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch proposes a resonant theory of postmemory—“the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the stories and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right” (“Projected” 8). As we saw in chapter 2, Hirsch’s analysis focuses on photographs as one primary medium through which postmemory is produced, as later generations come to construct cultural narratives of their past via “encounters with images that have become generally familiar, perhaps even pervasive, in contemporary memory” (“Projected” 4). In the case of Tiananmen, the Tank Man photograph is surely one of those familiar and pervasive images of 1989, but as we saw in the last chapter, the contemporary Chinese encounter with it occurs within a framework significantly different from Hirsch’s. Instead of instant identification with an overly familiar and iconic image, there is nonrecognition, hesitation, disidentification; instead of adoption of a prior generation’s traumatic experiences as a social and political act of cultural memory, there is intergenerational separation, orphaning, forgetting. Whether or not the Tank Man image truly holds a memorial power for today’s Chinese youths, the atmosphere bespeaks a breakdown of postmemory around Tiananmen.
It is in response to this situation that Ma Jian writes his novel Beijing Coma. He, too, perceives the generations growing up after June 4 as having neither personal nor cultural memory of Tiananmen, for their parents, whether out of fear or protectiveness or pure self-survival, have for the most part not passed down the legacy of this history to them. Like Ding Zilin and other activists, Ma invokes the trope of generationality as key to the political reclamation of Tiananmen, calling this breakdown of historical memory duandai, the severing of generations (qtd. in Zeng). As he asserts in one interview: “The Chinese people have been forced to forget the Tiananmen massacre. There has been no public debate about the event, no official apology. The media aren’t allowed to mention it. Still today people are being persecuted and imprisoned for disseminating information about it” (“China’s Olympic”). In his own life, Ma has firsthand experience with duandai in relation to his own daughter, who refuses to visit him in his London home and disapproves of his democracy-leaning views, having, he believes, absorbed too much of the CCP’s propaganda. “There is an inescapable bond,” he notes. “But if I wasn’t her father I would be the kind of person she would have nothing to do with” (qtd. in Edemariam). Yet for Ma, the phenomenon of duandai is not confined to the post-Tiananmen era but extends far back, beyond the Tiananmen generation and even his own, into his parents’ generation. His grandfather was a landlord executed during the Cultural Revolution, but his father never spoke of this family history, a pattern of intergenerational silence not atypical of Cultural Revolution survivors. Ma recalls visiting his ancestral village but finding neither gravestone nor living witness to illuminate his grandfather’s past: “I couldn’t ask why was he arrested, who arrested him, where was he taken, how exactly did he die—there was no way of finding out. But it made me understand why my father lived in such fear all his life. And it was only when my father died that I found in his drawer a self-criticism he’d written, and realized that he lived in constant fear of being arrested” (qtd. in Edemariam).
This experience of recurrent familial severance will become the thematic entry point for Ma’s portrait of his protagonist, Dai Wei, in Beijing Coma. Like Ma himself, Dai Wei is a pivotal character anchoring two vectors of duandai in communist history: as a son repulsed by and estranged from the broken man that his father was, he illustrates the post-Mao generation’s backward amnesia about the Cultural Revolution and the suffering it spawned; as a minor student leader in the Tiananmen movement who gets shot in the head during the massacre and becomes a comatose patient for the next ten years, he personifies the forceful incapacitation of forward memory and the severing of knowledge in the post–June 4 period. In this novel, Tiananmen as history comes to fruition in literature. Although all the writers in my study address Tiananmen in their works, the movement and the massacre have largely been taken up as a vehicle for other concerns or critiques, whether existentialist or diasporic, feminist or capitalist. Of all the Tiananmen fictions, Beijing Coma is the most immanent to the student movement. It brings Tiananmen back full circle, from Gao Xingjian’s intellectual-philosopher, Ha Jin’s scholar-student, and Annie Wang’s woman-hooligan back to the core of the movement’s origins: student life. Moreover, where the other works emphasize the necessity or outcome of flight, Ma’s alone insists on the geographical and conceptual return to, and reoccupation of, the Square as the symbolic place of the Communist Party’s despotic past and present as well as of Chinese democracy’s future struggle. In this sense, Ma is the diasporic writer who most fully embodies the brand of pro-democracy politics that has survived Tiananmen, both perilously within the PRC among such dissident intellectuals as the drafters of Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo chief among them, and also overseas in such activist groups as Human Rights in China. As such, Ma represents a significant mode of cultural politics in the Chinese literary diaspora, one that mediates discourses of democracy and human rights between the PRC and the West. Above all, Ma’s is the fictional work that gives fullest significance to Tiananmen as a biopolitical event. As his novel argues, the genealogical scope of Tiananmen is not limited to the protests leading up to June 4 but extends back to Mao’s time and forward into the post-1989 decade, beyond Deng Xiaoping’s reign. Likewise, the boundaries of this half-century-long and still ongoing event stretch beyond the Square itself, fluidly constituted and dissolved in rural pockets during the Cultural Revolution and surreptitiously reconstituted in urban centers’ private homes in the new millennium. The Square of 1989, however, remains the most visible site of the communist state’s sovereign biopower, so it is here that Ma devotes the bulk of his novel to capturing, even as he increasingly unhinges this biopolitical paradigm from its material space and time and reproduces it as a general condition over China today. His central metaphor for this totalitarian biopolitics is cannibalism.
BIOPOLITICAL AND CAPITALIST CANNIBALS
Han Dongfang, the labor activist who helped to organize an independent workers’ union during the Tiananmen demonstrations, has aptly compared the 1989 movement to the eating of something raw: “I compare the 1989 Democracy Movement to an unripe fruit. People were so hungry that they were desperate. When they suddenly discovered a fruit, they pounced on it, and swallowed it whole. Then they got a stomach ache and a bitter taste in the mouth. So should they have eaten the fruit? You can say they shouldn’t have, but they were hungry. And if you say that they should have, what they ate was still green, inedible” (“Gate”). Neither naively heroizing nor complacently superior, Han sympathetically voices the quandary of those who are compelled to make a premature and ultimately self-wounding choice out of desperation. Literally in Chinese, the unripe fruit of Tiananmen is “a thing that cannot be eaten” (bu keyi chi de yige dongxi) but nonetheless is.
This portrait of a malnourished society’s self-injury through the metaphor of bad ingestion may be traced to a more sinister literary antecedent: Lu Xun’s famous allegory, in the story “A Madman’s Diary,” of feudal China as a cannibalistic society where the strong devour the weak. As Gang Yue writes in his thematic study of hunger and cannibalism in twentieth-century Chinese literature, “In the grand narrative of revolution, the old China was a monstrous human-eating feast; only through revolution could the oppressed masses free themselves of that devouring system and transform it into egalitarian revelry” (2). It would be the ironic but double fate of Lu Xun to be enthroned as a communist national icon while his iconoclastic allegory comes to be appropriated by later writers to critique the exploitation, corruption, and cruelty of the communist state itself. As Perry Link elucidates, a number of PRC writers of the late 1970s and 1980s already began to raise anew the theme of cannibalism, in the form of organ harvesting, as part of the post–Cultural Revolution wave of exposé narratives about Party abuse of power (147). For instance, in Cao Guanlong’s 1979 short story “Three Professors: Fire,” a young death-row prisoner is fed on a specially rich diet so that his eyes may be kept healthy for their eventual transplant to a Public Security Bureau director. Mass cannibalism is further suggested in Hong Ying’s 1997 memoir Daughter of the River (originally entitled Daughter of Hunger). Where Lu Xun ends his story with “save the children” as an impassioned plea for a more egalitarian future, Hong Ying underscores the failure of children’s salvation when the human casualties of disastrous national policies such as the Great Leap Forward encompass not just the millions who died of starvation during the famine years but also, more obscurely and horrifically, those kidnapped children whose flesh was used as dumpling stuffings at local shops (68). In contemporary Chinese fiction both within the PRC and in the diaspora, cannibalism is no longer feudal but socialist, and more recently, capitalist—as in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine—leading Michael Berry to aptly call Lu Xun’s vision “as much a prophecy for the future as it is a commentary on tradition” (1).
In the wake of Tiananmen especially, there has been an intensified literary revival of the cannibalism theme. As I noted in the introduction, Mo Yan’s novel is a prime example. In the diaspora, the seminal text may be Zheng Yi’s Scarlet Memorial, a literary exposé that draws on local archives and firsthand interviews to detail the widespread, systematic, and Party-incited cannibalization of “class enemies” in the Guangxi Autonomous Region during the Cultural Revolution. Himself a former leader of the 1989 movement who has since fled into exile, Zheng Yi connects the innumerable cases of politicized murder and cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution with the June 4 massacre: both moments are awash in state-sanctioned blood, and both require witnessing and recording to “counter the cover-up” by the communist government (29–32). It is Zheng Yi’s grisly investigative work, combined with his grim vision of a continuous thread of cannibalism throughout PRC history, that underlies Beijing Coma’s engagement with this theme. In this intertextual relation, we can in turn grasp the extent of Ma Jian’s self-alignment with the dissident politics of post-Tiananmen pro-democracy activism.
“They ate Director Liu,” a doctor tells Dai Wei in 1984, by way of recalling the events of 1968 in a Guangxi labor reform camp. Dai Wei’s father, a professional violinist who had performed in the United States before repatriating to China after 1949, had been branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution and been sent to the Guangxi Overseas Chinese Farm for two years. Now, some two decades later and three years after his father’s death, Dai Wei is on a journey to learn more about his paternal past. Director Liu had been the farm’s supervisor, a Malaysian Chinese who had likewise repatriated, and one of the few who befriended Dai Wei’s father despite the latter’s political branding.
At the doctor’s words about Director Liu’s fate, Dai Wei, instantly recoiling and groping for some familiar explanation, offers a moment from his father’s journal: “My father told me that, of the three thousand rightists sent to the Gansu reform-through-labour camp, 1700 died of starvation. Sometimes the survivors became so famished that they had to resort to eating the corpses” (54). Hearing this account, we as readers will think to ourselves as Dai Wei does that, yes, cannibalism exists, but it is an instinctual act, motivated purely by the desperate will for biological survival; it is animalish behavior to which human beings become susceptible under extraordinarily dire privations. Some intellectual comfort can be derived from this appeal to instinct and circumstance, species drive and natural catastrophe, aberration and emergency. On this view, cannibalism, though horrific to the modern sensibility, can nonetheless happen anywhere, to any human community, for it is a fact of biology, but only one under extreme conditions.
Ma, however, does not rest with this view. Instead, he proceeds to outline, through the doctor’s memorializing voice, a much more problematic category of cannibalism, one that is a direct consequence of state policies and properly biopolitical:
“Here in Guangxi it wasn’t starvation that drove people to cannibalism. It was hatred. . . .
“It was in 1968, one of the most violent years of the Cultural Revolution. In Guangxi, it wasn’t enough just to kill class enemies, the local revolutionary committees forced the people to eat them as well. In the beginning, the enemies’ corpses were simmered in large vats together with legs of pork. But as the campaign progressed, there were too many corpses to deal with, so only the heart, liver and brain were cooked. . . .
“Who were the murderers? You could argue that the only real murderer was Chairman Mao. But the fact is, everyone was involved. . . . During those years, the PLA soldiers sent to Wuxuan County were stationed here in Wuxuan Town. They were meant to carry out the executions, and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages were only supposed to make the arrests. But the villagers were eager to show their commitment to the revolution, so they took things into their own hands, and started executing the class enemies themselves. . . . When your father was sent down here, there were about a thousand people incarcerated on the farm. After a couple of years, the hundred or so rightists among them were transferred to other camps. Of the nine hundred labourers who remained, over a hundred belonged to the twenty-three undesirable types. All of them were killed. The corpses of the few who’d contracted diseases were buried, but the rest of them were eaten.” (55–56)
In the doctor’s narrative, cannibalism in the initial phase of the Cultural Revolution was “forced” upon the people by local Party cadres. This mode of coercive cannibalism, where human beings surrender to political pressure out of a will to survive, can be rationalized as a kind of biological urge toward self-preservation. Eventually, however, this mode gave way to one of consent and even fervor as villagers voluntarily and zealously took on the role of state executioners. We detect a shift in the psycho-political dynamics of cannibalism here: where the villagers reacted negatively and instinctively before, in order to negate the threat of death, they came to enact state agency positively and politically later on, as a way to prove their ideological mettle and “show their commitment to the revolution.” With this shift, the village cannibals became political subjects proper; their cannibalism passed from an event in nature to one in political history. This mode of politicized cannibalism is premised not on individual or species necessity but national politics. The state exerts its power here by constructing cannibalism as a potent form of national agency, a local activity through which individuals can rid the country of its “bad elements,” share in the power of the Party, and thereby produce, display, and authenticate themselves as good national subjects. Contrary to the doctor’s diagnosis, then, his narrative suggests the villagers’ gusto sprang not so much from a pathology of pure hatred as a transformed paradigm of biopolitical agency. For the first time, the act of consuming human flesh could itself signify revolutionary politics, national citizenship, and Party power-sharing for the villagers.1 Within the chronology of Ma’s novel, this is the first instance of the communist state’s sovereign biopower.
In this newer cannibalistic formation, sovereign power need not materialize in Mao’s person or the army’s actual use of force. Instead of Mao’s dictum that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Ma’s narrative conjures Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower. On Foucault’s analysis, populations are best controlled and dutiful subjects best produced not through threat of death but discourses of life. Where the sovereign of the classical or imperial age exercised his power through raw violence and “the right to decide life and death,” the ruler of modern times—like Mao and later Deng—evidences his power by attempting to “administer, optimize, and multiply” life itself, “subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital” (137). Foucault’s explication resonates with surprising fit with Ma’s portrait of the PRC. In the novel’s retrospective on Guangxi and the Cultural Revolution, the masses were indeed “mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity,” in the name of ensuring the nation’s life and safeguarding the people’s ideological health. In this episode of Dai Wei’s paternal root-seeking, by having his protagonist learn the fate of his father’s generation, Ma implies that the Tiananmen generation succeeds the Cultural Revolution’s “undesirable types” as the communist state’s biopolitical victims, that the students’ massacre belongs to the same biopolitical lineage, if not the same social order, as their parents’ cannibalization. Yet Ma also intimates that this intergenerational connection may never come to public light. Even as the doctor narrates the biopolitical history that will similarly befall Dai Wei’s future, even as he holds in his hands the ten-volume Chronicles of the Cultural Revolution that he and his team of researchers have compiled, he already knows to mourn this history’s death. “The national government told us to carry out this research,” he tells Dai Wei, “but the county authorities refused to cooperate because most of the people who organized the atrocities are now high officials in the local government. This whole project is a sham. Only five copies of these chronicles have been published. I doubt the public will ever get to read them. Once the victims we’ve listed have been rehabilitated, the chronicles will probably be locked away in the government vaults. None of the top officials will lose their jobs” (57–58). His elegy, too, foretells Tiananmen and its official erasure.
From this episode emerges the novel’s first allusion to its Chinese title—Routu, “flesh earth” or “meat soil.” As Dai Wei is departing Guangxi, he stumbles onto a crowd of foreign tourists happily pouring out of a bus. In this moment he has a ghastly epiphanic vision: “They put on multicoloured sun hats and smiled as they stood waiting for their photographs to be taken in front of the scenic backdrop. I wanted to tell them to run away, because the bodies of 100,000 massacred people were buried under their feet. They had no idea that China was a vast graveyard” (60). Dai Wei may be referring to Guilin’s Elephant Trunk Hill in this passage, but the “scenic backdrop” cannot but proleptically evoke Tiananmen Square, where foreign tourists will likewise beam to flashing cameras at the whitewashed site of another state-directed carnage. Henceforth in the text, Guangxi’s “vast graveyard”—an echo of Zheng Yi’s “scarlet memorial covered with human blood” (21)—will become Ma’s traveling signifier. As his title metaphor, the “flesh earth” first actualized by the Cultural Revolution will come to encompass all the moments of atrocity in PRC history which cannot be erased or buried adequately. It will surface again and again until it converges with the Tiananmen image of tanks flattening human bodies into the ground, an image Ma will hauntingly capture at the novel’s end. But in this first textual detour from Beijing, the specter of the Square already appears outside of its space, ahead of its time. Zheng Yi too has made a similar point about Guangxi cannibalism as a national allegory: “Is Guangxi only Guangxi? Do those cannibals only number a few thousand? No! Guangxi is not only Guangxi. Guangxi is China! The cannibals were not merely individual cannibals, they were and they are our entire nation!” (119).
If Ma’s novel presents the discourse of life and health on a crudely generic level in the Cultural Revolution’s instances of actual cannibalism, it reverses this relation between real and metaphoric, the rhetoric of life and the politics of death, for the Deng Xiaoping era of economic liberalization. A few months after his Guangxi trip and return to university life in Guangzhou, Dai Wei marvels at the liberties afforded by capitalism:
I thought back to my interrogation in the police station in 1982, and realized how much society had changed. Back then, you could get arrested for copying out a book that contained a few erotic passages. But now, just two years on, pornographic films were being shown in privately run video rooms on every street corner. . . . Students from Hong Kong and Macao could afford to rent rooms in the town, which gave them more privacy. When you have money, you have freedom. The government had recently announced that in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, citizens were allowed to buy their flats. Private ownership had reared its head at last in Communist China. (62–63)
Dai Wei’s assessment of social life in mid-1980s China seems to mimic a common view at the time, advanced by Deng himself, that freedom for the Chinese is economic, not political. Indeed, Dai Wei’s belief that “when you have money, you have freedom” expresses just such a sentiment. Ma, though, is quick to undercut this argument.
In the scene immediately following the Guangxi episode, in the novel’s only depiction of the classroom space, Ma raises again the apparition of the cannibal:
On 1 October every year, prisoners on death row were executed in celebration of National Day. With the improvement of surgical skills and the liberalisation of the Chinese economy, any patient with enough money could now purchase themselves the organs of executed prisoners. The organs of the corpse that was delivered to us that morning had been used for China’s first successful heart-lung transplant. There had been an article about the operation in the newspaper the previous day, and now the heart and lungs were working away inside the body of a Hong Kong businessman.
We walked into the dissection lab. The room was stuffy and smelt of formalin.
Professor Huang was a celebrated cardiovascular specialist. The successful heart transplants he performed were often reported by the press. His lectures were fascinating. Even the most squeamish of students would stay to the end. . . .
“Last year’s Ministry of Health guidelines allowed surgical operations to be carried out in ambulances parked outside the execution grounds. But the success rate of the operations was low. The demand for organs has risen recently, especially from foreign patients who can pay in foreign currency, which is good for our economy. So to improve efficiency and meet demand, the government has now permitted executions to be carried out in the hospital where the organ transplant will be performed.” (63–64)
While cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution was presented, with none of its horror muted, as brutal mass murder imposed by Party policy, it is seen to persist in a new permutation under Deng’s rule—organ harvesting. As such, cannibalism is not so much concealed as banalized, and whatever was demonstrably demonic about the cannibal disappears from view. Instead, the cannibal gets a facelift: the blood-mouthed peasant who stashes away Director Liu’s liver for years to gnaw on as a medicinal tonic gives way to the wealthy urban businessman who can incorporate, without ever tainting his hands or conscience, the hearts and lungs of prisoners executed by the state’s firing squad. The question of what crimes these prisoners committed, whether they were being punished for a social and moral offense such as homicide or a political one such as pro-democracy activism, is not asked, so long as the results promote the national economy. In Ma’s acerbic portrait of Deng-era China, so-called liberalization and reform are exposed to be skin-deep, masking an overall biopolitical system that remains constant. The bodies of social and political offenders are still literally redistributed among and internalized by state-endorsed subjects for the maintenance of sociopolitical stability, and participation in this process still represents a way for individuals to locally produce themselves as loyal national subjects. Rather than politicizing life through actual cannibalism as on the Guangxi farm, however, the state’s biopower has become diffuse, sinking beneath the surface of social practices. In its modernized, normalized incarnation, it operates not through biopolitical cannibalism but a network of cannibalistic biopolitics. Henceforth, social cannibalism will be ever less recognizable as such, receding as a metaphor for the primitive as medical discourses of organic life and public health become ever more sophisticated, techniques refined, procedures civilized. Organs are now meticulously transplanted rather than arbitrarily or fanatically consumed; peasant superstition is replaced by clinical expertise, local revolutionary committees by the Ministry of Health; and the messy “vast graveyard” of political purges contracts into the ordered, contained spaces of the execution ground and the hospital operation room. In this reconfigured biopolitical order, intermediate agents of state biopower multiply, not inside the Party machinery, but in the emerging ranks of middle-class professionals. The university as much as the hospital risks serving as not just alibi but instrument to the state’s executions, since students and doctors alike, no longer labeled bourgeois or rightist, now have the Party’s encouragement and society’s blessing to train themselves in the science of life for the progress and profit of the nation. Perhaps, without Tiananmen, Dai Wei and his fellow students would have grown into another generation of Professor Huangs, uncritical pragmatists who face questions of medical ethics only with utilitarian interest: “Wouldn’t it be a waste to cremate a corpse without making use of its organs first?” (65). On Ma’s handling, this sterilized room of the university dissection lab, ostensibly so far from the Square’s scene of bloodbath, nonetheless encapsulates the everyday mechanics of the same cannibalistic biopolitics.
Ma’s suggestion here of the communist government’s exploitation of prisoners’ bodies for profit is no less grounded in documentary reports than his earlier episode of cannibalism on the Guangxi farm. Just as he integrates Zheng Yi’s research on Cultural Revolution cannibalism into his Tiananmen narrative, so he invokes Harry Wu’s work on organ harvesting in China’s labor reform camps (laogai) as part of the massacre’s more recent biopolitical prehistory. Wu, a political prisoner for nineteen years in twelve different labor camps before leaving China after his release in 1979, has been one of the most vocal diaspora critics of the PRC’s state-sponsored organ-trading programs. In recent testimony to the Hawaii State Senate, he describes the circuit of profit between China’s penal system and its human organ trafficking, where the government gains from multiplying executions and prisoners’ bodies are reduced to a supply of ready cash crop:
In China, there are currently 68 capital offenses, including non-violent crimes and political crimes. With throngs of poor economic migrants traveling from the Chinese countryside to its cities each year, and China’s public security agencies responding to the resulting increases in crime with so-called “strike hard” (yanda) campaigns, the number of prisoners on China’s death row has been immense. While the exact number of executions carried out each year is closely guarded as a State secret, several human rights groups estimate the annual figures to be in the thousands, more than all the other nations in the world combined. . . . Still, the Chinese continued to deny these allegations until confirmation finally came in 2006, when China’s Vice-Minister of Health, Mr. Huang Jiefu, publicly admitted that more than 95% of the organs used in medical transplants in the country come from executed prisoners. Such an assertion is astounding, considering that China is now second only to the U.S. in the number of transplants performed each year. (1–2)
And in terms that hauntingly echo Beijing Coma’s depiction of medicine’s complicity in the organ trade, Wu reports:
In recent years, China has switched from executing prisoners with a bullet in the back of the head to using lethal injection, a method that facilitates the extraction of organs by medical personnel after death. My investigations, dating back to the early 1990’s, have shown that Chinese hospitals regularly broker deals to supply privileged Chinese and foreign citizens with needed organs harvested from executed Chinese prisoners. . . . It is completely ordinary in China for an ambulance to be standing by at the site of an execution, with medical personnel ready to quickly remove needed organs and hurry them off to the waiting hospital. (2)
Most chilling of all is Wu’s personal interview with a doctor who took part in a surgery in which two kidneys were removed from a living anesthetized prisoner before he was executed the next morning. As Wu comments, “Obviously, taking two kidneys from a person is tantamount to execution” (Troublemaker 151). This case—“modern Chinese science at work,” in Wu’s wry phrase (148)—exemplifies the sovereign power of a network of state agents over the biological life of prisoners. By incorporating this newest manifestation of the state’s cannibalistic biopolitics into his novel—an issue that, to be sure, has become a hotbed of contention between the PRC and international human rights groups in recent years—Ma once again demonstrably locates his cultural politics within the human rights discourse of dissident activists. Where Gao Xingjian purges himself of these dissident and diasporic affiliations, Ma synthesizes them. And he would likely agree with Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s conclusion that organ transplantation “requires a reasonably democratic state in which basic human rights are guaranteed” (210). Organ harvesting, then, serves as a key node for him to link the June 4 massacre with the ongoing violations of human rights in post-Tiananmen China.
That the pre-Tiananmen decade of Deng-style economic liberalization, despite its superficial benefits and freedoms, stays entirely within the communist state’s biopolitical regime is brought home by Ma’s portrayal of the post-massacre years, particularly through the metaphor of Dai Wei’s “comatose” body. Technically, Dai Wei is no longer in a coma at the time of his narration, since his mind has been reawakened and his memory now functions with extraordinary precision. His body, however, remains immobilized, stuck as it were in the time of the Square. (This is one instance in which Chinese and English do not have an easy linguistic correspondence, since the Chinese term for Dai Wei, zhiwuren, describes a physical condition and translates literally as “plant human,” the rather indelicate English correlative being “human vegetable.” On the other hand, the Chinese term for “coma,” hunmi, suggests a state of unconsciousness contradictory to Dai Wei’s mental vitality and perceptive acuity. A more accurate English term for Dai Wei may be “alert coma,” the rare condition in which a coma patient exhibits some degree of sensory awareness. Still, linguistic and medical accuracy aside, we can appreciate how the English title felicitously foregrounds Dai Wei’s peculiar state as a central trope for the novel.) With this mind-body split, Ma’s zhiwuren comes to symbolize two sets of meanings. In post-Tiananmen China, where material evidence of the massacre has been largely obliterated, Dai Wei’s body is a remnant, the massacre’s sole preserved ruin and living tomb, its reluctant monument. At the same time, as Beijing residents and even student activists who witnessed the bloodshed collectively will themselves into political forgetfulness by plunging into the accelerated capitalism of the 1990s, Dai Wei’s consciousness memorializes the event that has no memorial. His mind thus likewise anchors itself in the Square, which serves as the pivot to his reviving consciousness’s compass.
Elsewhere, Ma repeatedly discusses the predicament and challenge of China’s Tiananmen amnesia. In one recent interview, he comments: “The Chinese people have been forced to forget the Tiananmen massacre. . . . [They] are not aware of their own entrapment. They believe they live in a free society, but don’t realize how much they are being monitored and controlled, how much the information they receive is restricted and warped, until they step out of line, that is, and feel the heavy hand of the state fall on them. Then they discover that the rights granted to them by the constitution are meaningless, and that the freedoms are a sham” (“China’s Olympic”). In another article, he writes:
Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia. . . . There is an expression in Chinese that says, “One can only stand up from the place where one fell.” If China is to truly stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell. The regime must reveal the truth about past crackdowns and apologize to the victims and their families; release the hundred or so people still jailed for their connection to the Tiananmen movement, and the tens of thousands of other political prisoners languishing in jails and labor camps. And it must introduce democratic reforms. (“China’s Grief”)
For Ma Jian as much as Dai Wei, Tiananmen represents the moment when life divided, splintered. While the rest of the population becomes mercenary zombies, “zhiwuren that only know how to make money,” Dai Wei embodies “the zhiwuren living within memory who is ultimately the only person alive” (qtd. in Zeng). As Dai Wei muses about his ironic condition at one point: “In this police state, I’ve managed to gain freedom of thought by pretending to be dead. My muteness is a protective cloak. . . . Do I really want to wake from this deep sleep and rejoin the comatose crowds outside?” (514–15). This situation of a comatose country blindly hurling itself forward on the tracks of development, Ma warns, signals “not merely a political crisis but also an ethical one”: “The tanks of June 4 did not simply crush the students’ bodies but also flattened the Chinese people’s soul, making dim and confused their very conception of value” (qtd. in Zeng). Remembering Tiananmen thus stands as the absolute index to China’s ethical future, the point at which cleft life may be reintegrated, the ethical spirit reanimated.
Meanwhile, though, life can only be sustained in partial or crippled form, as paralytic memory or mindless, robotic motion. Where Ha Jin uses the metaphor of the cocoon to suggest a kind of stagnant, suffocating worm life for pre-Tiananmen intellectuals like Professor Yang, Ma Jian appropriates the trope of dehumanized life but endows his post-Tiananmen student activist with even less mobility in the zhiwuren’s vegetable life. And where Tiananmen prompts flight to freedom and optimistically inaugurates diasporic afterlife for Jin’s Jian and possibly for Wang’s Lili, Ma’s Dai Wei, by entombing the Square, marks the point at which diasporization fails. Indeed, if it has become a commonplace to observe of 1990s capitalist China, as for example Orville Schell does in his portrait of Wuer Kaixi, that “history always moves on” (440), Ma writes precisely the countertext to this image of inevitable progress. His is primarily a narrative of history’s failure to move or move on, to diasporize, and of the struggle to live by those who remain, whether voluntarily or not, in the memorial space of the Square. Of all the Tiananmen fictions, Ma’s is the only one to fully engage with this problem of survival in the symbolic space of the post-massacre Square.
It is from this perspective that we may understand Beijing Coma as distilling an alternative narrative of modern China, via not its political or socioeconomic or cultural history but its biopolitics. This biopolitical history, rarely isolated as a discrete narrative by either historians or writers, unfolds through Ma’s novel as a thread that runs steadily through the PRC decades, notwithstanding changes in Party leadership, social structure, and economic policy. What his text exhorts us to witness, above all, is the continuity of the state’s cannibalistic biopolitics even in the post-Tiananmen era of prosperity. Hence, just as the novel reenacts cannibalism from the Cultural Revolution in the altered form of medicalized executions during Deng’s period, so it resurrects the criminal’s cadaver from the dissection lab in the form of Dai Wei’s comatose body. Superimposed onto Dai Wei’s iron bed now is the past biopolitics of the village farm, the execution ground, the urban hospital, and Tiananmen Square itself—at the heart of each lies an immobilized body whose threshold of life and death is almost entirely determined by the state. Nor does this regime of biopower end with the 1989 crackdown or the 1990s’ rise in socioeconomic freedoms. Again, Dai Wei’s body functions optimally as an argumentative vehicle for Ma, for it is in relation to this Tiananmen body that he can lay bare most forcefully the state’s intervention on the sustenance of life and the maintenance of death. This post-Tiananmen plot comes increasingly to the fore in the novel’s second half, in the parallel narrative of Dai Wei’s mother, Huizhen.
In the dozen or so years after June 4, Huizhen seeks out every avenue to keep her son’s body alive and to wake him from his coma. Her efforts, though, are repeatedly thwarted by a now subtle yet sweeping network of state biopolitical control. Hospitals are forbidden to treat Tiananmen victims, and private doctors must be paid on the sly. Crematoriums are forbidden to keep the ashes of the Tiananmen dead, cemeteries to bury their bodies. But if, “in contravention of guidelines,” some families succeed in burying their dead, the police place them under house arrest every Grave Sweeping Festival and June 4 anniversary to prevent any public display of mourning. Even insurance companies are forbidden to pay compensation to Tiananmen victims, leading Huizhen to bemoan despairingly, “What kind of country is it that punishes the victims of a massacre, rather than the people who fired the shots?” (178). Through this tightly controlled system that laces through institutions of health and finance as much as those of law, the state effectively foils every private effort at sustaining the biological and historical life of Tiananmen participants—even as it forces privatization by erasing all public records of the massacre and obliging families to confine the casualties, alive and dead, to their own homes, to domestic altars, coffins, beds. This is at once a biopolitics and a thanatopolitics. That these two structures become continuous to the point of indistinguishability marks Tiananmen as the principal symptomatic instance of what Giorgio Agamben would call “the biopolitical paradigm of the modern” (117).
In this post-Tiananmen capitalist period, state cannibalism is revived in its most unrecognizable form yet as black-market organ trading. Caught between Dai Wei’s body and the state’s biopower, the financial demands of preserving his life and the impossibility of obtaining government aid, Huizhen sets up a private urine bank out of Dai Wei’s bedroom, selling his glucose-enhanced urine as a tonic to the occult-minded and the desperately sick (424–29). Although this episode of ingenious entrepreneurship has its comic elements and may even bespeak a kind of prevailing laissez-faire attitude toward private ventures, we learn that the urine bank is shut down by the authorities soon after its promising beginnings. More eerily, lurking behind the quaint and motley crew of urine consumers are the specters of the village cannibal and the corporate transplant patient. The latter figure is evoked with special pointedness in an ensuing and bleaker episode, in which folk magic bleeds into modern medicine: Huizhen, depleted once again by the costs of caring for Dai Wei’s body, resorts to selling one of his kidneys to a wealthy colliery boss. In this latter-day marketplace of human organs, the communist state, far from interfering with Huizhen’s private dealings, transforms instead into her commercial competitor. To secure the highest price for Dai Wei’s kidney, Huizhen must time her sale in order not to overlap with the spate of public executions on National Day or the Spring Festival and their attendant organ glut. This new circumstance of biocapitalism may be the most efficient method of political control yet, since the dissident life now exists only in the accumulated value of its bodily fluids and organs. Like Dai Wei, it will wish for nothing more than to die on the operation table (456).
THE UBIQUITOUS SQUARE, THE NEOMORT’S TIME
We may be tempted to conclude here that the Tiananmen massacre represents a rupture, rather than a culmination, of communist China’s biopolitical history as written by Ma. After all, if the Cultural Revolution’s biopolitics operates through the feverish hands of peasants and the Deng-era one through the scalpels of celebrity surgeons, in neither scenario does the state exert its power from the barrel of a gun. Only in the Tiananmen moment does the system of everyday biopolitical control lapse and discourses of national life fail to produce state agents out of ordinary citizens; only in the Square do real soldiers need to be marshaled, tanks mobilized. It would seem, moreover, that “normal” biopolitics resumes after the crackdown, with pre-Tiananmen liberalization intensified as full-throttle hypercapitalism post–June 4. From the perspective of technique, of means, this conclusion would appear valid.
From the perspective of ends, of the fundamental hierarchy of political power, however, we see in Ma’s theme of an ever-metamorphosing cannibalism precisely the endurance of a constant biopolitical order. Indeed, one of the most far-reaching propositions of his novel is that Tiananmen is not a historical exception but the starkest manifestation of a biopolitical norm for the PRC. Where Tiananmen represents a pivotal and inaugural point of diasporization for Ha Jin, it is by contrast the exception that has become the rule for Ma Jian. The picture of Tiananmen Ma captures is akin to a photograph developed from three superimposed negatives: (1) the Foucauldian theory of modern biopower and its micromechanics in everyday life; (2) the Benjaminian eighth thesis on the philosophy of history that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (“Theses” 257); and (3) Agamben’s merging and escalation of the preceding two theses in his claim that “the camp, which is now securely lodged within the city’s interior, is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” (Homo 176). Already in the Guangxi episode, Ma behooves the reader to ask the very question Agamben raises:
What happened in the camps so exceeds the juridical concept of crime that the specific juridico-political structure in which those events took place is often simply omitted from consideration. . . . Instead of deducing the definition of the camp from the events that took place there, we will ask: What is a camp, and what is its juridico-political structure, that such events could take place there? This will lead us to regard the camp not as a historical fact and an anomaly belonging to the past (even if still verifiable) but in some way as the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living. (Homo 166)
In answer to this question, Agamben proposes that the camp is “the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule” (Homo 168–69). What characterizes Western modernity for Agamben is that the state of exception—“a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, chaos and the normal situation,” and historically actualized only in extraordinary circumstances such as “martial law and the state of siege”—is no longer “unlocalizable” in theory alone but has become so in practice (Homo 19–20).
In Ma’s novel, Agamben’s model finds its nationally specific materialization in the ubiquitous Square. Ominously if dimly foreshadowed by the Guangxi farm and the dissection lab before the massacre, the Square proliferates in its images from the time of the demonstrations onward and succeeds the “vast graveyard” of the Cultural Revolution as the text’s central metaphor. As Mou Sen, one of the more prescient student leaders in the novel (and the fictional counterpart of Zhang Boli), observes to Dai Wei early on: “But since we entered the Square, it’s been impossible to step back. There are no escape routes. We’re trapped here, in the spotlight” (357). And a bit later: “There’s nowhere to hide in this country. Every home is as exposed as a public square, watched over by the police day and night” (375). Mou Sen’s initial vision of the Square as an island prison, isolated but distinct, might yet imply a relation to normality through the idea of a delimited penal site. But his next vision of an all-pervasive prison over China—where “every home is as exposed as a public square” and no inside or outside space is imaginable—definitively signals the arrival of Agamben’s camp. This camp may find its most visible manifestation in the physical space of the Square, but really, Mou Sen suggests, there is nowhere that is not symbolically the Square, nowhere that is not biopolitically suspended within a state of emergency. All of national life has been seized by exceptionality, all lives have become bare life. This iconic magnification of the Square is Ma’s clearest deployment of a national allegory.
Trapped in the Square under martial law, other students will begin to echo Mou Sen’s words, but it is Huizhen who, years later, will come to grasp his insight most fully. It is she who utters the resonant line: “China is one huge prison. Whether we’re in a jail or in our homes, every one of us is a prisoner!” (511). Two post-Tiananmen events trigger this realization for her—the Falun Gong crackdown and the Beijing Olympics bid. At the heart of each, Ma places Huizhen as the most ordinary and accidental victim of state biopower. Unlike Dai Wei, she is a lifelong devout believer in and defender of the Communist Party, a pragmatic woman who fiercely protects her own family and scorns dissident activism. In the wake of Tiananmen, as a single elderly mother of a zhiwuren son, she becomes an avid practitioner of Falun Gong out of a need for spiritual comfort and communal support. Her fiery remark about the prison-house of China is directed at two police officers sent to investigate her involvement in the movement, and up to this point, the ever-high-tempered Huizhen feels brazen enough yet to openly scoff at the idea of a government clampdown. Her remark is prophetic, however, and in the ensuing large-scale manhunt, she is arrested. At the detention center she is beaten with electric batons, forced to renounce Falun Gong, and in exchange for her release so that she may return home to care for Dai Wei, driven to betray her Falun Gong friends. In the days that follow, we witness her descent into paranoia: “She often paces nervously around the flat, especially late at night. Sometimes she stands at the window and gazes out, listening to the distant roar of machinery as buildings are demolished or constructed, and mumbles, ‘They’ll be here any minute. They’re coming to arrest us. It won’t be long now . . .’” (525). Her home becomes increasingly stifling, imprisoning, with Dai Wei’s bedroom turning into the central repository of trash within the larger rubbish heap of her apartment: “My mother hasn’t thrown anything out of the flat for years, so she has trouble finding things. I imagine the flat is so crammed now that there isn’t much room to stand. . . . She is continually changing our locks, but forgets to throw away the old keys, so they stay on the same ring with the new ones. . . . When she can’t find space in the sitting room for something, she’ll toss it into my room. The empty milk cartons, pill bottles and food packaging she’s flung under my bed have attracted colonies of ants” (545). This self-imposed lockup is also a self-created shelter, for the only space outside of the general prison-house now is that of one’s own making. With Kafkaesque humor, Ma paints Dai Wei as a Gregor Samsa figure, his room, like his body, “a corpse that’s rotting from within” (564). But even this little private cell is not safe, for the state soon threatens with another intrusion. As part of Beijing’s 2000 Olympics bid, Huizhen’s compound is to be razed to make way for a giant shopping center. As one of her neighbors comments: “Listen, Auntie. You and I are just ordinary citizens. You can’t refuse to move. Government officials will turn up here and squash you like a fly. And anyway, this demolition is important for our Olympic bid. If the old buildings aren’t torn down, the new ones can’t go up’” (535). Dai Wei then wryly notes: “So this building will become a public square. Ten years ago, I escaped from the nation’s political center and retreated into my home. But soon my home will become a shopping center. Where can I retreat to then?” (536). In the name of the national good, and in the service of an event that touts international health and athleticism, the state exerts its sovereignty once again.
The symbolic Square, like Agamben’s camp, has indeed lodged itself within the city’s interior, not just in the smallest of domestic spaces but now in lieu of domestic space itself. In its latest incarnation of the mega shopping center, where modes of consumption will appear ever more remote from political struggle, the Square will be hardly identifiable as such. Yet Ma obliges exactly this identification, this witnessing. The final pages of the novel thus juxtapose two times, two scenes: that of the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square on June 4, and that of the bulldozers rolling toward Huizhen’s apartment on the eve of the new millennium. The crisis of livelihood, shelter, and life itself is no less jeopardized, but the elaborate emergency measures of old—like the declaration of martial law in 1989—can now be made utterly simple by the neocapitalist agenda of urban development as an eviction notice. Tanks are replaced by bulldozers, guns by construction equipments. Minor characters from Dai Wei’s past resurface as the new agents of state biopower. Lulu, his childhood neighbor and first love interest, turns out to be the absentee landlady and chairwoman of the Hong Kong developing company in charge of the demolition of the apartments and the building of the shopping center. And while corporate heads like her can remain offstage in Dai Wei’s ground-zero narrative, we are given a glimpse of the migrant workers deployed for the job, including one called the Drifter, a homeless man whom Dai Wei and his university dorm mates had charitably sheltered in the pre-Tiananmen years. In this 1990s era, then, state predation on the weak is no longer personified by Party cadres with overt political power but by former neighbors, lovers, and beneficiaries, all co-opted into the new ideology of business profits and annual bonuses. We are thrust back to the Cultural Revolution’s Guangxi farm, with fellow villagers eagerly cannibalizing each other within a sanctioned sociopolitical order, but in ever more sanitized and normalized forms. It can be as clean as flipping a switch or two. As one neighbor tells Huizhen: “It’s not like the old days. The government won’t forcibly evict you. But think things through. If you stay here over the winter, how will you survive without water, electricity or heating?” (563).
Just as Dai Wei remains as the last relic of the massacre, so Huizhen stands as the last resident refusing to vacate her apartment. In another heated exchange, she now confronts relocation officers, another new set of agents of state biopower: “You businessmen are colluding with the government to oppress us ordinary citizens. But I’m not afraid of you! Go ahead and build your shopping centre, your public square, your Bird’s Nest stadium, but don’t push me out of my little nest!” (568). Despite her protests, though, the way to the Beijing Olympics will be paved over her flat, the national Bird’s Nest stadium over the private “bird’s nest” of her home. If Gaston Bachelard dreams of the nest as a primal image of intimacy, the “absolute refuge” of an “oneiric house” and a “first home” (103), here we encounter not simply the destruction of the experience of intimacy but the annihilation of a whole phenomenology of domestic space. The construction site outside Huizhen’s building progressively evokes the zone surrounding Tiananmen Square, with “bulldozers everywhere and mountains of debris” (558), until her apartment is the only one left unrazed, she the only occupant not squeezed out:
The bulldozer charges into the building like an army tank, making our walls shake and our floor-beams tremble and crack. It moves back, its tracks screeching over shattered glass and planks of wood. Beside it, a digger is shovelling broken tiles and metal frames into an open-back truck. The bulldozer rams again and our walls shudder. . . .
My mother roars like an angry tigress. “This is my home! You Fascists! If you come any nearer, I will jump!” . . .
The covered balcony and most of the outer walls and windows of the rest of the flat have fallen down. All the flats of our left and right have been demolished, as have the stairwell and landing behind us. Our flat is now no more than a windy corridor. It’s like a bird’s nest hanging in a tree. I can feel it shaking in the wind. (578–79)
By now, Ma’s image of Huizhen is almost mythic. Not just a crazed widow, she is the Tiananmen Mother, a biopoliticized solitary figure blocking the path of bulldozers for the sake of her victimized son as much as her sheer tenacity of will to live. This image certainly does much to offset Ha Jin’s disturbingly maternalized metaphor, in the closing pages of The Crazed, of China as “an old bitch that eats her own puppies,” “an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself” (315). Aside from degendering Jin’s trope of China’s social cannibalism, Ma’s heroic portrait of Huizhen also pointedly recalls another historical image: the Tank Man. For Huizhen is no Ding Zilin: she has neither the material resources nor the international cultural capital of the real-life founder of the Tiananmen Mothers organization. Unknown to and unprotected by the world, Huizhen is more akin to the anonymous and defenseless Tank Man, but now feminized. While we remain to this day ignorant of the Tank Man’s fate, Ma informs us of Huizhen’s, which tragically mirrors her son’s. In her last scene in the novel, we see her half-deranged, possibly stroke-stricken and becoming a “vegetable” herself, muttering confusedly: “I want to go to the Square. I want to go on a hunger strike . . .” (583). The irony of this belated nostalgic invocation of Tiananmen biopolitics is made more terrible by our realization that, in the face of bulldozers and corporate developers, a hunger strike will be nothing more than an obsolete technique. That the hunger strike was a viable and efficacious form of protest in 1989 indicates that, inside the Square, there was still a general faith in a biopolitical contract between the state and its subjects, a common belief in the government’s political responsibility toward the biological life of citizens when they exhibit it as pure sacrifice. For all that it symbolizes the place of massacre and encapsulates the negative limit-point of state biopower, the Square simultaneously delimits the space of an utopian biopolity. This is perhaps why Ma refuses to abandon the imagination of this space. This is also why he would have Huizhen recall for us, in the epochal threshold of the millennium’s turning in the novel’s final pages, the hunger strike. What he fears above all is not the Square’s actual ubiquity but the permanent vanishing of its ideal potential—as a community of mutual biopolitical responsibility. But this vanishing is what we are menaced with in his vision of China in its contemporary moment, in the neocapitalist order of scattered agency and remote, invisible biopower.
By the novel’s end, Huizhen’s body is removed from the site of demolition, possibly transferred to a hospital or a sanitarium, so that, unlike the bodies of some Tiananmen students, hers is not directly crushed into the “flesh earth.” Dai Wei’s body, on the other hand, is abandoned to the bulldozers. Like the mysterious Tank Man, his fate remains undisclosed to us, wavering between death and miracle. In this sense, he epitomizes the bare life of Agamben’s homo sacer, an utterly exposed life that may be killed with impunity by anyone, with everyone his sovereign. Unlike the students in the Square, whose life may perhaps be seen as a modern form of political sacrifice, a sacred offering of themselves to state power for the purpose of inciting revolutionary consciousness in the people, Dai Wei’s killing may be deemed sacrificial only within the perimeters of a spectacular burlesque. Where the Tiananmen students had the army as their executioners and the world’s cameras as their witnesses, Dai Wei has two or three migrant laborers, the Drifter among them, as onlookers to his deathbed scene—a chorus of fools in a most unheroic tragedy. Ma highlights this quality of burlesque in the only dialogue to take place at the apartment’s demolition site: to Huizhen’s “You Fascists!” one of the laborers turns puzzlingly to another with, “What does ‘Fascist’ mean?” To which the other responds, “Are you stupid? Fa-shi-si: It means ‘punish-you-with-death.’” The first then hurls back at Huizhen, “Punish-you-with-death, old lady!” (579). There is even less dignity, albeit higher tragicomic spirit, granted Dai Wei’s death than that of the cadaver on the operation table. What the new capitalism renders obsolete, then, is not only the hunger strike as biopolitical technique but sacrifice as a category of biopolitical control and protest. Henceforth, biopower will play its hand on the stage, not of revolutionary tragedy, but of vaudeville.
In his analysis of the modern avatars of homo sacer, Agamben identifies one called the “neomort.” Attributing the term to Willard Gaylin’s 1974 article on organ harvesting, Agamben defines it as a body that has the “legal status of corpses but would maintain some of the characteristics of life for the sake of possible future transplants.” The neomort, like the comatose patient who is kept alive solely through life-support technology, exemplifies a modern biopolitics in which sovereign power comes increasingly to occupy the medical and biological sciences: “The hospital room in which the neomort, the overcomatose person, and the faux vivant waver between life and death delimits a space of exception in which a purely bare life, entirely controlled by man and his technology, appears for the first time” (Homo 164). We may realize here that what Ma suggests through Dai Wei’s zhiwuren condition is a haunting portrait of Tiananmen’s neomortic afterlife, as “purely bare life” caught in the nexus of state thanatopolitics, biomedical technology, and—the term which Agamben never adequately accounts for—global capital. This is a far cry from the exit strategies variously adopted by Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, and Annie Wang in their Tiananmen narratives. Rather than routing the massacre’s end toward existential death or catapulting the survivor toward diasporic or domestic revival, the neomort’s life in the ever-expanding space of the massacre necessitates a different form from mere closure. And it entails a different time.
The neomort’s time, like Benjamin’s messianic instants, is aporetic, monadic. The neomort’s death does not follow the linear clock of the diminishing body but belongs to another order of time altogether, one that unravels over the historical fate of bare life as such. Hence, Dai Wei’s epiphanic self-dirge at the novel’s end is at once belated and premature, too late for animated life’s cessation but too early for its decay, suspended between paralysis and rot. “I see a public square,” says Dai Wei in his final narrated paragraph. “It’s a flattened expanse of broken bricks, shattered tiles, sand, dust and earth. Positioned at its centre is not a memorial, but me and my iron bed, lying inside this building that’s been carved away like a pear eaten to its core” (585). In this ultimate vision—a vision that cannot be properly labeled “dying” in the usual sense, since its finality derives not from organic failure but epochal crisis and hence flashes up brilliantly rather than dimly flickers—Tiananmen reemerges once again. Not only is the besieged Square superimposed onto the home’s iron bed and the neomort’s inert body, but time itself is arrested, the intervening years emptied. That the actual massacre happened in 1989 does not mean, Ma intimates, that the tanks ever left the Square. On the contrary, a decade later, the Square is everywhere—except now bulldozers replace tanks, migrant laborers do the dirty work of army soldiers, and former neighbors turned entrepreneurs rather than Party hard-liners give the order for destruction. The instant this vision dies and the last neomortic body gets pulverized will be the instant of decisive victory for this epoch’s sovereign power.
In Ma’s simile, Dai Wei’s life on this cusp of impending obliteration and the new millennium is “like a bird’s nest that’s fallen to the ground” (585). This language summons again not just the Olympic stadium but Ma’s proverbial comparison of Tiananmen to the fallen place where China must pick itself up: “If China is to truly stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell” (“China’s Grief”). Here we come to grasp Ma’s role as Benjamin’s historical materialist par excellence. His broad biopolitical history of China aims at once toward a representational totality and a negative philosophy. As historical fiction, the novel approaches history not as data but evidence, and not of civilization’s apotheoses but its barbarisms. As a counternarrative to the official discourse of national progress, the novel employs temporal as much as spatial structures of distortion and lapse to disrupt the sense of historical accumulation. Thus, just as the Square swells, loses its boundaries, and comes to engulf the whole country and century in the text, in Tiananmen historical time also “falls,” or in Benjamin’s description, “stands still and has come to a stop” (“Theses” 262). But Beijing Coma’s model of stopped time is not to be confused with that found in the mainland genre of scar literature or the retrospective fiction of the 1980s. It may be the case that these works similarly lament time’s stalling in the Cultural Revolution decade, but for the most part they do so by implicitly validating the need for national progress, without maintaining the need to continually inhabit the time of the fall itself; for these works, the very possibility of writing the Cultural Revolution’s misfortunes typically signals hard times’ passing and the onset of a better era. Ma’s Tiananmen time, however, corresponds to the Benjaminian notion of an omnipresent now, the “monad” that can comprise an “entire history.” As such, Tiananmen is not simply a tough period to be survived and surpassed or an isolated trauma to be remembered so as to be laid psychically to rest. Nothing lies so far from a sanguine attitude of survival and recovery as Ma’s acknowledgment of an inescapable lingering. Yet, too, like Benjamin’s time of the now, Ma wants to claim for Tiananmen’s persistently arrested time a promise of futurity, a potential for “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” that is “shot through with chips of Messianic time” (Benjamin, “Theses” 263). Tiananmen time is hence both fallen and messianic: the student movement’s collapse and the country’s resuscitation will happen in the same instant, with Dai Wei its time capsule. Meanwhile, the in-between years of national prosperity—from the 1990s economic boom to the promise of a 2000 Beijing Olympics to the time of the novel’s now, the moment around the 2008 Olympic Games that is alluded to anachronistically through Ma’s images of the bird’s nest—these years unfold in a “homogeneous, empty time” that only masks the ruins of communist history. Rather than progress, the angel of history presiding over Beijing Coma, like Benjamin’s, sees “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” And though he, too, like Dai Wei, “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed” (“Theses” 257–58), the bulldozers are closing in, the landscape of rising debris all too literal. For Ma, it is only by stopping here, by installing the Square’s remnant in the center of the Olympics construction site and Tiananmen time in the interval of nation building, that we may come to see PRC biopower in the full light of comprehension. And this is not yet to imagine a biopolitical alternative.
Part II. Reclaiming Student Life and After
THE MASSACRE RECONSIDERED
Before we can imagine otherwise, however, we must return to the place and time of the massacre and abstract its historical significance anew. This at least seems to be Ma Jian’s intimation, evident in his insistent focus on student life and especially his fictional reconstruction of the military crackdown. By the time of Beijing Coma’s English publication in 2008, historical assessment of Tiananmen has weathered several controversies. The debates splinter particularly over the fault line of the students’ role in the massacre—whether a massacre indeed took place, who died in it, and who shared the blame. In the immediate aftermath of June 4, in the initial wave of international horror and sympathy, the prevailing view was that thousands of students heroically defended the Square to the last and that most of them were brutally slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army. This view, propagated by some eyewitness reports and suggestively supported by partial video footage taken by foreign camera crews, was subsequently reiterated by major world presses. For the general public in the West, it remains the standard understanding of the episode known as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”
Three key testimonies at the time produced and sustained this version of events for world audiences. The first was a June 8 tape recording made by Chai Ling, high-profile student leader and one of the chief instigators of the hunger strike. “I think I am the most qualified person to comment on the events of June 4,” she says on the recording. “In order to let the whole world know the truth, I have the responsibility to expose the whole course of the event” (“I’m” 266). Chai’s account of the final evacuation from the Square mixes fact with insinuation to evoke a large-scale massacre:
Even at this time, some students still had faith in the government. They stayed, thinking that the army would at most arrest them. But who knew that tanks would run over them. Those students still sleeping in their tents were crushed into flesh pie. It was said that 200 people were killed. Others said 4000 people died in the square. At this point, it is still hard to have complete statistics of the death toll. . . . Later we were told that after the students left, tanks and armored personnel carriers crushed the tents. [The soldiers] then poured gasoline over the tents and cremated them together with the students’ bodies. They then washed everything away with water. Those butchers! They wanted to cover up the truth of the massacre by leaving not a trace in the square. (“I’m” 268)
A second eyewitness statement that aligns well with Chai’s narrative of butchery was the widely publicized account given by a putative twenty-year-old student from Qinghua University. Published first by the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po and later in translation by the New York Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Examiner, this account describes in detail a final confrontation at the Monument of the People’s Heroes between 4:40 and 5:00 a.m., when a swarm of PLA soldiers appeared at the top of the monument and began beating students down with electric cattle prods and rubber truncheons while another regiment of soldiers machine-gunned them from below. This widely circulated testimony quickly became a major source for other international reports on the massacre (“What”).2
A third account that gained considerable international attention was put forward by John Simpson, renowned foreign affairs editor at the BBC and one of the “media stars of the Beijing spring” whose team later won a series of awards for its Tiananmen coverage (Black and Munro 247). In an oft-cited article in Granta, Simpson recounts how he and his crew witnessed and filmed the final massacre at the Monument of the People’s Heroes from their hotel room:
We took up our position on the fourteenth floor of the Beijing Hotel. From there, everything seemed grey and distant. We saw most of what happened, but we were separated from the fear and the noise and the stench of it. We saw the troops pouring out of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, bayonets fixed, shooting first into the air and then straight ahead of them. They looked like automata, with their rounded dark helmets. We filmed them charging across and clearing the northern end of the Square. . . . We filmed the tanks as they drove over the tents where some of the students had taken refuge. . . . Dozens of people seem to have died in that way, and those who saw it said they could hear the screams of the people inside the tents over the noise of the tanks. We filmed as the lights in the Square were switched off at four a.m. They were switched on again forty minutes later, when the troops and the tanks moved towards the Monument itself, shooting first in the air and then, again, directly at the students themselves, so that the steps of the Monument and the heroic reliefs which decorated it were smashed by bullets. (23–24)
With histrionic bravado, Simpson prefaces this narrative with a declaration of remorse for having left the Square too early and not being present at ground zero during the massacre: “My colleagues and I wanted to save our pictures in case we were arrested, and I told the others that we should go back to the Beijing Hotel and come out again later. I now feel guilty about the decision; it was wrong: we ought to have stayed in the Square, even though the other camera crews had already left and it might have cost us our lives. Someone should have been there when the massacre took place, filming what happened, showing the courage of the students as they were surrounded by tanks and the army advancing, firing as it went” (23). Simpson’s posture of personal responsibility and collective professional guilt does not necessarily augment the authenticity of his account, but it does buttress his moral authority as a conscientious and potentially self-sacrificing observer. Moreover, as some have pointed out, it strengthens the impression of a “student massacre without witnesses” (Black and Munro 247).3
A conflicting set of eyewitness and news reports, however, also emerged in the aftermath of June 4. Though initially eclipsed by more dramatic narratives of a bloodbath in the Square, they have since come to be regarded as providing a more accurate rendition of events, especially among historians and scholars. One chief spokesperson for this alternative view is Robin Munro, former director of the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch. By his own estimation, Munro was one of ten Western journalists in the vicinity of the Monument of the People’s Heroes after 4:30 a.m. and, along with American journalist Richard Nations, the last foreigner to leave the Square, at about 6:15. In effect, contrary to Simpson’s account, they composed the “someones” who stayed behind. According to Munro, those journalists who remained until the end, including a Spanish film crew that shot the only-known footage of the entire student evacuation, all submitted reports in line with his own: there was no mass killing in the Square during the final exodus. “A massacre did take place,” Munro writes in a 1990 article in the Nation, “but not in Tiananmen Square, and not predominately of students” (811). He denounces the Qinghua student’s testimony as “lurid invention” (820), and in a later work, he discredits Simpson’s Granta story by noting that “the Monument and the entire lower half of Tiananmen Square are hidden from view from the Beijing Hotel, half a mile away” (Black and Munro 247), so that it would have been physically impossible for Simpson’s team to observe what unfolded in the Square. Munro’s narrative of a mostly bloodless retreat—aside from a few possible casualties when the tanks moved in to demolish the tents—accords not only with accounts by the foreign journalists he cites but also with those by a number of nonstudent evacuees, such as the Taiwanese rock star Hou Dejian, the novelist Lao Gui, and the People’s University professor Yu Shuo, all of whom were among the last group to withdraw from the Square. Their testimonies, collected by Human Rights in China soon after the crackdown, also indicate there was no mass killing during the Square’s evacuation (Human 158–79). Yi Mu, a Beijing journalist writing soon after June 4 in collaboration with Mark V. Thompson, likewise concludes: “It is generally believed that such a term as the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ is not only inaccurate, but an exaggeration of what occurred. If by ‘massacre’ we mean large numbers of people being slaughtered, then the massacre took place along Changan Avenue, not in the square” (91). Finally, the volume The Tiananmen Papers, too, citing classified intelligence reports by the PRC State Security Ministry, upholds this account: “Yang Shangkun relayed Deng Xiaoping’s instruction that in Tiananmen Square itself there must be no bloodshed. The government’s internal reports claimed that this goal was achieved. Most of the deaths occurred as troops moved in from the western suburbs toward Tiananmen along Fuxingmenwai Boulevard at a location called Muxidi, where anxious soldiers reacted violently to popular anger. Troops moving on the Square negotiated a peaceful withdrawal of the people remaining there as dawn broke on June 4, but some killing of both citizens and soldiers continued during the morning hours” (Zhang L. 365).
Yet, despite this revisionist view, the phrase “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” as George Black and Robin Munro point out several years after June 4, “is now fixed firmly in the political vocabulary of the late twentieth century”; it has become familiar “shorthand” for what happened in Beijing that spring (234). The inflated accounts of vicious carnage in the Square, though “all pure fabrication,” have nonetheless become “enshrined in myth” (236). From the first, Munro has been a strong proponent for setting the record straight on “the geography of the killing.” One recurring thrust in his argument is a recentering of critical attention away from student deaths, whether real or imagined, to the actual deaths of workers and ordinary citizens. In his Nation article, he underscores that the “great majority of those who died (perhaps as many as a thousand in all) were workers, or laobaixing (‘common folk,’ or ‘old hundred names’), and they died mainly on the approach roads in western Beijing” rather than in the Square itself (811). Years later, he returns to this theme with even stronger emphasis: “To insist on this distinction is not splitting hairs. What took place was the slaughter not of students but of ordinary workers and residents—precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended” (Black and Munro 234). Black and Munro contend that the public’s predisposition to believe in a student massacre, even one without convincing evidence, may be “the necessary consummation of an allegory of innocence, sacrifice, and redemption,” a mythology that the students themselves skillfully cultivated through theatrics and rhetoric, but from the standpoint of historical understanding, one unfortunate consequence to the mythification of the students is a general neglectfulness of the “crucial role of the workers and the laobaixing” (235). On their final analysis, the students “were marginal to the threat” (237).
Certainly, this alternative view of Tiananmen carries with it more than just a geographical correction in the interest of what Munro calls the “unvarnished truth.” It implicitly argues for a reappraisal of the movement and claims not only centrality for workers and citizens but also their higher place in the hierarchy of power and sacrifice—their greater potential threat to the Party’s stability, their greater vulnerability to government force, and most of all, their greater suffering within the overall scheme of violence and persecution. In a sense, Munro makes a case for workers and citizens as the true homo sacer of Tiananmen, and this view of them as bearing the brunt of government attacks in 1989 has been variously echoed since (Calhoun x; Boren 218–20; Schell 156).4 Munro himself is not disapproving of the students, and he makes a point of describing their withdrawal from the Square in sincerely admiring terms: “All looked shaken; many were trembling or unsteady on their feet. But all looked proud and unbeaten” (819–20). Yet one side effect of his argument on behalf of the laobaixing is that a growing number of commentators on Tiananmen, particularly in the West, have come to judge the students with moral harshness. By the mid-1990s, the initial image of the students as patriotic and brave noble youths, an image as much self-fashioned as externally constructed by the media, had become severely tarnished by a less flattering one of them as a protected and foolhardy elite that led the truly oppressed classes to their deaths. For these critics, most unforgiving perhaps is the fact, not always voiced explicitly, that those student leaders who cried the loudest for self-sacrifice lived, and lived on in relatively comfortable exile.
DIASPORIC IMAGE WARS
In the United States, the ensuing range of views on the student leaders can be gauged by two documentary films on Tiananmen, produced and released within a year of each other: Michael Apted’s 1994 Moving the Mountain and Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton’s 1995 The Gate of Heavenly Peace. As Orville Schell observes, these two films, by advancing competing images of the student movement, have helped to precipitate an image war over “which one is the right historical interpretation” (qtd. in Tyler). The first, based on Li Lu’s ghostwritten memoir and narrated by him, offers an essentially favorable view of the former student leaders. Besides Li Lu himself, the film gathers together in a roundtable discussion Chai Ling, Wuer Kaixi, and Wang Chaohua. The film makes a point of incorporating several critical remarks by veteran activists such as Wei Jingsheng and John Sham: the former bluntly points out how the students as much as the government “behaved foolishly and acted out of selfishness,” while the latter speaks more generously of the students as “just kids, kids who have heart for the country but who know very little about politics, who know very little about the art of staging a fight with the government.” On the whole, though, these criticisms of the students’ political inexperience and shortsightedness are overwhelmingly offset by the film’s dominant tone of sympathy and admiration—sympathy for the students’ idealism, admiration for their courage, and compassion toward their exilic homesickness. The film’s final scenes portray the former students as nostalgic drifters in the United States, haunted by the massacre and condemning of the Communist Party, yet still wistful for the home country to which they can no longer return. In several wrenchingly emotional moments, Wang Chaohua breaks down as she confesses feelings of guilt: “I won’t say I killed anybody. But there is a Chinese saying for thousands of years: the person may not be killed by you, but they might be killed because of your action, because of you. I always feel there might be many people who died because of me, because of my actions, because of the mistake I made.” In another poignant moment in this last segment, the previously flamboyant Wuer Kaixi tells the interviewer with quiet and almost sheepish wistfulness: “I only wanted to be a teacher, a good teacher, and then all of a sudden it was all gone, all these possibilities are all gone. I have to face this life of the dissident, a top dissident, which I’m really not. Here, sitting here looking at the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, I can let my mind just go. But every time it goes, most of the time it goes to China, across and to the end of this water, China.” Above all, the film emphasizes the students’ new identity as dissidents in exile and their continued commitment to the cause of promoting democracy and human rights in China. Wuer is featured in his radio show studio presumably explaining human rights issues over the airwaves to Chinese audiences; assorted clips exhibit Li speechifying at universities, political rallies, and other Western venues on the need for political change in China; and Chai is given some airtime to discuss her Democracy for China fund, her persistent desire to help the mainland Chinese people, and her continual struggle with her sense of responsibility for those who died. Given these affecting testimonies, even Wang Dan’s gentle reproach—that “they should all come back . . . if they really want to work for democracy in China, only when they return will it be possible”—simply highlights more acutely the political and emotional double-binds around his former classmates. Some tactfully refer to Moving the Mountain as a “tribute” to the student leaders that makes no pretense to critical analysis (P. Chen), while others brand it as an “ornate, gauzy, reenactment-glutted documentary” (Abraham) and even more scornfully as a shameless “hagiography” and “ideological vehicle” for Li Lu (Woodward 35).
By contrast, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, produced by the Long Bow Group and codirected by Carma Hinton, adopts a much more scathing stance toward the same student leaders. In interview, Hinton has spoken of her motivation for making the film:
Some of the reasons why I finally pushed myself to do the film involved the fact that I was in the United States watching television in 1989. What bothered me was that as the event became bigger, a lot of the Western reporters who had been in China for a long time and who knew Chinese were brushed aside. Big television personalities took over as the anchors. They did not know Chinese, they did not know China, but they knew how to package, they knew how to draw viewers, and they knew how to do the perfect sound bite. . . . The adventures of the American news personalities became the story, and it became ever more simplistic. . . .
Also, presenting images of the students as these innocent, totally pure little angels and the government as this monolithic block of bad people does not illuminate what was really going on. In both camps, there were intense struggle. . . . If there was a nice-looking student who could speak good English, he or she would become a much more important subject than a worker who shied away from the camera. The worker may have been more afraid of retaliation than the student, or the worker did not know any English, or whatever. The media selected their own heroes and leaders of the Chinese movement. I was quite bothered by all of that. (qtd. in Marchetti 238)
While Hinton describes her project as primarily a corrective to the American media’s simplistic and one-sided portrayal of Tiananmen, her explanation also reveals dissatisfaction with the popular mythologizing of the students. Her pointed invocation of the hypothetical worker, less glib than the better-educated student but more fearful of government retaliation, recalls Munro’s argument about workers and laobaixing as the forgotten participants of the movement. However, rather than focus on these neglected subjects, her film seems principally aimed at not just revising but overturning the heroic myth of the student leaders. Whether the film falls shy of condemning the students for the massacre is open to debate, but most commentators have interpreted it as not merely raising the question of student leaders’ culpability but actually arguing for it. New York Times reviewers variously attribute to the film the position that “moderation was swept aside during the final days of the demonstrations” by radical students who “pushed too far” (Tyler), and that “had moderation prevailed, there would have been no violent crackdown, and Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reformist agenda might have been accelerated” (Holden). Among scholars, Pauline Chen sees the film as arguing that “student protestors in their fight for democracy adopted the same extremism and repression of alternate views that they opposed in the government,” while Gina Marchetti reads the film as criticizing “the extremists in the dissident camp” who “actually have a lot in common with the hardliners in the government” (223). Ian Buruma outright calls the documentary a “polemic,” one that specifically targets Chai Ling (11–12).
Undoubtedly, the most controversial portion of Gate is the lengthy footage, never publicly aired before, of a May 28 videotaped interview of Chai by the American journalist Philip Cunningham, just days before the crackdown. The centrality of this interview for the documentary is readily detectable, for Gordon and Hinton split it into a half-dozen segments so that the film script—and the viewer—continually return to this one scene of Chai’s self-presentation. As a result of this editorial loop, the interview comes to signify not just one passing moment in the tumultuous weeks of Chai’s leadership but the most telltale and damning of confessions. In the final and longest segment, a clearly exhausted and somewhat rambling Chai, speaking in Mandarin, says amid tears:
I’ve been feeling very sad recently. The students themselves lack a developed sense of democracy. To be honest, from the day I called for a hunger strike I knew we would not get any results. Certain people, certain causes are bound to fail. I’ve been very clear about this all along, but I’ve made an effort to present a staunch image, to show that we were striving for victory. But deep down I knew it was all futile.
The more involved I got, the sadder I became. I already felt this back in April. All along I’ve kept it to myself, because being Chinese I felt I shouldn’t bad-mouth the Chinese. But I can’t help thinking sometimes—and I might as well say it—you, the Chinese, you are not worth my struggle! You are not worth my sacrifice! But then I can also see that in this movement there are many people who do have a conscience. There are many decent people among the students, workers, citizens, and intellectuals.
The students keep asking, “What should we do next? What can we accomplish?” I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, for the moment when the government has no choice but to brazenly butcher the people? Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students? . . . That’s why I feel so sad, because I can’t say all this to my fellow students. I can’t tell them straight out that we must use our blood and our lives to call on the people to rise up. (“Gate,” italics added)
Aside from her self-pitying resentment against “you Chinese” and disturbing call for “brazen butchery,” Chai is also problematically recorded as saying that she herself did not intend to stay in the Square, despite being the self-proclaimed Commander in Chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters: “Because my situation is different. My name is on the government’s hit list. I’m not going to let myself be destroyed by this government. I want to live. Anyway, that’s how I feel about it. I don’t know if people will say I’m selfish. I believe that others have to continue the work I have started. A democracy movement can’t succeed with only one person!” (“Gate”).
The substance of these remarks sparked a heated controversy in the Chinese media in mid-1995, both in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in the overseas dissident community.5 In response to accusations of her role in bringing about the massacre, Chai at first published a self-defense and rebuttal, claiming that the word she had used in the interview—qidai—meant not “hoping” but “expecting.” In a counterattack, she went on to accuse Hinton of harboring pro–Communist Party sentiments because of the latter’s family history (Hinton’s father had been a Mao admirer and a land reform advocate in late 1940s and early 1950s China), of trying to curry favor with mainland authorities, and of “hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context” (qtd. in Barmé, In the Red 330–31). In uglier language still, another former student activist called the filmmakers “a bunch of opportunists,” “a bunch of flies,” “the true disease of our era” (qtd. in Woodward 30). On the opposing side, the activist journalist Dai Qing, one of the intellectual voices most frequently and vociferously marshaled by Gordon and Hinton’s film, has grown ever more vitriolic in response. In her recently published prison memoirs, Dai writes: “Two kinds of people wanted the protest to escalate in the hope that some people would die and the protest might turn into an ‘incident’ of some magnitude. These two kinds of people were indispensable to the escalation. One kind was composed of student leaders and some intellectuals, shallow, rash, blind, who lacked a basic understanding of China’s domestic situation and wishfully thought that a mass movement could change the entire political situation in the country overnight. The other breed consisted of politicians who wanted the then-general secretary of the Party Zhao Ziyang to step down” (104). Dai baldly equates “extremist” student leaders such as Chai Ling and Li Lu with Party hard-liners, holding the former as much as the latter group responsible for Tiananmen’s bloody outcome. She will reiterate this criticism of Chai specifically many times over. On one occasion, she cites as evidence precisely the Cunningham interview and likens Chai’s cohort to Cultural Revolution Red Guards: “Take Chai Ling for example, the activist who famously said that what her group of student leaders were ‘actually hoping for is bloodshed’ on the eve of June 4, 1989. . . . People show their true colors in extreme situations, and Chai Ling proved to be a good student of Chairman Mao’s” (Dai and Barmé). On both sides, then, reasoned analysis has to some extent degenerated into invective. Ironically, the very subject of this debate—the escalation of tension during the Tiananmen protests—is now being played out among the former protest participants themselves as intellectuals and student leaders face off, directing ever-greater rhetorical rancor at each other.
Nor has the hostility died down fifteen years later, as Tiananmen commemorates its twentieth anniversary. In 2007, Chai and her husband filed a legal complaint against the Long Bow Group for defamation and trademark infringement, accusing the Gate producers of propagating “a misleading sample of statements from outdated articles to circulate half-truths and falsehoods” out of “malice toward Chai” (qtd. in Hinton et al.). The lawsuit has gone public since 2009, and the Long Bow Group has in turn responded by publishing an appeal on its website, signed by hundreds of supporters, charging Chai with the intention “to drain the limited resources of the Long Bow Group” with “demands and tactics [that] have dire implications not only for us, but more widely for free speech and independent scholarship” (Hinton et al.). In the latest twist of this diasporic drama, Wang Dan, who is invoked in Gate as a positive voice of moderation among the student leadership, has emerged as a galvanizing defender of Chai. In an open letter issued in May 2009 to Hinton and Gordon on behalf of “Tiananmen survivors, participants, and supporters,” Wang urges the filmmakers “to correct the false reporting and editing” in Gate. His analysis of the film’s mistakes is very close to Chai’s, though couched in more temperate language. The letter is worth quoting at length:
In your documentary, you used selective quotes and interpretive and erroneous translation leaving viewers with an impression that Chai Ling had run away from the danger while sending her other students to die, or that she and all of us student leaders had provoked and hoped for bloodshed. This impression was contradictory to the facts of what actually happened at Tiananmen.
Clearly, Chai Ling’s language “. . . qidai liuxue” was mistranslated by Carma Hinton, the producer, and taken out of context. “qidai” is properly translated as “hope for with anticipation or wait.” Those of us who were there know that Chai Ling meant that we were anticipating a possible crackdown and hoping that the crackdown would happen in public, in front of the media, rather than being driven back to the darkness and disappearing from the world record, like so many other uprisings in China before and after 1989. It is important to note that we anticipated a crackdown, not a massacre. It also should have been noted that the student leaders made a major effort to make sure students who chose to stay at Tiananmen were volunteers who understood the risks of remaining in the square.
Above all, our fellow student Chai Ling’s language “. . . I want to live . . .” was also taken out of context, and gives a false impression that she ran away. In fact, she was there with her fellow student demonstrators until the last minute at Tiananmen, and led the last protestors on the Square retreating to campus in the morning of June 4th, 1989. . . .
On the 20th anniversary remembering all of the Chinese students’ and citizens’ sacrifices, it has been 14 years since we first raised our concerns with you, but we have seen no action taken to correct misrepresentations in The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Again, we who took the risk and live in exile today because of it, urge you to post on your website this brief response and defense of our attempt to bring freedom and democracy to China, and of those students and citizens who risked or sacrifice their life and future to cry for a better future of China. (Wang D., “Defense”)
The dispute generated by Gordon and Hinton’s film underscores a shift in Tiananmen discourse in the last twenty years. For the most part, commentators agree on the importance of remembering Tiananmen, and all sides remain sympathetic to the pro-democracy cause for China. What has come under contestation, and what refuses to be settled in the ongoing memory reconstruction of the event, is the issue of student responsibility. In the current phase of Tiananmen’s historiography, we see realignments of formerly divergent student leaders such as Chai Ling and Wang Dan as well as new transnational linkages beyond the East-West divide between Chinese intellectuals such as Dai Qing and China observers and scholars in the West such as Carma Hinton and her league of supporters. In short, what emerges as a new fracture in Tiananmen discourse is defined less by ideology or nationality than by generationality and group identification, with the main rift cutting between self-identified intellectuals or scholars on the one hand and self-identified (ex-)students on the other. In the wake of Gate, it is almost de rigueur among commentators on Tiananmen to raise the topic of student radicalism and guilt. As Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith note, “In virtually every interview with dissident leaders in the United States after the release of Gate, dissident students were challenged about their behavior on the Square” (213). This large-scale shift can have a concrete and vital impact on Sino-American international relations. As Schaffer and Smith further point out, during President Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to China for talks on its most-favored-nation status, the U.S. media’s intense refocusing of attention away from the communist government to the student leaders as a source of blame effectively “took pressure off Clinton to respond to exiled students’ demands that he secure an apology for the Tiananmen Square Massacre in return for trade agreements” (214). Post-Gate, rare is the self-reflective critic who will admit, as Su Xiaokang has, that “we [intellectuals] created an atmosphere that encouraged the students to be radical, and then, when they did, we turned around and lectured them about their extremism” (qtd. in Buruma 57). So, it may indeed be the case that Gate at once stages and partakes of “struggles for control of the square and its political symbolic capital” in a more expanded transnational framework, as Gina Marchetti argues (220–21). But by accentuating the problem of student culpability without further probing the roots of student radicalism, and by doing so from a seemingly privileged distance of intellectual as well as moral assurance and self-righteousness, the film has had the unconstructive results of fueling existing flames among Chinese dissidents and activists alike, polarizing pro-democracy discourses along lines of blame, and shrinking the terms of discussion about Tiananmen to narrow categories of moral character.
SPOTLIGHT ON LIUBUKOU
Within this context of Tiananmen’s troubled historiography, Beijing Coma works to steer critical attention away from moral critiques of the student leaders back to the historical impetus of the Tiananmen movement. As we have seen, for Ma Jian, this is inextricably tied to communist state biopower, the wide-ranging and durable biopolitical history that both culminates in and persists beyond Tiananmen. Thus, aside from delivering such proleptically prenatal apparitions of the new millennium as the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the novel ends by revisiting, in its penultimate climactic scene, the Square in the early-morning hours of June 4. Through a calculated re-presentation of the massacre, Beijing Coma exemplifies the use of literature as an interventionist medium for what Arif Dirlik calls “critical remembering” and “the historicity of the present” (“Trapped” 300).
Enfolded within the present-time scenes of bulldozers surrounding Huizhen’s apartment, embedded in between her defiant refusals to be evicted, are the novel’s key scenes of the besieged Square in the controversial hours of its evacuation. By this point in the novel’s 1989 time frame, tanks and armored personnel carriers have already enclosed and entered the Square, the slaughter on Changan Avenue during the army’s approach has already occurred, and Mou Sen, Dai Wei’s best friend, has been shot and killed, along with scores of others. The final contingent of a few thousand students huddle around the Monument of the People’s Heroes, Dai Wei among them. Then, true to real-life reports of a largely bloodless withdrawal, the novel shows these students force-marched safely, if brutely and chaotically, out of the Square. At the same time, Ma attempts to reconcile contrary accounts of isolated violence by incorporating references to a panicked stampede where people are “knocked over or trampled underfoot”; to army abuse where soldiers beat the students “over the heads with the butts of their guns as though they were driving out a pack of dogs”; and most pointedly echoing the Qinghua student’s testimony, to army and police brutality where they kick and club a last group of about three hundred students who refuse to leave (572–73). Still, up to this point in the narrative, fiction roughly accords with eyewitness accounts.
The moment outside the Square, however, is the point at which the novel paradoxically comes closest to and also departs farthest from history. As the students retreat and the crowd thins, Dai Wei manages to stay with his group of friends. Among them are Bai Ling and Wang Fei—the unmistakable fictional counterparts of Chai Ling and her then-husband Feng Congde. In real life, both survived June 4, and both went on to immigrate to the West, Chai becoming the CEO of a computer software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Feng pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology in Paris. The parallel universe of Beijing Coma, however, confiscates from them these exilic afterlives. Instead, like Dai Wei, Bai Ling and Wang Fei fulfill for Ma the symbolic role of the state’s most gruesome biopolitical victims:
Heading north, we reached the Liubukou intersection. . . . One of the tanks suddenly left the blockade, roared towards us and shot a canister of tear gas which exploded with a great bang in the middle of our crowd. A cloud of yellow smoke engulfed us. My throat burned and my eyes stung. I felt dizzy and couldn’t stand straight. . . .
While we were still trying to crawl our way out of the acrid smoke, I heard another tank roar towards us. It paused for a moment in the middle of the road, then rumbled forward again and circled us. As it swerved round, its large central gun swung over my head and knocked down a few students standing beside me. I got up and ran onto the pavement. An armoured personnel carrier drove forward too, and discharged a round of bullets. Everyone searched for cover. I heard Wang Fei scream. I looked back, but the yellow smoke was still too thick to see anything clearly. I waited. I knew the tank must have driven over some people. As the smoke cleared, a scene appeared before me that singed the retinas of my eyes. On the strip of road which the tank had just rolled over, between a few crushed bicycles, lay a mass of silent, flattened bodies. I could see Bai Ling’s yellow-and-white-striped T-shirt and red banner drenched in blood. Her face was completely flat. A mess of black hair obscured her elongated mouth. An eyeball was floating in the pool of blood beside her. Wang Fei’s flattened black megaphone lay on her chest, next to a coil of steaming intestine. Her right arm and hand were intact. Slowly two of the fingers clenched, testifying that a few moments before, she’d been alive.
Wang Fei was lying next to her. He propped himself up on his elbow, tugged the strap he was holding and dragged his flattened megaphone away from Bai Ling’s chest. The bones of his legs were splayed open like flattened sticks of bamboo. His blood-soaked trousers and lumps of his crushed leg were stuck to parts of Bai Ling. I glanced at the stationary tank and saw pieces of Wang Fei’s trousers and leg caught in its metal tracks. (576–77)
This passage deserves quoting in full for several reasons. First and foremost, the sheer graphicness of Ma’s description makes this one of the most vivid and memorable moments in the novel. If the imagery is grotesque and even lurid, if it has a kind of shocking or alienation effect on the reader, then the text succeeds in reanimating from world memory some of the initial raw agony of that Beijing spring. Like the morgue scenes in Ha Jin’s The Crazed, this passage is saturated with the evidential force of a photograph, with the impulse to testify and authenticate.
At the same time, suggestively, this passage bears a formal resemblance to the genre of reportage literature (baogao wenxue). Far from shrill, Dai Wei’s tone here is insistently objective: his first-person narration of a direct experience of an atrocity and his meticulous attention to perceived details imitate the conventions of not just eyewitness accounts but also reportage literature. In his illuminating study of this genre, Charles Laughlin has demonstrated how PRC-era reportage writing may be traced to the documentary literature of public demonstrations and student activism from the Republican period, such as narratives of May 4 protests (109–11). As Laughlin elaborates, reportage literature centers on “collectives rather than individual characters” (28), and it probes not the singularity of a narrator’s psyche but the collective consciousness of a social, oftentimes national, event. Likewise, Beijing Coma can fruitfully be read in relation to reportage, as an attempt to realize the collective student consciousness of Tiananmen. Certainly, the novel is more than a traditional bildungsroman about an individual protagonist’s development and struggle. Dai Wei, for all his uniqueness as a neomort, is ultimately Ma’s vehicle for embodying, reflecting on, and critiquing the evolving life of national consciousness. It may be more accurate, then, to see the novel’s fictional dimension as working in dynamic concert with its historical one to create a hybrid reportage bildungsroman: this is a coming-of-age narrative of the whole Tiananmen student generation, its maturation cut short by state violence and its life henceforth reduced to coma, a literal fate for Dai Wei and a metaphorical one for his peers. Establishing this generic relation to reportage allows Ma to claim for his fiction a lineage in documentary writing highly invested in truth-telling as well as a Chinese history of student activism. This in turn allows him to better intervene on historical reconstructions of Tiananmen, to better redeem student life from communist erasure as much as moralist censure.
Intriguingly, Laughlin notes that reportage “declined sharply in quality and popularity after 1989” (21), that the Tiananmen crackdown “altered irrevocably” the “field of cultural production that conferred value on the discourse of the actual in the 1980s” (279). Given this situation, Beijing Coma may be said to give life to a censored content via a suppressed form: published within a protected diasporic space, the novel is able to draw upon the historical and political functions of the very genre that has suffered tighter official control within the PRC since Tiananmen. This, too, harkens back to what Laughlin posits as reportage’s origins as a counterdiscourse, as that which yields “a true, corrective version” to the government’s official history (84). In this regard, it is telling that, despite the novel’s monumental scope, we never once glimpse inside the Zhongnanhai compound, are privy neither to Deng Xiaoping’s inner contemplations and moral struggles as more psychological fiction would readily give us nor to the Politburo’s and the Party Elders’ daily conversations as the collection The Tiananmen Papers already richly documents. Indeed, if the novel’s sprawling form—almost six hundred pages of chapterless narration, the bulk of which methodically and sometimes ploddingly recounts the day-to-day developments and frictions within the student camps in the Square—can strike the reader as unnecessarily mired in the trivialities of student life, or else overly invested in mimesis and the spell of reality effects, it is perhaps more instructive to read this mode of thick realism as a discursive gesture to The Tiananmen Papers itself. As such, the novel may be regarded as the latter’s fictional complement, providing the missing chronicle of Tiananmen via the micro operations of the student movement.
Attending to the formal elements of Dai Wei’s reportage-like narration in this passage will moreover reveal the precision of Ma’s imagined geography. Unlike the other fictional works discussed in previous chapters, Beijing Coma pinpoints an exact location for the massacre: the Liubukou intersection on west Changan Avenue, about a mile northwest of the Square. Ma’s focus on this spot is crucial. For one, as we have noted, his novel harmonizes with testimonies that claim that no large-scale massacre occurred inside the Square. However, in sharp contrast to analyses that concentrate instead on the deaths of workers and civilians, Ma lingers on the students, following them in their evacuation beyond the Square to a site where they, too, were in life massacred.
Slowly and piecemeal after June 4, various survivors have surfaced to tell of this little-known but much-witnessed incident at Liubukou. As early as 1990, a student by the pseudonym of Liu Tang provided this account to Human Rights in China:
As we moved out of the residential area and headed toward Liubukou intersection, few civilians met us along the road. . . .
I was last in the line of Qinghua students. Behind us were students from the University of Law and Politics. When we arrived at Changan Avenue we saw about four rows of tanks stationed 300 feet east of the intersection. This was our first encounter with soldiers since leaving the square, so we couldn’t contain our anger. We chanted “Beasts! Beasts! Murderers! Murderers!”
I saw the first row of tanks, four of them, begin its charge. The one on the north side of the street led the attack and they quickly picked up speed.
The students began to run in a panic—the ones in front of me ran north, while the ones behind me ran south. I ran north and quickly turned west but had trouble running because I was pushing my bike. The tanks kept gaining on us. I remembered someone screaming at me to hurry up. Another student helped me drag my bike onto the curb.
The tank missed me by a few yards. As it passed, the soldiers inside opened the hatch and tossed out four gas canisters. Unlike the gas canisters they had used the day before, which had made us cry, these containers spewed yellow fumes and choked us by irritating our lungs. . . .
Back up the street, about a dozen students had been trapped by burned buses and abandoned bicycles. They had been unable to escape the first charge of the tanks. The first body I saw was a girl dressed neatly in a white blouse and red skirt. She lay face down on the avenue. One of her legs was completely twisted around, the foot pointed up toward the sky.
Another, a male student, had his right arm completely severed from his shoulder, leaving a gaping black hole. The last body in the line of students was a young man on top of a flattened bicycle. He had been trying to climb over the bicycles to get away from the tank. His head was crushed: a pool of blood and brain lay on the pavement a few feet away.
Altogether, eleven students were crushed by this tank. Ten minutes later, an ambulance arrived and picked up three or four students who may still have been alive. (Human Rights 176–78)
Apocryphal or not, this account has since been corroborated by a number of others. Timothy Brook, relying on confidential interviews in the China Documentation Project, cites three anonymous eyewitnesses of the Liubukou assault, two of them Beijing students retreating from the Square and one an Associated Press reporter at the scene. As in Liu Tang’s account, one of the students counted eleven bodies, as did the AP reporter: “Seven died instantly and four probably died later. They were like hamburger, like a dead animal flattened on the highway. Maybe the driver just lost control, though I assume it was on purpose” (qtd. in Brook 149).
The numbers fluctuate, however, depending on the time and place of the witnessing, and given the mutilated state of the bodies and the chaos of the moment, the true figure may never be known. The latest data on the Tiananmen Mothers Campaign website list eight casualties at Liubukou for the early morning of June 4; of these, seven were students, four of them crushed by tanks (“Liusi”). Feng Congde himself has created a website, June 4th Memoir (recently revamped and now hosted by Li Lu), that exhibits numerous graphic photographs of Liubukou. The website also includes a 2001 report by a student with the pen name Yu Yuan, who relates similar experiences as Liu Tang’s and who recalls seeing the bodies of five students, two of them also flattened by tanks onto their bicycles. More recently in 2004, Ren Bumei, a former student who was part of the final evacuation and who has since become a prominent voice of dissidence in cyberspace, writes of his arrival at Liubukou moments after the attack, belated enough to have escaped the violence but early enough to witness the carnage:
As I neared Liubukou I suddenly sensed that the group of students in front of me was dissolving in chaos and beginning to retreat. Advancing a few steps, I saw a group of people lying in pools of blood in Chang’an Avenue. I don’t remember how many people there were, perhaps around 18. A student said that when the tanks saw the group of students approaching, they advanced on them and some students were crushed. I and some other students immediately began administering first aide. . . . In fact, some of the people were already dead at the scene, their intestines and brains spilling out. I was 21 years old at that time, and it was the first time that I had faced death in such a way. (66)
The Tiananmen Papers, too, cites a State Security Ministry intelligence report sent to the Party leadership at Zhongnanhai on the morning of June 4 that backs up this account: “Liubukou, roughly 6 A.M.: When some students and citizens who had withdrawn from Tiananmen Square reached Liubukou, soldiers opened fire and drove tanks into their midst, killing eleven. Six of the corpses were not removed until 7 A.M.” (Zhang L. 383).
Most credible of all, perhaps, is the testimony given by Fang Zheng, a double amputee who was rolled over by a tank at Liubukou:
Just after we turned from west Chang’an Boulevard to Liubukou, many grenades were fired towards the crowd from behind. They immediately exploded among the marching students. One went off just beside me. A two-to-three meter layer of smoke quickly engulfed us. A female student walking next to me suddenly fainted, choking and in shock. I rushed to pick her up and take her to the side of the street.
At this time I realized that a tank was racing toward us, traveling from east to west. With all my force, I tried to push the woman towards the guard rail by the sidewalk. In the blink of an eye, the tank was approaching the sidewalk and closing in on me. It seemed as if the barrel of its gun was inches from my face. I could not dodge it in time. I threw myself to the ground and began to roll. But it was too late. My upper body fell between two treads of the tank, but both my legs were run over. The treads rolled over my legs and my pants, and I was dragged for a distance. I used all my strength to break free and to roll to the side of the road. At that time I lost consciousness. Only later did I learn that Beijing residents and students brought me to Jishuitan Hospital, where I underwent a double amputation. My right leg was amputated, leaving just two-thirds of my right thigh. My left leg was amputated five centimeters below the knee. (“Testimony”)
Few things are more persuasive as evidence than a wounded body, and few emblems more illustrative of sovereign biopower than an army tank rolling over an unarmed man, literally inscribing the state’s supremacy on the subject’s bared life. Fang Zheng’s testimony, given in 1999, itself has a revealing prehistory. A gifted athlete at the Beijing College of Sports in 1989, Fang was denied his graduation certificate and a job assignment after the crackdown. Nonetheless, he went on to train in sports, winning gold medals in discus and javelin throwing at a 1992 sports meet for the disabled and becoming China’s national record holder at the time. When authorities discovered he had been injured at Tiananmen, however, he was disqualified from the 1994 Beijing Special Olympics, even though he had pledged to keep the circumstances of his injury confidential (“In Memory”). His story has periodically resurfaced in the American press in the years since, and it is in part through him that Liubukou continues to be conferred historical relevance for the post-Tiananmen world.
By endowing Fang Zheng with a fictional parallel life in the character of post-massacre Wang Fei, Ma Jian in turn brings to the fore this continual relevance, intricately linking up the biopolitics of Tiananmen with the politics of the Beijing Olympics. Just as Fang Zheng has become a spokesperson for government accountability for Tiananmen in the post-Deng era, so Wang Fei gives voice to the same position, underscoring its urgency in the age of China’s economic ascendancy and global power. As Wang tells his friends and fellow survivors in a 1999 reunion in Dai Wei’s apartment, in one of the most resonant speeches in the novel:
“We’re the ‘Tiananmen Generation’, but no one dares call us that,” Wang Fei says. “It’s taboo. We’ve been crushed and silenced. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books. The economy is developing at a frantic pace. In a few more years the country will be so strong, the government will have nothing to fear, and no need or desire to listen to us. So if we want to change our lives, we must take action now. This is our last chance. The Party is begging the world to give China the Olympics. We must beg the Party to give us basic human rights.” Wang Fei’s wheelchair rattles and squeaks as he twists from side to side. (505)
Wang Fei may be full of fighting spirit in this passage, but his fate will be bleaker than Fang Zheng’s. The last reference to him in the novel, indirectly related through a phone call to Huizhen, is that he has been arrested and forcibly committed to a mental asylum. The response of Huizhen, herself half-mad after her Falun Gong arrest and torture, is an index of the spreading biopower of the state in Ma’s vision: “A mental asylum? How nice. I wouldn’t mind going in for a bit of treatment myself” (564).
Ma’s spotlight on Liubukou, then, is a redirection of a redirection. Heeding Munro’s call, he does essay to set the record straight on the geography of the killing. Yet his unswerving focus is on the students—the reality of student deaths, and the costs of student life. In this respect, his novel shows a deliberately cultivated relation to the ongoing constructions of history, not just in points of fact but also in the shifting terrains of interpretation. On the one hand, if some student leaders have come under heavy criticism for bringing death to those who defended and supported them, Ma stresses that students, too, were among the ranks of Tiananmen’s victims, in death as in life, and nowhere more severely than at Liubukou. His text’s amplification of this specific massacre may hence be read as a reclaiming of student casualties from the historian’s footnote.6 On the other hand, if the communist government has manipulated the fact of a largely bloodless evacuation to conceal massacres outside the Square proper, Ma does not answer this cover-up by fabricating a massacre where there was none. Nor does he simply conclude, as Orville Schell does and many may be inclined to do, that efforts at defining the boundaries of the Square are a “purely semantic” exercise, that “whatever the number of dead, and wherever they died,” the event’s ultimate significance lies in “state-sponsored terror” (156–57)—as if historical accuracy and historical meaning are mutually exclusive categories. What Ma’s text proposes is the noncontradiction of the two. It remains meaningful for him to map the dead accurately, to not relegate them to the “whatever” and “wherever” of semantics. Given that he has Huizhen join the Tiananmen Mothers organization, we can further speculate on his mindfulness of the arduous labor of those like Ding Zilin who painstakingly track down, record, and authenticate each Tiananmen victim. At the same time, the fictional dimension of his novel makes possible a symbolic reordering of time and space, so that even as the text operates with topographical exactness on one level, it can simultaneously suspend the particularities of thick realism to illuminate the allegorical meanings of Tiananmen—the symbolic ubiquity of the Square as a biopolitical space and the unremitting presence of the massacre as a biopolitical time. And it is only by reactivating the operations of fiction that Ma can displace Chai Ling, that most vilified of student leaders in post-Tiananmen life, onto her fictional double’s death at Liubukou.
Given that history is an omnipresent intertext for his novel, Ma’s rewriting of Chai’s fate takes on magnified meaning in the ongoing debate about student survival. From one angle, his fictional move can be interpreted as an evasive maneuver, an attempt to circumvent the thorny issue of assessing the former student leaders’ current lives in exile. Especially on the heels of Gordon and Hinton’s documentary, there has been no lack of commentators eager to disabuse the public of the mythology of valiantly self-sacrificing students. Yvonne Abraham, for example, in a seven-part series for the Boston Phoenix in 1997, begins her exposé thus: “After the bloody crackdown in China, a few brave student leaders escaped to carry on the fight from American shores. At least that was the story. Here’s what really happened.” Titling her piece “Cashing in on Tiananmen,” she goes on with biting tenacity to paint a collective portrait of post-Tiananmen Li Lu, Wuer Kaixi, Shen Tong, and Chai Ling as not only bewildered young dissidents unexpectedly swept up by the American media circus but also, less flatteringly, as greedy opportunists capitalizing on their accidental fame. While it is understandable that the suddenly exiled students may have “traded on Tiananmen to make themselves darlings of the Western media,” Abraham further insinuates that the students may have funneled millions of dollars in donation money toward their own use, to sustain their newfound extravagant lifestyles as cultural celebrities. The accusation, in effect, is that these student leaders have abandoned the cause of democracy and betrayed the people back in China even as they deceive the good-hearted if naive donors of the West. Abraham borrows her authority in part from Liu Binyan, whom she quotes as saying: “When [the students] were still in China, they were too radical and self-centered, and acted as stars before the world’s media. When they arrived abroad, they behaved like aristocrats, seeming to forget the ordinary people at home.” In a mutually enforcing and ever-amplifying representational loop, Abraham’s article is in turn linked by Gordon and Hinton as resource material, specifically on Chai Ling, to their Gate of Heavenly Peace website. The limelight is again explicitly on Chai, and implicitly on the student leaders’ moral fiber, their failure to live up to the image of heroic dissidents, and their not being “what they say they are.”
Survival, after all, is far more complicated than death, at least from the standpoint of the living and the perspective of moral judgment. The cliché about life’s inherent sacredness is rarely said of a person’s manner of living, for bios does not lend itself to sentiments of the sacrosanct so readily as zoē. Ma shows ample recognition of this insight when he portrays some student survivors choosing to embrace the benefits of capitalism rather than continue the fight against political oppression. In life, this decision is reflected in Chai Ling’s climb of the corporate ladder in America. Hers may be a choice less amenable to a romantic vision of melancholic exile than, say, Zhang Boli’s to enter the church and become a pastor, but both paths bespeak a certain escapism. One renounces politics in the name of pragmatic self-advancement while the other renounces secular concerns altogether in the name of spiritual salvation, but both can be comprehended as reacting to an upbringing under a communist regime as much as disappointed idealism in the wake of the student movement’s tragic failure. So it is almost with a sense of prophetic fulfillment that, in the latest twist of events, the paths of these two oppositely iconic figures of the student movement have merged. In 2009, after hearing a live testimony in Washington, D.C., of one woman’s forced abortion under China’s one-child policy, Chai Ling announced that she was converting to Christianity—for only God, she declares, can stop this “inhumane crime” done “in broad daylight” that is “hundreds of times more deadly than the Tiananmen Massacre” (Testimony). She was baptized on Easter the following year, to the warm and vocal support of Zhang Boli.
Ma, however, is not merely trying to excuse Chai Ling or rescue her from her critics by contriving a morally unassailable end for her fictional counterpart. He is careful not to enter into the zero-sum game of a biopolitical moral calculus, on which a horrific death converts into political credit and a comfortable life into political debt. Rather, his novel suggests it is simply inadequate to evaluate the student movement in the strictest terms of moral character. If reports such as Gordon and Hinton’s or Abraham’s have brought much evidence to light about the students’ impetuosity and arrogance, self-interest and power-mongering, Beijing Coma does not sanitize its representation of the movement of these traits. On the contrary, in its methodically chronicle-like manner, the novel incorporates many reported episodes of the student leaders’ disorganization, factious infighting, and power abuse. For instance, the “election” of student leaders at the movement’s inception is depicted as haphazard and undemocratic, in the process of which Dai Wei, just by virtue of “standing by the tables with the other speakers,” involuntarily becomes a founding member of Beijing University’s organizing committee (162–65). As the same cliques of students assign themselves and their friends to multiple leadership roles, Dai Wei will be designated “head of security” (because of his unusual height) and then appointed to various other posts, some of which he himself forgets (202). Later, as student organizations proliferate and a flurry of appointments are made and unmade amid “many coups and reshuffles” (217), debates will devolve into quarrels, quarrels into power struggles, first between the hunger strike group and the dialogue delegation, then between Beijing students and provincial ones, and finally among a dizzying array of realigned factions.
Nor does the novel shirk from showcasing the student leaders’ tendency toward authoritarian control—by shutting out opposing views, by monopolizing the loudspeaker system for propaganda purposes, periodically breaking into brawls over command of the megaphone or the broadcast station (323, 376–78, 399), and even by censoring student poll results about leaving the Square (359). In real life, these practices, as critics have pointed out, eerily replicate the Communist Party leadership’s clandestine mode of operation, and Ma’s text likewise suggests that the student leaders, once they assume power, swiftly adopt similar behavioral patterns of unilateral decision making, information suppression, bureaucratic governance, and forceful bullying. In their most self-protective and unheroic moment in the novel, they are shown in a 3:00 a.m. secret meeting, after the government has announced its intention to clear the Square by dawn (a false alarm, as it turns out), discussing plans for splitting the donation money and separately absconding from the Square without notifying the rest of the student body. Bai Ling here invokes the same argument as Chai Ling, in her Cunningham interview, about the privileged duty of student leaders: “If we want to keep the flame of the movement alive, we must leave the Square and go underground” (348). In this scene’s ensuing dispute, she is scarcely the sterling example of self-sacrifice as she nervously entreats the others to “hurry up and share out the cash.” Mou Sen, by contrast, emerges as a voice of conscience and unity: “This is too much! . . . We can’t creep away without telling anyone. We must make an announcement and explain our actions” (348). Dai Wei also advocates for a general announcement and evacuation, but once his vote is defeated, he, too, despite twinges of guilt, takes the money and prepares to flee. It is a scene that starkly illustrates the gulf between the student leaders and those they represent. As Dai Wei thinks uneasily to himself, “it didn’t seem right that the leaders were skulking away like this, especially since they’d been urging everyone else to stay” (350). A hierarchy now exists between student leaders and ordinary students, the same division of power they had presumably set out to democratize.
The novel, of course, does not stop at these moral nadirs in the student movement. Their inclusion is part of Ma’s strategic rounding out of the students, perhaps best read in counterpoint to their flattened image as “counterrevolutionaries” by the communist government on the one hand and as reckless “extremists” by liberal critics on the other. Ultimately for Ma, the negative face of student life does not detract from Tiananmen’s deepest meaning as a movement opposed to totalitarian biopower. By ending his reconstruction of student life at Liubukou, he shifts the analysis of Tiananmen away from the student leaders’ moral character and political responsibility back to the biopolitical history that they, perhaps naively, sometimes selfishly but nonetheless earnestly, strived to disrupt and overthrow. Above all, he fixes attention on the Square’s mobility and reincarnation, not the students’. If Chai Ling and Zhang Boli are able to find metaphorical new life in exile and reinvent themselves as a corporate executive and a Christian minister respectively, Bai Ling and Mou Sen are not. Ma’s rescripting of these two student leaders’ fate highlights the failure of the movement to regenerate since 1989 and the symbolic end of the student leaders as such. Most revealing of his view toward student life is the fact that Bai Ling and Mou Sen epitomize antithetical poles of the student movement but nevertheless meet with similar fates. Where Bai Ling leads the more radical student camp by championing the hunger strike and advocating suicide by fire (245), Mou Sen stands as the staunch intellectual who endorses more moderate student leaders (199, 247–48), believes in political education, gradual change, and peaceful resistance, and insists on opening his Democracy University even on the eve of the massacre (528–33). She is the accidental face and mouthpiece of the movement’s revolutionary pathos, he the behind-the-scenes engineer of its intellectuality and logos. At times they come together in collaboration—as when she reads out the hunger strike declaration he drafts (230–31)—and when they do, they enormously amplify the movement’s emotional and rational appeal. Fundamentally, though, they represent rival politics, and their joint presence in the novel foregrounds the range of political attitudes within the student movement. If some prominent intellectuals have characterized Tiananmen as a movement polarized between irrational, hotheaded, extremist students and rational, sober, reform-minded intellectuals (and here we can recall the voices of Wei Jingsheng as much as Dai Qing, Liu Binyan as much as Gao Xingjian), Ma marks a critical departure by delineating not only the spectrum of student positions but also their at times strategic collaborations and convergences. In Beijing Coma, the students too have their philosophers and reformers. Yet, by having Bai Ling and Mou Sen come to similar ends on June 4, Ma implies that the crux of history does not lie in the students’ chosen political path. Reformism and radicalism alike are met by the state with force: the difference lies only in the degree and method of force, between a bullet and a tank. On Ma’s final analysis, the student movement’s failure is not to be traced to character flaws or political blunders but serves instead as an ever-present cause for continued vigilance to ever-newer permutations of state sovereign biopower.
Aside from the moral perspective, then, and in light of history’s outcome, the student movement cannot be given its due if it is primarily assessed on the basis of political efficacy. To be sure, the students were inexperienced activists, more occasional agitators than professional dissidents, and Ma gives abundant support to this view in his novel. What then was the nature of the students’ “democracy”? One notable hypothesis, as discussed in the previous chapter, is put forward by Joseph Esherick and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. As they note, it would be imprecise to characterize the student movement as a truly pro-democracy one if the term minzhu is taken to mean a Western-style pluralist political system, since few students at the time had any concrete knowledge of democratic governance. Moreover, Esherick and Wasserstrom point out that the students consistently displayed an “elitist reading of minzhu” and a “distrust of the laobaixing or untutored masses” as well as a “lack of concern for the needs of workers and peasants” (31). Ma, too, has no illusions on this score; at one point in the novel, when a worker approaches the student leaders seeking to join his petition to theirs, the students suspiciously and callously brush him aside, stating, “You do your thing and we’ll do ours” (182). Certainly, many students took to the streets in 1989 out of not simply high-minded ideals but also a consciousness of their unique power precisely as students, as a group of cultural elite that, in modern times since May Fourth, has been perceived as bearing the moral conscience of the nation and hence enjoyed some measure of political immunity. Given this history, Esherick and Wasserstrom argue that we are less likely to understand the Tiananmen students if we regard them as political analysts or philosophers than if we focus on their actions as symbolic performances in a political theater, a “cultural performance before a mass audience . . . that expresses beliefs about the proper distribution and disposition of power . . . and other scarce resources” (39). If the students have been faulted for not having a “coherent political program,” if they “rarely analyzed the failings of the Chinese political system or proposed a concrete program for political change,” the reason is that “theirs was a performance designed to impress and move an audience, not a lecture designed to inform.” Esherick and Wasserstrom thus maintain that it “makes little sense to ask whether these students really knew what ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ meant, and still less sense to ask whether they were truly prepared to die for their beliefs. These last testaments were power statements of great symbolic meaning. They revealed a fundamental alienation from the regime and a willingness to make great (perhaps even the ultimate) sacrifice for an alternative political future” (40). Such a hypothesis necessarily assumes that those like Mou Sen are in the minority.
The element of theatricality, as we have seen, is rampant in Annie Wang’s portrayal of the Square, although she is less prone to analyze it as a traditionally rooted political performance than as a hybrid byproduct of Deng-era commodification culture and China’s self-orientalism in its encounter with the capitalist West. Theatricality is also present in Ma’s novel, if in more subdued form, through occasional references to rock bands (395) and rock stars (497–98) in the Square as well as the student leaders’ posturing as “stars of th[e] movement” (323) and “actor[s] on the stage” (369). Indeed, how can theatricality not play a part in any representation of Tiananmen, with pop cultural icons such as Hou Dejian and Cui Jian so salient a part of that Beijing spring’s spectacle? Yet in Ma’s novel, the students’ role-playing unfolds in an ever more terrifying allegory of a country with no exits. Again, Mou Sen’s early premonition of the Square as a stage with “no escape routes,” and of the students as “trapped here, in the spotlight” (357), succinctly captures Ma’s larger thesis about the ubiquity of communist state biopower. As the tanks advance on the Square, minor characters in the movement become like “extra[s] in a fight scene” (542), and Dai Wei himself feels “as though we were standing behind the scenes in a theater, overhearing the noisy commotion taking place on the stage” (561). Ma is less invested than Wang in painting Tiananmen in the hyperreal terms of material commodification, nor is he interested in staging a critique of national politics as another manifestation of consumer culture’s mass psychology. The hyperreal here is not pervasive but isolated, flashing up intermittently within the text’s fabric of documentary realism, alarm signals of a biopolitical status quo above the mundane details of student activities. Despite some savviness about the theatricality of politics, the students in Beijing Coma, unlike those in Lili, tend to be more profoundly embedded in the bewildering chaos of experiential existence where history has yet to be made and meaning decided. Ma’s students are more confused than calculating, and more earnestly keen for historical knowledge than shallowly captivated by material glitter. While they know enough of the “script” of political theater to stage all the dramatic acts of public protest, they bear out Esherick and Wasserstrom’s analysis in that they show no real understanding of the meanings of democracy. In this sense they resemble more, perhaps ironically, the 1920s student revolutionaries in Mao Dun’s early pro-communist fiction, a generation of young idealists likewise caught up in the tidal wave of political radicalism and armed with the intellectual imperative to oppose entrenched social habits and ideologies but sorely lacking in the tools to do so themselves.
Yet for Ma, what his students lack above all is knowledge of even the recent history of political dissent in their country. This ignorance is dramatized in a conversation in which Dai Wei, discussing politics with his friends on the eve of the 1986–87 student protests, admits to knowing little about the 1978–79 Democracy Wall movement (86). Ma focuses on this theme of historical amnesia as key to student life under communist totalitarian rule. His novel suggests that the Party wields and retains its power only by repeatedly rupturing intergenerational memory, by thwarting the transmission of historical memory from one generation to the next, not just about political dissent but also everyday suffering caused by national policies. Hence, Dai Wei knew almost nothing about his father’s life prior to reading the latter’s diary and little more about the Cultural Revolution prior to his Guangxi trip. It is this generational ignorance that Ma highlights as an essential determinant in the Tiananmen student leadership’s eventual modus operandus. As we have seen, he calls this phenomenon duandai, the severing of generations: “When we look again at this [Tiananmen] generation, we can very clearly arrive at this conclusion: the students’ ignorance is not merely a product of their own doing but also that of society’s. What I try to do in my novel is also to show how society has allowed them to ‘duandai,’ allowed them to fail, caused them to become something very close to the Communist Party itself—for instance, their power struggle, their mutual distrust, and their disbelief even toward the end, when they had been pushed to the brink of repression” (qtd. in Zeng). For Ma, what could be leveled at the students as criticism of their moral failings or political egotism is cast instead as the sociopsychic effects of totalitarian rule—how its forcible disruptions of intergenerational memory result in an ethos of foolhardy and self-aggrandizing politics. On his view, “the 1989 students as much as today’s Chinese students are fundamentally victims” (qtd. in Zeng); both are severed generations without the benefit of inheriting their predecessors’ richly instructive historical experiences.
If anything, the atmosphere of power struggle and mutual suspicion among the Tiananmen students can be understood as a direct legacy of the communist system and the social-psychological environment it produces. This legacy has trickled down to the post-Tiananmen generations in the form of Dai Wei’s neomortic afterlife. Unlike Ha Jin’s Jian or Annie Wang’s Lili, Dai Wei is neither the befuddled outsider stumbling into Beijing at the last minute nor the jaded outsider who gets emotionally caught up in the activist mob. He is a minor insider all along, not the chief leader but a lesser figurehead with an impressive title but no real power. Indeed, he has no real desire for power and forgetfully eats during the hunger strikes (249, 255); he has passed the TOEFL exams and plans to study abroad (101) and thus has no lofty ambitions to save China; and by his own admission he is just “not fanatical” (203). At the margins of the movement’s political idealism, emotional vortex, and power struggles, he is nonetheless the massacre’s most enduring casualty to the letter. It is this lingering bare life that Ma relentlessly foregrounds as the most significant legacy of Tiananmen facing China’s generations now. But Ma seems to realize, too, that in actual life even this neomortic body is withheld from some now, that afterlife can be attained only as metaphysical faith or else fiction. And so, perhaps in homage to this reality of the lived aftermath, and in a reversal from his fates for Chai Ling and Zhang Boli, he has elected in the end to name his protagonist after one of June 4’s real victims: Dai Wei, native of Beijing, age twenty in 1989 when he was shot in the back outside Minzu Hotel a few blocks from Liubukou on the night of June 3, who was then rushed to a nearby hospital but died from loss of blood in the early-morning hours. On the Tiananmen Mothers website is a photograph of his mother, Liu Xiuchen, holding a funereal photograph of him (“Dai Wei”).
But in our afterlife, the most frightening circumstance may not be a repetition of history but the banishing of all repetition, not the reenactment of totalitarian biopower but the forgetting of all biopolitical action, not another massacre at Liubukou but a Square with no students hereafter.