Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Tiananmen Square’

Communist China’s 60th Anniversary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st October, 2009

Mao ZedongOn 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared. I wasn’t yet born, but I remember vividly at my primary school in Eccles in the late 1950s the headmaster standing in front of a world map (the British Empire still reassuring coloured pink) explaining how ‘we’ (the Western world) were going to liberate China from the murderous Reds, by backing Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists on the island of Taiwan. Thank God the man was only in charge of a school, not the country. But something about that lesson stuck in my mind, so that by the time I was in secondary school, I was doodling Chinese characters (some real, most imagined); for some strange reason, ideograms fascinated me. The fact that ‘Red China’ had by then cut itself off from the world and was entering what would turn into the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution only made it more mysterious, more alluring.

Great Wall of ChinaTo cut a long story short, I ended up reading Chinese at university and was in Taiwan, doing my year abroad, when Richard Nixon went to China. The family I was lodging with near Taipei were frozen on the spot with fear as we listened to the broadcasts on the radio. They couldn’t believe that their great ally, the United States, had defected to the other side. Nixon was a class act. He was taken to the Great Wall and declared, ‘Gee, this is a great wall!’ Little did I realise that only two years later I would be asked to write a book about it (the Wall, that is). At last I got to go to the People’s Republic, to see things for myself. Beijing was all bicycles, seemingly millions of them, and most people still wandered round in Mao suits.

Zhou EnlaiSixty years on from the day that the Great Helmsman stood before the cheering masses in Tiananmen Square, China is one of the most materialist societies on earth. Skyscrapers shoot up in every city, while the streets are clogged with cars. People’s life expectancy has doubled since 1949 and for most people — not all — the quality of life has improved exponentially. China is now poised to make the 21st century its own. Should this be something we in the West celebrate or fear? As the late Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, ‘it’s too soon to tell.’

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A Changing China in a Changing World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd September, 2009

Fu YingAmbassador Fu Ying became the first Communist Chinese head of mission to address Liberal Democrats at their autumn conference in Bournemouth this lunchtime, at a crowded fringe meeting on ‘A Changing China in a Changing World’, alongside LibDem Lords Tom McNally and Tim Clement-Jones, foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey MP  and Professor Hugo de Burgh, Director of the Chinese Media Centre at the University of Westminster. Ambassador Fu is both rather glamorous (more silver-haired than in her official photograph) and very impressive; the days of baggy Mao suits among Chinese diplomats have long gone. Having studied in England and served as Ambassador to Australia, she is used to dealing robustly with critical questioning, of which, as one might expect, there was quite a lot at this meeting. Among issues of concern raised by party members were China’s continued use of the death penalty for a very wide range of offences and the continued imprisonment of Tiananmen protestors from 20 years ago.

Tianmen SquareOn 1 October, the People’s Republic will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. Interestingly, the Ambassador said that this has prompted many older Chinese to look back nostalgically at the advances made. It is easy to forget just how underdeveloped and strife-ridden the country was in 1949. Unquestionably, China has made huge strides, as well as some mistakes (the biggest of all being the Cultural Revolution). As New China enters its seventh decade, it is playing a role on the international stage more in keeping with its size and power. The 19th century was in some ways a British century, the 20th even more so an American one. History will judge whether the 21st turns out to be China’s.

Ambassador Fu ended the fringe meeting with a pertinent comment which reflected what I have been told recently by several of my Chinese students at SOAS, namely that while there are aspects of China which sometimes give it a negative image in the West, similarly aspects of countries like Britain sometimes generate a negative image in China too. So any work on image improvement needs to be a two-way process.

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Remembering Tiananmen Square

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 4th June, 2008

 Last evening, I joined several other writers and a large group of human rights activists at a rally outside the Chinese Embassy in London, in commemoration of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Mistress of Ceremonies was the journalist and former newspaper editor, Rosie Boycott, and there were speakers from both of the sponsoring organisations: Kate Allen from Amnesty International UK, and Carole Seymour-Jones of English PEN. But the main focus was rightly on the Chinese representatives there: Shao Jiang, a former student leader who was present in Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy demonstrations, which were so ruthlessly supressed; Xia Ze, a relative of one of the people killed in the massacre; and last but not least, Wei Jingsheng, the prominent Chinese dissident who served nearly 15 years in jail in the People’s Republic for ‘divulging state secrets’ — for what in most Western countries would be described as good investigative journalism. 

Wei Jingsheng and I were born literally just a few days apart, and I did part of my university studies in Hong Kong at the time of the Cultural Revolution before later visiting China many times as an academic. It was eerie going to Tiananmen Square just a short time after the June 1989 events — and to see not a trace of what had gone on then. Indeed, in contrast to the dramatic television coverage that the events of 19 years ago received in the West, the Chinese public were kept — and to a large extent, still are kept — in the dark.

As I said in a couple of interviews I gave at the London rally (to the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia, and to the English-language newspaper ‘The Epoch Times’) we demonstrators were not being ‘anti-Chinese’. And we do not support a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games. On the contrary, we want those Games to be a success and for China to live up to the clear commitment it gave at the time of being granted the Games to allow full freedom of reporting and expression, which is clearly not the case so far. Moreover, when foreign visitors are in China for the Games later this summer, I hope they will enter into real dialogue with local people, listening carefully as well as sharing information and ideas.


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