It’s easy to miss the Tiananmen Memorial on Hart House Circle.
As a historical comment, this is all too appropriate. Twenty years after the crackdown on activists who gathered in Beijing’s vast open square, China has done its best to make us forget that brutal act – at least if the 2008 Summer Olympics is a dependable guide to the world’s snap judgments. Time may not heal all wounds, but a good spectacle can help you look the other way.
The Tiananmen Memorial tucked round the back of the Students’ Union building makes it just a little harder to evade the painful past and the responsibilities that come with remembering. This is not the place to relive the memories of Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals or the stunning opening ceremonies at the Bird’s Nest. Instead, you contemplate the bronzed image of a crushed bicycle, much like those ridden by the young democracy supporters in Tiananmen Square, and the overpowering imprint of the tank treads favoured by those determined to remain in power.
And it was at this memorial on June 4, 2006, during a vigil to mark the anniversary of the 1989 massacre, that a former Chinese prisoner of conscience and recently arrived refugee named Lu Decheng stood on the grassy mound and begged us all to stop appeasing the Chinese government.
“It is like drinking poisonous water to quench one’s thirst,” said the man who spent nine years in a Chinese prison for engaging in his homeland’s supreme act of vandalism – tossing paint-filled eggs at Tiananmen’s giant portrait of Mao Zedong, just days before the tanks rolled in.
“The normal way for people to argue human rights,” says Denise Chong, sipping tea in her Ottawa kitchen, “is through the voluminous treatment of cases. You catalogue the abuses, you list the interventions, you stack up all the documents until the table starts to wobble and overflow. And then, on the other half of the table, we’ve got economic progress, the boom, and we treat these as trade-offs. But I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to see if I could write a book on human rights without actually using the phrase until my story was well down the road. I wanted to go back and examine the small, accumulating indignities that lead a society to abuse human rights.”
The man who defaced the portrait in Tiananmen Square has now become the subject of that book, and the embodiment of Chong’s view that a human-rights story can resonate strongly through the history of an ordinary person – one who could never forget seeing his patriotic grandmother being bullied by Red Army members, who resisted the order to cry when Mao Zedong died, who wouldn’t let the population-control busybodies prevent him from pursuing love and family on his own terms, who saw his father pressured to turn on him while he was trapped in China’s Kafkaesque prison system. In the strikingly evocative Egg on Mao, Chong (who graduated from U of T in 1978 with a master’s in economics and public policy) has written what she calls “the biography of a gesture” to explore just what drives a 25-year-old mechanic from the Hunan hinterlands to jeopardize his life for a cause he believes in.
Lu Decheng rose to fame the moment he, accompanied by two hometown friends, lobbed the eggs that spattered the Great Helmsman’s likeness. The boldness of this defiance – and the worldwide publicity it generated – made it more difficult for his Chinese captors to dispose of him quietly.
By the time he found his way to Canada in 2006 – after a roundabout escape route on foot through the jungles of Burma and Thailand, ending in an 18-month stay in a Thai jail at the behest of the influential Chinese authorities – Lu was a legend in activist circles. His very arrival in Canada made the news, and within days Chong received a request from Craig Pyette, an editor at Random House Canada: would she consider writing about Lu Decheng?
There has been no shortage of books about China during its rapid modernization over the last three decades, but few would be shelved in the human-rights section. The protests in Tiananmen Square seem the relic of a different era when set beside the country’s economic miracle: China is open for business, and Western politicians look like Cirque du Soleil contortionists as they try to balance their support for human rights with their zeal to penetrate the Chinese market.
“The Chinese government has proved,” says Diana Lary, author of China’s Republic (Cambridge 2007) “that if China seems to be important enough in terms of trade, China can trump concerns for human rights. Canadians have had this idea of engagement with China as a way of raising our concerns about human rights, but the Chinese government will not tolerate dissidence or disobedience.”
Reading about Lu Decheng, Pyette recognized a different approach to modern China – hard-headed, uncompromising and fully Chinese. “I didn’t want to do another book that projected our judgments and was firmly ensconced in the Western point of view,” he says. “And with Mr. Lu, I felt Denise could capture the right perspective and tell his life story in a way that caught the human-rights aspect without being a political treatise.”
Chong’s own history must have made her seem like the perfect match for Lu Decheng. As the bestselling author of The Concubine’s Children (about the fractured family life of her grandmother and mother in British Columbia’s Chinatowns) and The Girl in the Picture (the story of the iconic Vietnamese napalm victim, Kim Phuc), she had proven herself skilled at placing a deeply personal story in its complex social context.
Trained as an economist (she continues to live a separate mandarin-level existence as a public policy specialist), Chong was recruited to the federal finance department in the 1970s, and caught the attention of Pierre Trudeau when she joined the Prime Minister’s Office in 1980.
“Trudeau believed in hiring women,” she says, “and though it wasn’t the word that was used then, he also believed in diversity. With him, it was your ideas that counted, regardless of your age or background. If you could give him as good as he gave, his respect only went up.”
At 56, Chong has the determined, persistent, fearless style of argument that delighted the hyperanalytical Trudeau, who got so involved in her life that he began critiquing her novice swimming technique with the same professorial rigour he brought to her briefing notes on economic issues. “Almost everything for him could be broken down, taught and learned,” she says. “He believed in that absolutely, and it was probably his rigour that shaped me more than anything else.”
Trudeau had first visited China in 1949 and had co-written a playful travel book titled Two Innocents in Red China years before he pushed for recognition of the then-ostracized People’s Republic. It was at Trudeau’s urging that Chong first went to China to join her boyfriend (and now husband), CTV correspondent Roger Smith, in 1985. Innocence was no longer an option for an expatriate Canadian: the democracy movement was stirring, and she took advantage of her Chinese features to help Smith smuggle tapes off the campus of Beijing University where the activist intellectuals congregated.
In a suspicious society, Chong passed for a local, which came as something of a shock to this second-generation Canadian who couldn’t speak more than a few words of the ancestral language and who recoiled when the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa greeted her with words she found chilling: “You are a lost daughter of the motherland.”
She wanted none of it: “God, I’m so through and through a defender of myself as Canadian, I’ve never been hyphenated.” Yet the two years she spent in Beijing undeniably forged a connection to the world her maternal grandmother left to start a new life as a teenage concubine in Canada. So when Chong tells Lu’s story, it’s with a sense of place and an understanding of the past that you don’t get in the urgent appeals put out by international human-rights groups.
Their cause is one she proudly believes in – she plans to advocate for human rights in China as a representative of PEN, the authors’ organization. “It’s quite clearcut, there are no grey areas here,” she says firmly. But as a writer transfixed by the richness and the power of ordinary life, she doesn’t find the standard human-rights narrative persuasive or complicated enough. “The victims start to blur into one, the senses get dulled when you read the reports because it seems like you’ve heard it all before. My idea was to push all that away and get back to the human in human rights.”
When Lu came to Toronto to make his plea behind the graceful old Students’ Union building on Hart House Circle, he also bonded with Chong in the backyard of democracy activist and filmmaker Cheuk Kwan. That began a series of marathon conversations, sometimes conducted through translators, in which Chong searched for the telling details in Lu’s past that could explain and justify his defiant act of affirmation in Tiananmen Square.
“It was a very Chinese act,” says Chong. “In the West, we would view something like this as quixotic and think how naive these men were. But in China, it’s your only gesture. Of course they were naive. But you have to balance the futility of the gesture against the weight of repression. And this shows you what a society like China’s has produced – that people are willing to make a futile gesture for the nobility of having acted.”
Lu wasn’t a university intellectual like many of the protesters in Tiananmen, and his willingness to bypass political negotiation and move straight to direct action (however harmless), frightened the student leadership: they compliantly turned him and his friends over to the authorities.
“The students were trying to show that they were law-abiding and peaceful, that they were willing to work within limits,” says Kwan, who has interviewed many Tiananmen veterans around the world. “They didn’t want the protest to degenerate into riots. They’re regretful now about turning Lu in, but at the time they felt they were doing the right thing.”
The students’ respect for authority is critical to understanding why a deprived and poorly educated provincial such as Lu came to represent the indomitability of the human spirit. His political coming-of-age was much more basic and visceral. In her heartbreakingly humane portrait, Chong focuses in particular on the way Lu and his young wife were hounded by the authorities for conceiving a child against the law and refusing to go through with the obligatory abortion. And even after the child died in infancy (the victim of a compromised health-care system, Lu believes), the vindictive family-planning police docked Lu’s monthly salary to make him pay “a social child-raising fee” as compensation for burdening China with an unauthorized child. That very year, such is the world’s peculiar understanding of human rights, the UN honoured China with its inaugural Population Award.
These haunting bureaucratic details are crucial for Chong’s almost novelistic storytelling, because Lu’s accumulated indignities come to explain Chinese dissent much more fully than what happened over a few weeks in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.
“In the West, we felt all this enthusiasm for the student protest in Tiananmen Square, but there was so much of China we didn’t see,” says Chong. “The West was not able to perceive that democracy in China isn’t about the ballot box but about much more basic human rights, the freedom to choose all kinds of things that we take for granted.”
The human-rights protests that have erupted in China over the last few years, enabled by new technologies that undermine the state’s ability to control and repress, have come much more from ordinary citizens such as Lu than from the privileged university elites or the pampered middle class. Think of the parents who lost their children in the Olympic-year earthquake and drew on the power of their grief to defy the overbearing authorities.
They are the descendants of Lu’s act, Chong believes, and this is why his story still resonates at a time when the businesslike Chinese authorities seem to have the upper hand. “China is a state that makes absolutely sure of things – the Olympics were beautiful, a spectacle to behold, and is it any surprise?” she says. “We’ve bought into this at the economic level as well, to the extent that business with China will work the way we want it to work, that contracts will go as written and deliveries will be predictable. To express it in tough terms, we’re willing to be complicit in the indignities of society that represses human rights because we want cheap dishes in our cupboard.”
Chong pauses to let her dog out into the Ottawa sunshine. For a moment, a precious moment at that, the casual cruelties of Lu’s China seem a long way away. “We have to make a decision,” she says, returning to the table, as the dog barks merrily at his canine neighbour. “We have to recognize that economic well-being isn’t always first in line, that there are some things we should value even more fundamentally. If you’re going to give any meaning to human rights, then there has to be an understanding: The denial of rights in China diminishes us here.”
John Allemang (BA 1974 Trinity) is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. He also writes the paper’s weekly “Poetic Justice” poem.