Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005
LONDON No one living in China is more daring than the maverick writer Yu Jie. He recently said of the memorial to Japan’s war dead: “We criticize the Yasukuni Shrine, but we have Mao Zedong’s shrine in the middle of Beijing, which is our own Yasukuni. This is a shame to me, because Mao Zedong killed more Chinese than the Japanese did. Until we are able to recognize our own problems, the Japanese won’t take us seriously.”
For China’s Communist Party, there are two first-degree thought crimes here. First, Mao’s huge portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square and China’s current leaders claim to be his heirs. Second, Beijing regularly condemns Japanese prime ministers for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to venerate dead soldiers, including those hanged as World War II criminals. Anti-Japanese demonstrations in Chinese cities are encouraged by the government; any other public protest risks prompt and violent suppression. Yu Jie, therefore, stepped deliberately into China’s most dangerous political minefield.
What Yu stated is true. The Japanese behaved with uninhibited cruelty during their war in China from the late 1930s to 1945 and some estimates of Chinese deaths in those years approach 20 million. But because of Mao’s ideologically driven agricultural policies, 30 to 50 million Chinese are estimated to have starved to death between 1959 and 1961 alone; in their new biography of the Chairman, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday suggest that during his rule more than 70 million Chinese died – in peacetime.
Mao challenged his comrades, metaphorically, to touch the hind end of a tiger. Few took him up on this dare. Yu Jie does it regularly. Last year he and five others wrote in a Hong Kong magazine that Mao’s body should be removed from the enormous tomb in Tiananmen Square and shipped back to his birthplace. This “would elevate the status of Beijing into that of a civilized capital, and make it fit to stage a ‘civilized Olympics’ in 2008. We certainly do not want to see the farce of the Olympic flag flying over a city in which a corpse is worshiped.”
To dispute the Party’s view on such issues often attracts severe retribution. Yu Jie has tackled them all in his characteristically blunt way. On the nationwide demonstrations in the spring of 1989 and the June 4 killings in Tiananmen, he observed: “From that day onwards I insisted on being an independent and intelligent human being and vowed to fight lies. I became an adult overnight. That night, amid tears, I could see clearly what was good and evil, what was freedom and slavery, what was darkness and light. From then on, no one could lie to me and make a fool of me any more.”
In another one of his banned books, “Rejecting Lies,” Yu confronted those whom Tiananmen frightened into compliance. “Under the pressure of ideology and the temptation of market economy, intellectuals have not become the society’s pillar in the midst of the breakdown of moral values but have become the most thoroughly corrupt bunch of people.”
Yu claims that the Party encourages anti-Japanese outrage because it dreads mass discontent. “Philosophies such as Marxism-Leninism and Communism are entirely losing their attractiveness. With the gunshots in 1989, they have collapsed like soap bubbles. Being in this situation, the Chinese Communist Party is soliciting new concepts to unify the Chinese society. Nationalism or patriotism seems operable to fill the vacuum left by Marxism-Leninism and Mao’s Communism.”
Now 30, Yu started his defiance early. In 1997, when he was a graduate student at Beijing University, he attacked the Party for snuffing out the spirit of democracy that in the early 1920s had inspired many young Chinese. One of the founders of the Chinese branch of the writers’ union PEN, he champions other writers who touch the tiger’s backside. He is a Christian, he supports America’s war in Iraq and he wishes China had a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama. He has been arrested and detained and his computer has been searched and confiscated.
Those who heard Yu Jie last year during his brief U.S. lecture tour wonder how long he will remain at large. But in 2000, after being turned down for a job at the China Writers’ Association, Yu said: “From this moment on, the one who lives in fear will not be me, it will be those fellows who hide in the dark corners. From this moment on, I will live out in the sunlight. I will live a fuller and happier life.”
(Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specializing in Chinese affairs.)