On October 1st 2010 I was in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. There were twenty-three of us, all British tourists, and we were accompanied by our tour manager, a young man from Shanghai, and a local guide who was in her late thirties. Our tour party happened to be in the square on China National Day; the first day of a week long holiday that celebrates the Communist victory in the civil war of 1945-1949.
According to our guide, over 300 million Chinese people make journeys in that week. That’s more than half the population of the European Union. Some people will take time off from their factory jobs, lock up their new skyscraper apartments in sprawling cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and return to the rural villages where they grew up. Back home they will be re-united with their parents, and very often the children that they’ve left behind. Other people will travel from far-flung cities and villages to celebrate their national identity right here in the square. Estimates of the number of people in the square this year range from half a million to a million.
Beijing has sixteen million citizens living in an area the size of Belgium. The city is built on a grid-iron pattern with all roads running either strictly north-south or strictly east-west. And Tiananmen Square is the one square kilometre rectangular bulls-eye in the very centre of the city. It wasn’t always there. Prior to 1949 it was a sprawling mass of homes, offices and workshops that was demolished by Chairman Mao in order to create a theatrical space where the communist victory could be celebrated. To the north is the Tiananmen Gate leading to the Forbidden City where the Emperor used to live. Above the Gate is a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. To the east is the Hall of the People, to the south is Mao’s mausoleum and to the West lays the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Some of the visitors have come from rural villages. They’ve brought picnics with them and squat down in any free space they can find to eat pot noodles. The whole crowd is making its way north, so that each individual can be photographed with Mao’s portrait in the background. Considering how large the crowd is, it’s remarkably quiet. In the background, we can hear piped patriotic music being broadcast, but the volume is low. The picnickers are very careful to pick up their own litter and carry it away with them, and there are no particularly strong smells that I can recall.
If Katie Melua’s song is correct and there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, then there are even more cameras. Practically everybody carries a compact digital camera. Some people have never seen Europeans before. Our party attracts attention. As we move slowly towards Chairman Mao people clamour for us to stop, so that they can have their photographs taken with people who look like westerners they’ve seen on TV. They’re fascinated by our blue eyes, big noses and above all by our height. We oblige the photographers willingly, but we have little choice. The crowd is moving so slowly that we couldn’t escape their attention if we wanted to.
I can’t help noticing how young most of the people are. There are a few old people dressed in the drab uniforms of the Mao years, but at least three-quarters of the crowd must be under thirty. Whenever these young people pose for a photograph they adopt highly staged poses; arms outstretched, exaggerated smiles, silly expressions, pointed fingers. Some of the younger children are in ethnic or regional dress, and many others are dressed in a cacophony of styles and colours – stripes, checks, plaids, browns, blues and pinks. A lot of the teenage boys are androgynous with dyed bouffant hair. Their girlfriends are dressed in a plethora of (probably fake) designer labels such as D&G, Burberry and Abercrombie and Fitch.
Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that I have never been a part of such a large crowd before, and probably will never be again. I am just one in a million. The second is that I’ve heard somewhere about China’s ‘one child policy’. Does this mean that hardly any of these young people have brothers or sisters? It seems incomprehensible, far-fetched.
I’m intrigued, because I was an only child myself, and have always felt something of an exception. According to popular myth in the West, only children are spoiled, self-centred and lonely. While I don’t agree with these stereotypes I wonder what the effect is on a society if all the children of a given generation are singletons?
I ask our tour manager about the one child policy. He corrects me. China has a ‘family planning policy’, not a ‘one child policy’. This means that the state does indeed restrict the number of children that married urban couples can have to one, although it allows exemptions for some rural couples, ethnic minorities, couples who have re-married after divorces, or parents without any siblings themselves. It doesn’t apply in Tibet. Couples who breach the policy are fined, and may also be sacked from their jobs.
He tells me that parents who have given birth to handicapped children may try again – but only after four years. My parents were seriously disabled from their early childhood as a result of the Polio virus, and I’ve always felt strongly about how people with disabilities are treated by society, so this disturbs and confuses me. What constitutes a disability? Does the child have to be born with it? What happens if they contract it later? Why four years and not three or five? What is the official value of a person with a disability?
I don’t know what to make of any of this. On one hand I think it’s an appalling, sinister intrusion into people’s private lives that may have all sorts of unintended consequences; but on the other hand it may very well be true that this policy has contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions. Since the policy was introduced in 1979, China’s population has increased by over 300 million, and we’ll never know what would have happened without it.
The policy was of course introduced as a response to famine. Between 1958 and 1961 the Great Leap Forward Famine killed about thirty million people. In this period Mao Zedong reorganized Chinese agriculture on a collective basis. Private farming was prohibited. Those engaged in it were labeled as counter revolutionaries and persecuted. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the industrial workforce. Rationing was introduced, in some cases leaving rural Chinese with less than of 250 grams of grain per day. It took years to recover. By 1970, food production was still only 70% of the 1958 level.
Mao blamed sparrows for eating the grain, and official policy was to eliminate these enemies of the people. Peasants were ordered to bang pots and pans and run around to make the sparrows fly away in fear. Nests were torn down. Eggs were broken. Chicks were killed.
Despite Mao’s share of the responsibility for the famine he is still revered, though not considered infallible by any of the guides we met. Our tour manager said that in his opinion the Cultural Revolution was the greatest disaster to hit China in modern times. But Mao wasn’t wholly responsible. Mao was a great hero who was misled in his later years when his faculties were no longer what they were. He recommended us to read Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’ if we wanted to understand modern China. I asked him whether it was available in Chinese. No, it isn’t. He’d read it in English. It was given to him by one of his customers. Most people have never heard of this book and couldn’t get hold of a copy if they had.
We’re now making our way through the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City under the Chairman’s watchful gaze. I can’t help thinking of the time, twenty one years ago that I first heard the name of this place. I was watching the now iconic TV images of a solitary student carrying two shopping bags who had stopped a line of tanks that had been sent to crush a demonstration. Our guide has been telling us what a happy occasion today is, how thrilled everybody is to be in the square, and what we have seen confirms that. So I ask her whether she’s ever seen this famous, more sinister image? Is it ever seen in China?
She tells me that she has seen it, and that she was one of the students in the square that day. She adds “Of course, we didn’t really know what we were protesting about.” At that point the whole crowd has to move to the right to get through the security turnstiles of the Forbidden City, our guide has to count heads and make sure that all her party are following her, and I didn’t get to continue this conversation.
I originally wrote the above piece a few days after we left Beijing. at the time I was prepared to give China the benefit of the doubt - the "family planning policy MAY have contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions.
But earlier this month, Penguin published "The Dark Road" by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew. This is a very bleak, profound and disturbing fictional polemic against the one-child policy and a repressive, brutal and corrupt bureaucracy. Ma Jian is a London-based Chinese dissident and writer who spent several months posing as a vagrant and a journalist researching what happens to Chinese peasants who "go on the run" to avoid the consequences of the one child policy.
Meili, a simple peasant girl married Kongzi, a village school teacher when she was just sixteen. they have a daughter, Nanaan, who is two years old at the beginning of the story. Because Kongzi is a direct descendant of Confucius, it's very important to him to have a male heir. He's determined to impregnate Meili enough times to make this happen, despite any objections she may have, and more significantly, despite the attentions of the Fertility Police.
To escape the persecution of the state fertility agencies, The family flee their home and live on the margins of society. They eventually make their home in Heaven Township, a polluted dystopian community where unwanted electronic equipment is sent from Europe to be recycled. Virtually all of the recyclers are illegal immigrants in their own country, many of them, like Meili and Kongzi are fleeing from the Fertility Police.
Meili becomes the victim of forced abortion, imprisonment and rape. The novel hints at still more darker forces such as the adulteration if infant feeding powders with toxic chemicals, the selling of unwanted children to foreigners, the deliberate maiming of healthy girl babies so that they will attract more sympathy as beggars, and cannibalism. Ma Jian is highly critical of Kongzi, who is determined to produce a male heir despite the consequences to his wife and daughter, but even more critical of the brutal, corrupt and repressive Chinese state.
Near the beginning of the book, Kongzi remarks "If a panda gets pregnant the while nation celebrates, but if woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal." Nearer to the end, Meili observes "Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.” This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and had caused me to think again about China.