By Vera Schwarcz
As Jews, we are a supposed to be attuned to truth. After all, one of the names for God in our tradition is Emet (truth). This attunement does not come easily. Nor is it practiced merely at home. It requires of us a global vision that is at once local and personal as well.
I was in Beijing in the spring of 1989. I thought myself a seasoned observer of change having witnessed the birth pangs of reform after Mao Zedong starting in 1977. I had written about student movements in Chinese history with special focus upon the May 4 demonstration of 1919 that was part of a larger cultural challenge in the name of science and democracy.
But nothing quite prepared me for the passions – and the tragedy – of June 4. It is not only that the “People’s Army” was called in to shoot down unarmed students. It is not only that elders shuddered with memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. It was not only our own misguided wish to identify the students’ discontent with Western-style democracy.
What stabbed the heart then, and aches even more now 30 years later, is how the seeds of hope can be crushed by autocracy and materialism… not only by the physical weapons of the state. It all started at Peking University – Beida – the epicenter of critical thought for over a century. A few students gathered near the statue of Cervantes (donated by the Spanish government) to speak out against Party corruption. And also to voice complaints about food, dorms, exams – student stuff.
In China’s vast landscape, the troubles of students have a way of awakening the conscience of the nation at large. The youth begged, literally on bended knees, for a hearing from their elders. They started a hunger strike. Hundreds of thousands huddled in Tiananmen Square calling upon their teachers Jiujiu haizi – “Save the children!” – a haunting echo of the last line in “A Madman’s Diary” by Lu Xun.
No help came because the Party had the power to immobilize those who sympathized with the students. In 1989, the army blocked off the square, emptied it with force, fire and guns. “No one died in Tiananmen Square” was and is the official line. Maybe most (numbers have never been counted though dozens of mothers have dared to mourn in public) were murdered a few hundred meters away from the plaza framed by portraits of communist leaders. But if you believe the official line, any lie from Beijing will do.
Disbelievers in the Party’s truth are weeded out daily by internet nannies and police knocking on the door. Yet they proliferate nonetheless. Among the bravest was Liu Xiaobo, a fine writer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Rarely was an empty chair in Oslo so eloquent about the missing verities that are the foundation of a totalitarian regime. Liu Xiaobo died as a prisoner. But his words got out and they continue to remain a call to conscience.
Thirty years after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Liu’s warning about “The Philosophy of Pork” ring with added truth: “The failure of June 4th remains our most precious ethical fulcrum…Under the dictatorship of the Party where citizens are deprived of basic freedom, power is maintained by encouraging the right to selfishness and secular contentment….Some people, however, are not resigned to a life satiated by pork alone… they maintain against all odds the hope that moral ruin will not have the last word.”
Since June 4 cannot be talked about in China, its ethical challenge is truly global. Will we be content to continue as pork-eaters, secular consumers of China’s lies? Jewish tradition forbids pork as un-kosher. It is time to elevate the kashrut standard to encompass morality as well. Being mindful of the 30th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen is one place to start. Countering enforced amnesia in one corner of the globe, allows us to increase sanctity on a wider scale. To rephrase the teachings of Pirkei Avot: If not now, when? If it does not start with me, what good am I in a world befuddled by consumption of Chinese goods and Chinese lies?
Dr. Vera Schwarcz is Senior Research Fellow, Truman Institute, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Emerita Professor of Chinese History, Wesleyan University, CT.